Originally published in the London Review of Books, 23 January 2003
Pakistan: Eye of the Storm
by | Yale, 328 pp, £18.95
Pakistan has been described as 'the most dangerous place on earth', yet Owen Bennett Jones's title is appropriate, for though storms rage all around Pakistan, the country itself is surprisingly calm - surprisingly at least to anyone depending for information on the Western media, which have all too often been given to hysterical talk about state collapse, military tyranny, imminent Islamist revolution, terrorist takeover and a nuclear war with India. All these dangers are present, but with the possible exception of war with India, none is as great as is usually argued.
By far the greatest long-term threat is one that our media hardly ever discuss, since it is too long-term and insufficiently fashionable: the growing shortage of water, due to a combination of over-population, appallingly inefficient use and conservation, and the effect of global warming on the Himalayan glaciers. If present trends continue, it is virtually certain that in fifty years time, much of Pakistan will be as dry as the Sahara - but a Sahara with a population of hundreds of millions of human beings. (The same will be true of northern India.)
Political violence in Pakistan has declined greatly in recent years, with the suppression of ethnic clashes between Sindhis and Mohajirs in Karachi and Hyderabad. What has increased, however, is the level of terrorism directed against Westerners. But it is also the case that Western journalists, or Asian journalists working for Western publications, seem to operate on the assumption that one Western life is worth a hundred Asian ones. Such reporting is especially irresponsible in Britain, where large numbers of citizens are of Pakistani origin, with close emotional and familial links to that country. Their position was difficult in many ways even before 11 September. Since then, British involvement in the US 'war against terrorism' has risked making their relationship to the British state extremely painful, and undermining social cohesion. We have a clear duty to inform ourselves accurately concerning Pakistan, and Bennett Jones's intelligent book is an excellent source of information.
Exaggerating the wrong dangers can mean missing the ones that are really important. Take last October's Parliamentary elections. The dangerous thing wasn't that the Islamist vote went up massively across the whole of Pakistan: it didn't. Across most of the country it hardly rose at all, and where the Islamists won more seats, it was mainly because they have forgotten their differences - probably only temporarily - and formed an alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). This alliance won just over 11 per cent of the vote. This gave them almost 20 per cent of the Parliamentary seats because Pakistan inherited our own first-past-the-post system, which means, as we know, that parties whose vote is spread evenly tend to lose out, while those whose vote is concentrated in particular areas gain disproportionately.
The MMA's success was concentrated in the Pashtun areas of the country, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and northern Baluchistan. With some reason, the Pashtuns of Pakistan have been infuriated by developments in neighbouring Afghanistan, and by the way that the victory of the US and its Northern Alliance allies has resulted in the downgrading of the position of the Pashtuns there. In parts of northern Afghanistan, there has been what amounts to ethnic cleansing of Pashtuns by the local Uzbek and Tajik militias. The real significance of the Pakistan elections lies therefore in its effect on the future of Afghanistan. The results should be a wake-up call to US policymakers to pay more attention to the severe risk of a return of ethno-religious conflict in that country, and a breakdown of the fragile semi-order imposed after the overthrow of the Taliban.
Inside Pakistan, Pashtun teeth have been set on edge by the participation (discreet but still well known) of US officers in Pakistani operations to try to catch followers of al-Qaida and the Taliban hiding out in Pashtun areas. Following an old pattern of Pashtun history familiar to the British, resentment has taken the form not of a secular nationalism but of an ethnically coloured religious chauvinism: the combination which characterised the Taliban. The biggest loser in the NWFP was the Pashtun secular nationalist party, the Awami National Party or ANP, which has been hurt by its long history of political compromise, the collapse of its old secular nationalist and socialist allies in Kabul, and its inability to take a strong stand against the US war on the Taliban.
The ANP and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) could have greatly reduced the number of seats won by the Islamists, at both national and provincial level, if they had worked together - as the Islamists, despite their deep personal and ideological differences, managed to do. The PPP and ANP did in fact make an electoral pact, but many of their candidates in the Province refused to stick by it, thereby splitting the secular vote. This was a result of old hatreds between the parties and their local followers dating back to the time of Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It is also a reminder of the extreme difficulty of getting Pashtuns to co-operate in modern forms of politics, as well as of the lack of party structures and discipline in Pakistan.
