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Déjà Vu In Pakistan

The September 2007 issue of National Geographic has a great feature article about Pakistan. But reading it sounds like a blast from the past, say about 1977 or 1978.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a secular republic, a moderate democratic society to provide a refuge for India’s Moslems who were being persecuted and terrorized by the Hindu majority. That lasted thirty years, until Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq led the coup that installed the first of a series of military dictatorship s, one oriented toward giving religion a much stronger role in society and toward favoring the ethnic group from which most senior military officers are drawn, the Punjabis. Zia Ul-Haq was the one who started the system of fundamentali st madrassas, religious schools, which have been a main source of Al Qaeda and Taliban recruits in more recent history. 97% of Pakistan’s 165 million people are Moslem, but most of them were and are moderate and secular, practicing a flavor of Islam called Barelvi that combines elements of Sunni, Shi’ite and Sufi practice and advocates peace with Hindus and other faiths in general. But for the most part they haven’t been consulted. The rest of the world didn’t seem to care much; the U.S., for example, was still in its post-Vietnam -and-Waterga te funk and wrestling with stagflation and problems with OPEC.

The people of Pakistan have tried to restore democratic government several times since then, but the generals have always taken over again. The military’s power in Pakistani society has been reinforced by the country’s having fought nineteen wars with India in its sixty years of existence.

Then in 1979, the Iranian fundamentali sts threw out the Shah and took our embassy staff hostage, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.   The Carter and Reagan administrati ons found a real warm spot in their hearts for a Pakistani dictatorship that was militantly hostile to the Soviets and was a haven and breeding ground for the mujahideen jihadis fighting the ugly guerrilla war against the Soviets occupying Afghanistan. Along with the radical Wahabi Moslem Saud family that owns and operates Saudi Arabia, our government formed a de facto alliance with Pakistan – we supplied funds and arms, and the Saudis funded the madrassas. Even after the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, that remained the status quo until 9/11/2001.

After 9/11, the current ruling junta in Pakistan had to choose between the fundamentali sts and America. Pervez Musharraf, the general-turn ed-president running things then and now, publicly declared for our side in the so-called Global War On Terror, but had to hedge his bets, because the fundamentali st element in his country was just too strong to truly fight. Imagine what America would be like if for a generation, the majority of schools had been run by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson – there are about 10,000 Taliban-domi nated madrassas in Pakistan now, and no effective public school system as a counterweigh t. The amazing thing is not that there’s such a strong radical streak but that the majority are still tolerant and moderate.

So northwestern Pakistan has continued to be a haven for jihadis in general and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in particular; for example, that’s almost certainly where Osama Bin Laden escaped to when the Bush administrati on gutted the campaign to trap him in Afghanistan’ s Tora Bora mountains by pulling our Special Forces regional experts out to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. In one area of hundreds of square miles, most of North Waziristan, the Pakistani government has formally given up control to the Taliban. Musharraf makes speeches about “enlightened moderation,” but turns a blind eye to both growing violence by the fundamentali sts who, like fundamentali sts everywhere, are willing to use any and all means to impose their views and values on the rest of society, and to increasing (if that’s possible) corruption in all levels of Pakistani government. The media or aid agencies sometimes publicize either by the radicals or by corrupt officials allied with the rich, but rather than crack down on the problems, Musharraf’ s response is normally to stifle the reporting and attack the reporters as “humiliating Islam.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps it’s the toleration of human rights abuses and the rule of cronyism over law that are the humiliation rather than the fact that people see it and talk about it.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues its staunch support of Musharraf’s government. Behind the hot air, it seems to be partly because we think we need his support in the war we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly six years now, partly because the U.S. government treats human rights as a trivial concern, and partly because of all the possibilitie s we seem to consider him the lesser of the available evils. Our so-called leaders seem to think that as long as they don’t do anything to tip it over, the situation will remain the same indefinitely – or maybe that as long as things don’t blow up until they’re out of office it doesn’t matter.

But things are going to blow up. The militants are getting more militant – Musharraf’s passive tolerance isn’t enough for them, they want a Taliban government, and they’ve already tried to assassinate him three times. The corrupt keep getting more corrupt and brazen, the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer; the mood of the general public keeps inching closer to something like that in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over there, a feeling that although they’d prefer moderation a puritanical theocracy isn’t too high a price to pay for cleaning up corruption and making public life safe again. At the same time the educated middle class is getting angrier and louder in its demands for a return to secular democracy, but they’re a shrinking demographic and both the jihadis and the tribal gangsters now running things see them as a threat, so their odds aren’t good.

Stir these factors into the stew:

· Pakistan’s neighbors other than Afghanistan – where the Taliban are resurgent and the population seem to be getting increasingly tired of us – are India, where the Hindu government is also getting more militant and with whom Pakistan has an unsettled border dispute in Kashmir; China, which allied with Pakistan decades ago to counter the USSR’s alliance with India; and Iran, an unstable theocracy that would resemble what the militants want in Pakistan except that Iran is Shi’ite and the Saudi-backed Pakistani jihadis are Sunni.

