An article emailed to me by an American friend who spent a couple of years in Karachi. Written before the fall of Musharraf, it’s posted in it’s entirety below, a non-journalistic, bleak look at Pakistan:
h4. Why Pakistan Will Implode
Once again, Pakistan is in the news. And, once again, the news is not good and gives hints of potential ramifications that could spread across the region and the globe.
A decade ago, Pakistan flew well under our collective radar. I, myself, had a good college friend in the mid-80’s and it’s occurred to me recently that I was never altogether certain where Pakistan was or even that Tooba was a Muslim. Obviously, this has changed in the post-9/11 era.
I recently returned from two years teaching high school history at the Karachi American School and, not surprisingly, have been greeted with inquiries from friends and associates genuinely interested in my impressions of this lynchpin land that was my home. At some level, I have disappointed, as my actual interactions with Karachi were limited. School security dictated a mild form of house arrest; most parts of the city were off-limits to us and each outing from the school’s compound had to be pre-approved and chaperoned by three armed guards. Thus, my first hand experience with Pakistan was far less intimate than I would have hoped. And, of course, my relative wealth (my estimates are that I earned fifty to a hundred times the national per capita income, even as a humble school teacher) kept me isolated from the lives that most Pakistanis actually leave. Still, I have formed impressions of Pakistan and have reflected upon what I saw, heard, and read. And I am left with two prevailing intuitions. First, the people of Pakistan are by and large among the most decent, warm, and welcoming people I’ve ever met. Nevermind their assumed “hatred” of Americans; I was treated almost royally by nearly every Pakistani I met. Secondly, Pakistan will implode.
A couple of disclaimers:
First of all, this is not exactly a prediction. Living on a secured compound in Karachi for nearly two years, reading the local papers, conversing with thousands of Pakstanis over that time, and traveling through many parts of the country may, perhaps, give me some degree of insight that many might lack. But do I know the country inside and out? Nay. And even if I did, that would not automatically bless me with the powers of clairvoyance.
And it most certainly does not express a desire. Good lord, the ramifications—for the hundreds of Pakistanis now I know, for the thousands who treated me with kindness, for the millions who certainly would have had we encountered eachother directly, and for the world as a whole—would be horrifying. No, Pakistan’s pending implosion falls well short of an actual prediction and in no way should be construed as a wish.
But if there were a divine being, and this divine being were to present him/herself before me, and reveal that s/he was the proprietor of some form of metaphysical casino, and command me to lay a fiver on the following question: “Will Pakistan Implode?”…Well, if my attempts to circumvent the command by arguing that I am not a betting man, that I don’t really know enough to weigh in, that I’m uncomfortable wagering money on the survival of a society with so many millions of people were in vain—if the Great Bookie in the Sky were to insist that I put my money down or face the consequences—I would, with heaviness of heart, lay my five dollar bill on the “yes” decal affixed to the table.
Why will Pakistan implode?
1. The country was born under a bad star. When the Brits faced the inevitable after WW II and decided to give up their empirical stake in the Subcontinent, the suddenness with which Hindu (Hindu in reality, though quite intentionally not as a matter of principal) India and Muslim (Muslim quite intentionally, quite emphatically, as it was constituted as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan) Pakistan were divided and reinvented created a basis of violence, ugliness, and dysfunction from which left the country a mess from the outset. As some 15,000,000 Hindus and Muslims (as well as a much smaller population of Sikhs) raced across the haphazardly drawn borders toward their “new homelands”, an orgy of bloodlust erupted, leading to as many as a million brutally slaughtered on both sides, a long legacy of hatred and distrust between India and Pakistan, and a new Pakistani nation that was left on the short ends of the financial and resource sticks. In some ways, Pakistan has never recovered from this tortured beginning.
2. Pakistan is not now and, I fear, never will be a nation. For those who might have missed the question on their high school history tests, or who managed to get it right, but have long since forgotten the difference, I’ll provide quickie definitions. A state implies a widely (usually universally) recognized government. Pakistan is a state; Pervaiz Musharraf is its President; it appears on maps; it has a seat in the United Nations. The concept of a nation, however, suggests some sort of cultural unity, some sense of common experiences, goals, language, religion, or purpose that unites all (or most) within a society. The two often walk hand-in-hand, though there are nations that are not states and states that are not nations.
