Pakistan on the edge of hope

Ziauddin Sardar looks behind - and beyond - the turmoil.

In the balance: a stunt rider at a Pakistani travelling circus mesmerizes the crowd. The country's future, too, is finely poised.

Ed Kashi/Corbis

Visitors to Kohsar Market are greeted by a gushing fountain. Next to it, chirpy parrots, encased in a large wire cage, put on a colourful display. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from a small, charming mosque. The market is a favourite haunt for Islamabad’s wealthy residents and Western expatriates. This is where the élite gather to sip their cappuccinos, get their hair cut at Al-Saleem Hair Experience Saloon and buy their copies of the Wall Street Journal.

On 3 January this year, Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab province, had lunch at Table Talk, a small but elegant restaurant in the market. He came out of the restaurant, bought a copy of Time magazine from the adjacent London Bookshop and starting walking towards his car. What happened next threw Pakistan into turmoil and brought all its simmering social, religious and political divisions to the fore.

Talal Tabbasum, a radio taxi driver, was waiting for passengers in front of the restaurant and saw what happened. ‘One of his guards jumped out of his car, pointed his Kalashnikov at the Governor, and casually started firing at him. He continued firing for several seconds,’ he says. When it was clear that the Governor was dead, ‘he threw his Kalashnikov on the ground, and put his hands up in the air’. A police car was on patrol near the market. It arrived within minutes and arrested the killer. As he was being handcuffed, he said: ‘I wanted to kill him; I killed the blasphemer.’

Taseer was an outspoken liberal, secular politician. He championed the cause of persecuted minorities in Pakistan and constantly tweeted his dislike of extremist religious groups. Two months before his assassination, he publicly supported Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

But it was not just the assassination of Taseer that shocked liberal Pakistan. Much more troublesome was the lionization of his unrepentant killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri. A 26 year old with a curly beard, Qadri was showered with petals and projected as a hero. A group of lawyers, who only a few months previously had participated in agitation against the former military dictator Parvez Musharraf, demonstrated in support of Qadri and announced their intention to defend him. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), of which the murdered Taseer was a prominent member, turned a blind eye to the whole affair.

Angry PPP supporters took to the streets weeping and chanting slogans against the blasphemy laws. But they were vastly outnumbered by those demonstrating in support of Qadri and the draconian blasphemy laws. In Karachi, a rally of over 50,000 people, led by the religious parties, hailed Qadri as a hero and called for anyone who opposed the blasphemy laws to be killed. Imams even refused to offer funeral prayers for Taseer.

This was the last straw. The country, already plagued with widespread terrorism and suicide bombing and a rapidly disintegrating economy, fell into deep despair. The optimism felt after the overthrow of the military dictator Parvez Musharraf by civil society and the restoration of democracy in August 2008 evaporated overnight.

But even before the Taseer affair, there were wide-ranging concerns with the new government. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government became mired in corruption scandals almost as soon as it took office. ‘We could have put up with Mr 10 Percent’, says Raiz Khokar, a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Washington. ‘But he has actually turned out to be Mr 40 Percent’. The new government also proved to be incompetent and impotent. The economy nosedived and prices of basic commodities escalated. Power cuts, known locally as ‘load shedding’, became increasingly frequent in most major cities. ‘Life for our people, urban and rural, has become intolerable,’ says Riffat Masood, Punjab Women’s Secretary, of Pakistan’s leftwing Labour Party. ‘The vast majority of the poor in Pakistan have a hand-to-mouth existence,’ she says. ‘The market price of what they need to survive, from food stuff to gas, is way beyond their means.’

Feudal chain

Big bully: a police officer kicks a boy to force him back in line at a food distribution point for people feeling a military offensive in South Waziristan.

Who is to blame for Pakistan’s dire state?

There is a ‘chain of deep state’ that controls Pakistan and is responsible for most of the country’s problems, says Ayesha Siddiqa, a highly respected security analyst based in Islamabad. ‘There is an alliance between the military, the politicians, and the feudal landlords, as well as the judiciary. Most of our politicians are feudalists who want to keep the landless peasants uneducated and dependent.’ Political parties are structured on feudal patterns and led by feudal leaders who run them as their private properties, passing on their inheritance to their children.

President Zardari has already declared that his eldest son, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, will succeed him as the Chairman of the People’s Party. The army itself has evolved a feudalist structure. The judiciary also comes from the same feudal class. So the four main powers of the ‘deep state’ work together to pillage the country and keep the citizens in their place.

