by Dr. S. Akhtar Ehtisham
From drone attacks to constant admonishing by the Obama administration, to a weak economy, an insurgency and target-killing of the non-Baloch in Balochistan, and a weekly dose of suicide attacks on common people, all support a perception thatPakistanis collapsing. However, this conventional understanding may not be accurate. What these events suggest is that there is a growing crisis and contradiction within and between the institutions of the state inPakistanand these crises and contradictions, evaluated differently, might offer a completely divergent narrative. What may be collapsing is the political settlement that has existed for many decades and this may be a positive development. Democratic forces have an opportunity now to end the military’s domination of Pakistan.
Based on a long list of events and responses around them, one can unambiguously answer this question as a definite “yes”. For instance, to start with, and just in the month of May 2011, we now know that the world’s most wanted notorious man, declared a terrorist by the world, including the Pakistani civilian and military establishment, was found to have been living in close proximity of Pakistan’s elite Military Academy, perhaps since 2005. This has led to a suggestion thatPakistan’s military leadership, or some elements of it, knew this fact and had offered protection to him, and had been complicit in harbouring the world’s most wanted terrorist. If not quite complicit, then the military high command – for it is only the military which matters in this situation and in such relationships since it holds all power and makes all decisions – was incompetent in not knowing that he was living so close to general headquarters (GHQ) and other military stations, and that he was not in Waziristan, or hiding in Afghanistan, or preferably dead and buried somewhere in the mountainous region.
This presence of Osama bin Laden led to an extraordinary event of United States (US) SEAL military officers “invading” Pakistan, violating its air space, carrying out a military operation for 40 minutes, destroying their own helicopter, killing the terrorist and his accomplices, perhaps capturing some individuals, and safely returning to their air bases in Afghanistan. Along with this, the US military also buried the dead bin Laden at sea, and if it was, as one suspects, the Arabian Sea, that would have meant another flight of more than an hour in Pakistan’s air space.
This event led to a severe reprimand and dressing-down ofPakistan’s military, civil and secret services by officials of theUSleading the international condemnation of housing a terrorist, which caused severe embarrassment to the Pakistani military. The number of times the word “duplicitous” was heard from theUS, chargingPakistan’s military of playing a double, or triple game, could not be counted. Having provided $20 billion as aid since 2001, theUSwas asking how its money was being spent and whose sidePakistan’s military really was on. While the military was quiet – it took days for it to publicly respond to all these allegations and charges – the civilian political actors, both in the government and outside, screamed that “the nation’s sovereignty” had been trampled upon, and one heard loud cries of “how dare they” resonating in Parliament, and of course, in Pakistan’s hugely independent media.
This leads to the call for an “enquiry”, a parliamentary resolution condemning the action, and such responses by the government and opposition. It also led to an unprecedented presentation by the senior military leadership, the director general (DG) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in particular, in the presence of the chief of the army staff, to parliament. This might have been the first time that the military leadership inPakistanwas made to explain something of such national importance to elected civilian representatives. Not following the defeat of the 1971 war and the first democratic government inPakistan, or after the 1977 coup or the 1988 plane crash which killed general Zia ul Haq, or after Kargil, or following the ouster of general Musharraf, had the military leadership been asked to explain itself. This time, the DG ISI, a serving general, offered to resign, “if asked”, he added, while making his presentation to parliament.
Mehran and Shahzad events
Soon after these developments relating to Osama bin Laden, a terrorist attack took place at a militarised navy base in Karachi where, according to different reports, four or 10 militants held the airbase and its residents hostage and captive, where a state of siege lasted for around 18 hours or so, after which the base was eventually “liberated”. While there have been a number of attacks on military establishments in Pakistan over the last decade, including one extremely embarrassing one at GHQ in Rawalpindi in October 2009, where numerous military men were held captive, the brazen attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi, so soon following the events outlined above, caused considerable concern amongst naval actors as well as members of political parties and civil society. There were calls for the resignation of the naval chief and acknowledgement of massive military (or state) failure. It was believed that most of the attackers were Pakistanis, the militants may have belonged to any one of the numerous terrorist organisations inPakistan, but perhaps even to the military services themselves. In other words, an “inside job”.Soon after these series of events, a well-respected journalist, Saleem Shahzad who, like a number of Pakistani journalists, had been reporting on terrorism and militants – perhaps the only story in town – was picked up, tortured and then murdered at the end of May. In the past, whenever military or civilian men have been picked up, tortured and killed by groups which can broadly be called “The Taliban/ al-Qaida”, there has been an announcement made that so-and-so was murdered by such-and-such group because he was an “American or CIA agent”, a traitor, or an informant. The groups who do the killing give their reasons. In the past, there have been allegations that even the Military Intelligence (MI) or ISI or some other state institution has threatened and roughed up civil society members and journalists.
