Map of Pakistan

*Perhaps the most famous anecdote in Pakistan is this: while most countries have an army*, in Pakistan the army has a country. Almost 60 years after its creation from the dying embers of British colonialism as a haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent – and a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir that garnered worldwide sympathy – Pakistan’s most prominent feature is the monopoly of the army over state affairs and, indeed, over much of public life.

It would be easy to suggest that the army’s domination is essentially a legacy of British rule, yet neighbouring India has never once been subject to military rule. More accurately, the Pakistani state has carefully bred a tale of imminent takeover by India to justify inordinate expenditures on the army, while the institution itself has been celebrated as Pakistan’s saviour. On the other hand, politicians have been slandered from the very start; a segment of the intelligentsia even propagates the view that Pakistan’s genius is not suited to democracy.

In more recent times the army has become the most powerful corporate entity in the land, with a stake in a host of sectors ranging from road construction and real estate to aviation and agriculture. It is unofficially estimated that the army accounts for up to 30 per cent of national output. It has also become the country’s largest landowner, capturing the most valuable agricultural and residential lands. For the most part the propertied classes, including the landed élite and industrial magnates, remain content with a junior role in the army-led dispensation, but amongst ordinary people resentment has increased markedly in recent times, eroding the army’s mythical role as the nation’s saviour.

Chris Stowers / Panos /

Ethnic tensions have run high since the country’s creation, with the army and most of the civilian bureaucracy hailing from the Punjab and migrant Urdu-speakers; ethnicity remains the primary political idiom. The state cultivated militant Islamic groups to wage covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the disputed province of Kashmir since, but the present military government claims to have clamped down upon its own protégés. Indeed Pakistan has been celebrated by the US and its allies as a frontline state in the War on Terror, much as it was during the Afghan War in the 1980s. The army’s domination of the country is in no small measure attributable to the support of the US at every critical juncture of the Cold War and, more recently, after 11 September 2001. Too much is at stake for this to be seriously endangered even when US missiles hit a Pakistani village as they did in January.

Despite the claims, little has changed. The religious Right even runs the North Western Frontier provincial government, while the Government’s promises to repeal oppressive laws against religious minorities and women have proved to be hollow. Under the guise of devolving power, the Government has resorted to the age-old practice of patronizing local élites in the interest of maintaining power, thereby reinforcing a host of regressive social practices that discriminate against workers, women, minorities and other traditionally vulnerable groups.

The Government also claims that it has rescued a sinking economy from impending collapse, and the international financial institutions (IFIs) back up this claim with stellar macroeconomic figures. However, much of the improvement is premised on huge inflows of aid, and standard IFI-backed adjustment policies have worsened the situation of ordinary Pakistanis. Inflation and unemployment are rife, while agriculture – the mainstay of 70 per cent of the population – continues to be subject to international market pressures and the tyranny of global agreements such as the WTO.

So for most Pakistanis it is more of the same. The army has succeeded in co-opting all mainstream political forces. Those who retain their principled opposition to the _status quo_ are still trying to generate the broad-based support necessary to challenge it.

Decolonization and us

Every once in a while it is worth pausing to reconsider certain facts of life that we have almost always taken as given. Particularly because of the conflict over Pakistan’s Legal Framework Order (LFO) recently, there have been numerous ‘liberal’ voices lamenting the subordination of the rule of law by unelected and unaccountable forces.

Those who have protested against General Musharraf’s undermining of the formal democratic process through the LFO amendments have been absolutely right in doing so. After all, it is very difficult to argue that unaccountable military rule is in the best interests of the Pakistani people. But, at the same time, we ought not to be apologetic in revisiting the concepts of law, constitution and the whole Western parliamentary model. It is a shallow reading of history that assumes such concepts are indigenous to this region.

Prior to the arrival of the British in the subcontinent there had never been a formal, centralized administrative state structure in the region. The Moghul Empire, for example, was quite fragmented and facilitated a great deal of local autonomy, in contrast to the vertical linkages the British later created. The unitary state is very much a recent historical construction in the subcontinent, but one that left largely intact a complex web of hierarchical patronage at the local level. The potwari (revenue collector), zamindar (landlord) and a variety of state functionaries became the crucial intermediaries for the British in the colonial era. Many retain their privileged status today because of their ability to regulate the distribution of basic goods and services.

