Ayesha Siddiqa on the burning Pakistan

Ayesha Siddiqa‘s brilliant piece on openDemocracy is a must-read. She is clear and quite strategic in her analysis that concludes with these lines:
This effort to create a domestic coalition that can address such acts of terror should be part of a larger agenda to reach out to the rest of the world – including Russia, Iran, China, India and others – to keep the Americans at bay. Pakistan needs to go multilateral. Unless a third option is found beyond Washington and the Taliban, Pakistan will continue to burn – until it consumes itself.

Pakistan: a country on fire

The bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on 20 September 2008 has hit Pakistan hard. The reputation of the hotel as a meeting-point and social hub for the capital’s political and diplomatic class ensured that the attack – which killed fifty-three people and wounded 250 – would receive the maximum worldwide publicity that the assailants doubtless wanted. But the effect of the enormous blast involving around 600 kilograms of explosives also reinforced the insecurity of the working-class Pakistanis who were its principal victims. Even more, the incident has intensified serious concerns over the political future of Pakistan itself.

In assessing the country’s predicament at this critical juncture, three elements that often fail to get the attention they deserve need to be borne in mind: the role of Washington and the way it is perceived by Pakistanis; the distinction between the country’s ostensible (or political) government and its real (or shadow) one; and the role of class and its changing dynamics in Pakistan’s economy and society.

A disunited nation

When the newly elected president of Pakistani, Asif Ali Zardari, made his maiden speech before the joint session of parliament on 20 September 2008, many Pakistanis thought that the country would at last begin to stabilise. The 53-year-old widower of the Pakistan People’s Party uncontested leader Benazir Bhutto – who was assassinated on 27 December 2007 – might carry with him a questionable reputation, but the support he received during the election process gave him at least the plausible appearance of a unifying figure.

The feeling didn’t last long. Within a few hours of the speech in which Zardari, successor to Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan’s hot-seat, promised the nation he would fight terrorism and uphold the country’s sovereignty – the Pakistani capital was struck by one of the most destructive urban terrorist attacks in the country’s history.The bomb-blast outside the five-star, five-storey Marriott hotel – which was frequented by diplomats, foreigners and affluent Pakistanis – left also a huge crater as a mark of its scale (see Beena Sarwar, “The Marriott Bombing: ‘Pakistan’s 9/11′?“, Chowk, 22 September 2008).

A matter of equal concern was that the terrorist attack had taken place a mile away from the presidential palace where the just-installed president was hosting a party for the top leadership of the country, including the military.

The event, profoundly shocking and depressing in itself, also raises questions about Pakistan’s ability to fight terrorism -and even its very future. The confidence of many Pakistanis has been shaken. People are nervous about Zardari’s ability to fight the menace of terrorism and lead the country through the storm. But he is not the only target of criticism. Washington also is being widely blamed in Pakistan for launching military incursions into Pakistani territory a few days before the presidential vote was finalised (see Paul Rogers, “Pakistan: the new frontline“, 18 September 2008).

The bombing of 20 September thus has divided the nation at the very time it most needs unity in response to the terrorist threat. This disunity, if it continues, will make it even harder for the new civilian regime to continue the struggle to maintain and enlarge democracy in Pakistan.

The real and the shadow

The majority of the dead in the Islamabad blast were poor working-class people, among them the Marriott’s private-security guards and hotel staff. The  affluent and politically liberal element of Pakistani society that formed a large part of the hotel’s clientele is also in a state of shock. Both sets of people are asking: how can the regime protect everyday citizens when it could not stop a dumper-truck packed with RDX and TNT from entering and targeting a high-security area?

Many diplomats – stunned especially by the death in the blast of the Czech ambassador Ivo Zdarek – are now thinking of relocating their families, and foreign missions have generally warned their staff and nationals to avoid hotels and public places. The government’s bizarre explanation for the blast, meanwhile, shows it to have little confidence in the people. The interior minister Rehman Malik, who is seen as one of Zardari’s favoured colleagues, tried to deflect claims that the target was the American marines staying in the hotel; on 22 September he declared that Pakistan’s political leadership (which allegedly was at the time meeting for dinner inside the hotel) was the bomb’s target; and that the security agencies actually performed well by protecting the leadership (because the venue was changed at the eleventh hour after intelligence agencies were tipped off about the attack).