Immediately after Saleem Shahzad’s murder, the ISI issued a statement that they did not kill the journalist. This was quite unprecedented, since the ISI seldom make such announcements. It was forced to do so because Saleem Shahzad had actually been picked up by the ISI in October 2010, something that they acknowledged, and he had warned his friends that he was receiving threats for his reporting. His last two stories had argued that the Taliban had infiltrated thePakistannavy and that the navy was trying to cut a deal with some known militants and that the deal had gone wrong, hence the attack on PNS Mehran.
All these events and their consequences took place within a single month. If one were to step back another few months and start from January this year, at least one (and probably many more) significant events and responses to it, which have a bearing on the “Pakistan-is-collapsing” thesis, is worth noting. In January this year, the governor ofPakistan’s largest province, thePunjab, was assassinated in the afternoon by his own bodyguard. His bodyguard confessed to his crime and claimed that he had murdered the governor because he was trying to repeal the blasphemy law. This law, introduced by Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, was meant to deliver the death penalty to anyone – almost always a non-Muslim – who committed blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam, against the Quran or against the religion of Islam, broadly defined. A number of individuals are in jail on account of the blasphemy law awaiting trial or having been sentenced, awaiting execution. Moreover, many of those who have been accused on account of this law have been killed in extrajudicial killings committed by individuals or organisations. With a Christian woman convicted to death on account of the law, many individuals were agitating for amendments and in the way individuals were targeted. There was little mention of a repeal. The governor of thePunjabwas one of those individuals. His assassin said that the governor was, in fact, trying to repeal God’s Law and hence he killed him.
What happened after the assassination concerns us here. Firstly, the self-confessed assassin was heralded as a champion, a ghazi, a fighter for the cause of Islam. He was garlanded by a large number of lawyers when he was presented in court, and there were few lawyers willing to take up the case against him. While the social media such as Facebook and the like are not as prevalent as inEgyptand elsewhere where it has been part of social movements recently, a Facebook account in support of the assassin was set up and apparently had thousands of followers. Moreover, the overly active and zealous electronic media had numerous analysts appearing on live television defending the assassin, or at least not condemning him outright, while a few, very few, liberal participants did. The ratio of those who thought this was a heinous crime to those who defended him or were apologists for his cause would be close to 1:30.
The death of the governor led to a number of other outcomes or responses as well. Firstly, there was complete silence from the main political parties, the Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League. Very few members of either party, including senior government and political officials, dared to attend his funeral. Neither the chief minister of thePunjabnor his brother, Nawaz Sharif, went to pay their condolences to the assassinated governor’s family in a society and culture where such condolence visits are mandatory and cut against all personal or political prejudices and animosity. In death, the governor, who had a very colourful social life and long political life, was ostracised like he had never been when alive, only out of fear that anyone seen sympathetic to him would also be considered a sympathiser of someone who actively wanted to repeal the blasphemy law and was hence, in some way, anti-Islamic.
One can add an even longer list of events and their consequences and outcomes and not dwell on the question any longer and say thatPakistanis on the verge of collapse. From drone attacks to constant admonishing by the Obama administration, to a weak economy, an insurgency and target-killing of the non-Baloch in Balochistan, and a weekly dose of suicide attacks on common people, all support this conclusion. This is now the conventional wisdom from Pakistanis and others, as well.
However, this article argues that this is not the case. Instead, what these and other events suggest is that there is a growing crisis and contradiction within and between the institutions of the State inPakistanand, in fact, these crises and contradictions, evaluated differently, might offer a completely divergent narrative. What may be collapsing is the political settlement that has existed for many decades and, in fact, these can become very positive developments.
A different explanation
If some of the events in the month of May have been quite unprecedented even for Pakistan – Osama bin Laden living in Abbottabad and then being killed by “invading” US forces; the attack on the naval airbase PMS Mehran in Karachi – so has been much of the reaction to these events.
