Dark Times in Pakistan

The Economist ran a story 2 weeks ago with the low-down on the massive August floods in Pakistan.  Of course, natural disasters of this scope sometimes have a catalytic effect on critical forces in national politics; in Pakistan the most-organized critical force in national politics is the military.  A New York Times article today addressed the growing discontent within Pakistan’s military, which has just asked President Zardari to sack some of his ministers.

Asif Ali Zardari in 2009. Benazir Bhutto's stand-in as Pakistan's president has presided over inflation expected to reach 25% this year, near-systemic failure of emergency response to the country's August floods, and a large patronage network apparently supported by the 1.2% of the country's population that pays an income tax--as well as foreign aid.

1/8 of Pakistan’s population–20 million people–has been uprooted by the August floods.  The Indus River is the central spine along which Pakistan’s population is situated, but last month it wildly broke its banks.  Most populated areas of the country have experienced at least mild flooding; for almost the entire length of the country, the immediate adjacency of the Indus River has simply been ruined.  Both Pakistan’s military and our own government, the Times article reports, are frustrated by the large size and narrow tax base of President Ali Asif Zardari‘s government, elected out of sympathy when Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in late 2007.  Since that time, somehow, economic conditions in Pakistan have deteriorated rapidly.  (Both the nature of the corruption of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and dearth of protagonists in contemporary Pakistani politics are highlighted by the fact that Bhutto literally bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son as part of her estate.)

(Attribution: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F009528-0018 / Steiner, Egon / CC-BY-SA) General Muhammad Ayub Khan. This adopter of Pakistan's constitution and progressive legal reformer was also the country's first of 4 military dictators to date.

Pakistan has had a governance problem from the beginning.  The civilian government has been replaced by military dictatorships 3 times since its founding–under General Ayub Khan from 1958-1969 and then under that butcher of Bengal General Yahya Khan from 1969-1971, under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988, and finally one you should all be familiar with, General Pervez Musharraf from 1999-2008.  Pakistan has been under military administration for 33 of its 63 years as an independent state.  Military governments in Pakistan have been so common that the military’s influence over the government is institutionalized, a part of normal politics; Pakistan’s first military dictatorship under Ayub Khan actually emerged during a period of martial law declared by Pakistan’s president, was popular with the public, and even wrote Pakistan’s constitution.  The military’s ability to launch a coup is an explicit rather than an implicit fact of politics.  The standout fact of present political situation in Pakistan is not that the military has loudly voiced its dissatisfaction with the civilian government, but that most observers don’t expect it to launch a coup.  The Pakistani military has no interest in governing Pakistan because it finds it too challenging.

General Pervez Musharraf. Having cast himself as a defender of Pakistan's interest, in the years following his coup he would face skepticism from the US government, for his military dictatorship of a nuclear power, his country's disastrous failure to protect its nuclear secrets, and his long toleration of the Taliban presence in Pakistan, which resulted in the current civil war along the border region.

I saw the movie A Mighty Heart while it was in theaters in 2007.  The response to the film mostly focused on the dark but gripping biographical drama, or the versatility of Angelina Jolie’s performance; the Liberal Ironist was most-interested by far in the narrative depiction of Pakistan as a barely-administrated mess.  This was the most-consistently disturbing impact of the film; and while it is a movie, it is a story about real events, some of which shouldn’t happen in a well-governed country.  Pakistani law enforcement often seemed as out-of-place as the American citizens they were assisting during the investigation.  This impoverished country of over 170 million is little-enough governed that a dramatic portrayal suggests that its law enforcement has to start from scratch when opening an investigation into its most-dangerous criminals, even to find out who they are.

A country with as many as 90 nuclear weapons, of course, has to be kept stable.  In a large country which according to the New York Times article may experience 25% inflation this year while economic growth grinds to a halt, political instability will likely be structural for the forseeable future.  This means that a steady US investment of money and personnel, over a period of many years, may be necessary to move the government’s internal administration into more-reciprocal interactions with its citizens, and in time towards civilian control over the military.  There are no simple, clean policy commitments where a large, poor, weakly-governed yet heavily-armed country like Pakistan is concerned.  The last thing we want to do is “send a message” here; incremental investments and carefully-articulated confrontations over proper administration, occurring over a long period of time, are essential to Pakistan’s integrity.  For the past decade our government has stayed to some form or other of that forward muddle, and it has gotten better at it; the current flooding in Pakistan heightens the urgency of staying engaged in Pakistan, not an argument to leave simply because government and private aid to that country are susceptible to patronage and graft.

In this spirit of support for incremental political development in Pakistan, the Liberal Ironist is encouraged to hear that General Pervez Musharraf has returned to Pakistan from the United Kingdom to get back into politics–but as the founder of a new political party and a candidate for democratically-elected office.

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One thought on “Dark Times in Pakistan

  1. Pingback: Pakistan is Unraveling | The Liberal Ironist

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