The evidence proves otherwise. The owner of the hotel said that the government had made no such original booking. But the sequence of statements raises fresh questions about the veracity of Rehman Malik’s claim, as well as more general concerns about why enough had not been done to protect a place that was home to many foreigners and had already been attacked.

What is worse is that Zardari left the country for his trip to the United States hours after the blast. This made him even less credible in the eyes of the people, who would have appreciated had he postponed his trip as a gesture of support for the victims. At this stage the regime’s public standing is an important issue because this alone will enable him to fight the terrorist menace (see “How to beat the terrorists?“, Economist ,23 September 2008).

But with every passing day the division between the “political” government and the “invisible” government – which includes the military – seems to increase. While Zardari chose to follow his schedule of visitng the United States (viewed by many Pakistanis as the deeper source of the threat to Pakistan), the army chief Ashfaq Kayani flew to China (a country that enjoys greater confidence among Pakistani citizens). If the two segments of the government begin to pursue a divergent line, the problems of the country are bound to increase. As it is, the invisible government is doing far less than it should if it is to dismantle the terror outfits that it once nurtured to fight the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s and later in Kashmir.

There is a difference of opinion within the state regarding which is the larger at threat: domestic terrorism or the United States? A weak Zardari, or one whose reputation for probity and good judgment continues to be doubted, will find it increasingly difficult to control the military and make it follow his line. A close examination suggests that while the political government is more willing to seek American help, the military is more concerned about Washington’s plan to encourage Indian influence in Afghanistan and strengthen New Delhi to Islamabad’s disadvantage.

A third option

It is a matter of concern that the Islamabad attack, like those preceding it, has failed to generate any domestic consensus about the nature of the threat. Indeed, the situation is worse: for the Marriott bombing has further highlighted an emerging class as well as exposes an ideological divide within Pakistani society. Pakistan’s middle class is far from exclusively composed of affluent, upwardly-mobile, western-educated liberals; many in this category are conservative, and some of them are even involved in funding both madrasas and jihad.

Those involved in small or medium-sized businesses in the urban areas of Pakistan – especially the bazaaris or the trader-merchant class – often view orthodox forms of religion as a source of empowerment and a tool to renegotiate power in a stagnant, feudal social order. These people also form the constituency of the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and of Pervez Musharraf’s former ally (who also briefly served as prime minister in 2004), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. But very few observers see the class issue in this war. The Taliban have killed the maliks (who represented old power), while many neo-Taliban view themselves as challenging traditional power-structures. The Pakistani media is equally confused on the question, partly because many of the popular presenters and jourtnalists themselves have a conservative leaning.

Things become even more complex in the lack of understanding of the need to reform the education system, including the madrasas. The international aid agencies and governments must shoulder the responsibility for skewed thinking here. The present-day seminaries are different from what such schools were like in the past. Today, they produce ideological zealots who are more likely to be reinforced in their beliefs than re-educated by the sort of madrasa reform projects sponsored by the United States’s Usaid and Britain’s department for international development (DfID).

The present crisis is far more serious than any Pakistan has ever experienced (see Shaun Gregory, “Pakistan’s political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond“, 27 August 2008). Islamabad does not have the choice of supporting either the United States or the Taliban. The government ought to try to build a broad social consensus, in part by encouraging its partners – such as Maulana Fazlur-Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders / JUI) – to persuade low-ranking mullahs to condemn attacks such as that on the Marriott.

