Manan Ahmed examines the decades-old tradition of experts predicting that Pakistan is sure to collapse any day now.
Times are bleak for the state of Pakistan, if the international media is to be believed. For the past six weeks, the world’s newspapers have charted the apparently unstoppable march of the Taliban toward Islamabad – with daily reminders that their forces are “only 100 miles” and then “only 80 miles” and then “only 60 miles” from the capital. That Pakistan is a “failed state” or “on the brink” no longer even requires elaboration: it is the universal consensus among pundits and “area experts” alike.
In the United States, the news articles have begun to game out the fall of the regime: the New York Times, hardly alone in its hyperventilating, has run two stories in as many weeks about America courting the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif as a replacement for Pakistan’s prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari. The counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, has suggested in print that the state could fail within six months, while Petraeus himself warns that the next two weeks will be decisive, and that the army may have to return to power to prevent a total collapse.
The notion of Pakistan as a “failed state” has roots far deeper than the last few years; it was first deemed to have “failed” in the early 1960s, and this framework has dominated discussion of Pakistan in America from the days of the Cold War to the War on Terror. The surprisingly long history of the rhetoric of failure reveals that America’s engagement with Pakistan has rarely, if ever, transcended narrow strategic aims – and that, for the United States, the solution to Pakistan’s problems has always been, and will always be, the strong hand of a military ruler.
It was that under the rule of the military usurper Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan that Pakistan was adopted as a Cold War ally and held up as a model “developing nation”. During Khan’s tenure, Pakistan was said to enjoy the benefits of a so-called “developmental dictatorship” – many dams were built and much cement was poured.
The US even helped Ayub Khan engineer an election victory in 1965. But shortly thereafter, he foolishly went to war with India; his popularity plummeted, and his flashy foreign minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, began a national campaign for a democracy based on socialist principles. Bhutto’s rise ran afoul of the “domino theory” intended to check the spread of Communism; it was in this context that Pakistan was first crowned a “failed state” – giving rise to decades worth of books and studies with titles like The Failure of Democracy in Pakistan (1962), The Failure of Parliamentary Politics in Pakistan, 1953-1958 (1967), Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (1968), Ethnic Conflict and the Failure of Political Integration in Pakistan (1973), Pakistan, Failure in Nation Building (1977) and Pakistan On the Brink (2004).
By 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, another military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, ruled Pakistan, and the country once again became a pivotal US ally, funnelling arms and funds to the mujahideen across the border. The billions in US military aid during that decade of armed conflict had two direct consequences for the present situation. First, the Pakistani army became a monster on steroids, stacked against the fragile civil and bureaucratic state. And second, the guerrilla-trained militias that ejected the Russians found themselves in charge of the country next door. But Zia’s demise in 1988, and Pakistan’s return to democracy, rendered it a “failed state” all over again.
The “failed state” rubric dominated the 1990s, as Pakistan became a nuclear power while stagnating economically under the burden of crippling foreign debt. But the attacks of September 11 brought Pakistan back into the American fold as a “close ally in the War on Terror”, under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup. If Pakistan was on the brink of failure, few in America wanted to talk about it – at least until 2007, when Musharraf’s firing of the chief justice sparked street protests that eventually led to his resignation. The exiled leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned to contest the state’s first democratic elections in more than a decade. Now the floodgates opened: a Newsweek cover story in October 2007 dubbed Pakistan “the most dangerous place in the world”, nicely setting the tone for everything we’ve heard since.
This decades-long tendency to reduce Pakistan’s complexity to either “failure” or “stability” reflects, above all, a glaring poverty of knowledge about the real lives of 175 million Pakistanis today. Since 2007 alone, they removed a dictator from military and civilian power without firing a single shot, held the first national election since 1997 – in which right-wing radical parties were soundly rejected – and launched a secular movement for justice.
None of this matters, we are told, because Pakistan is facing “an existential threat” from “violent extremists”, as a State Department spokesman said on Monday. US generals and media commentators are hinting that a military takeover may be the only way to arrest the imminent “failure” – to combat the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan and keep the dreaded nukes from “falling into the hands” of terrorist groups.
A comically exaggerated version of reality underpins such concerns. There are roughly 400 to 500 Pakistani Taliban fighters in the Buner region (the area deemed to threateningly close to Islamabad) and 15,000 to 20,000 operating in the region between Peshawar and the north-west borders of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the number of active Pakistani army personnel ranges around 500,000, supported by an annual budget of approximately $4 billion. In comparison, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan make an estimated yearly revenue of around $400 million from the heroin trade – only a fraction of which makes it to the Pakistani wing in the rural north-west of the country. As a threat to a large and diverse nation-state, 40 per cent of whose population lives in urban centres like Karachi (with its 18 million residents) the rural Taliban fighters are not terribly intimidating.
Pakistan is neither Somalia nor Sudan, nor even Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a thoroughly modern state with vast infrastructure, a fiercely critical and diverse media, an active, global economy and strong ties with regional powers such as China and Iran. It is not a “failed state” – it even has met its debt payments to the World Bank and IMF at the expense of providing electricity to its citizens. It has a deeply entrenched civil bureaucracy. The “failed state” rhetoric obscures these realities. It hides the fact that religious-based parties have never garnered more than 10 per cent of the seats in any election. According to its 1973 constitution Pakistan is an Islamic state, but it is home to multiple forms of religious expression, and the majority of Muslims in Pakistan embrace a model of Islam more syncretic than the Deobandi Salafism of the Taliban. The majority province of Punjab is ethnically, linguistically, politically and economically far more diverse than the northwestern valley of Swat – and it is home to a well-entrenched landed elite unlikely to cede authority to the Taliban. Sindh has its own landed elite – as well as a powerful urban political party, MQM – neither of whom show any inclination to welcome the Taliban.
Even if Pakistan is not going to capitulate to the Taliban, it does face grave dangers, and the “failed state” rhetoric – dangerous in its own right – forces our attention away from them. In Baluchistan, as a direct result of Musharraf’s heavy-handed military policies, a civil war has been brewing since 2005, and there is no military solution to that unrest. At the same time, anti-Americanism is rising across the country in reaction to the campaign of missile strikes from unmanned US drones, which have killed nearly 1000 civilians since August 2008. The drones have emboldened religious conservatives who decry “US imperialism” at work in Pakistan, and they are gaining strength with every tally of civilian casualties. The Tehrik Taliban-e Pakistan control in Swat is less a victory for that ragtag militia than a demonstration of the Army’s unwillingness to fully engage them.
The monotonous drone of “failure” implies that the fragile democracy currently in place is not worth preserving. It encourages the marginalisation of the civilian government and boosts the claims of both the military and the militants. Pakistan’s salvation has never been and will never be in the military’s hands. The country’s future lies with the millions of Pakistanis who are working to sustain democracy – and what must be defended is their resilience and strength, to prevent the self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
Manan Ahmed, a historian of Islam in South Asia at the University of Chicago, blogs at Chapati Mystery.