· Beneath the Pakistani region of Balochistan lies tremendous wealth in the form of natural gas reserves, which keep increasing in value as oil from other places costs more and more. Balochistan is one of the poorest regions in Pakistan, or anywhere, and borders on the Arabian Sea between Iran and India. The Chinese have stepped in to build a port and otherwise help Pakistan develop these reserves, but the locals have taken offense at the central government’s unwillingnes s to share the wealth and are in a state of armed rebellion over their outrageous desire to have a say in the exploitation of their own resources.

· Crucially, Pakistan is the one Islamic state with a known and tested nuclear arsenal; the former director of its nuclear weapons program has a history of selling nuclear technology and plans to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

· Musharraf’s a marked man – his own government is riddled with Taliban collaborator s and spies, and their attempts to kill him can’t keep missing forever. When he goes, there will be chaos, since dictatorship s and orderly successions of power don’t go together.

The likeliest outcome when Musharraf is taken out seems to be a fundamentali st coup followed by a reign of terror similar to that following the ayatollahs taking over Iran and the Taliban revolution in Afghanistan.   Immediately afterward, Pakistan will probably throw its backing completely behind the Taliban in Afghanistan – if they’ve already retaken the government there, the two countries will become one for all practical purposes; if not, the Taliban will gain a huge amount of strength making their takeover almost inevitable.

Another possibility is another war with India, if that country decides to grab Kashmir during the chaos, which might or might not go nuclear. China might get involved to support its ally and protect its access to Balochistan’ s natural gas.

Finally, the Iranians might decide to invade for several reasons. That natural gas field right next door will be tempting. The possibility of a Sunni fundamentali st alliance on two sides – Afghanistan to the north and Pakistan to the east – will be frightening.   And Iran’s government is already looking for any foreign distractions it can find to get its people to quit thinking about their domestic discontent. As evidence, note its president’s announcement yesterday that Israel is the standard bearer of Satan (I thought that was us!) Of course, if Iran invaded Pakistan, the Saudis might feel compelled to support their fellow Sunni fundamentali sts against Iran’s Shi’ite heretics (and maintaining their dominance in the fossil fuels market probably wouldn’t hurt their feelings either).

This is all sounding pretty damned bleak. Is there a brighter possible future for Pakistan? I think there is, though it’s an unlikely one right now. If the internationa l community got aligned with the moderate majority in Pakistan, which includes most of the educated professional s, and started a Marshall Plan-like program to change the conditions that leave most people poor and so desperate they’re ready to turn to extremists, the fundamentali sts’ strength would begin to erode. They would no doubt retaliate violently as they are doing in Iraq whenever anyone does try to make things better for ordinary people there. So it would take our government and others leaning on Musharraf while he’s still among the living to start seriously enforcing the laws and cleaning up corruption and domestic terrorism instead of persecuting anyone who talks about it. We’d have to start orienting more of the aid we give him in that direction, and making it clear that if he doesn’t want this red-white-an d-blue tit to dry up, he’d better do the right thing. Ironically, he would probably find himself becoming very popular very quickly if he did just that, but it’s not one of the options he’s pursuing. It wouldn’t be cheap, but dealing with a much strengthened Al Qaeda all over the world won’t be cheap either. And once that backlash happened, it would trigger a backlash against the backlash, as the ordinary people saw that the militants were actively working to keep them poor, miserable and oppressed.

The next consequence in this highly unlikely hypothetical situation would probably be that both the wealthy electorates and the poor peoples of the rest of the world would look at the benefits of greater stability, safety, and health, and would start asking “If it works there, why not in _________?” And if the elected servants of the people listened and did their supposed masters’ bidding, life would improve drastically in many, many places.

Who could be against a scenario like that? The only losers would be the extremists of the world who need desperate populations to recruit from, the corrupt governments who depend on fear and brute power to stay in office (oops, hold on here) and the multinationa l corporations who want large pools of desperate, nearly-starv ing labor to exploit (oh, geez… forget it.)

So it looks as if we should be preparing ourselves for the possibility of another political, military, economic, and social upheaval like the one that caught us dozing 28 years ago in Tehran. Only this time, it will be in a country with more than twice Iran’s population, a stock of nukes, and dangerous alliances both to other countries and to the world’s leading internationa l terrorist network (who might like to have some of those nukes as long as no one else is using them right now anyway). Nothing to worry about here, folks – move on, no headlines here. I hear Paris Hilton got drunk and did something dumb – go Google that.


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3 Responses to “Déjà Vu In Pakistan”

  1. A Marshall Plan for Pakistan? But George W. Bush is against “nation building.” He said so during the 2000 presidential campaign. And he’s certainly never done anything in 7 years to contradict his campaign pledge, has he?

  2. If we think we have a handle on the history and culture of Pakistan, enough so that we could actually rebuild a nation there, then we are a retarded nation.

    JMJ

  3. Yeah, if we had any wisdom (or humility) we’d get the help of whoever else would pitch in and support them while they did it themselves. I think it would be wise if we tried to direct the process to a minimal extent, i.e. supporting the growth of the middle class, the rule of law, and public education of the non-madrassa type.

    Pakistan is another of those artificial nations the Brits were so good at putting together by drawing lines on maps - even its name is a mishmash - per the Wikipedia entry on country name etymology: P=Punjab, A=Afghania, K=Kashmir, I=Iran, S=Sindh, T=Turkharist an (roughly the modern central-Asia n states), A=Afghanista n and N=Balochista N.

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