LONDON: The demonstrations across Pakistan last week that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate the nation’s former chief justice, following the attack by militants on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, were simply the latest phase in the broad destabilization of the country.
This was hardly to have been anticipated 18 months ago, when I flew to Islamabad with Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister. At that time, the prospects were good: Mr. Sharif had made an agreement with his main rival, Benazir Bhutto, to return the country to democracy. “I am not afraid,” Mr. Sharif told me. “I am going home after seven years. My primary concern is to put an end to the curse of dictatorship and give some relief to the people of Pakistan.”
After we landed in Islamabad, I had dinner with the family of my brother-in-law, Sana Ullah. Sana’s family comes from the Swat Valley, a religiously conservative and beautiful region in the north known as the Switzerland of Pakistan. It is, or was, a prosperous holiday destination, attracting tourists from places like Japan because of its ancient Buddhist heritage, and it was where Pakistani film makers would go to shoot movies in a romantic mountain setting.
But the stories I heard that evening were full of foreboding. The Swat Barbers’ Federation had just forbidden “English-style haircuts” and the shaving of beards. Strange visitors possibly Uzbeks were engaged in military training in the forests. A teenage boy told me, almost in passing, that his female cousin’s school had been blown up.
Today the political situation is very different: Ms. Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack in December 2007, Mr. Sharif has been banned from public office, and Swat has become a killing field.
The region has been handed over to the Pakistani Taliban in a foolish bargain made on behalf of Mr. Zardari’s government. Like most violent revolutionary movements, the Taliban use social injustice and a half-understood philosophy as an excuse to grab land and power. Houses and property have been taken over, and the Taliban have announced that people should pay 40 percent of their rent to their landlords and 60 percent to “jihad.”
In the district capital, Mingora, decapitated corpses were dangled from lampposts with notices pinned to them stating the “un-Islamic” action that merited death. At least 185 schools, most for girls, have been closed. Government officials, journalists and security troops have had their throats slit. Little wonder that most of my brother-in-law’s family has fled, along with 400,000 others.
What many Westerners fail to understand is that the Swat Valley is not one of Pakistan’s wild border areas. It is only 100 miles from Islamabad. In the words of Shaheen Sardar Ali, a cousin of Sana’s who is a law professor at Warwick University in England and was the first female cabinet minister in the government of North-West Frontier Province, “Swat is not somewhere you could ever see as being a breeding ground for extremism.” She remembers going to school unveiled as a child in the 1960s and studying alongside boys. But today, any girl who goes to school is risking her life.
Shariah law has been imposed, allowing elderly clerics to dictate the daily lives of the Swati people. President Zardari’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, describes this as “a local solution to a local problem,” but the deal with the Taliban represents the most serious blow to the country’s territorial integrity since the civil war of 1971, when the land that became Bangladesh was given up.
When territory is surrendered in this way, it is very difficult for the state to recover it. The central premise behind the war on terrorism was that extremist groups should not be allowed sanctuaries from which to threaten the rest of the world. In that context, the loss of Swat offers the Taliban and other extremist groups a template for the future.
Pakistan’s slide toward anarchy is similar to the conditions in Afghanistan in the 1990s: it was easier then for the Afghan elite to pretend that the political situation was likely to improve than to face the truth and do something about it. The bickering factions in Kabul allowed the Taliban to take control of large areas of southern Afghanistan, refusing to see that this would only embolden the Islamists to march on the capital.
Similarly, millenarian Islamists are now seeking to destroy Pakistan as a nation-state, and realize that they have won a strategic victory in Swat. President Obama’s hope of weaning “moderate” elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan away from violence, as happened with Sunni militants in Iraq, is stymied by the fact the Pakistani Taliban know they are winning. Making a deal with them now is appeasement.
Worse, the Islamabad government has gained nothing from it. The Lahore shootings showed how fragile the security situation remains. Radical Sunni groups are more powerful than ever in the Punjab.
The Pakistani Army has been given billions of dollars by American taxpayers to defeat the Taliban, and it has failed. Some of the money even appears to have been diverted to the militants. The army has limited skill in counterinsurgency tactics or in winning hearts and minds; its main achievement over the last two decades has been in training militants to fight Indian troops in Kashmir.
“The people in Swat have no employment, no money, and they are terrified of the army,” Professor Ali told me. “Force is not an alternative, it’s too late.” Pakistan’s civilian law enforcement agencies need to be urgently reformed and strengthened.
The only way forward is for the government and those opposition politicians, such as Mr. Sharif, who still have popular support to unite with progressive elements inside the Army, and to recognize the real and immediate danger of the Islamist threat. If they do not, their country risks becoming a nuclear-armed Afghanistan.
