How Pakistan Failed Itself

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Thursday, May. 14, 2009
How Pakistan Failed Itself
By Aryn Baker / Islamabad
In the Himalayan resort town of Nathiagali, a party is under way. Ice clinks in tumblers and corks pop while the conversation — an amalgam of English and Urdu that is the mark of Pakistan's élite — flows from meditation techniques to a heated debate over a U.S. politician's warning that Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. The hostess, Rifat Haye, 54, is one of two female pilots with the national airline and is celebrating her promotion to captain. She wears jeans. Her hair is streaked with blond, and a diamond nose stud glints in the sun, as does the jeweled Allah pendant around her neck. She is frustrated with the image the world has of Pakistan, that of a failing state overrun by Muslim fanatics. Pointing first to herself, then at her guests, she says, "This is Pakistan." Then she waves her hand over the valley beyond the deck of her summer cabin. "But that is also Pakistan."

By that she means all those Pakistanis who do not belong to her class and who have as much to do with the Taliban as she does, which is to say nothing at all. But her sweeping wave inadvertently encompasses a part of Pakistan she has failed to address — the Swat valley, where the army has embarked on a campaign to rout out Islamic insurgents who threaten to destroy the Pakistan Haye knows and cherishes.

Pakistan is a complicated country, one of religious and political diversity, fractured by class and ethnicity. Pakistanis like to quip that they have a population of 170 million — and as many different opinions. Which is why defensiveness sets in when outsiders attempt to reduce the country to a terrorist statistic. The problems in Swat don't define Pakistan, says Haye. It's not that she doesn't care — she does — but that Pakistan has very little to do with her Pakistan. "What is all this talk of Talibanization? Not once have these maulvis [religious leaders] complained that a woman is flying their plane," she says. Guests nod in agreement. "There is no way the Taliban can take over Pakistan," says one. "We are too many, and they are too few."

It is indeed unlikely that Pakistan's Islamic militants can seize power. But to spread fear and insecurity and slow down economic development, they don't need to. Hundreds of terrorist attacks have taken more than 2,500 lives in the past 18 months. Talibanization may not have reached Pakistan's élite, but it is already threatening others. Women in the city of Rawalpindi complain that they are harassed if they don't wear headscarves. In Lahore, a prep school for girls has banned the wearing of blue jeans, for fear of a Taliban attack. In the capital, Islamabad, the Red Mosque's prayer leader, Abdul Aziz, sanctioned vigilante squads of baton-wielding women to go out and threaten video stores, barbershops and massage parlors for being un-Islamic. Two years ago, his followers kidnapped six Chinese masseuses, calling them prostitutes, and held them hostage. The army eventually cracked down, launching a siege and battle that saw the death of nearly 100 militants. Last month, Aziz was released from prison on the condition that he would not preach against the state. But residents in the neighborhood fear that the vigilante squads will soon be back. Talibanization doesn't start with a military takeover. It happens when there is a Red Mosque in every city and citizens are afraid to stand up to its edicts.

The government, at last, seems to be fighting back. On May 7, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced a military operation in Swat. "The armed forces have been called in," he said, "to eliminate the militants and terrorists. We will not bow before extremists." Only weeks before, the government had finalized a peace deal with the militants in which their principal demand — the establishment of Islamic law in the area — was granted in exchange for giving up arms. At first officials defended the deal, even as the militants moved on a neighboring district and their leader announced that democracy was contrary to Islam. But in a move that coincided with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Washington, the government declared the deal over. "The militants have waged war against all segments of society," Gilani said. "I regret to say that our bona fide intention to prefer reconciliation with them was perceived as a weakness on our part."

