Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is a Pakistani Turnaround Possible?

Because it is Pakistan, my first thought about the school attack was cui bono? Did the Pakistani military engineer this to gain world sympathy, particularly as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and hence no longer needs Pakistan (and can thus deepen the growing alliance with India.)

Pakistan is a lush garden for conspiratorial thinking and it begins to rub off on those who study the place. More than a few Pakistani commentators have insisted RAW (India's intelligence agency) or some other outside power must be behind this. The reasoning being that Muslims cannot kill Muslims (spurious since across the world we see exactly that happening constantly.)

But, as the Egyptian polymath Tarek Heggy observes, in a statement all too appropriate to Pakistan:
The undemocratic rule contributes with his ideas, statements, and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his won shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements rather than on the real reason… conspiracy theory renders them [the people] defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against...
Conspiracy is unlikely. The attack was on an army school, indicating the army itself is vulnerable. That would be a bridge too far for the brass of Rawalpindi.

That the Pakistani Taliban would carry out such an attack indicates that the military's offensive may be working - although these things are hard to know with any certainty. It is probably true that the Pakistani Army is causing mass casualties where it is fighting in the FATA, shelling, bombing and yes killing large numbers of civilians. That of course does not justify terrorism.

This has echoes of the Beslan attack in Russia. I for one have little sympathy for The Russian government across the board (I am grateful every day that my great grandparents had the sense to get the hell out of that place and come to the United States of America!!!) and they did terrible things in Chechnya. But Russian parents are like parents everywhere and one hates to see them lose their children. So I have great, great sympathy for the parents who lost children - AND the people of Pakistan in general.

Is this the event that will galvanize Pakistan to root out the deep deep cancer of terrorism?

It’s awfully pretty to think so. But there have been plenty of other mass attacks in the past decade, if they did not inspire the country to get its act together, it is difficult to see what would. (I’m not alone in my pessimism.)

In fairness to the Pakistani military, the mountains of FATA have been harboring outlaws since the dawn of civilization. But that is where sympathy for Pakistan’s rulers ends. They have continually fostered Islamist terrorists as proxies in their endless war with India and their desire to undermine any kind of effective government in Afghanistan.

Further, Pakistan has continually chosen to devote its national wealth to the military in order to challenge India. The military dominates Pakistan’s politics, allowing them to grow wealthy on the eternal war with India, although in fairness Pakistan's civilian elites aren't much better. This has systematically robbed the other critical needs of the nation. While news reports often focus on madrassas educating radical cadres, Pakistan’s public education system is no better. It is also underfunded, leading to high levels of illiteracy. Critical infrastructure such as the water and electrical systems are steadily decaying - endangering agricultural and industry. Pakistan is already a poor country, and the prospects for any kind of turn-around are dim.

While FATA is the center of a Pashtun insurgency, Karachi, Pakistan’s main port, largest city, and economic engine, is riddled with crime and violence. There are also regular massacres of Pakistan’s Shia minority by large well-armed gangs/political parties.

In the past Pakistan had an impressive Westernized elite. There continue to be a deep bench of Pakistani technocrats. But the very social fabric is challenged by Pakistan’s Orwellian blasphemy laws in which any criticism of Islam can bring criminal charges. Once the accusation is made, the accused (well before any trial) risks being murdered by vigilantes. This is terrible for Pakistan’s small non-Muslim minorities. But it will soon begin to shape discourse in all sectors and chill any dissent or discussion outside of very narrow and radical bounds.

I have every sympathy for the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, without better leaders and a dramatic shift in national purpose - which would require political courage and wisdom of the highest order - I don't see what can truly better their lot and free them from the endemic violence and poverty in which they are mired.

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