The military intelligence service, the ISI, may well have played a covert role in undermining the agreement between Bhutto's Party and the ANP. But, if it did, its role was only a subsidiary one. In the Pashtun areas at least, whatever the case elsewhere, the election result was genuinely democratic, and the best organised and most passionate grouping won - unfortunately, since the dominant Islamist groups in the NWFP are thoroughly reactionary.
The MMA has certainly won the democratic right to form the government in the NWFP, and it makes good political sense to allow it to do so. There is a great deal to be said for bringing the Islamists back into power in the hope that they will thereby be corrupted - as has happened on numerous occasions in the past. It will also allow them to demonstrate to the public that they can't solve regional problems, let alone usher in a perfect system of Islamic government. The provincial government in the NWFP has limited authority even over the police, and the tribal areas of the Frontier are supervised by Islamabad. So while the Islamist Government in Peshawar will undoubtedly implement a regressive policy in the fields of education and women's rights, its ability to help al-Qaida and put a serious spoke in the American wheel will probably prove limited.
We must certainly hope that this is the case. For if the provincial government defies Islamabad and tries seriously to obstruct the US, Musharraf will come under intense pressure from Washington to impose central rule backed by military force. Given the present Pashtun mood and the number of guns in the NWFP, this would be very dangerous, but it is possible that the Islamists will make it unavoidable. The West will then find itself yet again supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government for the sake of wider interests. When it comes down to it, Western support for democracy in Pakistan has not been strong, and the fact is that it is impossible, whether for the West or for Pakistan's civilian politicians, repeatedly to call on the Army to keep order, support the state and remove disastrous governments, yet expect the military not to play a central political role the rest of the time.
Given these moral and political complexities, it is a compliment, not a criticism, to say that the conclusions of Bennett Jones's book are ambiguous and sometimes even seemingly contradictory. This applies especially to the role of the Pakistani Army and its commander, President and General Pervaiz Musharraf.
The Army's role is rather like that of the Hindu god Shiva: it is both preserver and destroyer of Pakistan. Preserver, because without it, Pakistan would probably have disintegrated long ago, and because the discipline, order and patriotism of the Army provide a foundation for the possible future development of the state. Bennett Jones has this to say of the developments leading to Pakistan's first military coup, in 1958:
As the politicians and bureaucrats bickered and quarrelled, the military became increasingly involved in political decisions. This was partly a result of the civilians' failure to govern effectively: the military was frequently called upon to fulfil functions that should have been performed by the police. Indeed, the Army soon became the only organisation capable of keeping order on the streets . . . By asking the Army to manage a political crisis, the civilians had undermined their own authority. When Ayub Khan took over in 1958, few were surprised, and many were relieved, that the failed democratic experiment was over.
And destroyer, because the Army's obsession with the 'liberation' of Kashmir from India, and the grossly unequal arms race to which this leads, are helping to wreck Pakistan's finances and cripple its economic development. Combined with all the other factors limiting economic growth, this could lead ultimately to state failure.
Much of the Pakistani civilian elite, and even the more intelligent generals, now recognise this. But as Bennett Jones shows, the Army has profited so massively from five and a half decades of near-war, half-war, phoney war and occasional full-scale war with India, and its privileges are so dependent on continued fear of India, that it is questionable whether it could ever seek peace. Or to put it another way, the Army is entwined within and around the state like a creeper around a tree. So massive and powerful is the creeper, and so feeble and rotten the tree, that it is difficult to say which is supporting which; whether the creeper is draining the life from the tree or holding it up. According to Bennett Jones:
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the military stand a much better chance of delivering radical change in Pakistan than the civilians. This is true in part because the Pakistani people are more likely to accept change coming from the military. But it is also the case because successive military leaderships have treated the civilians with distrust and have limited their freedom of action.
