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World Affairs



This is my Paradise






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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 the bottle.

'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 conflicts.

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 against Pakistan 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.'

  Street protests

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 wishful thinking.

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 Punjab 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 insurgency.

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.

Hostile criticism

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.

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