It was in this context that the previously alien concepts of formal legality and private property were introduced into the subcontinent. These institutions were arms of an overarching state that exercised ultimate authority over its citizen-subjects. The colonial state around the world introduced a social contract founded upon the extraction of wealth, and therefore all of its institutions served this purpose in one way or another. So, for example, private property facilitated the massive system of revenue collection, particularly in rural areas, that kept the British exchequer overflowing for over a century. The effects of this on the livelihoods of the majority of subsistence growers across the country were acute, with previously self-sufficient and closed regions exposed to food shortages and the pressures of external markets in a way that would previously have been unimaginable.

The system of jagirdari (feudalism), on the other hand, consolidated the influence of local élite groups that were willing to facilitate colonial extraction, exacerbating parochial caste identities. It is interesting that, in spite of this, Western-influenced leaders of the Indian independence movement, such as Nehru and Jinnah, paid tribute to the Western liberal tradition for awaking India from its ‘backward’ and ‘obsolete’ traditions and customs. A more accurate appraisal of the introduction of the Western liberal tradition to the subcontinent would include mention of the fact that it contributed to mass pauperization, and to the establishment of a centralized state structure largely exempt from accountability to the people of the region.

To be fair, Jinnah and Nehru – among others – also saw colonial rule to be exploitative and intrusive, which explains why they led independence movements. But the crucial question that must be asked is to what extent the political independence from British rule gained by these leaders actually translated into meaningful changes in the lives of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis. In other words, to what extent the systems of exploitation that had developed during British colonization were unravelled by the new independent states.

The answer to this question, unfortunately, is that very little changed. The Pakistani state today operates largely on the basis of the same social contract that characterized colonial rule. The relationship of the state to its subject-citizens is strained at best, because the state continues to extract wealth rather than create it for the benefit of ordinary people. For example, land continues to be conceived of as a means of revenue extraction, rather than a source of livelihood and cultural grounding for the people that live on it. The state regularly employs the colonial Land Acquisiton Act of 1894 to take over land forcibly and displace local communities, often in the name of ‘development’. If such ‘development’ is legitimate, why didn’t we just leave the British in power?

Other colonial laws are still very much in vogue. The 1912 Land Colonization Act, for example, gives incredible powers to the armed forces to occupy land for the purposes of horse and mule breeding. When it was enacted the law catered to the British Indian Army’s imperial purposes. Today the law is far less relevant to the military needs of the armed forces but continues to be used gratuitously by General Head Quarters for the personal benefit of retired officers.

Other natural resources – including forests – that provide the livelihood base of many people are still subject to colonial extractive laws. Property laws are still vested in the so-called liberal tradition but in the context of a colonial state – thereby rendering ‘liberalism’ largely redundant.

In any case, the ‘liberalism’ being considered is Western liberalism, not a tradition that has its roots in local histories. One need only consider the fact that the ordinary Pakistani remains terrified of the prospect of having to interact at even a basic level with any of the institutions of the state – including the thana (police station) and katcheri (court) – to ascertain the actual function of the state in people’s lives. When the law itself is oppressive, who in their right mind would want to seek solace in it?

The relevance of this analysis to the present day is far greater than is typically understood. Consider some contemporary social and political conflicts between the ruling élite and ordinary people, such as those of the landless tenants on state land in Punjab, or katchi abadi dwellers (squatters) ‘trespassing’ on state land across the country. Why is it that we question the legality of those who must surely still be categorized as subjects of an exploitative state, rather than question the legitimacy of the state itself? How can we possibly trust the courts to dispense justice when they have proven time and again that they are far more committed to preserving the inordinate power vested in the state?

If the questions that our ‘liberals’ ask are limited only to how to restore the rule of law, then they are subscribing not only to a social contract that gives licence to the state to engage in exploitative relations with citizens, but also to a global social contract in which exploitation is enshrined in ‘legal’ codes, such as those of the United Nations system. Just as the post-colonial state in Pakistan is hardly different from its colonial predecessor, so the international system is neo-colonial in nature, with the US empire leading the line.

It is the fact that a very small élite in this country took over the reigns of power from the British in 1947 that has ensured that we have remained economically dependent on the imperial countries of the West. Our own home-grown radical thinkers, such as the late Hamza Alawi, have pointed out time and again that we must face up to all of these realities and then accurately identify meaningful responses. But intellectual honesty is hard to come by these days.

When the law itself is oppressive, who in their right mind would want to seek solace in it?