Since military-dominated governments have ruled Pakistan directly or indirectly for more than half its history, the Army can hardly blame all the problems of the country on civilian politicians. The Army is, as Bennett Jones says, 'part of the problem', and the bleak conclusion to be drawn from his book is that it is all too likely that neither civilian nor military governments will be able to tackle Pakistan's fundamental ills. It is not true that military rule has been responsible for the fundamental sins of the country's politicians - no one forced Benazir Bhutto's husband to steal, or Nawaz Sharif to imprison and brutalise journalists. Nonetheless, knowing that they can use the Army against their opponents has made civilian politicians even more irresponsible, and undermined still further any real commitment to democracy on their part.
Not that Pakistan should be seen as permanently or irredeemably fated to poverty and authoritarianism. Even the periods of military rule have been a good deal less oppressive than those in many parts of the world, including much of Latin America. It would be ludicrous, for example, to compare Musharraf with Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan or even Hosni Mubarak, let alone Saddam Hussein. In fact, as Bennett Jones records, his rule is less arbitrary than that of the 'democratic' Government of Nawaz Sharif which he overthrew.
Economically, the country has been faltering. In the 1990s, growth dropped to an average of 3.8 per cent a year, barely above the rate of population increase and not remotely enough to lift any large proportion of the population out of poverty. This was partly the effect of Western sanctions, but the main reasons were internal. Guided by the IMF, Musharraf has implemented a package of economic reforms which have achieved macroeconomic stabilisation - but, as elsewhere, it is an open question whether these can lead to sustained growth, let alone spread the benefits of such growth through the population.
Pakistan was not always an economic failure. As Pakistanis love to tell you, in the 1950s and 1960s South Korean delegations came to learn from its economic programme. The first twenty years of independence went rather well, especially given the disastrous situation in which the country had found itself. Pakistan's position in 1947 was not unlike that of some of the former Soviet republics after 1991: rather than a true state, it was a piece carved out of a much bigger empire, with no real unity even of ethnicity and history, let alone communications or economics. Indeed, for its first 24 years Pakistan was a geographical absurdity, divided between two wings with the whole of India between them. The surprising thing was not that this arrangement collapsed bloodily in 1971, but that it lasted as long as it did.
In the country's first twenty years, a degree of progress was achieved of which Pakistanis can still be proud. Although a faltering democracy was replaced in 1958 by the first military regime, that of Ayub Khan, economic progress continued. In fact, Pakistan advanced faster than India in these years, both because it had a larger share of Punjab, agriculturally the most dynamic region of the Subcontinent, and because it was not shackled by the badly thought-out and appallingly administered state socialism of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. A thoroughly Westernised and secular former British officer, Ayub remained faithful in his social policies to the progressive vision of Pakistan's founder, Jinnah. It is above all Ayub's legacy that Musharraf has tried to revive: a heavily managed semi-democracy in the name of national unity, economic development and social progress; or, if you will, a mild form of enlightened despotism.
This vision should not be rejected out of hand in the name of a facile and arrogant adherence to 'democracy', without reference to local conditions. In South Korea and Taiwan, military rule combined with enlightened and determined economic and social policies produced the growth which laid the social basis for eventual successful democratisation. In Taiwan, the heavily militarised Kuomintang carried out land reforms with a determination and thoroughness of which Pakistan can only dream, eliminating the hold of the old landowning classes and helping to create a modern middle class.
It is hardly a breathtaking departure in political thought to suggest that political institutions - superstructures, if you will - tend inevitably to embody aspects of the societies they govern, and that this is especially true of electoral systems. Sadly, there is little in Pakistani society at present to support a democracy, or at least an effective and stable one. Some Pakistani NGOs are genuinely impressive, but they are few relative to the size of the country, and in no way constitute an adequate 'civil society'. In so far as such a web of social institutions does exist, they are religion-based.
Moreover, as Bennett Jones writes, the record of Pakistan's 'democratic' parties when in power has been appalling - inevitably, given the nature of the country's political classes and the economic interests and political culture in which these have their roots. And while the state - with or without international help - can create an institutional framework for democracy, in the end democratic political parties can be generated only by society itself.
