The swing state of Pak

The wave of concern over the deteriorating situation in Pakistan nudges me into invoking an impish letter to the Spectator magazine published last month. In his brief communication, one Andrew Macdonald from London observed that the unrest in Egypt reminded him of what a “splendidly right-of-centre academic” at Reading University once told him: “You know, Mr Macdonald, there is no advertisement for colonial government like post-colonial government”.

At the grave risk of appearing to be either supercilious or triumphant, it is now becoming increasingly apparent to most of the democratic world that there is no better advertisement for India than the grim reality of contemporary Pakistan. Not that such a hyphenation is any longer warranted. Ever since India moved out of the Third World and into the G20 sphere, the earlier twinning of the country with Pakistan is appearing increasingly misplaced. India still has enormous problems of governance and the ethical standards of some of its public figures are deplorable. However, they pale into relative insignificance compared to the magnitude of the problems confronting neighbouring Pakistan.
Pakistan’s slide into infamy has been precipitate. All the billions of dollars in military and civilian aid poured into that country by a nervous United States have not been able to prevent the drift to a state of lawlessness. The country that once saw itself as another Turkey in the strategic crossroads of Asia is now in real danger of resembling Afghanistan, albeit a cricket playing one. In theory, the world can afford to let Afghanistan retreat into self-fulfilling medievalism as long as it desists from exporting its stark vision of the good life — the situation that prevailed between the retreat of the Soviet Union and the takeover of the Taliban by Al Qaeda. A policy of benign neglect of Pakistan, on the other hand, while immensely appealing as an expression of disgust, is, however, impossible on two counts: its geo-strategic importance and, more worryingly, its ever-growing nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan is different from other “failed states” for many reasons. First, while beleaguered and replete with cracks, the state in Pakistan is still loosely intact — a legacy of colonial rule rather than post-colonial nation-building. It is still not beyond salvage.
Secondly, the military in Pakistan remains institutionally intact. Over the years, the generals, whether exercising power directly or assuming the role of puppeteer, have deftly used every crisis to their ultimate advantage. So much so that it is impossible to contemplate Pakistan’s future that assigns a marginal role for the military.
Finally, civil society in Pakistan has become deeply fractured and pulling in different directions. There exists a vibrant middle class with cosmopolitan aspirations but its ability to be a catalyst for modernity has been severely undermined by countervailing pulls from the forces of Islamism and tribalism. As of now, a civil society-led transformation of Pakistan as a force for the good seems a remote possibility.
In the wake of the heightened tensions over the Blasphemy Law, Pakistan has become a dangerous place. With suicide bombers striking targets at will and the liberal minusculity intimidated into silence after the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, there is growing international fear that Pakistan’s transition from being an Islamic state to becoming an Islamist state has taken a giant leap forward. The enormous optimism generated by the pro-democracy movement that forced the ouster of General Pervez Musharraf has largely dissipated and been replaced by a climate of disgust and wariness: disgust with the self-serving venality of the civilian government and wariness of the rising tide of Islamist intolerance. The deification of the murderer of Taseer, the unending demands for greater Islamisation and the persecution of Christian and Hindu minorities would indicate that the soft Islamic revolution begun by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1940 is nearing its Jacobian climax.
On paper, Pakistan remains firmly in the US orbit of influence. However, as the Raymond Davis case indicates, the wave of anti-Americanism has reached such colossal heights that Washington’s attempts to “manage” the embarrassment have failed. Neither the fragile civilian government nor the calculating military have the ability to swim against the tide of public opinion and oblige Uncle Sam. The Army has leveraged the arrest to put a moratorium on drone attacks in the troubled border regions and shown the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) its place, but it has also shied away from abjuring the principle of national sovereignty. Indeed, General Kayani is only too aware that the Islamist epidemic has infected a substantial chunk of the professional Army.
For the international community and neighbouring countries, Pakistan has moved from being an irritation to becoming a menace. Apart from China, which still sees Islamabad as a valuable entry point into a troubled region, there is global concern that Pakistan will become the centre of a jihadi Comintern, with a Talibanised Afghanistan giving the terror industry additional strategic depth. Recent events in the Arab world have only added to the concern. If the stars of the pro-West autocrats are on the wane, it does not imply that the alternative will be liberal democracy. The danger of an initial enthusiasm for liberal democracy being replaced by the forces of popular Islamism, as happened in Iran, is real. In which case, the importance of Pakistan as a staging post for Sunni Muslim ferment is bound to rise.
The history of 19th and 20th century jihadi movements points to the importance of both the Indian subcontinent and Egypt as ideological nurseries. Earlier, Islamism was twinned with anti-colonial movements. Today, it has been injected into anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments on the ground. The Islamist fervour is also being fuelled by the perception that the West is economically too hobbled to defend its strategic interests across the Muslim world in any meaningful way. Amid this flux, Pakistan is emerging as the proverbial “swing state”: it could go either way.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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