There is no contesting the fact that over the last six decades, the most dominant of all institutions inPakistan, without doubt, has beenPakistan’s army. It has ruled directly for 33 years, and has determined the direction of the State and most of its institutions – including political parties and general elections– for almost as long. It is not just Pakistan’s military which has dominated Pakistan’s political and even economic spaces, using its might to privilege itself in a lopsided field determined through its hegemony, but over the last four decades, many of its clandestine organizations (primarily the ISI, but also MI) have had a particularly strong influence in controlling the activities of political actors, as well as institutions and individuals who belong to civil society.
The military’s overtly acclaimed numerousfoolish adventures include the 1965war, Kargil, coups in 1957, 1977 and 1999,and their resulting consequences of causingthe loss ofEast Pakistanfollowing abrutal genocide by the Pakistani army ofits own civilians. Islamisation resulted inthe worst kind of sectarianism in Pakistanand is the precursor to much of the militancyand fundamentalism in the name ofreligion in Pakistan today, and Pakistan’smilitary general-presidents eagerly embracingfront line status in 1979 and 2001,bringing different wars home to Pakistan.
There are other crimes as well, such as discardingand disregarding the Constitution,imprisonment, victimisation and even thekilling of political and civilian opponents.The covert adventures of Pakistan’s ISI aretoo numerous to enlist and include supposedinvolvement in the Mumbai attacksof 2008 and the Mumbai bomb blasts of1993, the Indian Parliament attack of 2001,supportingjihad in places ranging from the Sudan to Chechnya, Kashmir to Indonesia.
In addition, there is excessive evidencewhich shows how the ISI has helped createterrorist organisations to use in Kashmir,Afghanistan and also at home, in Pakistan.However, this is probably the first timethat Pakistan’s military has been publiclycriticised and attacked for numerousshortcomings which led to some of theevents in May. Neither the “humiliating”loss ofEast Pakistannor the stupidity ofKargil elicited the same public response.
Of course the new non-state electronicmedia has played a major role in this. Sadly,military generals, whether in 1957, 1977 or1999, were welcomed by civilian politiciansto take over government, always supportedby some political group or the other as well as in Musharraf’s case, by civil societyand lifestyle liberals. Since militarygenerals, and the military more generally,have been seen as saviours of the nation,there has been little criticism or oppositionto their taking over power.
Hence, the space which has been created(or won) by some sections of the non-militarysector in finding some voice followingthe events described above is a major departurefrom the past. Perhaps for the firsttime, the hegemony of the military has beenquestioned, even challenged, with demandsthat (military) “heads should roll” on accountof loss ofPakistan’s “sovereignty” andstrategic security failures. If the militarycannot defend Pakistan’s border/sovereignty,or its own military bases, then who will, isthe question being asked, even in Parliament.The front page of Pakistan’s leadingEnglish daily, Dawn, on 8 June 2011, hadthe headline: “PML-N [Nawaz Sharif’sparty]in Savage Attack on Generals”!Accordingto the paper, in the NationalAssembly,“the role of top generals, particularlyvis-a-vis the so-called war onterror,came under scrutiny”. Moreover,the “lifestyle of top generals using expensivelimousines”, each worth “eight crorerupees” and their “inability to fight”, ishow a senior member of Parliament referredto thePakistannaval chief of staffcoming to the PNS Mehran in a BMW soonafter the attack. What is also significanthere is not that the PML-N “savagely” attackedthe military generals in the budgetdebate in the National Assembly, but sucha serious newspaper chose to use suchwords as its main headline on its frontpage. Television talk shows, of course,have had a field day in attacking the military,again for the very first time since themedia emerged in around 2006 or so. Theextensive revelations in Dawn, reproducingmemos from WikiLeaks, have shownhow the military has been complicit in theUS drone attacks, while trying to show anationalistic and patriotic public face.
Things that have changed
Before one makes the point that much haschanged in Pakistan in recent years, perhapssharply so since the middle of the lastdecade (probably 2007), one needs toarticulate, in extremely brief form, a sentimentand perspective of what existed. Pakistan has not been a democracy foralmost all the 64 years that it has existed,with the exception of perhaps the Z A Bhuttoera of 1971-77, although many scholars havecalled that a period of civilian authoritarianismor even dictatorship. There are manyreasons why democracy has not existed inPakistan, and these range from explanationsthat the political leadership which createdPakistan was composed of migrants fromwhat became independentIndiawho hadno political roots inPakistan, to argumentswhich suggest thatPakistanwas an over-developed state, with the bureaucracy andmilitary being the most organised andpowerful institutions dominating thecountry right from 1947 onwards.