Each time an elected government has been overthrown, either by the military, or by a president acting with its support, this has been approved not only by the mass of the population, but by the political opposition and most of the liberal media. This was true of the removal of Benazir Bhutto's Government by President Leghari in 1996, and of Musharraf's coup in 1999. Each time, the call is for non-elected forces, the military and the senior bureaucracy, to purge the ranks of the politicians and carry out serious reforms - and yet these forces are also called on to hold new elections, so that a different combination of those same politicians can return to power. The realities of electoral politics and elite domination in Pakistan make it impossible for any regime that wishes to win an election to pursue tax defaulters, prosecute corruption cases, or insist on the payment of electricity dues by landlords.
Under Benazir and her husband, Asif Zardari (now in jail), Pakistan slipped towards West African levels of kleptocracy, which would by now have crippled state finances and hopelessly undermined economic growth. Her successor, Nawaz Sharif, was less corrupt, and followed a sensible economic policy, but by the time he was overthrown in 1999 he was clearly aiming to turn Pakistan into a dictatorship, just as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had tried to do in the 1970s. In fact, tendencies to autocracy seem embedded in Pakistani political culture, civilian as well as military.
There are no political parties in the Western sense. As a diplomatic acquaintance once pointed out to me, the PPP is 'not a party, but a cult of Benazir'. The other parties, too, are peopled by the followers either of particular individuals or of political dynasties, or - like the alliance stitched up by Musharraf to form the new Government - are mere congeries of urban bosses and 'feudal' landowners. The grouping that most resembles an organised and modern political party is the moderate Islamist party, the Jamaat Islami. The Jamaat is also one of only two parties to possess an effective contingent of women activists. Rather strikingly for a Sunni Islamist party, they explicitly model themselves in this regard on the relatively progressive aspects of the Iranian Shia state.
Finally, it is worth noting that, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, the Islamists owe some of their popularity to the fact that they are the only political grouping with a serious agenda of radical social reform. In Pakistan, they and the urban-based MQM in Sindh (the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, which represents the interests of those Urdu- speaking Muslims who emigrated to Pakistan from India in 1947) are the only ones genuinely to advocate land reform and the elimination of 'feudal' power in the countryside. All the other parties are heavily dominated by the 'feudals', and the Islamist success in the North West Frontier can also be read in part as a rejection by many Pashtuns of the traditional political dominance of the maliks, or tribal chieftains.
Bennett Jones quotes Ayub Khan, shortly before his resignation, declaring sadly to his ministers: 'I am sorry we have come to this pass. We are a very difficult country structurally. Perhaps I pushed it too hard into the modern age. We were not ready for reforms. Quite frankly I have failed. I must admit that clearly.' There is not much reason to think that military-guided government will be any more successful in the future.
When it comes to Musharraf, Bennett Jones respects his personal honesty and that of his ministers (he deals only with the period until the start of 2002), something that is attested to by almost all observers, as well as by Pakistani businessmen with whom I have spoken. This is no small improvement on the record of his predecessors. Bennett Jones also respects Musharraf's sincerity in seeking reforms. His mother worked as a secretary for the International Labour Organisation, and both of his parents are confirmed progressives in social terms. Doubtless because of this inheritance, Musharraf has done more for women's rights and empowerment than any Pakistani Government since that of Ayub.
But remembering Ayub's failure, Bennett Jones is rightly sceptical that Musharraf's reforms will succeed. And since his book was obviously written before the latest elections and the success of the Islamists, it's not likely that he is any more optimistic today. Musharraf himself has displayed considerable political ineptitude, and also shows clear signs of succumbing to the personalisation of power and the illusions of its permanence which have cursed all his predecessors.