It is a great tragedy that the political élite in Pakistan, as represented by our mainstream political parties, has never truly attempted to challenge the domination of the state élite. If anything, our mainstream parties have taken turns to secure a small share of the pie that the state élite – primarily the military – has always controlled. Indeed, many of our parties are composed of élite interest groups, including the old landed class, the nouveau-riche industrial class and the religious clergy, all of whom are typically as threatened by the prospect of an overhaul of the post-colonial state as the state élite itself.

That being said, there can be no doubt that opposition to the LFO is the immediate political battle of our times. This is because the military is the main pillar of the authoritarian state. There can be no recourse from the institutions of the state until and unless they are separated from the interests of the military. It matters little why, for example, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto or the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif are still standing firm against the LFO – just that they continue to stand firm. Their past histories in terms of collaboration with the military are not reassuring. Nonetheless, it is never too late to oppose the establishment.

It cannot be assumed that the nature of the state will be altered if and when the military is banished from the central role it currently occupies. The future of the Pakistani state lies very much in the hands of Pakistani society. ‘Liberal’ thinkers notwithstanding, there is very little hope or legitimacy associated with the prevailing social contract. If it is accepted that the process of decolonization is an ongoing one, there is at least some hope that we will take the necessary, if often painful, steps toward freedom.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a political activist, writer and teacher associated with the People’s Rights Movement (PRM), a non-partisan political confederation of social movements in Pakistan.

Open markets, closed doors

In 1989 George Bush Sr announced a ‘new world order’ – an order that proclaimed the victory of freedom, following the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the ‘evil empire’. Freedom as characterized by Bush the elder was a two-pronged concept. Economic freedom was to be ensured by the free market and political freedom was to be ensured by the spread of electoral democracy. This same rhetoric continues to be employed by the current Bush administration to justify the US war machine – a rampage that has now moved from Afghanistan to Iraq.

The reality is that the new world order has brought with it unprecedented state repression at the national level coupled with dramatic increases in inequality at both the national and global levels.

In Pakistan this contradiction is glaring. And many of the country’s current ills –anti-people economic policies, militarization of society and collapse of the political process – are intimately linked to a history of US meddling in the region.

The military has monopolized decision-making, both in and out of power. The first comprehensive structural-adjustment programme was signed in 1988 by General Zia ul Haq, who had come to power in a 1977 coup d’état and hanged Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Numerous such agreements were signed by elected governments over the next few years with the IMF and other international financial institutions (IFIs). The deal was that Pakistan’s economy would be moulded in accordance with the standard precepts of market-friendly globalization. Initially the IFIs complained that the Government was not sticking with its agreement to implement adjustment policies. But from 1999 onwards the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf was much more committed to the process.

In any case the Pakistani people were never consulted. The economy stuttered consistently throughout the 1990s and continues to do so. Only the country’s élite has gained in any way from the accumulation of debt, which now stands at more than $36 billion.

Free-market policies have increased poverty to levels unprecedented since independence in 1947. Dr Asad Sayeed, an economist with the Social Policy Development Centre, an independent think-tank in Karachi, estimates that more than 40 per cent of the population now lives below the country’s official poverty line – up from 17 per cent at the beginning of the 1990s.

Privatization policies have led to massive job cuts in most sectors, as when the state-owned banks were sold off. The largest state employer, Pakistan Railways, recently shed some 30,000 workers in response to conditions laid down in the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper – a document prepared to qualify for concessional lending from the IMF.

Meanwhile poor consumers have been ravaged by a combination of indirect sales taxes and price increases on essential commodities. The state lacks the political will to tax the rich and powerful. Domestic electricity rates have tripled over the past decade while basic foodstuffs like cooking oil and sugar are now hardly affordable for the average consumer. And ordinary Pakistanis are still waiting for the promised increases in efficiency from privatization. The former Chief Economist of the Planning Commission found that of fourteen industries privatized since the late 1980s, only two have seen any noticeable growth. In three, growth rates have decreased and in nine there has been no difference.

Agriculture, which accounts for the livelihoods of 70 per cent of the country’s population, has been particularly hard hit by economic adjustment. Subsidies have been retained for the landed élite but completely slashed for subsistence farmers. Open markets have led to a worsening of the terms of trade: lower prices on local and international markets for both food and cash crops. Many rural dwellers have been forced to sell their land and move to already overcrowded cities like Lahore and Karachi. This process is not going to be helped by the Government’s recent announcement that it will lease unlimited tracts of state land to agribusiness firms for large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture.

