The Pakistan Puzzle

By vp | Oct 2007 | Comments


Cross-posted from Neutral Observer.

On August 14th this year, Pakistan completed 60 years as an independent country. In these 60 years, the state of Pakistan has endured, but doubts about it still persist - it has been called a failed state and a rogue state. For its own people, the state has done precious little. Small groups of individuals, however, have enriched themselves. Constitutional democracy has yet to find a foothold in Pakistan. Indeed, the constitution itself has not found a foothold yet. The Pakistani state has fomented and supported insurgencies and terrorism, both of which now pose serious dangers to Pakistani society. Its rulers have flirted with Islamic fundamentalism to various degrees, with the ill effects on society becoming increasingly obvious in recent years.

Is Pakistan really a failed state ? In what form do Pakistan's failures manifest themselves ? What are the reasons for these failures ? What are the possible remedies ? What are the criteria for defining the failure of states?

While thinking about these issues, it struck me that it is far more interesting to analyze the politics of third world countries than it is to think about the historical provenance of liberal Western democracies. In third world countries, external manifestations of democracy such as elections are prominently visible. Political power though, is unevenly distributed. Rhetorical tributes to democracy are frequent. The structure of government looks like that of modern Western nations on paper but reality is quite different. Pakistan offers a good case study.

Take for example the separation of powers between the three branches of government so dear to Western political theory. In Pakistan, there are four branches of government:

  • The executive: the President (quite often) , the Prime minister (some times), or the Chief Martial Law Administrator (several times)
  • The Army
  • The Judiciary
  • The Legislature

No matter what the current constitution says, this is the reality. Secondly, the powers are not always separated. The chief of the army has been the president several times. When the president or the prime minister is not from the army, he or she survives on the sufferance of the army. Thirdly, there are no checks and balances, since the legislature and the judiciary have proved to be rubber stamps for most of Pakistan's history - with the recent notable exception of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Pakistan's politicians come from its land-owning elites (the Bhutto family) or its business classes (the Sharif clan). Their privileged background has unfortunately proved to be no guarantee against venality. Benazir ('the incomparable') is rumored to have stashed away more than a billion dollars in foreign bank accounts.

Pakistan has had long stretches of military rule, during 1958-71 under Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, from 1977 to 1988 under Zia ul-Haq and from 1999 until now under Pervez Musharraf. While all of these generals are clearly guilty of cornering all political power, they don't fit the standard stereotypes of despotic dictators. Under Ayub and Yahya Khan, while life may not have been a bed of roses, large scale tyranny was not the norm. Under Musharraf, the press has considerable freedom, with TV channels such as Geo TV being allowed almost as much freedom as the media enjoy in Western countries. In fact, this very freedom might ultimately prove to be Musharraf's undoing.

The prospects for Pakistan's emergence as the secular state imagined by Jinnah were dealt a catastrophic blow under Zia ul-haq. Under his rule, the Pakistani state took a clear turn towards Islamic fundamentalism. Zia had already introduced medieval punishments (such as the chopping of hands for theft) in Pakistan by late 1978, before the Iranian revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini and Sharia-based law to the world's attention. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US decided to fight a proxy war. The recruits for this war were fundamentalist muslims, recruited from the madrasas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Saudis contributed generously to the founding and upkeep of the madrasas. The Americans provided the money for the weapons, to the tune of several billions of dollars. The money was funneled through the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). Some of the weapons and money were also used to fund deadly insurgencies in India - in Punjab in the early 1980s and in Kashmir in the later part of the decade.

Recently, the the judiciary in Pakistan has asserted itself against Musharraf. Musharraf's attempted dismissal of the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry failed spectacularly. Chaudhry was reinstated by a panel of judges after months of public protest in many cities by lawyers. This protest was unusual and led many optimistic commentators to believe that civil society was finally confronting military rule. The reinstated Chaudhry is reversing the Musharraf regime's decisions with a vengeance. First, Javed Hashmi, an opposition leader who was arrested in 2003 for criticising the military was released. Hashmi's appeal against his detention had been rejected just a few months ago by a bench headed by Chaudhry. But that was before Chaudhry had been dismissed and reinstated. Since his reinstatement, Chaudhry has rediscovered judicial wisdom. Or maybe he is just getting back at Musharraf.

The court moved with lightning speed to let Nawaz Sharif, the ex-prime minister who was deposed by Musharraf and exiled to Saudi Arabia, return to Pakistan. Nevertheless, Sharif was sent back to Saudi Arabia upon landing at Lahore, amid high drama for a few hours. The whole idea of exile to Saudi Arabia has fascinating historical parallels: pre-modern Muslim rulers of the subcontinent often banished troublemakers to Arabia, with the offender being forced to proclaim that he was performing the religious duty of the Haj.

Meanwhile, there have been persistent rumors of an understanding between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf. Benazir is believed to have told Musharraf that he cannot be president and army chief simultaneously and that he should give up the army chief's post. This would seem to be a deal-breaker. If you want to hang on to power in Pakistan, the last thing you would do is abandon the army.

Musharraf is under considerable pressure, no doubt. He contemplated imposing an emergency and suspending constitutional rights and the elections, but backed off. A couple of weeks ago, Musharraf passed an ordinance granting Benazir amnesty from corruption charges and got himself elected president by a pliant parliament. In what is a surprising move, he is promising to resign from the army chief's post, if his election as the president is not invalidated by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, he did reshuffle the army top brass in anticipation of having to resign as army chief.

If past history in Pakistan is any guide, many scenarios are possible from this point onwards, starting with legitimate elections and a civilian government, a clampdown and emergency rule by Musharraf, a coup by disaffected elements in the military or some compromise between Musharraf and Benazir.

Whatever the outcome of these moves and countermoves, the Western world need not worry. Pakistan's military calls the shots with regard to all aspects of the state and while the basic players may change, it is the institution of the military that persists. And the military knows which side of its bread is buttered. Having been addicted to the millions of dollars in US aid and arms for years, the Pakistani military is unlikely to let anything contrary to US interests happen in Pakistan.

The drama continues, with tragedy being added to political farce. Yesterday, Benazir made a triumphant return to Karachi, only to witness the deaths of over a hundred people when bombs went off in her procession.


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