Is Pakistan collapsing? A father and a citizen speaks

by Ali Dayan Hasan

At my daughter’s annual school parent’s day event in Lahore last month, the tension was palpable. Bewildered at the speed with which this innocuous annual event had transformed into a maximum security operation, anxious parents filed in their hundreds past security guards, metal detectors and bag searches into Theatre Number Two of the Alhamra Cultural Complex – a modernist structure that the citizens of Lahore would tell you proudly is amongst the largest public-funded exhibition and theatre complexes in Asia. They were there to see their children, none older than seven, perform the usual amalgam of tableaux on “Peoples and Festivals of the World”, a smattering of Kathak – a North Indian classical dance, a “Chinese dance” performance and, of course, my daughter’s favorite – a Disney-esque version of the Bangles hit – “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The event began, as always, with recitation from the Quran. Tense primary school teachers grappled with security issues and as I walked in; a very public stand-off between a security posse comprising teachers, local police and plain clothes personnel and a random man who was on the premises for “no known reason” was underway. The man was eventually deemed harmless and let go but there was no parent who entered that hall without making note of the exits. Two hours later, as we filed out, I and virtually every relieved parent thought and said the same thing: “One more year like the last one and next year there will be no Parents Day. Another month or two like the previous ones and there might be no school left open.”

Since December 27, 2007 – the dreadful winter’s day when streets across Pakistan fell silent in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis have understood and expressed in varying degrees, or disagreed in desperate denial, that the Islamization project unleashed by the United States and implemented by the Pakistani military since 1979 had turned on its creators, snarling at the United States, devouring Pakistan and exposing its army for the megalomaniac but intensely incompetent institution that it is. And the narrative of impending disaster, brutal dispossession and disembodied lives in exile for stateless citizens harking back pathetically to a lost life, hitherto the preserve of Palestinians and Cubans, Afghans, Somalis and the ethnic mosaic of the Balkans, beckons to Pakistanis as well. One could argue that Pakistanis are scared of a future comprising daily doses of floggings, beheadings, daisy cutters and drones. They might be too. But no one has had time to think that far ahead. The truth is more prosaic: After all, if your children cannot go to school, the future has ceased to be. And when societies cannot have a future, they die.

Pakistan is facing an existential crisis at multiple levels. But is it on the brink of a Taliban takeover, the fear and anxiety notwithstanding?

The short answer is that the Taliban have already taken over large parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan. They have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions – including beheadings – of state officials and political opponents, public whippings, and large-scale intimidation of the population. Girls’ schools have been shut down, women are not allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunization programs have been halted, and nongovernmental organizations have been expelled. Music and film have been banned and stores trading in them have been destroyed. All men have been required to grow beards. All of this 100 miles or less from Islamabad.

And of course, class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines run throughout Pakistan and the Punjab itself which militants are exploiting.

In Southern and Central Punjab, a militant fault line has been historically nurtured and exploited by the Pakistani army to create cannon fodder for its jihadist enterprise in Kashmir and later, to help buttress the Taliban in creating “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. The process began in earnest in the 1980s when the ISI played midwife to the birth of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a Sunni militant group that represented primarily a class challenge to the Shia feudal elite in the Central Punjab town of Jhang. A similar pattern of radicalization and recruitment provided cadres to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba for operations in Kashmir. The presence of the state is less intrusive and less effective in Southern Punjab and Northern Sindh than it is in urban Pakistan proper.

Similarly, Karachi, the country’s largest metropolis comprising about ten per cent of the population may be overwhelmingly anti-Taliban but it is also the largest Pashtun city in the world and hence from within that community and through other Islamist sympathizers, there is considerable room for mayhem. This room for mayhem becomes enhanced when you consider that the Muttaheda Qaumi Movement (MQM), the city’s principal political force is a product of ethno-fascist political mobilization and may feel inspired to de-Talibanize Karachi through a policy that may well closely resemble an attempt at the ethnic cleansing of the Pashtun from the port city.