These realities have coincided with a renewed attack on civil and political liberties. No elected government was allowed to complete a full term during the 1990s and dissent has been criminalized – especially under the regime of General Musharraf.

People’s movements involved in struggles for livelihoods and basic rights have faced the sword of the state. Students, teachers and doctors who have resisted the commercialization of education and health – a worldwide trend – have been expelled and fired. Landless tenants in rural areas and urban squatters resisting eviction have been charged under anti-terrorist laws and jailed for extended periods. Some have even been killed by local authorities.

Not surprisingly, this entire period has seen a shrinking of democratic space. Political parties remain answerable to the military – and largely unresponsive to the needs of the general public. The military, for its part, couldn’t care less about the long-term interests of the Pakistani people: consolidation of power is its sole concern. Meanwhile state repression has caused trade unions, the student movement and the media to retreat from the political sphere.

Hang on a minute, though, you might say: didn’t Pakistan recently elect a new government? It did, last October. But the election was judged ‘seriously flawed’ by the European Union and, besides, the military has ensured that the new administration toes the line. General Musharraf will remain President for the next five years, a feat he pulled off by amending the constitution through a so-called Legal Framework Order – an extra-constitutional legal coup that was aided by the hopelessly compromised Supreme Court. This gives Musharraf the right to dismiss parliament and the prime minister in the ‘national interest’ at any time, a constitutional right also enjoyed by his tyrannical predecessor, General Zia ul Haq.

The case of Pakistan provides evidence that the US has no genuine interest in promoting democratic institutions and practice in the rest of the world. The Legal Framework Order was imposed undemocratically in full view of the world and yet the US remains Musharraf’s biggest booster.

The IFIs also directly supported Musharraf’s crusade to hang on to the presidency. In April 2002 a presidential referendum was hastily organized, in which Musharraf himself later acknowledged that there had been serious irregularities. At the Pakistan Development Forum, held by the IFIs in Paris some days before the referendum, high-ranking officials of the World Bank and IMF voiced their support for the referendum. They suggested that Musharraf should stay in charge to ensure a ‘continuity of reforms’. The Country Representative of the Asian Development Bank in Pakistan threatened to renege on a massive multi-year $2.4 billion commitment made weeks before the October elections if the new government veered from the policy direction articulated by the Musharraf regime. It is threats like these that highlight the rapid erosion of sovereignty faced by the Pakistani state.

Meanwhile, ordinary Pakistanis are being mugged by free-market policies. The military continues to engage in ‘rent-seeking’ (otherwise known as corruption) at all levels. During General Musharraf’s tenure many civilian agencies including the Pakistan Railway and even the Pakistan Postal Services were taken over by retired generals who have absolutely no expertise or experience running such agencies. Many of the largest contracts issued by the state went to military-owned companies including the Frontier Works Organization which has a near monopoly on road construction across the country.

Ordinary Pakistanis are being mugged by free-market policies. The military continues to engage in ‘rent-seeking’ (otherwise known as corruption) at all levels. During General Musharraf’s tenure many civilian agencies including the Pakistan Railway and even the Pakistan Postal Services were taken over by retired generals who have absolutely no expertise or experience running such agencies

Many large dams and irrigation channels which comprise the majority of ‘development’ projects are providing water to previously unproductive land that has been allotted to military officers. This is particularly the case in the desert areas of southwest Punjab where projects like the Chashma Right Bank Canal have been funded by the Asian Development Bank. Such projects have displaced thousands of peasant farmers and destroyed the livelihoods of even more people because they completely overlook local needs. Resistance by communities from these remote rural areas is easily suppressed by the Government which falls back on ‘the national interest’ as the justification for ramming through inappropriate mega-projects.

Meanwhile, a segment of the Pakistani intelligentsia opposed to religious extremism has thrown in its lot with Musharraf because of his alleged secularism. Much hay was made of the fact that the General was banning organizations and parties involved in violence in the name of jihad. However, many of the arrested leaders have since been released. In fact Maulana Azam Tariq, head of the fiercely militant Sipah-e-Sahaba (Army of Muhammad) campaigned in last October’s election from jail – and won.