The most ubiquitous institution in the country is the military. It has been at the centre of decision-making almost from the inception of Pakistan. And its presence can be felt everywhere and throughout all levels of society – from the fortified streets of the country’s main cities to its ‘defence colonies’, in the universities and the national cricket team. Every major national institution has one or two retired or serving members of the army on its governing body.

The army came to dominate politics through a series of wars with India: in 1947-48, 1965, 1971, and the more recent armed conflict in Kargil in 1999. These wars systematically strengthened the military’s grip on foreign policy, especially policy towards India.

When Pakistan became involved with jihad against the Soviet Union, the military insisted on shaping policy towards Afghanistan and the US. After Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons – it now has an estimated 110 nuclear missiles – the military’s prestige increased manifold, enabling it to have almost total control of foreign and domestic policy. For the past 30 years, Pakistan has been run, in effect, by the army, irrespective of whether it had a military or a civilian government. The army takes a prime slice of the national budget. And no-one, including the Parliament, is allowed to question or discuss the military budget. In 2010, Pakistan received $2.5 billion in military assistance, including $1.2 billion in NATO coalition support for fighting terrorism. Most of this aid went straight to the army – with no benefit to the people.

But Pakistan’s army is also a business corporation. ‘Our army officers are a bunch of estate agents,’ says Siddiqa. ‘They acquire land very cheaply, develop them into élite colonies, and sell them at vast profits.’ The army owns banks, manufactures cement, makes soap and cornflakes: ‘There is hardly anything in the country they don’t produce, construct, assemble or sell.’ Thus the army has as much control over the economy as politics.

Judges, too

The judiciary also seems to be siding with the ‘deep state’. Judges have systematically looked for loopholes to let off suspect extremists, militants and terrorists, and delayed judicial proceedings against the army. However, no leniency is shown in cases of blasphemy. Suspects get death sentences even when the evidence against them is threadbare and inconclusive.

‘Everyone in power wants to retain the status quo,’ says Professor Saeed Shafqat, Director of the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College (FCC) in Lahore. Neither the politicians, nor the army, nor the judiciary, nor the feudal landlords are interested in promoting education, social wellbeing, or economic progress. ‘The main concern of all parties is to hang on to their own segment of power by any means necessary,’ he says.

As a result, Pakistan is mired in total paralysis. The only people capable of doing anything seem to be religious fanatics and terrorists. Indeed, religion in Pakistan has gone toxic. ‘Intolerance and bigotry are the only currency gaining ground,’ says Masood.

But Islam in Pakistan, like elsewhere, is not a monolithic religious force or a unified political entity. There are numerous sects each competing for adherents, attention and power. In general, religion serves three broad purposes. Islam links Pakistan to the global Muslim community and serves as a badge of religious and national identity. It defines Muslim Pakistan against its perceived perpetual enemy, Hindu India. It is also a source of legitimacy and authority for local leaders.

According to Dr Mumtaz Ahmad, Executive Director of the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue in Islamabad: ‘For the vast majority of the poor, Islam serves as a balm against the harsh realities of grinding poverty and deprivation.’

Historically, different Muslim sects – Sunnis of hard-line literalist Deobandi schools; Sunnis of Bravelis schools, who believe in saints and miracles; Shi’as, liberal and progressive Muslims, Sufis and mystics of various tendencies – have lived peacefully in Pakistan.

But all that changed in the 1980s under the military regime of President Zia ul-Haq. ‘The General considered the Shi’a to be inimical to his programme of Islamization of Pakistan,’ says Siddiqa. Urged by Saudi Arabia, his mentors and financiers, who saw Pakistani Shi’a as supporters of their arch-enemy Iran, the General promoted a string of rabid anti-Shi’a organizations. The task of creating and promoting these organizations was handed over to the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s secret service.

Enter the ISI

Time for change: activists demand that the 'feudal chain' linking the military with politicians be broken.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, the ISI established four militant outfits – Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SAP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Josh-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Apart from engaging in mass killings of the Shi’a, these groups were initially involved in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir. But after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, they joined al-Qaeda and the Taliban to fight against the US. Now they have turned on Pakistan itself.

The spread of religious fanaticism in Pakistan has been ‘an incremental development’, says Mumtaz Ahmad. ‘We saw it coming. Rhetorical violence slowly turned into actual violence. And all this time our society remained complacent.’