This effort to create a domestic coalition that can address such acts of terror should be part of a larger agenda to reach out to the rest of the world – including Russia, Iran, China, India and others – to keep the Americans at bay. Pakistan needs to go multilateral. Unless a third option is found beyond Washington and the Taliban, Pakistan will continue to burn – until it consumes itself.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent political and defence analyst. She is the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy is published by Pluto Press (15 April 2007)

Pakistan’s permanent crisis” (15 May 2007)

Pakistan: the power of the gun” (7 November 2007)

Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto” (28 December 2007)

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16 Comments

Filed under Army, Politics, war

16 responses to “Ayesha Siddiqa on the burning Pakistan

  1. Saad Abbasi

    I agree with her on the class issue involved. This class issue is perhaps also a product of failure of our political parties whose appratuses should allow for induction from all echolons of the society towards a sharing of power. The political structure has become such that unless one has a lot of money one does not have a chance of getting anywhere in politics. This something which is aleinating the middle class and the poor and who in turn see taliban as a possiblity of change.
    Her comments about the madrassa are skewed and represent that lack of understanding that generally prevails in this country about the madrassa and its role in our society.

  2. I agree with the whole article especially your opinion on the Madrassahs.

    pakireport.blogspot.com

  3. hayyer48

    As an Indian with a deep interest in Pakistani affairs as they impinge upon India, and coming from a family that migrated from Pakistani Punjab in 1947 I would like to add a few words.
    The divide between the political government and the invisible one as evidenced by the eastwards and westward visits of Pakistan’s Head of State and Head of Army has to be resolved. The Army cast itself in the role of protector of Pakistan Ideology a decade or two ago. I still do not see how a democratic government can accept this. Pakistan ideology, whatever it stands for, is surely a political preserve; i.e. it is the stuff of political debate and for political resolution. The army cannot decide what it is or should be and then set itself out to remove civilian governments in defence of the ideology. The army’s role is to defend the country’s borders0-no more and no less. Turkey’s army is also defending Turkey ideology from the opposite side. Surely it is not the Turkish Army’s business whether women wear headscarves. Turkey’s ideology is not written in stone, neither can Pakistan’s. If for example, the people of Pakistan through their elected representatives should decide that they want friendly relations with India despite the opposition of groups like Hafiz Sayeed’s Markaz then it is not for the Army to oppose the trend and undermine its government’s policies.
    India’s engagement in Afghanistan is meant to counter Pakistan’s use of the country as strategic depth. Depite the revanchist sentiment in a certain section of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar there is no desire among ordinary Indians to undo Pakistan. Nor is it even the New Delhi’s secret policy.
    India accepts Pakistan as it is. What it does not accept is the two nation theory. To do so would be to assign over 150 million of its citizens to the category of enemy agents. Most Indians have come to accept that Muslims in India are Indians not Pakistanis by sentiment. The two nation theory is therefore something that India will never accept, (even though it was Hindus like Savarkar and Lajpat Rai who first propagated separation).
    Pakistan’s alliance with China grew in the aftermath of the Indo China border war of 1962 despite the fact that Pakistan was a member of anti Chinese organizations like SEATO. It is centred upon the hostility between China and India, and American wariness of China. Pakistan’s army can thrive and flourish only in an anti Indian context. Pakistan has no other enemies.
    Kashmir provides the context and the pretext for sustaining hostility with India and nurturing a strong Army. Kashmir has be-devilled relations from the start and unless the problem is put on the back burner the disconnect between Pakistan’s army and its political government will continue.
    The TTP and all the other militant Islamic organizations promoted in Zia’s time may have originally been innovative tactics to bolster a religious mind set, and to serve strategically against the Russians in Afghanistan, and possibly in Kashmir, but surely they don’t serve any Pakistani strategic aim now. They are in fact the cause of Pakistan’s troubles.
    Are not the fundos as you call them in Pakistan a direct result of the attempt to preserve feudal power. Had Bacha Khan be allowed his mild socialism and land reform directed against the Maliks of the tribal areas would tribal society have produced the suicide bombers and the taliban type who have now almost eliminated the tribal chiefs?

  4. Saad Abbasi

    Hayyer 48. Thankyou for that long comment as a Pakistani i agree with most of what you said,however, you conveniently proposed to put Kashmir on the back burner the epicenter of all the problems.Here is a thought for a concerned Indian….. “Do something to convince your Government to give up up her illegal,illogical and unjust claim over Kashmir. Let the kashmiris have their right of self determination” as long as their is Kashmir things are going to remain ugly both for Pakistan and India.
    Had there been no Kashmir situation Pakistan would have been a Modern Islamic Republic and India a bit less poorer.