It is simply not in the military’s interest to change things. The propaganda about open markets, competition and political freedom continues to be spewed out unashamedly. But the damage is glaring and there is clearly no democracy. There is a crying need to debunk the myths surrounding the entire ideology: the sooner the better.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a writer and social activist based in Islamabad.

The democracy killers

The presidential referendum in Pakistan has come and gone. As quickly as the drama enveloped the country it has been forgotten. The Pakistani nation is disappointed and fed up with the antics of the ruling classes and the referendum served only to confirm their suspicions. As expected, General Musharraf made a heap of populist promises. But sadly, till now, these promises have proven to be nothing more than meaningless rhetoric. It seemed impossible for the already dysfunctional Pakistani political culture to degenerate further. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the past two months – considerable effort will be needed to repair the damage. That said, it is important to look at global trends and draw comparisons. Despite the widespread practice of electoral democracy, there is considerable disillusion amongst citizens the world over about the responsiveness of formal politics. The recent presidential election in France is a good example of how extremist exceptions are becoming more popular in electoral polls.

More than anything else such occurrences reflect a narrowing of the political spectrum and homogenization of thought processes and ideas. In other words, ‘liberal’ market democracy has become the coveted political system of choice around the world (with Europe the exception to a certain extent). Politicians from social democratic parties espouse many of the same values that politicians from conservative parties do. In India for example, while it is the right-of-centre BJP that has unquestioningly moved toward privatization of major state-owned enterprises, it was the left-of-centre Congress government that signed loan agreements with the international financial institutions (IFIs) that set the stage for these enterprises to be privatized. All in all then, it is not surprising that extremists such as Le Pen are suddenly default beneficiaries of intense voter reaction to post-election inertia.

So maybe Pakistan’s political culture is not so dysfunctional after all. Who needs electoral democracy if it turns out to be just tokenism? The fact is that political culture cannot be judged on the elusiveness of electoral democracy. It needs to be judged on the basis of factors far more important than elections, factors that are the foundation of a robust democratic culture. A nation with a democratic culture is not necessarily one that has achieved economic democracy – no country in the world has. Similarly, a democratic culture does not necessarily mean that extremist thought and action are eliminated.

A democratic culture allows space for ordinary people to articulate themselves and their politics. In other words, the struggle for economic democracy is facilitated by a democratic culture which both acknowledges people’s basic economic rights and provides a channel to promote such rights. A democratic culture permits the rejection of extremist ideas and actions, without having to resort to other extremes to suppress such ideas and actions. In France, Le Pen was routed in the run-off election and the country’s flirtation with extremism was doused. If France were not home to a relatively evolved democratic culture – which promotes difference but also sanity – maybe Le Pen would have fared better against Jacques Chirac.

There are spaces and yes, movements of opposition. But few people challenge the neoliberal paradigm that underlies General Musharraf’s economic policy

In recent times, India’s democratic culture has been seriously questioned. The fact that thousands of Muslims have been massacred at the hands of extremist Hindu mobs in Gujarat is bad enough. That the state government of Gujarat can be accused of complicity in these massacres is despicable. Why in the world has the pogrom in Gujarat been possible? This is a question that India will have to answer. But at least civil society in India is asking the question. That is a step up from Pakistan which only started to question extremism in the shadow of 11 September when Uncle Sam made it clear there was no other choice. The religious right has never been successful at the polls, yet it has a pervasive influence on Pakistani society. There has been no consistent political opposition to extremism. That’s because the Pakistani state which nurtured the extremists also de-politicized the country to the point that no alternative has sprung up in opposition.

That said, it should be reiterated that we live in a unipolar world and this brings with it a uniformity of thought and action that is almost unprecedented. The onslaught of corporate globalization, powered by the neoliberal politics of the G8 and IFIs, is without doubt a victory for global capitalism. There are very few countries that are resisting this market madness and these countries stand isolated from the world community. Cuba comes to mind – a country that’s made great progress in literacy and basic healthcare. But also a country with its economy in tatters because it does not subscribe to the US-sanctioned market model.

Nonetheless, alternatives do exist in many parts of the world. The burgeoning movement against neoliberalism has emerged out of spaces for dissent. This movement has been most vigorous in the belly of the beast (Seattle, Davos, Genoa). The battlefield may have been fundamentally altered, but at least a battlefield still exists. In Pakistan, the battle is being waged by a very small number of people – the spaces, movements and alternative debates are still sadly ignored and marginalized.