The four main groups have spawned a host of other violent organizations, now running to over 80 militant outfits, almost all based in South Punjab. They are well funded and have active training camps. Their Jihadist members terrorize citizens and frequently come into conflict with local authorities. Apart from ranting against the Shi’a and other minorities, these groups constantly raise the bogey of ‘the Indian threat’.

These ‘Punjabi Taliban’, says Siddiqa, ‘are the foot soldiers of al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban who are largely located in the northern provinces.’ They implement the terror plans of al-Qaeda and aim to turn Punjab into a stronghold of the Taliban. ‘The policymakers are in a state of denial regarding the threat of these sectarian groups,’ says Siddiqa. ‘They believe that an emphasis on this region might draw excessive US attention to South Punjab – an area epitomizing mainstream Pakistan.’

Given the complacency of the ruling establishment, it is hardly surprising that most Pakistanis feel that real change is not possible. ‘The people feel that there is no point in agitating for change,’ says Masood. ‘If we bring down the government and there is another election, the same people will return to power.’ This is the main source of despair in Pakistan. ‘It’s like you are stuck in a nightmarish narrative with no escape doors,’ says Gulzar Haider, Dean of Architecture at Beacon House University in Lahore.

The army in disgrace

But there is hope, coming from various quarters. The first and the major source of hope is the rapid decline in the reputation of the army.

Conventionally, the military was seen as the most stable and prestigious institution in Pakistan. Now fractures and divisions are evident. ‘Various groups within the army are competing for overall control,’ says Siddiqa, who has been doing research on Pakistan’s military establishment for over 20 years. ‘There are five ideological groups: US-leaning liberals, US-leaning conservatives, anti-US liberals, liberal Islamists and fundamental Islamists. The common thread between these groups is the fear of India, which they constantly invoke to justify their excesses. But at the same time, each of these groups is trying to undermine the others.’

The effort to ‘undermine’ sometimes leads to open subversion. In the 22 May terrorist attack on the Navy’s Mehran base in Karachi, for example, the involvement of the ‘Islamist’ elements within the army has been confirmed. Four terrorists were involved in one of the biggest attacks on the military in recent times. Two fully armed terrorists, with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, walked in unopposed through the front gates. The other two, with ladders in their hands and sack-loads of weapons, walked through several security cordons and climbed into the base from the back. They knew where their targets were located: they attacked the Orion aircrafts parked on the tarmac, destroying two, as well as several premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircrafts. In the ensuing 16-hour battle between the terrorists and the Rapid Response Force, 18 military personnel were killed and 16 wounded before two terrorists were shot and one blew himself up. The fourth terrorist escaped. The government has accepted that none of this would have been possible without inside help and has set up an inquiry.

The Mehran base was the latest in a long line of attacks by the militant Pakistani Taliban on the country’s armed forces. There have been attacks on the Naval War College in Lahore, the military’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi, several attacks on buses carrying cadets and military personnel, and frequent attacks on security forces’ check posts and training centres. On each occasion, the Pakistani Taliban has been quick to claim responsibility. But no-one has ever been arrested for these atrocities.

These attacks are part of a general pattern, not just of infiltration and radicalization of the security forces, but also of an open and escalating war between the military and the militants. The wrath of the militants is directed against the army for specific reasons. The militants, who looked to the military as their mentors, feel betrayed. They see the army as ‘an agent of America’, not just doing its bidding but promoting the Americanization of Pakistan. The American drone attacks in the region, which are supported by the Pakistani government despite public denials, have killed thousands of innocent villagers. Moreover, when the army began its campaign in Waziristan and Northwest Frontier, the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, it adopted a policy of collective punishment. A string of videos showing the army abusing and mistreating villagers, including elders and children, and summarily executing suspects, were broadcast on Pakistani satellite channels. The aggrieved villagers provide an excellent ground for new Taliban recruits, including suicide bombers.

Osama’s coup de grâce

It was the assassination of Osama bin Laden that really knocked the military from its pedestal. On 2 May, four US helicopters, carrying 79 commandos and a dog, flew from Jalalabad airbase in Afghanistan to Abbottabad, about 30 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The helicopters flew low and used advanced stealth technology to avoid detection. After killing bin Laden, the Navy Seals took his body with them.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the public started to question openly the motives and the competence of the army. Was the army hiding and hosting bin Laden next to one of its major military bases? How was it possible for the US helicopters to remain undetected in Pakistani air space for over five hours? And if Americans could violate Pakistani air space so easily, what was there to stop India? And if the army cannot defend the physical sovereignty of Pakistan, why is it needed at all? And, most important, why does it need to take the lion’s share of the country’s budget?