In more recent years, the last two decade-longmilitary coups (1977-88, 1999-2008)have been supported by politicians whohave even invited the military to take overin one case, and by civil society actors and“liberals”, in the second case. Both themilitary generals Zia and Musharraf madedeep inroads into the non-military politicaland civic sectors, creating allianceswith different groups of people. Accompliceswere always willing partners to themilitary, and collaborators were alwayswilling to have access to power. It hasbeen the access to the centre of absolutepolitical power, i e, the military, whichhas allowed sections ofPakistan’s civilianand political groups to support militarydictatorships. A key explanation for whymilitary rule has been so prolonged inPakistan is the presence of critical supportfrom differentsections of society, includingjustificationsfor military rule from thejudiciary.
While some actors and groupshave given willing and voluntary supportto military dictators to benefit fromaccess to the seat of power, others havebeen bought over, bribed, cajoled, threatenedand convinced with offers theycould not refuse. The long and lucrativearms of the military have ensured thatopposition to military rule remains muted.
A final and important explanation forwhy military rule persists inPakistanisbecause it has been given active diplomatic,military and financial support bytheUSand its allies, both in 1979 followingthe Soviet invasion of Afghanistanand in 2001 following the American-ledinvasion ofAfghanistan.
Hence, through suppression, victimisation,exile, as well as through accommodatingdifferent groups and actors, allbacked by the powerful support of theUS,Pakistan’s military dictators have ruledwith ease for 20 years since 1971. However,some things began to change in 2007.
Again, just to summarise some of thekey developments since 2007, one can seethe rise of a broad, politically active, civilsociety movement, led by lawyers askingfor the reinstatement of the chief justice ofPakistan (and other judges) who had beensummarily dismissed by Musharraf inMarch 2007. In July 2007, a mosque andmadrasa based in the heart of Islamabadwas attacked and “cleared” of armed militantsby Pakistan’s law-enforcing authoritiesresulting in many deaths estimated atanything between 100 and 1,000. Whilethe judges were reinstated, Musharraf imposedan “emergency”, not quite martiallaw, but suspending all basic and constitutionalrights in November 2007. In 2007,political activity also started and formerlyexiled Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharrifwere both given permission by the militaryto return toPakistanto contest the elections.
Musharraf had cut a deal with BenazirBhutto where he would continue to serve asa civilian president while she would becomehis subservient prime minister, the bestform of collaboration and accommodationpossible, far better than any attemptsmade in the past, ideally suited to both, aswell as to theUSfighting its war on terror.
One of the most important developmentsinPakistanin recent years has been theelectronic media explosion which has takenplace since about 2005 or 2006. When the2002 Musharraf elections were held, therewas only one private TV channel. In 2008,when the next elections were held there mayhave been around 60 or so in regional languages,many of which were 24-hour newsand information channels. The lawyers’movement of 2007 was shown live on everychannel inPakistan, where the 18-36 hourlong-marches of the chief justice werewatched by people of all sorts of ethnic andclass backgrounds right acrossPakistan.
This was the first live television revolutionof its kind inPakistan,which had a hugeand enthusiasticparticipatory audience.The military attack on the Lal Masjid inIslamabad mentioned above was alsoshown live, as was extensive footage onBenazir’s assassination in December 2007.This was a real media revolution whichhas helped provide information and explanationof events that have taken placeinPakistansince 2007.
Following Benazir Bhutto’s assassinationin December 2007, with Musharrafbasically having lost any hope of stayingon and with the military also tired andless popular after eight years of rule, electionsin 2008 brought about a victory forthe incumbent Pakistan People’s Partywith Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime ministerand Asif Ali Zardari eventually replacingMusharraf as president of Pakistan. Oneneeds to emphasise that the 2008 electionswere the fairest and freest sincethose held in 1970. There have been sevenelections held between 1970 and 2008,but all have been manipulated, rigged andpredetermined, usually by the military.
Pakistanhad moved from electoral politicsin the 1990s to a praetorian democracy in2002, to an evolving and emerging democracyafter 2008. Despite instability andrumours galore about the collapsing presidencyor the fall of the government, atransition to a democratic order seems tohave been made.