Certainly, the Taliban and the Pakistan army’s assorted other militant proxies, now acting in a loose coalition, sense an unprecedented historical opportunity to enhance their influence across the country. A country-wide network of militants provides their ambitions with some teeth as well. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s overwhelmingly right-wing media, presided over by an array of right-wing talk show hosts, many of them known to be ISI plants from the 1980s, continue to deify the Taliban and to present terrorism as a function of the state’s failure to reach a compact with fellow Pakistanis rather than as the existential threat it represents to the state. US drone attacks on Pakistan have exacerbated deep-rooted anti-Americanism and personalized it as the perceived victims of” American imperialism” are no longer just Palestinians but Pakistanis themselves.

So where does Pakistan go from here?

The dangers outlined above, though serious, present only half the picture. For the Pakistani state, intrusive or not, effective or not, is alive and well in much of Punjab and Sindh.

And seen in that context, the Taliban’s physical proximity to Islamabad is misleading. The Taliban presence is more of an immediate crisis for the NWFP and for the prospect of the state exercising anything resembling sovereign authority in the province than it is to the rest of Pakistan, particularly the Punjab – the heartland of the country. The Taliban have social, cultural, political and historical ingress in the NWFP but central and northern Punjab, some thirty percent of the population, is obsessed with the “rule of law” and constitutionalism as witnessed in the Lawyer’s movement to restore deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The Swat Taliban affiliate, Sufi Mohammad, caused outrage in much of Punjab when he proclaimed that he did not recognize the country’s constitution, its Supreme Court or democracy.  It is one thing for women to be shut indoors in the NWFP and quite another for the same thing to happen in the urban, industrialized swathe running from Islamabad to Lahore. At the other end of Pakistan, in Karachi, the MQM is spouting venom about the Taliban’s “tribal Sharia.” Rural Sindh and the adjoining parts of Southern Punjab remain under the near total political sway of the cult of Bhutto, the current unpopularity of President Asif Zardari notwithstanding.

Given that the Pashtun edition of Talibanization has reached its optimal geographical limits, any Taliban ingress in Punjab and Sindh can only be effected through local interlocutors whose social, political and military capacity to achieve that end remains severely limited to date. Hence, while the Taliban will find no dearth of sympathizers who will perpetrate terrorist attacks and suicide bombings for them, their ability to assume political and military control of the Punjab or of Sindh is virtually non-existent. Much can and is going wrong at the same time as the Taliban expansion. But each element has to be seen for what it is and not be lumped together under the rubric of “Talibanization.” And we have to differentiate between Talibanization and its knock-on effects.

Which is not to say that the Punjab or Sindh for that matter, will rise up in arms against the Taliban. The Taliban will continue to wage a terror campaign in mainland Pakistan and people – particularly in the Punjab – will react by trying to appease and placate them. But there are very clear cultural, political and social limits to that appeasement. Mainland Pakistan may move towards the right (indeed it has) and engage in further overt displays of conservatism and piety. Is growing a beard and covering your head too high a price to pay for ensuring the safety of your children? Is it preferable to send your seven-year-old daughter to school covered in a chador than to not send her to school at all? Is a Parents Day with girls reciting only the Quran a better option than living with the fear that your child may return from school in a body bag?  The process of Islamization will not be pretty- indeed it was not in the 1980s either when the US funded it and encouraged it through a brutal dictatorship. But the process is likely to halt, in all likelihood, well short of Talibanization as seen in Afghanistan or the NWFP for that matter.

Meanwhile, relations between the US and Pakistan have reached an impasse. Neither can dispense with the other, but equally, neither can deliver what the other actually wants. Pakistan’s army has neither the power nor the will to destroy the Taliban nor is it convinced that to do so is in its institutional and strategic interest. Has the Pakistan army swapped a policy of “gaining strategic depth” in Afghanistan for one which seeks strategic depth in the NWFP?