The United States is one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the history of the world. We have no official religion or language. Yet even those of us who are often critical of America, those who are neither flag wavers nor great admirers of the status quo, recognize ourselves as Americans—however little importance we might attach to the distinction. Pakistan is not a nation. Urdu is the official language…and roughly ten percent of the population speaks it. Pakistan isn’t made up of Pakistanis. It is a state of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, Balochis, Sereikis, Mohajirs, and other groups too numerous and fractured to even grab my conscious attention. In and of itself, this is not a death sentence. But it adds a terribly precarious edge to a society with so many other fault lines. Ethnic wars have plagued Pakistan over its six decades. There is currently a low intensity civil war in the Waziristan region of the Tribal Areas (a story onto itself). Last year the Musharraf government bombed and killed the leading Balochi nationalist, Nawab Akbar Bugti. In April, Karachi erupted into a bloodbath, whose causes were political on the surface, but with an ethnic basis beneath. And in the latest crises over the legitimacy of Musharraf’s rule, ethnic tensions are flaring and inciting just below the surface. Few seem clear as to what Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif represent. But there is little doubt as to their ethnic constituencies—the feudal lord Bhutto family’s power base is Sindh; the Sharif’s in the Punjab.
3. Pakistan is desperately poor. Pakistan is not bloated-belly, flies-daring-withered-limbs-to-brush-them-away poor, but the norm is a poverty that is unimaginable to most of us. Pakistani government statistics place the literacy rate at only 50%. But given that the same government claims a 6.8% unemployment rate, we can assume that way less than half the population can read, however disingenuous a definition is provided for “literate”. Per capita income stats are hard to assess. I do know, however, that the guards at the school in Karachi made a little over $50 a month and they were the lucky ones. Yes, “things are cheaper” in Pakistan. But they’re not that much cheaper. The vast majority of the population is undereducated, malnourished, and at most a step or two away from absolute desperation. Adding to this is the exploding wealth of the upper crust. People I know drop $100,000 on a dinner party. The caste-accustomed Pakistani underclass has been trained to accept this disparity. But the resentment is there, even if politely swallowed.
4. The demographics of Pakistan—particularly when coupled with some of its social conventions—are potentially deadly. Pakistan currently is estimated to have a population of 165,000,000. Current projections say that this number could easily double in the next 25 – 30 years. That’s simply too many people for country with limited resources and little functional infrastructure. Of the current population, nearly 40% are under the age of fourteen (and the median age is only twenty), a recipe for disaster, as it indicates significant portion of the population that is economically dependent and—more menacingly still—portends roughly 60,000,000 young people who are soon to become adults without livelihood or opportunity in the decade to come.
And the logically ensuing economic projections of 100,000,000 supporting the rest looks far better than the reality, given that half of those hundred million are women, for woman’s role in Pakistan is largely that of the subservient housekeeper. Literacy rates among women are generously pegged at 35%. Leaving aside the tremendously important (but more difficult to assess in non-biased terms) question of the ethics and morality of woman’s role in Pakistan, the reality that the vast majority of the women are economic non-entities (and, for cultural reasons, are to remain that way for the foreseeable future) puts a tremendous burden on the small portion of the economically productive adult men.
5. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a longstanding enemy and a burgeoning superpower to the East and Afghanistan and Iran to the West. Iraq will likely not recover in our lifetimes. Iran is internally fairly stable, but currently led by a zealot and on a potential collision course with an equally overzealous United States. Afghanistan is…well, Afghanistan. And Pakistan and India—once a single entity within colonial Britain—have gone to war four times since Partition and have been on the verge many other times. Journalist Steve Coll (among others) argues that a 2002 stand off between the two countries came desperately close to an all out conventional war, one that could quite likely have turned nuclear. Musharraf at the time warned India “not to expect a conventional war”, while the Indian defense minister flippantly observed that India could “take a bomb or two or more…but when we respond, there will be no more Pakistan.” It doesn’t take a lot of paranoid speculation to see how Pakistan could go up in a ball of flames, possibly taking many of us with it.
