A confused Pakistan
Iftikhar Chaudhry and Asif Zardari
By Sushant Sareen
A meeting last week of South Asian
journalists in the Bangladeshi beach resort
of Cox's Bazaar offered a great opportunity
to touch base with senior scribes from
Pakistan, many of whom, one is proud and
privileged to count as good friends.
Unfortunately, the very engaging
conversations with Pakistani colleagues left
an unmistakable impression that Pakistanis
are in a self-destruct mode.
Despite a realisation of the gravity of the
problems facing their country, Pakistanis
don't seem to attach the sort of urgency
that is required to address the multiple
crises confronting them. Apart from a few
notable exceptions, most of the Pakistanis
are in semi-denial over the existential
threat that faces their country. Others are
complacent, confident that the Pakistani
army and state will be able to set things
right if it got down to it.
Ask why the army and the state haven't got
down to setting things back in order, and
all that is on offer is very cogently
constructed conspiracy theories. Very few
people are willing to admit the possibility
that the Pakistan army is either not willing
or not able to put the jihad genie back in
'Not able' is simply a function of the army
being demoralised, too compromised by
jihadists within its ranks, not enjoying
public support, being over-stretched, and
not trained to fight such low intensity
Unwillingness to fight
'Not willing' is partly because the army
doesn't want to fight its own people. More
seriously, the unwillingness to fight the
Taliban menace is suspected to be the result
of a delusional grand design to attain great
glory for Islam and Pakistan by destroying
America's super-power status in Afghanistan.
A popular TV show anchor believes that
whenever a country is seen as a threat to
the security of rest of the world - for
instance, Germany and Japan in the 1940s -
only two outcomes are possible. The first is
that there emerges a political leadership
that can pull the country out of the morass
and is able to reassure the world.
But if this does not happen, as seems to be
the case increasingly, then it is inevitable
that the rest of the world will gang up
to clean up the mess and completely overhaul
the political, economic, military and
social structure in the country.
Even though other Pakistanis don't share
such a dismal outlook, they agree that
things are deteriorating at an alarming
pace. At the same time they are convinced
that the Taliban will not be able to spread
their influence into Punjab simply because
the social realities of Punjab will not
tolerate the 'talibanisation.'
They say that if a fatwa was issued in
Punjab against education of girls or if a
girls' school was bombed in Punjab, the
people would come out on the streets in
protest, putting so much pressure on the
state machinery that it would be forced to
crack down on the Islamist networks with the
full force at its command.
The sceptics disagree. They argue that the
functionaries of the state are complicit in
the spread of talibanisation and will
probably turn a blind eye to Taliban
activities. More importantly, they say that
pressure that the civil society can bring to
bear on the state and the political
establishment must not be overestimated.
According to them, chances are that the
Punjabi elite will quietly pull the girls
out of school and either educate them at
home or send them abroad. In the worst case
scenario, they will even pull out their sons
from public schools and put them in madrasas
rather than resist the Taliban.
Resistance, if any, will be easily crushed.
For one, Punjabis are not exactly known for
resisting oppression. They will prefer to
take the path of least resistance, more so
because the people face greater threat in
resisting non-state actors than they have
ever faced in resisting oppression by the
state being controlled by a military regime.
A totally different ball game
Protesting against an authoritarian regime
was easier simply because by and large the
state machinery had to operate under some
laws and regulations and even if someone was
arrested, he could seek relief from the
courts. But protesting against the Taliban
is a totally different ball game. The
Islamists shoot first and ask questions
later. There is no appeal, no relief, and no
law that will restrain their actions.
For another, even if there is some
resistance, it will vaporise the moment a
demonstration against the Taliban is bombed,
as has happened in NWFP where tribal
Lashkars that were supported by the
Pakistani state against the Taliban were
targeted by suicide bombers, ending this
fledgling counter-Taliban movement.
Finally, unlike military dictators who seek
legitimacy for their actions, in the case of
the Taliban their actions alone provide them
the legitimacy they need. The Taliban are
not interested in entering a popularity
contest or seek approval for their actions.
Therefore to imagine that they will respect
the cultural mores of Punjab is nothing but
Precisely, it is the inability to think
things through and the tendency to wish away
cruel and inconvenient realities that is
preventing the Pakistani state and society
in countering the spread of talibanisation
in that country.
The public debate in
and Sindh, the two provinces relatively
untouched by the Taliban menace, centres
around the political power games involving
the army, judiciary and political parties
rather than on the spreading Islamist
Instead of the Taliban, it is President Asif
Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party that
is the pet hatred of the predominantly
urban, middle-class, Punjabi elite,
including the military, media, merchants and
intelligentsia. Somehow the impression is
gaining ground that if Asif Zardari is
replaced and the ousted chief justice is
restored, Pakistan would become a land of
milk and honey.
In their unrestrained, somewhat unfair and
utterly hostile criticism of the Zardari/Gilani
regime, members of the Pakistani media are
either deliberately or unwittingly helping
the cause of the Taliban by destabilising
the lawfully constituted government.
While there is little doubt that the
government has made plenty of embarrassing
gaffes in the manner it has run the
administration, much of the criticism is not
just misdirected, it also ignores the
compulsions confronting the government.
There is a lot of gratuitous comment on what
all is wrong with the economy, the politics,
the social system, the education system, the
health services, the security situation and
what have you. Everyone is readily offering
generalised advice on what needs to be done.
But no one has stepped forward to lay out
the specifics on how to do it.
Even though, not many people in Pakistan
want to live under a Talibanised system, the
confused and convoluted intellectual debate
inside Pakistan increasingly suggests that
Pakistan is moving in a direction where a
hard-line interpretation of Islamic law will
ultimately be imposed on the country.
The only question that is yet to be answered
is whether it will be administered by the
current dispensation or by the Islamists,
either under the garb of Taliban or under a
more moderate label. In other words, what
remains to be seen is whether the current
political establishment imposes a stricter
version of Shariah to both appease and
disarm the Islamists, or whether the
Islamists impose a Talibanised Shariat after
taking over control of the Pakistani state.