The struggle for economic rights is often framed as a direct challenge to the state. Essential civil and political liberties have been denied so systematically that they may as well be luxuries. Even though Pakistan is just months away from general elections basic political rights remain suspended. And when the military does talk of ‘genuine democracy’, ‘checks and balances’ and ‘participation of ordinary citizens in decision-making’, the fundamentals of the system remain intact and the security paradigm unchallenged. Ultimately, the military government is implementing the overall agenda of the IFIs, as most governments are across the world. With a military government in power dissenting voices are easily muted. Electoral political parties continue to play a regressive role but ultimately they too will only be made accountable once alternatives take centre stage.

There is no reason to believe that alternative spaces, ideas, and therefore movements, cannot be promoted. But there is a need to realize that a democratic culture takes time to develop. And Pakistan is indeed still in the infancy stage. The persistent interference of the military in the political process has meant that this culture has never really flourished. The level of tolerance for different ideas remains low. Any suggestion that the nation’s _raison d’etre_ – the two nation theory – is obsolete is greeted with cries of betrayal. Indeed, challenging the security paradigm that gives licence to the military to ride roughshod over civil rights is considered heresy.

While you might expect the élite to resist democracy, it’s ordinary citizens who have succumbed to the prevailing political culture that are the biggest barrier to change. Virtually all Pakistanis rely more on _sifarish_ (personal contacts) than they do on merit. Most importantly, virtually all Pakistanis are convinced that bogus presidential referendums are just part of their destiny.

There are spaces and yes, movements of opposition. But few people challenge the neoliberal paradigm that underlies General Musharraf’s economic policy. The Government taxes the poor because there is insufficient political will to tax the rich; the food security of small and landless farmers is undermined by withdrawing price supports and subsidies; downsizing is promoted while the corporate sector receives further concessions. These are some of the reasons that an alternative must be pursued. But to challenge those in power is risky.

There are not many in Pakistan willing to support the _Anjuman Mazarain Punjab_ (Tenants Association of Punjab). Almost a million landless tenants in 10 districts across the most populous and richest province in the country have come together to demand rights to land they have tilled for a century. Their struggle directly confronts the military authorities that operate these farms. The struggle should strike at the moral conscience of this society because it illuminates the amazing resilience and resistance of those who have been oppressed for generations – and the kind of vision that this country should be built on. Scores of tenant farmers have been killed, imprisoned and harassed.

Others that deserve wider support include so-called ‘informal sector’ workers. Standing up to summary evictions of _katchi abadi_ (squatters) or harassment of _rehri walas_ (street hawkers) involves challenging the state and its élite-biased planning. Movements for housing and livelihood rights in the urban informal sector have developed. The All-Pakistan Alliance of Katchi Abadis is a nationwide coalition of squatters’ groups that have engaged in civil disobedience regularly over the past three years and have challenged the notion that development can be achieved by bulldozing homes. Such groups should be applauded for their resilience in coping with their surroundings when formal service providers have failed.

In southwest Punjab, the Greater Thal Canal is a disaster-in-process. This mega-irrigation project will displace thousands, destroy the livelihoods of thousands more, disrupt an eco-social system that has existed peacefully for centuries and deprive millions of their traditional water rights. Meanwhile, retired army officials are allotted state lands in the areas that will benefit from this canal. The passive resistance of local communities and the active resistance of Sindhi civil and political society should clarify to us who the priority in ‘development’ should be.

There are hundreds of examples of alternatives to the development priorities that define the Pakistani nation. It is just that these alternatives are not written about, reported on or celebrated. Instead, they are discarded and suppressed, sometimes watered down by promises made during presidential referendums.

There can be no quick-fix solutions to Pakistan’s problems and it is time we stopped searching for them. One need not aspire to be like the Western democracies or like the Asian tigers – there are many visionaries in Pakistan itself. It is time to acknowledge them and be courageous enough to join them. Solutions conceived by the IFIs or a handful of generals are no match for those home-grown democrats. To accept this would be half the battle.

*Aasim Sajjad Akhtar* is a writer and social activist based in Islamabad.

The street-smart poor

The decision made by General Musharraf and his close aides to give the US the green light for its forthcoming military operation in Afghanistan is front-page news across the world. Now the General is meeting so-called ‘representative’ Pakistani groups to incorporate their views. This is odd, as there are very few decisions left to make. The die is already cast.