While the world grapples with this question, Pakistan’s civilian governments – provincial and federal – are effectively left with no choice but to transact bad peace deals because the military simply refuses to fight. What does any government do if its security policy implementing agency (the army) refuses to implement?

If the world is serious about confronting Talibanization, it must engage with what it cannot undo – – the Pakistani army’s national security paradigm – which continues to remain India-centric and by default, Taliban-tolerant. Until the international community, including India, come to terms and deal with this in a meaningful manner, Pakistan and the world will remain hostage to Talibanization and its knock-on effects.

Ali Dayan Hasan is the Senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch


Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, Sindh, state, Taliban

16 responses to “Is Pakistan collapsing? A father and a citizen speaks

  1. “What does any government do if its security policy implementing agency (the army) refuses to implement?”

    I disagree with the above, albeit, with some reservations. The decision to take on the militants lies with the Federal and Provincial governments. So far, I have not seen either one of them requisition the army. Till they do so, the government stands guilty of not taking a clear stance.
    If the Army were to move on its own in today’s environment, all of us shall be crying murder.

  2. Monkey

    Well, the least that such a government can do is not make idiotic deals and give in to militants only to encourage other smaller and weaker groups to take on after them. I am in Karachi – real, urban Karachi. A couple of days ago, some people from a nearby mosque came to my house and said to my father “you and your two sons should come to the mosque for prayers”. I have been living in this locality for almost a decade and nobody has come to say something like this to us ever before. Although I do not agree that Talibanization is an immediate issue only of the N.W.F.P. and so the other provinces can stay calm, I do agree that the TTP may not be coming to these major cities anytime soon, but there are many many smaller groups in our country that are Taliban sympathisers and are taking advantage of this situation. This is what such a government couldn’t – and shouldn’t – have done.

    The problem with a lot of left thinkers is that they blame the army incessantly while defending democratic governments unnecessarily. This article seems to me to be another one of those. In my opinion, they both stand equally to be blamed.

  3. PMA

    It is fashionable among urban upper middle classes of Pakistan to blame clerics, army and government for all societal ills of the country. But in reality this self-serving and self-preserving greedy bourgeoisie class is to be blamed for the downfall of the country. For the past sixty years this class has concerned only for itself and completely ignored the needs of the poor. This class has benefited the most from Pakistan but has contributed the least. If it were not those foreign sponsored NGOs there would be no social welfare programs in the country. What have the elites of Pakistan done for the uplift of the rural and urban poor except keeping them as domestic have-slave servant? Precious nothing. Are we not familiar with the servant class in the homes of filthy and not so filthy rich toiling twenty four hours for few coins. Now that clerics have successfully exploited the misery of the poor, this complaining pathetic urban upper middle class has come out in full force to clog the Internet and other electronic media. Shame on you people.

  4. Monkey

    PMA, I understand and agree with your sentiments but just because somebody has a swimming pool in their backyard does not make them any safer from this threat than it makes someone who does not have even a proper door to his house. They have as much right to be fearful as does anyone else.
    I think what we need to understand is that we are all one in the face of this challenge so I would suggest we keep this discussion on inequality on hold and look at it from another perspective: the poor (unfortunately and infuriatingly) have always had a fear for tomorrow but the fact that even those who perceived themselves safe are now also feeling insecure is an indicator of how much Pakistanis like you and me are scared for the future.

  5. PMA

    How could we afford to put the discussion on social injustice and economic disparity and inequality on hold while that is the basic reason of our troubles in Pakistan. Let us examine who are these so called ‘Taliban’ and ‘Jihadists’. Who are these guns touting young men riding in the back of a pickup truck. What is their socio-economic background. What is the level of their education or work skill. And then ask our self how did these young men get there. I do not wish to personalize the issue here but I can’t help to think. The author of this article, Mr. Ali Dayan Hasan is worried about the safety of his daughter at the Theatre Number Two of the Alhamra Cultural Complex. Did he ever worry about the millions of young Pakistani girls and boys like his own children who will never get to go to school in their life let alone Theatre Number Two of the Alhamra Cultural Complex. When millions of these young boys fall prey to the clerics and their warped message and become Taliban and Jihadists and put gun to our head then all of sudden we the urban upper middle class wake up and demand for action. We first need to think how did we get to this point. Do we have anything to do with the mess we are in.