And those that haven’t…
It has been the military’s material mightwhich has led to its domination over theState which has given rise to the militaryreinventing itself as the sole guardian ofPakistan’s many boundaries, frontiers andterrains. It has assumed the right to speakfor the nation and its constituents and toeven represent the nation. The justificationfor the national security state was createdbyPakistan’s military and the numerouscivilians in positions of influence and powerwho have provided support to the militaryin one way or another. Whether usingthe threat from India, or more recently asthe defenders of Pakistan in the waragainst terrorism and against militancy,the military in Pakistan has used its powerand position to create the narrative of thenational security state, a state where themilitary defends the people, the frontiersand the interests of all Pakistan.
Most recently, the military’s bluff has beencalled and it is clear that it has been unableto determine whose interests it serves,what those interests are, and, hence, itsinability to defend those interests. Moreover,this lack of clarity and ambiguityabout what exactlyPakistan’s interestought to be has cost the military dear interms of its reputation and image. It has,in fact, seen another layer being removedfrom the facade of what was justified asPakistan’s national security state. The falsityof the notion of the national securitystate has once again been laid bare.
Pakistan’s state, in fact, is a nationalinsecuritystate and has been one for someyears now. The military’s inability to protectanyone’s interests other than its ownnarrow ones, in terms of economic andmaterial privileges, underscores this impression.
However, an important pointwhich needs to be highlighted is that themilitary’s invention of itself as the savior ofPakistanand as the defenders of theland and the faith is completely justifiablewhen one examines the interplay andpositioningof different social forces.
Probably for the very first time, the militaryis being seen as the cause and creatorofPakistan’s numerous problems and certainlynot as the nation’s saviour. This,despitethe fact that western scholars andhacks continue to write in their columnsand books that Pakistan’s army/military“is its only hope”, and that it is “an efficientand well-disciplined, united” institution.And the US administration continuesto sidestep the freely and genuinely electeddemocratic civilian government in Pakistan(only the second one despite eight generalelections) and talk to and cut deals withthe military directly, strengthening the latterat the cost of democracy. The criticismand attacks on the military in the publicmedia have been strong and has certainlydamaged the reputation of the military,challenging its hegemonyover the state.
Why would the military not defend theinterests of its large constituency and whyshould it not claim to speak as the nationitself? Institutions which are allowed todominate will enforce that domination, andthis should not come as a surprise. However,the problem in this relationship of powerbetween the military and civilian and (foronce) democratically elected institutions isnot so much the strength of the military, butmore importantly the cowardly, ditheringand weak civilian elites and the compromises they make with militarypower. The DG ISIwho, as mentioned earlier, spoke in front ofthe National Assembly after the Abbottabadraid volunteered to resign “if asked”. Hewas never asked.
What might be collapsing inPakistanisthe dominance and hegemony of the military,but for a New Pakistan to emerge,politicians will have to press for morespace and enforce public sentiment. It isnot often that one gets this chance to actuallyoverthrowPakistan’s military.
 This section, and some of the ideas in this paper draw on a previous article written in this journal, “State, Military and Social Transition: The Improbable Future of Democracy inPakistan”, Vol 40, No 49, 2005. In that article I had argued for the improbability of democracy taking root inPakistanfor a numerous set of reasons. However, events since 2007 have proven me wrong. One certainly gets a sense of a growing embeddedness of democratization inPakistanand that there are an increasing number of groups and interests in protecting and promoting forms of democracy. What we do not know, however, is whether this a permanent change or a brief moment of contradiction to the norm.
 These themes have been discussed in greater detail in Akbar Zaidi (2011) Military, Civil Society and Democratisation inPakistan(Vanguard,Lahore).
 Many of the subsequent suicide attacks inPakistanare said to have been in response to this Action by the State.
 This is not to state that the media is necessarily a positive motor of change, bringing in democracy and liberty, for the media inPakistanhas played a dangerously reactionary role as well. Some have argued that the media trapped the assassinated governor of the Punjab into saying things that he did not mean, which resulted in his being killed.
 One must add thatPakistan’s democracy is a newly emerging democracy and comparisons withIndia, or evenBangladesh, are misleading. It is still in the stages of developing and only more years of civilian assertion will ensure thatPakistanactually becomes a democracy.
S Akbar Zaidi is a social scientist who lives and works in Karachi.
Dr. S. Akhtar Ehtisham
P.O. Box 469,
Bath NY 14810
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