6. Pakistan is one of the most corrupt societies on earth. The word “corruption” gets bandied about with great casualness, and few of us really have a sense of what it actually means. Now, of course, there is corruption in the United States, both large and small. Dick Cheney is having his Halliburton-anointed soul stroked on a daily basis by the helpless American taxpayer. The rich have every built in advantage and are almost certain to remain rich. The poor, darker skinned, the unconnected have formidable odds to overcome to even hope to escape their lot. Most of the major decisions made in this country are made by a small, privileged elite through mechanisms both official and aboveboard or otherwise.
But recognizing all of this does nothing to even begin to comprehend the on the ground reality of Pakistan. The macro story is regularly conveyed through NGO press releases or through media exposes. I can only offer the following anecdotal evidence in an attempt to illuminate the truly insidious nature of what happens within the country:
Earlier this year, the wife of an ex-pat acquaintance of mine was hospitalized to give birth. While awaiting the delivery, his grade school aged son collapsed. A few hours later, the man was told that his son needed a heart transplant. If you think that this seems like an odd and abrupt diagnosis, you would be right. The man called a few friends and it was clear that no surgeon would perform a heart transplant on a few hours notice, with no second opinion, on a seven year old boy. It was also clear to this man that the hospital had his wife, his newborn child, and his son in their clutches. He paid the quoted cost of $10,000 for the operation not to be performed, in order to be entirely sure that would see all again and that all would remain in good health. The same man left the country only a few months later. As the story has it—possibly, probably truish—a Pakistani associate of his was abducted and a gun was rammed into his mouth, shattering his front teeth, and the associate was told that his boss was to leave the country within 48 hours. He did.
Another man I know of—this one a Pakistani returning home after a couple of decades in the West—saw a business opportunity that should have been fruitful for him while simultaneously providing a literally life-saving service for the people of Pakistan. Apparently, most basic vaccines used (or, at least, needed) in Pakistan are produced abroad, meaning higher cost and less availability. Recognizing this potential for profit (and also motivated by the unmet need within his country), this man relocated his family to Karachi to undertake this venture. A year later, the project had not advanced a single step. My reports say that he was stymied at every level, by government bureaucrats, by would-be buyers, by contractors, by the controllers of labor, by people who were either actively opposed to the introduction of any new source of economic growth or opportunity, (as this would break the stranglehold of those ruthless few who currently hold the economic and social power), or would not even consider helping the project along until they had received their due “appreciation”. In Pakistan, it is known as “sifarish”, or “influence”. It is, of course, flat out bribery and is as vital to the Pakistani system as heroin is to the junkie. After a year’s worth of encountering hostility and veiled threats and the resigned dispersal of a couple hundred thousand dollars in wheel-greasing pay offs, the entrepreneur had not progressed in the slightest toward his ultimate goal, and understanding that it would all be in vain, he abandoned the venture completely. Pakistan will continue to import its vaccines for the foreseeable future.
At a smaller, more personal level, the corruption is no less devastating and all the more infuriating, because it destroys the hopes and dreams of the vast majority of common people who make up the society. The costs associated with fending off a routine traffic stop (by a severely underpaid cop) are standardized and well-known. Virtually anyone hoping to land a job of any sort—say as an underpaid traffic cop, in fact—understands that someone will be paid off to the tune of several months or even a year or two’s worth of salary before the job is obtained. And as a personification of this whole venal system, I think of the story of a close friend of mine in Karachi. Although one of the “lucky ones”—he had a steady job that paid above the national average—the guy lived in undeniable poverty and deprivation. When I met him, he was deciding which of his teenage daughters he could afford to continue to send to school. (For the past two years, I covered the costs of one, but with me gone the dilemma almost certainly has reappeared.) Through some means, he and his brother managed to obtain a small bit of land and they began work on building a house themselves. This was to be a longterm project, however, as they were literally buying a single bag of cement at a time when household economics allowed. Over the course of a half year, I was regularly updated on the progress, including a 40% rise in the price of cement and an unexpected rainfall which rendered useless two dearly purchased but poorly stored bags.