The fighting in Swat masks far more serious problems. In Waziristan, a region on the Afghan border, security forces have ceded control to the militants. Outlawed sectarian groups are gaining a foothold in Punjab province. And in the financial capital of Karachi, where Pakistani Taliban insurgents raise funds, ethnic clashes claimed more than 30 lives last month. When U.S. President Barack Obama commented during an April news conference that the Pakistani government did not "seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services — schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people," the nation erupted in fury, and effigies of Obama were burned. But privately many Pakistanis agreed with the U.S. President; their nation, for all its people's many talents, has failed to develop the education, economic-development and justice systems that are the bedrock of modernity and stability. "These guys have been in power for more than a year," says lawyer Anees Jillani, speaking of Zardari's government. "What have they done? We still have acute poverty, joblessness and injustice."

A Crisis of Identity
To criticize Pakistan's leaders, however — much though they may deserve it — is to miss the point. It is ordinary people, locked in a series of personal Pakistans, who seem unable or unwilling to unite over the threat to their nation. Pakistanis will point to the oppressive hand of history or the machinations of foreign nations to explain their descent into chaos, and to a certain extent both have played a role. But no one bears more responsibility for a slow collective suicide than Pakistanis themselves. A set of failures has contributed to Pakistan's fall.

Founded as a Muslim nation carved from British-ruled India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. It is quite true that Pakistan may never have resolved what Sabahat Ashraf, a Pakistani blogger now living in California, calls its "existential dilemma: Are we an Islamic state, or are we a state of Muslims?" but Islam has always been a common denominator. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the nation rallied under the banner of jihad. Today any attack on Islam, even the perception of one, is akin to an assault on Pakistan's very identity. When the militants say they too are fighting for Islam, just as the mujahedin fought the Soviets, it creates a sense of paralysis.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, pulls up on his laptop the pages of a first-grade primer distributed in private religious schools. "A is for Allah," he reads. "B is for bandook, or gun." T, for thakrau, collision, is illustrated with a drawing of the World Trade Center in flames, while Z, for zenoub, the plural of sin, is depicted with alcohol bottles, kites, guitars, drums, a television and a chess set. Any attempt to change the religious curriculum is met with fierce resistance. "Many fear that to be seen protesting against the extremists who are pushing Shari'a [Islamic law] would be seen as protesting against Islam itself," says Hoodbhoy.

The paradox here is that historically, Pakistanis have practiced a syncretic version of Islam that venerates saints and emphasizes a personal relationship with God. But the influx of Arab preachers during the war against the Soviets brought a more austere form of the religion. Shayan Afzal Khan, an Islamic scholar who writes about women and Islam, thinks Pakistanis lack the confidence to defend their moderate beliefs. "People are afraid to take on the mullahs because we can't quote the Koran the way they do," Khan says. "We have to take our religion back," but fear gets in the way. She has decided not to publish her most recent book, about early Muslim women, in Pakistan "because the situation these days is too unstable."

Blaming India
If Pakistanis have defined themselves by their religion, they have also defined themselves by what they are not — Indian. The bloody cleavage that marked the birth of two independent nations began a long enmity cemented by three wars and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. The contested territory of Muslim-majority Kashmir is the flame that keeps the pot boiling. In Pakistan every prayer ends with a thought for Kashmir. Pakistanis find it impossible to believe that India, with its booming economy and flourishing democracy, has moved on from the rivalry; India, many believe, still seeks the destruction of its neighbor.

One afternoon in early May, an upscale audience gathered in Karachi to hear veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid speak on the Taliban threat. For years, Rashid has been Pakistan's Cassandra, prophesying an extremist-led doom to deaf ears. Now that the threat has become reality, he is a sought-after speaker. "I no longer say that there's a creeping Talibanization in Pakistan," he warned. "It's a galloping Talibanization." For 45 minutes, he expanded on his theme, explaining how the Pakistan Army's narrow focus on India has allowed the militant threat within the country to fester, how money that should have been spent on helicopters to combat the insurgency was squandered on fighter jets better suited to attacking India. But the message failed to sink in.

After his speech, Rashid was peppered with questions about India's designs to destabilize the country, until he exploded with frustration: "We are still getting told every night on our TVs that these Pakistani Taliban are all getting their money from India, that they are armed by India. Until we recognize the fact that this is a homegrown phenomenon and that the people throwing acid into girls' faces are Pakistani, the problem will continue."