  5. hayyer48

    SA:
    I could write a book on Kashmir and have often thought of doing so. I would if I thought it would do any good. Perhaps I will one day. Books on Kashmir seem to appear at the rate of one a month.
    On the face of it Kashmir is a litany of betrayals and untruths by the Government of India. At present the problem is insoluble. It is possible that in the very early days a plebiscite could have been held. It could have gone either way. Today, as a solution, a plebiscite is, I am afraid a non-starter.
    The Kashmiris too, do not want a choice between India and Pakistan. They want Azadi: though I dare say, if a plebiscite were possible it would go Pakistan’s way.
    Azadi options in India’s context, are out of the question not just for Kashmir but some other breakaway regions. For Pakistan equally the question of allowing the Baluch, for example, to separate does not arise. As discussed elsewhere on this site the subcontinent’s fragmented identities are problematic in a larger context and incapable of simplistic solutions.

  6. hayyer48

    Also re: the above I do not think Kashmir alone is the problem. Your former President Musharraf once did say that even if the Kashmir issue were out of the way Indo-Pak hostility would continue.
    Ayesha Siddiqa’s article says why. The Pakistani establishment as represented by the Army defends Pakistan ideology. If Kashmir did not exist it would have to be invented. Some reason is needed for such a strong army. Both India and Pakistan would be immeasurably benefitted by smaller armies, but India because of its conflict with China has developed ‘great power’ ambitions. Nehru, whatever his faults had no such ambitions, why is why he ignored the

  7. hayyer48

    Also re: the above I do not think Kashmir alone is the problem. Your former President Musharraf once did say that even if the Kashmir issue were out of the way Indo-Pak hostility would continue.
    Ayesha Siddiqa’s article says why. The Pakistani establishment as represented by the Army defends Pakistan ideology. If Kashmir did not exist it would have to be invented. Some reason is needed for such a strong army. Both India and Pakistan would be immeasurably benefitted by smaller armies, but India because of its conflict with China has developed ‘great power’ ambitions. Nehru, whatever his faults had no such ambitions, why is why he ignored the defence sector till the China war in 1962.

  8. Saad Abbasi

    hayyer 48 : solve Kashmir problem and there is a good chance that Pakistan just might end up back in the Indian Union. Thats how important an issue kashmir is between the two countries. Musharraf wasn’t exactly a very wise man! so its better to ignore him.
    Write your book man, books never hurt anyone or any cause.

  9. Majumdar

    Abbasi sahib,

    solve Kashmir problem and there is a good chance that Pakistan just might end up back in the Indian Union

    If that is the case, I would rather not see the Kashmir problem solved.

    Regards

  10. Aliarqam

    Mir waiz Faruq was asked about Musharraf when he resigned from presidency…he appreciate him for his efforts on the particular issue…he further said that Musharraf was the first who observed Kashmir issue irrespective of the gain or loss concept…he was the first who observed it with Kashmiri people perspective….

  11. hayyer48

    If we ever arrive at a solution of Kashmir it wont be through people like the Mir Waiz. They have been playing it both ways for decades and benefitted enormously. Kashmir is a running concern for them.

  12. Vandana

    God willing, Pakistan will survive this present crisis.The analysis is spot on and makes sense even to a lay observer like me who has keenly followed the changes in Pakistan’s political scene via the changes that occured in its state television PTV.From the pre Zia-ul-Haq liberal TV,through the turmoil of 1977 and onwards through the eighties and nineties.Things stand at crossroads today and Pakistan has no option but to turn the right way and heal itself.The other option,of inaction,is too dreadful to contemplate even for us across from your border.

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  14. Sa'ad Abbasi

    Mujamdar Sb
    Why do you say that?

  15. Majumdar

    Abbasi sahib,

    Because I do not want the subcontinent to get reunited, under any circumstance. I am a staunch believer in the TNT.

    Regards

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