The whole building process eventually ground to a halt. He explained to me that a “political party”—the Greater Sindh Party, (I had never heard of them, but I think that observation is central to the story), had come to his door asking for a 2,000 rupee (roughly $30) donation. My friend spent the rest of the week frantically contacting friends and family members to secure the loan needed make this donation. As he told me this, I naively wondered aloud why he felt so strongly about this party as to go further in debt to help them along. In far more dignified terms (though hiding none of the seething rage that any of us would feel under the circumstances), he explained that he either needed to “donate” as “requested” or watch all that he had labored to build burned to the fucking ground.
It was at this point that I really understood that there was virtually no way out for the vast majority of Pakistanis, no matter how intelligent, how industrious, or how decent any might be. And this, of course, means a society in which the incentive for hard work and ingenuity are suppressed. And more frighteningly, it all but must create an underlying and burning sense of deep resentment on the part of the underclass, a resentment that almost surely will rise uncomfortably to the surface someday. What was it that Langston Hughes wrong about “a dream deferred”?
7. Pakistan lacks any form of legitimate government or even a history of legitimate government. One of the first questions I’m usually asked by friends with some degree of international political awareness is, “So, what’s your take on Musharraf?” And after two years, I can only reply, “I have absolutely no idea what to think.”
For a majority of its sixty years, Pakistan has been directly rule by the military. For the rest of those years, the military has been the puppeteer. Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999. He has posited himself as a force of “enlightened moderation”. On one hand, he’s taken a fairly public stance against the extremism of the Islamists. While he’s no Betty Friedan—he did suggest that lots of Pakistani women go and get themselves gang raped so that they can get visas—he does at least seem fairly committed to the general concept that woman should not be synonymous with goat. It’s a dictatorship, to be sure. But there has been a certain freedom of political speech within the country (though that seems to be under serious attack at the moment). On the other hand, March’s unilateralist sack of the chief justice of the Supreme Court is troubling and his attempts to engineer his re-election to another seven year term in a method make Florida 2000 look like the paragon of Jefferson’s utopian democracy. (As of this writing, there is little agreement as to whether last week’s resignation as the leader of the military signifies real or merely cosmetic changes.) As a Pakistani friend put it, “Would you accept this form of government in your own country?” At the same time, there are some scary, scary people waiting in the wings…
The ultimate point, however, is not Musharraf’s desirability or the relative merits of his would-be successors. It is that the government of Pakistan has little to no power or perceived legitimacy, outside of the odd police state activity. Musharraf gets blasted regularly for not “doing enough” to curb “Taliban extremism” (lots of quotation marks needed here, folks…) along the Afghani border. I’ve got news for you; he has no authority over the area. These are the autonomous tribal areas. Federal law, outside of the most basic sense, absolutely does not apply here. A planned trip into the region didn’t pan out, but the scene is supposed to be surreal. Merchants sit along the sidewalks with blankets, selling Kalashnikovs and heroin. All crime and civil matters are dealt with through the tribal courts. Aside from the periodic bombing of suspected radical training sights—actions which tend to only further cripple Musharraf’s support—the Pakistani government does not even enter into the areas. My own limited experience says enough—a walk to the border yielded an hour long session of (illegal) beer drinking and hash smoking with the border police.
Even outside of the ethnic and tribal divisions, this government is essentially powerless. The next potential coup is never more than an incident or whim away. The religious folk want Musharraf’s head—and they will probably eventually get it. The secular democrats see him as a weak-willed or alternately a power hungry dictator. And as Musharraf’s hold on power crumbles—a sure indication is that the United States is now making bet hedging criticisms of Musharraf’s internal policies—he is responding by clamping down on dissent, a possibly necessary move that will, nonetheless weaken him further.
8. The Pakistani religious whackos are more whacked and powerful than you think. (Militants have, in fact, taken control of areas in the Swat Valley of the Northwest Frontier Province), a development absolutely unprecedented in this long contentious struggle.) One of the great tragedies is that Pakistanis are not inherently intolerant fundamentalists. They are the heirs of Akbar’s mutli-religious Mughul state. Its founding as an Islamic republic was not an attempt to impose religious orthodoxy. In Jinnah’s mind, it was largely a political move, as he feared that a 25% Muslim minority would never be fairly treated by a 75% Hindu majority. While the initial constitution dictated that the Prime Minister and President must be Muslim, there were no blasphemy laws, no Hudood Ordianance. And almost unanimously, the first-hand reports of friends and other knowledgeable sources indicate that a moderate form of Sufism tended to predominate within the country.