Yet continue it does. Every day, it seems, another police official or politician proclaims that he has definitive proof that a "foreign hand" (read: India) is behind the latest bombing. The proof is never produced. It is enough that it bolsters the delusion that Pakistanis are not responsible for the crisis in their own country and thus are exempted from dealing with it.

Resenting the U.S.
Of late, the U.S. administration has sought to convince Pakistani leadership that the Indian threat on the eastern border has passed and that troops should be moved to the west, where both Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have set up training camps. To many Pakistanis, that message is suspect. The Americans have too long a history of pursuing their own interests in the region, they say. The rapid U.S. withdrawal at the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan left Pakistan in chaos. America's long support for former President Pervez Musharraf's military rule alienated Pakistanis even further. Now it is commonly accepted that every political move in the country conceals an American motive, a belief shared by many Pakistanis living abroad. "It's well known that the present civilian government headed by a corrupt psychopath was conjured up by the U.S. and U.K. to push their agenda," says Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a pediatrician practicing in the U.K. "Pakistan has been helping the Americans with their war, and what do they get in return? Violence, drugs, instability. We Pakistanis think we are being bullied into somebody else's war."

That resentment is fueled by a belief that Pakistan is suffering for Washington's failures. Zardari may say that the war on terrorism is as much Pakistan's as it is the U.S.'s, but that message has yet to take root. The growing militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas "is the price we are paying now for supporting the American war on terror," says Ahsan Iqbal, information secretary for the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). "If we stopped supporting the American war [in Afghanistan], we would have peace tomorrow." Iqbal dismisses recent accounts in the Western press of growing Talibanization in the country as "propaganda." Shireen Mazari, a right-wing columnist, sees even more sinister plots afoot. "Is it really in the American interest to have a stable Pakistan right now?" she asks. "Or is it actually pushing us towards instability in order to achieve its agenda of obtaining access and control over our nuclear assets?" Says Rashid: "All of us go by conspiracy theories. We are all blaming somebody else for our mistakes. Why don't we wake up and start blaming ourselves?"
Missed Opportunities
One answer to that question is, because Pakistan's leaders have been so feckless. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, her husband Zardari assumed leadership of her political party and then the presidency. Zardari swore to bring his wife's killers to justice. He has not done so, instead wasting an opportunity to rally the nation against terrorism. There is no national media campaign to combat Taliban propaganda and no clerics on TV or radio denouncing suicide bombers.

"What we need is a national change in consciousness," says Supreme Court advocate Aitzaz Ahsan, who led a lawyers' movement that brought about the downfall of Musharraf. "People need to be bombarded with the reality of what the Taliban represent." Ahsan wants to see videos of Taliban atrocities broadcast every night. Only then, he says, will people understand and act against extremism. "The whole nation needs to see what is happening. Not just the floggings by the Taliban but the beheadings, the digging up of the graves of our saints, the burning of our girls' schools."

Instead, says Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, Zardari's government has muddled the message: rather than punish those who used terrorist tactics, he originally met their demands in Swat. Wajiha Ahmed, a Pakistani-American graduate student at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, hopes that the current chaos holds a "silver lining ... It might put pressure on the military élite and the political oligarchy to finally change the country's outlook so that it focuses on bettering the condition of its people." But for decades, talented exiles — writers, bankers, software engineers and international civil servants — have been devoutly wishing for such a consummation. It hasn't happened yet.

That sad reality is sinking in back home. In a phone call a few days after her party, Haye, the airline pilot, worried that she might have been too dismissive of the threat. "If the Taliban infiltrates Pakistan, of course that affects us. But what can we do?" One part of the answer, for 170 million Pakistanis, is to recognize their shared destiny. Only when the entire nation understands the threat to its existence — and acts accordingly — will its people be able to confront it.

— with reporting by William Lee Adams / London, Ershad Mahmud / Islamabad and Frances Romero / New York

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