  6. bin

    If for you someone asking for Namaz is talibinization then I seriously think that you need to go back to your cage
    In the Quran, Allah order us hundreds of times to establish Namaz but if someone asks you for Namaz then they become taliban

  7. Monkey

    Thanks but no thanks for that religious lesson. You enjoy your cage and I’ll enjoy mine.

  8. Monkey

    @ Bin: And while I am at it, you have completely missed the point I was trying to make.

  9. Deplorable ideas – the author suggests that the Punjab and Sindh are mainland Pakistan, as if Pakhtoonkhwa and Balochistan are colonies or small islands detached from the main mass of the country. People in “mainland” may be obsessed with rule of law or other virtues of higher order, but as the writer himself acknowledged, there’s no dearth of Taliban sympathisers in any city of the country – plus madressahs are scattered all around. They never require the majority to sympathise with them before they take over an area.

  10. Palawan

    In my opinion, they both stand equally to be blamed.

    A robber off the street that swindled you in to inviting him into your home, robs you. Compare that with the security guard who you pay, gave a unifrom and gun to uses the same to rob you (for an indeifinte period of time, rather than a parliamentary term at most). how can both be the same?

    Since Suhrawardy being EBDO’ed and Ms Jinnah being rigged out of an election and then dying, every national level leader has been a product of a military regime (obedient servant, King’s party leader).

    Democracy has not been able to produce any decent leaders because the army has never allowed the process to evolve. Even the most basic requirement – regular elections – has not been allowed.

    Corrupt civilian governments may ruin the country, but the Army can at least try and protect itself from the political mess. Military rule not only ruins the country but the military institution itself too.

    There is a difference between having no regard for the law and none for the Constitution. As for greater culpability and real and continuing power (even behind the scenes), how many military dictators have faced an investigation, inquiry, court case, gone to prison, or faced the death penalty?

  11. Monkey

    Palawan, I did not say they are the same. I just said that they are both to be blamed. Maybe the use of the word “equally” is misleading.

  12. Very interesting discourse!
    As per my conversations with lay Pakistanis (in the so called ‘mainland’ – Lahore , to be precise), although there is a definite fear of Talibanization but there is certainly an aversion to their Islam-via-gun-barrel policy.
    What I have gathered from all of it is that wherever there is a vacuum of sorts, things will move in to fill that vacuum. Pakistan currently is a lawless state. For example, take Karachi: I personally know people who have been robbed right at the front doors of their houses; people are afraid of buying new cell phones or cars since you are not sure when someone will pounce upon you and snatch your belongings. And just today there were, reportedly, 18 lives lost in riots between Muhajirs and Pashtuns. What an ordinary Pakistani need is security of self and property and if things keeps moving the same way as they are today I would not be surprised if a big chunk of Pakistanis actually welcome the Taliban (or someone of their sort) just to ensure that they can live in relative safety. And that, my friends, would be a catastrophe!

    Just my 2 cents!

  13. Brightlight

    I think this is a perceptive and intelligent article. Much appreciated. Thank you Pak Tea House

  14. Adil Ahmed

    The writer has an unbiased and dispassionate view of the situation. pak tea house should welcome more contributions like this.

  15. hindu+sikh

    PMA , apparently your comments suggest an undercurrent of a severe hatred towards hindus(YOU usually call them “vultures on the wall” and other disparaging remarks)
    Be rational and stop foaming at your mouth.
    By the way, does pma stand for Pakis
    tan military academy or Phenyl Mercuric Acetate. {EDITED}

  16. hindu-sikh

    thankyou CENSOR BOARD for {EDITED}. A free society never {EDITS} especially when the {EDITED} thing contains words as harmless as “toxic”