These questions were discussed and debated over and over again on Pakistan’s satellite channels. In an unprecedented move, the head of Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, offered to resign. The generals were forced to appear before the National Assembly and were subjected to humiliating questioning by the politicians. The notion that the military was above critical scrutiny evaporated. It was exposed as incompetent and greedy, its credibility beyond repair.

‘Our army has become a laughing stock,’ one senior diplomat in Islamabad told me. ‘A handful of terrorists in the northern, remote part of the country have inflicted heavy losses on them. They have lost over 3,000 men to the Taliban. They are impotent in the face of suicide attacks. They cannot defend their own bases, facilities, or GCHQ. They are unable to secure our airspace. They are good for nothing. How can they justify their unquestionable budget, their land grabbing, their honour and prestige in our society?’

They can’t. All segments of society – the politicians, the civil servants, the intellectuals, the judiciary and the vast majority of the people – are now insisting that the army should stay out of politics and business. ‘With the military humiliated and in retreat from the public space, it is the best time to ensure that it returns permanently to its barracks,’ says Siddiqa.

Media role

Pakistan’s robust and active media played a major role in the downfall of the military. It’s getting harder to keep things hidden from the public, thanks to around 80 satellite channels – half of which transmit 24-hour news – and an energetic press.

Over the past decade, the media has systematically exposed the atrocities and excesses of the army and the corruption of the ruling élite. During the 2010 floods, when the military and government collaborated to direct the waters away from lands of feudal landlords and towards poor villages which were allowed to submerge, the whole outrage was broadcast live on numerous satellite channels. The government was forced to change its tactics.

Not surprisingly, many journalists have been abducted, tortured or killed – mostly by the ISI. In May, Saleem Shahzed, who was investigating the link between al-Qaeda and the army in the Mehran attack, was brutally murdered, allegedly by the ISI.

Despite such atrocities, Pakistani journalists are not deterred. Many are women. When I visited the headquarters of Dunya News, a 24-hour news channel, I noticed that half the journalists were female. Although the Taliban and Jihadi culture has made it difficult for women to participate at all levels of society, director of current affairs Nasim Zehra Akhlaque has many more women than men applying to work for Dunya News.

When I walked through the campus of Punjab University in Lahore and the Indus School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, I saw more female than male students. The young women students I spoke to were passionate about education, highly independent and ferociously determined to change Pakistan.

Pakistani Spring?

There is also a generation of younger academics and writers who think differently from the generation in power. ‘They shun the military network and refuse to take grants or jobs that are tied to the military,’ says Siddiqa. Art and literature are flowering; and, despite religious restrictions, music is thriving. There is even a theatre in Islamabad, one of the most conservative cities of the country. Young writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Bilal Tanweer, and artists like Samar Ataullah, Shazia Skinder and Sufian Ali, have acquired a global prominence. The younger generation ‘does not regard India as an enemy, or accept that the West is out to get them, or regard Pakistan as a “failed state” about to implode,’ according to Akhlaque.

Indeed, despite all its problems Pakistan is not about to collapse. But what is surely crumbling is the dominance and prestige of the military. This, more than anything else, will usher in genuine change.

What needs to be done, say a string of commentators, academics and intellectuals, is for the military to leave politics to politicians. The military’s expenditure should be more transparent and open to public debate, the army itself should be more professional and democratic in its military academies, and the rule of law needs to become paramount. In the tribal areas of northwest regions, says Shafqat, ‘the authority of the government and Supreme Court must be established with some urgency’; and the outdated tribal laws must be replaced with legal codes and civil and criminal courts. Violent sectarian organizations have to be properly curtailed and disbanded; and the Pakistani Taliban brought to the negotiating table.

Perhaps all this is too much to ask. But, as a rather subversive ‘public service’ announcement on Geo News suggests, it is not impossible. Over pictures of Facebook and Twitter, and with a clear nod towards the ‘Arab Spring’, the voiceover declares: ‘The people’s awakening will put an end to hopelessness.’ Change – real change – is ‘Coming Soon’.

The determination and resilience of the people of Pakistan may yet surprise us all.