The Tragedy of Pakistan

The Taliban want to end democracy in Pakistan. The state won't be able to stop them.

Five tumultuous years of governance by the Pakistan People’s Party have paid off with the start of a historic election season in Pakistan. These elections, scheduled to take place in less than a week, will mark the first democratic handover of power from one elected government to another in sixty-six years of independence.

But what was supposed to be a rare feel-good moment for a beleaguered nation has in recent weeks acquired an additional perverse significance: with 100 people already killed, the 2013 elections will go down as the bloodiest in Pakistani history. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, has for the last decade agitated against the previous two governments of Pakistan for their role, however tepid, in attacking militant havens in the country. The wrath of the TTP, previously reserved for government installations and security forces, has now descended upon the general public — the political candidates and voters participating in the 2013 elections, especially those belonging to the three main secular parties of Pakistan.

This particular crescendo of pre-election bloodshed is different from the usual sort of cannibalistic violence that commonly rages in the country, the kind which occurs when one segment of society feels justified in deeming another segment ‘wajib-ul-qatl’ — worthy of death — for believing in the wrong prophet or praying the wrong way. This election season has changed everything; even the right kind of Muslim is no longer safe from being targeted. Nor has the integrity of this pro-West citadel in Asia ever been so precarious or under assault. According to Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP is embarking on a concerted campaign to “end the democratic system” in Pakistan and bring errant political parties in line with Taliban demands, especially regarding Pakistan’s stand with the West in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The secular parties of Pakistan, which at the start of elections were castigated as representing the status quo of corrupt, inefficient politics, have now recast themselves as heroic, pro-democracy forces, particularly the Awami National Party which is the last line of Pashtun resistance to Taliban control in the northwest. The parties and their supporters are hastening to give meaning to the senseless deaths, particularly of the numerous children that have died despite having nothing to do with the electoral process.

At times like these, when martyrs for democracy are being readily supplied in the fight against the Taliban, it is critical to examine the rhetoric around the survival of democracy in Pakistan which anti-Taliban forces have rallied around. Simply by virtue of taking place these elections will not signify the growth of true democracy to Pakistan or the end of the Taliban threat.

Beyond simply outlasting a bloody election showdown against the TTP, the future leaders of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan will have to drastically reform an extractive and unaccountable state apparatus in order for the democratic project to have a chance of succeeding against the violent and ideological onslaught of anti-government militants.

With 180 million people, 100 nuclear warheads and nearly 50 banned terrorist outfits, Pakistan has always been too strategic for the politics of the country to be swayed by what its people want. As the unwanted stepchild of the anti-colonial South Asian independence struggle, Pakistan came out of the partition of the subcontinent with an ignominious legacy as Britain’s military buffer zone against threats from the west. Though the British kept all of India under a firm paternalistic rule, the provinces that make up present-day Pakistan were deliberately denied political development because of their utility as a recruiting ground for soldiers and landowning elite collaborators. Though constitutional reforms came towards the tail end of British rule to give greater political representation to locals, they were little more than a cosmetic attempt to put an Indian face onto autocratic rule.

To this day, the country functions according to the structure developed over two centuries under the British Raj; the Civil Services of Pakistan, the backbone of government, traces its lineage to the colonial era Indian Civil Services — the elite English bastion of political power in India. The acknowledged expertise of bureaucrats, combined with their high-class social background, has vested them with veto power over the demands of ‘inept’ politicians in the formation of state policy. This has resulted in a modern Pakistani state that is not run by politicians but rather said to run in spite of them.

The travails of a historically autocratic state have been intensified by the curse of geography. If it were located anywhere else, Pakistan would be dismissed as irrelevant — and might then enjoy greater control over its domestic policy. Instead, it is surrounded by Afghanistan, a hotbed of dysfunction where the War on Terror was inaugurated, Iran, a declared rogue state attempting to develop nuclear capabilities, and China and India, the two major emergent threats to American economic might. Before 1989, Pakistan was also neighbor to the Soviet Union. With such borders, Pakistan has traditionally served as a critical outpost of support to Western interests in a hostile region.

In light of this, it is understandable why the governors of Pakistan, civilian and military, failed to establish accountable and responsive institutions of political economy. It also explains why the country is held hostage to the neoliberal economic program and security paradigm. Since 1948 when the Pakistani army leveraged the country’s location vis a vis Soviet Russia for a lucrative position as a US proxy in South Asia, global stakeholders have jumped at the chance to pay for the privilege of maintaining some form of control over Pakistan’s goings on. Presiding over a resource rich but economically weak nation, the country’s leaders have been unable to fight the impulse to accept. This has encouraged outward-looking politicians to mortgage Pakistan’s foreign policy and loot as much as they can from state coffers before they are inevitably and unceremoniously thrown out of power. The free flow of money has disincentivized military governments — for military governments are the disproportionate beneficiaries of Western aid — from doing the hard work of creating a sustainable tax infrastructure in the country, one that would push the people of Pakistan to invest in their own country, or financial regulatory bodies which would require the government to show returns on that investment.

The most fundamental obstacle, however, to the implementation of democratic governance in Pakistan has been ideological. As control over people has become territorialized by the borders of an ever-shrinking state, ideologies particularly pan-Islamist ones have found themselves competing for limited territory and votes — and therefore power. In such an environment, the atmosphere of tolerance has been shattered by the arrival of an exclusivist religious ideology from the Persian Gulf. Seeking regional proxies in South Asia to counter Shiite Iran, the Gulf States and particularly Saudi Arabia have invested a large amount of capital in the Pakistani state while promoting the development of a strict and doctrinaire Wahhabi Islam. It has penetrated the country via new Saudi-funded madrassas, or religious schools, that are blossoming across the country, some of which have subsequently been implicated in training terrorists. These institutions have made a home in the absence of a state that long ago abdicated responsibility for responding to demands for public education and welfare.

While military governments have often been responsible for subjugating the country to foreign national interests, it has been democratic governments that have presided over a steady loss of social and moral sovereignty in Pakistan. The popularly elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto first capitulated in 1973 to the demands of fundamentalist right wing parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami to establish state-sponsored sanction for certain types of Islam and to declare all those who didn’t fit their categories to be separate and unequal. This was done as recompense for the crucial role played by the leaders of these parties, particularly Maulana Maududi, in securing Arab patronage for a state suffering from the withdrawal of US aid after the end of military rule in 1968.

The commitment to maintaining the religious supremacy of Al Saud in the Muslim world has exacted an unimaginable cost from Pakistanis in lives and sovereignty. A Pandora’s box was opened when the government first encouraged society to deprive certain segments of the population from the rights of citizenship. Now, other self-appointed arbiters of true Islam like the TTP are using this very same rhetoric of an exclusivist Islam against the state which nurtured it.

It has become fashionable to create a simplistic demarcation between civilian and military governments as democratic and undemocratic in writings about Pakistan. Frankly, this distinction simply doesn’t hold — the actualization of state responsibility and public accountability must be sought behind the veneer of military uniforms and election ballots. A week before Pakistanis go to the polls, violent ruptures are appearing in the faulty edifice of a post-colonial state that was never developed with the voting public’s needs in mind.

The autonomy and integrity of the nation has long been the plaything of others. Now the Taliban are providing the single greatest impetus in recent times for national soul-searching. Martyrdom for the sake of democracy in Pakistan will only be meaningful if state and society succeed in formulating a functional and responsive government. Otherwise, the ideological vacuum and lack of public support of the present Islamic republic will provide an easy path for a calculating and determined militant opposition to enforce its repulsive dogmas on the country.