Pakistan has long been riven by divisions, but today it stands on the brink of chaos
Monday November 5, 2007
When, last year, America’s heavyweight Foreign Policy magazine moved Pakistan into its top 10 of failed states – at No 9, just ahead of Afghanistan – assorted Islamabad ministers clambered on to the highest of horses. The charge was insulting, ludicrous … But, baby, try it again now.Here is a huge Islamic nation, nuclear bombs primed not promised, plunged once more under full monty martial law. The army chief of staff who doubles as president has just sacked his supreme court and turned off TV stations. Taliban supporters are launching ever more vicious suicide attacks. There is scant prospect of holding elections. There is Musharraf and no alternative: unless you count anarchy, that is. This isn’t cynical Pakistani political business as usual. This is the pit minus a pendulum.
In normal failed terms, the country swings between leaders in lounge suits and leaders in braid. The army, which also mends bridges and lays water pipes, is not some alien, occupying power. Rather, it plays the role of a natural governing party, stepping in with a handy general called Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq or Musharraf whenever democracy falters, and then stepping out again when the people grow tired of its blunderings.And Pakistan’s supposed democrats know this. Indeed, they help it happen. I knew the great freedom fighter Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pretty well when I reported Ayub’s India war in the 60s. He was foreign secretary and head spin doctor to the military regime then. He’d censor overseas reporters’ copy himself. And when, a few years later, he was elected president, one of the first things he did was ring up the editor of the Karachi Morning News and tell him he was out of a job. I know, because I was standing by the side of that editor – the Guardian’s doggedly honest correspondent, SR Ghauri – when the call came through.
Does that mean that an elected Bhutto deserved to die brutally at military hands? Of course not. Pakistan’s seemingly eternal quest for a settled democracy has to go on. But not, alas, in blind faith. Maybe Ms Benazir Bhutto, recalled from exile after much footsy with Musharraf, is freedom’s catalyst at last, maybe not. For the first difficulty here is that everyone, including supreme court judges, carries the taint of the past with them. And the second difficulty is that oscillation as usual, where a politician takes over from a military dictator for a year or three, won’t operate now because a disgraced army can’t slink back to barracks. It has to stay out there and try to hold the ring.
If prime minister Bhutto, or Nawaz Sharif – indeed, any possible leader – will need it desperately, because its million or so men are the real resources of civil cohesion. Take them away and you have immediate nationwide anarchy – as opposed to current frontier anarchy, where 140,000 troops fail to quell tribal revolt or lay a finger on Osama bin Laden. But the army is problem as well as solution. It is struggling to cope, and obviously riven within. For once, there is no clear next move. It’s seemingly Musharraf or nobody; but it’s not Musharraf as his power drains in derision.
If you’re a Pakistani writer at this point you’ll pause now to condemn western meddling, the state department puppeteering that has brought things to this pitch. Fair enough: but not quite enough. Of course, the cold war and Afghanistan inflicted terrible damage. Of course, crass outside manipulation has become a way of life. But don’t blame the west entirely for Pakistan’s failure, almost from day one, to establish a democratic tradition; for its personal feuds, fulminations, corruptions and crippling birth rate.
Here is a country of nearing 200 million souls, full of talent and human resource. It is not endemically extremist. On the contrary, the religious fanatics rate only fragments at the polls. The major democratic parties that remain are something to build on. So might be an army that wanted, like India’s, to have only a military role. And now, at last, everyone involved has to raise their eyes – and game.
This isn’t familiar chaos. This is pure, pending chaos beyond any Washington intervention. The last, wan defence but one is that Pakistan is too vast for any minority to rule effectively. The final defence is that, somehow, the majority has to make its voice heard and make ambitious colonels and political climbers realise that the spectre we’ve heard so much about for so long is finally at hand. This is a proud state, failing. This is disintegration – or self-salvation.
Source: The Guardian