The Liberal Ironist suspects we will realize, over the next few years, that it is possible for a powerful government to focus on the right problem in foreign affairs for over a decade and to prudently try various combinations of carrots and sticks, closer engagement and the hands-off approach…and to see the situation steadily deteriorate in spite of all of it. It is not alarmist at this point to say that one of the World’s nuclear powers is on the brink of collapse. Part of the reason we are insensible to this mounting reality is the fact that, unlike as with the televised drama of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi flying himself out of Iran or Premier Mikhail Gorbachev resigning on Christmas, there will likely be no event, no single incident to prove at any given time that Pakistan has collapsed into violent, barely-subsistent feudalism.
But there is a visible trend towards fragmentation, one that no individual or faction in Pakistan’s government has demonstrated either the prudence of leadership, the material means or even a strong inclination to resist. The army comes closest to serving this role in Pakistan, as it always has; there isn’t really any evidence, however, that the generals want to serve this role in Pakistan anymore, a point I raised in an entry last September.
Pakistan’s government isn’t even collapsing in just one sense. The country is suffering geographical and institutional collapse at the same time.
Consider this: Much of the Northwest Frontier and Waziristan regions are now effectively outside the government’s control; meanwhile the government’s hold on Baluchistan and Sindh in the southeastern and south-central parts of the country, respectively, is tenuous. The national courts have lost authority to tribal courts; the police are alternately-overwhelmed or actually compliant with riots and even assassinations; the government isn’t just corrupt but actually has the smallest relative tax base on record of any government in the World, and the army is divided between US-aligned and Islamist factions, a fact which seems absurd when put in writing. Following the disastrous late-summer floods the army issued a series of demands to President Asif Ali Zardari back in September rather than overthrow the government, because it has no desire to accept responsibility for the mess this time.
This will be both a humanitarian and an international security nightmare. We shouldn’t overlook the independent effect of the humanitarian catastrophe upon the security nightmare. The New York Times ran a troubling article on the impact of the floods upon the country’s infrastructure late last August, as floodwaters still tore through the Indus River. Grim as they are, these portents put us in the right frame of mind to understand what is happening to Pakistan:
“Even as Pakistani and international relief officials scrambled to save people and property, they despaired that the nation’s worst natural calamity had ruined just about every physical strand that knit this country together — roads, bridges, schools, health clinics, electricity and communications.
“The destruction could set Pakistan back many years, if not decades, further weaken its feeble civilian administration and add to the burdens on its military. It seems certain to distract from American requests for Pakistan to battle Taliban insurgents, who threatened foreign aid workers delivering flood relief on Thursday. It is already disrupting vital supply lines to American forces in Afghanistan.”
The article continues listing damages that can only be conceived of in the abstract: About 20 million people–just under 1/8 of the country’s population–were rendered homeless at least temporarily; 4 million went exposed for days. 5,000 miles of roads, 7,000 schools, and 400 hospitals or clinics were lost in the floods. An independent academic estimate claimed that Pakistan would require about $7.1 billion to rebuild, and our government has little ability to ensure that any aid money is allocated efficiently anyway. These needs follow $7.5 billion in aid to the Pakistani government previously allocated by our government in 2009. Zardari’s government is already notorious for its corruption. That government certainly won’t show much courage in the face of its social problems now, following the assassination of Salman Taseer.
This brings us to the most-disturbing development: A culture of impunity reigns in Pakistan for Islamists who carry out acts of murderous violence. This spectacle is one of the worst that can prevail in a country–when an activist can assassinate a major government official, claim responsibility for it, and actually have a chance of passing through its judicial institutions to eventual freedom. This almost sounds an absurdity, but the admitted assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer–one of his own bodyguards, incidentally–was showered with rose petals and draped in garlands by Islamist lawyers as he was taken to court last week. Of course, demonstrations in favor of an alleged or even a confessed murderer don’t always indicate a justice system in chaos, but on this day some of his police escort smilingly let him address the crowd as he left the court. The Christian Science Monitor found public sentiments in Pakistan over the assassination very divided; there is a possibility the assassin will go free.
If that still seems unbelievable, you should know it happened in modern Japan in 1932. The May 15th Incident, as it euphemistically came to be known, was the assassination of Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi by 11 junior Naval officers. (This assassination was an apparently-unaffiliated sequel to a failed coup attempt in March which culminated in several assassinations.) The 11 Naval officers turned themselves in following the assassination, then gave up on a defense and used the trial as a platform to express their sympathy for the Emperor and call for political reforms; during their trial a petition requesting leniency including over 350,000 blood signatures–and the eventual delivery of 11 severed fingers to the court–led to the imposition of a light sentence of several years for the young officers. The subsequent difficulty in accommodating the Emperor’s request for a new prime minister who wasn’t a Fascist following the assassination was a watershed moment, marking the effective breakdown of democratic politics in Japan until after the post-World War II reconstruction.
But there is no coherent movement steering what is happening in Pakistan, no Emperor for the assassins to revere to invoke continuity and no Grand Ayatollah to follow in revolution. The Taliban controls much of Pakistan’s Afghan borderlands but isn’t necessarily a major influence on other Islamists. The army has a pro-Islamist faction, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the tribal clerics issuing brutal fatwas. So, no one knows exactly how it will come about (as the competing interests in the country make their marginal gains by keeping their capabilities and intentions under-wraps), but Pakistan barely has a functioning state now, and centrifugal forces are sure to tear it apart at this rate. What will succeed it? The Liberal Ironist expects feudalism–feudalism for a poor, dry country of about 170 million where millions of Shi’a and Ahmadi Muslims are treated as heretics by Islamists, where several militant and terrorist organizations already operate, and where around 90 nuclear weapons and plenty of weapons-grade nuclear material remain in the care of an army that some day probably won’t be paid by its government.