Patrick French is the author, most recently, of “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul.”
Flailing, but not yet failing
LONDON: Growing up in Pakistan in the 1980′s, I lived in the shadow of a tyrannical state. Our president, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq had seized power in a military coup, and his government intervened regularly in daily life.
Even the way we spoke was affected. To say goodbye, for example, we were advised to abandon the traditional “Khuda-hafiz” for the newspeak “Allah-hafiz.” Both expressions meant “God be with you,” but the former had roots in Persian (the language of suspect Iran) while the latter leaned toward state-promoted Arabic (and ally Saudi Arabia).
Getting a driver’s license, applying for a passport, requesting a telephone line: These and other mundane activities all required protracted dealings with an officialdom that demanded contacts, bribes and subservience in exchange for its grudging consent. As citizens we did not assert rights, we supplicated for permission.
Atop the state hierarchy sat the military. If you were out in a car late at night and had a young army officer with you, a cousin home on leave perhaps, you knew the police would never dare detain you, no matter what traffic rules you violated. Similarly, if you found yourself in a dispute with someone well-connected to a senior bureaucrat, you knew you would find no relief in the courts.
The restoration of democracy in the 1990′s did little to change this situation, as far as I could see. It merely added a new class members of the national and provincial assemblies and their families to those able to yoke governmental power to their own personal interests. We watched them roar past us with shiny insignia on their cars like epaulets on the shoulder of a general.
So I have a long familiarity with the tyranny of the state, and it frightens me. But recently, as I watched from London, something had begun to frighten me even more: The prospect of a state so weak and divided that it ceased to function.
A strong state, even one as unjust as Pakistan’s in my teens and 20′s, can be challenged, shamed, subverted and reformed. Anarchy, on the other hand, is home to half-seen monsters: Creatures too random and wanton for the individual citizen to learn how to avoid.
In my life, there had been times when Pakistan’s main democratic parties seemed paralyzed, and other times when Pakistan’s Army seemed paralyzed. But I could not recall a moment like this, when both of these alternating sources of state power, the politicians and the generals, simultaneously appeared so lost.
Deprived of direction and legitimacy, and consumed by infighting, the state was fraying. The recent peace treaty in Swat, effectively changing a region’s legal system at the barrel of a (nonstate) gun, was one example of this. This month’s terrorist attack in Lahore, targeting foreign cricketers and therefore cricket, perhaps the last potent symbol of the nation, was another.
Families from Peshawar and elsewhere in the Northwest Frontier Province had decamped to the relative safety of Islamabad. Even there, residents were forced to think twice before going to a restaurant or hotel or crowded bazaar. Girls’ schools in liberal Lahore had begun receiving anonymous telephone threats. Anecdotally, crime in all major cities was on the rise.
None of these problems have vanished because of this week’s announcement of the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. But like many Pakistanis, I suddenly find myself gripped by an unexpected optimism.
For Pakistan is not condemned to, and hopefully will not suffer, a terminal decline. The population remains overwhelmingly moderate: In last year’s parliamentary elections, religious extremist parties captured only 3 percent of the vote. Poverty and malnourishment are not worse than that of growth-story (and neighbor) India. A substantial foundation of Pakistani institutions and infrastructure exists on which to build.
But a state long accustomed to casual despotism is facing an existential choice. It must respond to the legitimate aspirations of its people: for speedy and impartial justice, for education, for electricity and water and basic services, and crucially for a say in what wars are fought in their name. In other words, the Pakistani state must change its bias from tyranny to representation before it ceases to function.
This week, it took a step in the right direction. President Asif Ali Zardari had dismissed the government of the country’s most populous province and was refusing to reinstate the independent-minded Justice Chaudhry.
But civil society and the media were outraged. Public opinion turned against Zardari. Members of his own party and the provincial administration revolted. Thousands joined a protest march called by Zardari’s main political rival, Nawaz Sharif. Zardari conceded, and Sharif ended the march.
Without army intervention, without the bloodshed that has preceded major changes in the past, important precedents have been set: The independence of the judiciary matters, and democratically-elected governments cannot be casually dismissed. The Pakistani state has taken a significant step toward becoming more responsive to its people.
For the rest of the world, it is imperative that Pakistan succeeds in this difficult journey. President Obama seems intent on intensifying a war in Afghanistan that the United States cannot win without Pakistan’s help and that the Pakistani people do not support. He should reconsider: Continuing to push the Pakistani state in a direction at odds with the desire of its citizens risks a chaos that will not be contained by national borders.
By Mohsin Hamid
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Mohsin Hamid is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”