With the Zia dictatorship of the late 70’s and 80’s, this all began to change. A harsh form of Islamic law was imposed and has been moving steadily toward Talibanesque extremity ever since. Few question that Bin Laden is far more popular in the country than Musharraf and as each year passes the religious crazies take bolder and bolder steps in defiance of civil authority, until recently only to be met with a “Gosh, please don’t do that…” from the nominal powers that be. Within the last year, CD shops have been forced shut across wide swathes of the country and barbers who are willing to shave beards have been forced out of business, as both activities are being deemed “unislamic”. This, of course, has spread to the capitol, as evidenced by July’s Red Mosque stand off. Most sources indicate that the government’s actions were supported by many in the country, as a majority is genuinely frightened by the prospects of a true extremist take over. Yet at the same time, it’s widely understood that this same government has long tolerated and even supported the extremists.
The extremists are by no means defeated, as Pakistani society—particularly the poor and dispossessed—has given up any pretexts of faith in the secular society. Sixty years of corruption, coups, cowardice, and utter indifference to the dire plight of the masses has stripped civil society of much of its appeal. And into that void has stepped the extremists, (prodded, funded, and supplied by the venal and unthinkably wealthy Wahabi forces within Saudi Arabia), with their emotional rhetoric, their simple and austere answers, and their death grip over a largely illiterate and hope-free citizenry. The fear and general distaste that many Pakistanis feel toward the Islamists may not be enough to balance the reality that increasingly few see reason to believe in the existence of a principled and capable alternative. The Islamists are greeted with both hatred and passionate support. The civil authorities are met with hatred and indifference. It’s not hard to see the dogmatists acquiring control.
Added to all of this is the possibility that the Shi’a-Sunni divide which has plunged Iraq into civil war could overtake Pakistan as well. Ninety were killed in a Karachi bombing that targeted Sunnis a year ago. Retaliations are regular and savage. If the lid every really and truly comes off in Iraq, the odds of an all out conflagration in Pakistan are not insubstantial.
A country of 160,000,000 mostly desperately poor people…a toothless and unpopular government…corruption that has rotted the system, stands in the way of progress, and left the vast majority with no faith in the system at all…well-funded and wild-eyed religious extremists…ethnic and religious tensions that could sink a more functional society…nuclear weapons, frighteningly few controls over who will have access to the weapons, and many inviting targets in the area. All of this seems like so much balanced against little more than an inherent decency of the people and a history of already surviving sixty years against some mighty odds.
Again, it is not quite a prediction. And I can’t stress how little this conveys a wish. But my quivering gut tells me: “Pakistan will implode”.
h3. My Take
There is no Pakistan, the article says – but to a great extent there never has been. The political fiction that the tribal areas in FATA are part of Pakistan has always been just that, fiction through and throughout. It’s not even the taliban, or Al-queda – the tribal areas have always governed themselves without much, or any involvement from the rest of Pakistan – so over the decades that area has become ungovernable. Warlords with private armies control large areas, supported by drug smuggling and various other activities – all legal in that area as the warlords define there own laws.
There are so many private armies all over the country, roaming around unchecked that it boggles the mind. You can just head off in any direction and find one, and none seem to be particularly bothered by any govt. or army crackdown.
There is no “normal” economic activity as you would find in other countries, or even the rest of Pakistan, as the money earned from smuggling and drugs is enough to support large parts of the populations, and gives them the ability to completely suppress over 50% of the population (i.e the women). Drug money and imported goods has enabled the tribal areas to become even more backwards in their lifestyles and thoughts, belonging more to the pre-Islam dark ages than the witch hunts of medieval Europe than anything today.
Is Pakistan falling apart? It’s been falling apart for the last 50 years. and it’s quite likely that the fall might continue for a few more decades – but the rate of falling seems to be exponentially increasing.
As with any complex system, it’s hard (and futile) to make predictions, but it’s clear that there are cracks and fissures everywhere, and parts of the country have already left the fold.