The key issue here is who is being invited to these consultations. General Musharraf seems to have met with everyone but the common Pakistani. The appallingly poor home-based worker that is the backbone of Pakistan’s textile industry, the _katchi abadi_ [slum] dweller who is fighting to retain the mud roof over her head, the farmer who owns three _kanals_ [1,500 square metres] of land that cannot feed his own family - why does he not consult these folk?

Actually the reason is simple: the General is using this opportunity to gain political credibility. And meeting these ‘groups’ will give him that. Pakistani politics have made sure that subsistence farmers, small fisherfolk and informal-sector labourers do not have the political weight to give any such credibility. Nor have they been allowed the political space to be recognized as equal citizens.

But times are changing. Not because these disadvantaged groups are as well organized as they need to be to have their voices heard, or because civil society has finally woken up to its responsibility to raise the political consciousness of the Pakistani population. Times are changing because ordinary people are street-smart, because they know the ropes, because they will always be able to use their God-given instinct to know when they are about to be used. And they learn from their history.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, setting the stage for a chain of events which has finally led to the carnage that is New York. General Zia ul-Haq could not have asked for a better curtain-raiser on his decade-long dictatorship. The subsequent American involvement in the conflict was milked by the Pakistani military for all it was worth. Our intelligence agencies as we know them today were essentially built from scratch through the 1980s. This period also saw the systematic deconstruction of Pakistani society and the birth of sectarian violence. The extremist threat in Pakistan today is a direct result of policies enacted by General Zia ul-Haq and funded by the United States.

It is quite likely that the current military regime views the recent turn of events as an opportunity to get America back on our side. It is not unknown to the world that America is likely to reward Pakistan for co-operating with its all-out revenge effort. The situation for the Pakistani establishment this time around however is not as straightforward as it was in 1979. The military will now be going up against an enemy that knows them inside out - not least because they created this enemy themselves.

In 1979 it was not difficult to convince the average Pakistani of the need to wage war against the threat of the Soviet Union. Today, Pakistanis are being expected to forget the state-sponsored extremism that they have been fed for over a decade and accept that Americans will use Pakistan as a means to wage war on Afghanistan. And as before, America will forget the common Pakistani as soon as the so-called war against terror is over. We can be sure that _katchi abadi_ residents and landless labourers will not be the beneficiaries of this adventure. The winners will be those who have been winning for the past 54 years - including the military, which will use this event to strengthen its stranglehold on the politics of this unfortunate nation.

The pragmatist might say that we do not have a choice. We live in a harsh world where power politics determine right and wrong. However, ordinary Pakistanis may just have had enough of these shenanigans. They are sick of arbitrary decisions that stand only to make their lives miserable. They do not like the idea that America is being allowed to destroy the only overt resistance to its own ‘terrorist’ activities across the Muslim world (read: Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon etc) where again it is the poor who suffer at their hands. They are frustrated that there is such a public outpouring of grief for America when America itself is involved in violence across the world that goes completely unnoticed. Most of all they do not like the fact that Pakistani generals have suddenly woken up to the fact that deadly terrorists live next door to them when it is the Pakistan military machine itself that has been involved in their activities for many years.

The extremists in this country and elsewhere will not take Pakistani support for American retaliation lying down. Neither will frustrated elements of the Pakistani population who see this impending disaster as it is: another decision which they have no control over but which is certain to change their lives.

The lack of space for democratic expression and the role of the US-sponsored intelligence has ensured that the Islam that is propagated in this country is reactionary and potentially violent. General Musharraf would do well to listen to the views of _katchi abadi_ dwellers, farmers, workers and other groups traditionally excluded from the decision-making process in Pakistan. They might be able to offer him insights into the real consequences of his decision that he hasn’t thought about, including the fact that the army is likely to become more of a targeted institution rather than the darling of the nation it claims to be.

Pakistan has a great deal to lose. Do we have the gall to reject America’s ‘requests’ for assistance? Maybe not. But have we ever been able to resist the imperatives imposed upon us by the West? No. Do we have to establish some sovereign identity before we are able to really focus on nation-building? Yes. Even if this means refusing to offer America explicit support for its planned massacre in Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment would do well to think over the pros and cons and finally take a decision in the larger public interest. The general population is already suffering from rising prices, unemployment and other increasing difficulties. The least the Government should do is to ask them whether they want to add American occupation to the list.

*Aasim Sajjad Akhtar* and *Ali Qadir* are social activists and writers based in Islamabad.

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