The social and cultural obstacles to accelerated economic growth are immense. Education is a key factor. Pakistan did quite well in comparison with India in the decades when economic growth meant partially modernising traditional agriculture, and creating the basic elements of a modern infrastructure. It is now falling far behind India in a world where economic development also requires that considerable sections of the population enjoy access to modern higher education. It is not just a matter of the state lacking resources for this because of poverty, tax evasion and the prioritisation of the military; Pakistani society appears to lack the will to cultivate such educational development. The result is the notorious power of the madrassahs, or religious schools, with their venomous anti-Westernism and anti-modernism.
The Pakistani military may be an extremely flawed institution, but if there is to be any successful programme of reform, the Army will have to be part of it, if only because it is the only modern state institution which works more or less as it is meant to. Long before Musharraf's coup, the collapse of state services during the 1990s had led governments to invite the Army to take over more and more areas of public life. This it did with relative efficiency - but it also used the opportunity to transfer yet more sections of the economy to the Army and the huge military foundations.
There is serious military corruption, but compared with the rest of Pakistani society military institutions are relatively honestly and efficiently run. The immense property holdings of the Fauji Foundation - whose purpose is to provide jobs and social security for retired soldiers - and its equivalents for the other services are on the whole run for the good of the corps of officers and NCOs, not simply as milch-cows for generals. These military businesses help keep the Army contented and thus unified and disciplined, so lessening the danger of coups by junior or middle-ranking officers. These should be avoided at almost any cost, since a coup would vastly increase the likelihood of Pakistan disintegrating and its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
As a result of these property holdings the military has now become the biggest landowner in the country, and although an increasingly middle-class officer corps, liberated from the hold of the landowning classes, might be drawn towards land reform, its own institutional interests would work against this. Moreover, any prospect that the Army can play the role of an autonomous authoritarian reformer is greatly undermined by the constant state of near-war with India. For as Bennett Jones notes, Musharraf would do well to remember another thing about Ayub. Although it is true that his predecessor's rule was already being undermined by the growing gap between rich and poor in Pakistan, which had developed as a result of his economic policies, what really prepared the way for his downfall was the 1965 war with India over Kashmir, which he planned and provoked but then failed to win.
Musharraf, too, did terrible damage both to Pakistan and to his own reputation by his military strategy towards India as Army chief. The violent hostility of the present Indian Government, and Indian elites in general, towards Musharraf's regime is in part the result of rather childish pique at seeing Pakistan adopted as an ally by the Americans after 11 September. But Indian hostility to Musharraf himself goes beyond this, and is above all linked to his dominant role in the military operation which in 1999 seized a mountain range near the town of Kargil, on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir. Indian forces suffered very heavily in attempting to regain the heights, and the Indian high command was thoroughly embarrassed by its failure to prevent (or even initially to notice) the Pakistani move.
Not only was the Kargil operation brilliantly executed by the Pakistani Army, but Musharraf could claim that India had set a number of precedents for a move across the LOC. Politically and diplomatically, however, the campaign was reckless and extremely harmful. Though the Pakistani Army held out against the Indians on the ground, intense pressure from the Clinton Administration forced Nawaz Sharif to order a withdrawal. Pakistan's international isolation deepened, and relations with India were further embittered. Kargil remains the worst blot on Musharraf's record, and the most striking evidence of his and the Army's disastrous obsession with Kashmir.
On this subject, Bennett Jones is again balanced. He points out that the territory is genuinely in dispute, and that the great majority of Muslim Kashmiris appear deeply unhappy with Indian rule, both because of repeated actions by Delhi to undermine or cancel democratic elections, and more important because of the numerous atrocities committed by Indian forces since the present Kashmiri insurgency began in the late 1980s. But he also quite rightly criticises the Pakistani military, and to a lesser extent Pakistani elites in general, for fuelling the Kashmir conflict in a disastrous manner. While the radical volunteers sent over the border from Pakistan enjoy real support in parts of Kashmir, if only because of the blows that they have dealt to the hated Indian security forces, they have also murdered numerous moderate Kashmiris (including many who had themselves suffered at Indian hands), and worked adamantly against any local settlement of the conflict. The autumn elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in which large numbers voted despite hundreds of killings by the extremists, were not an endorsement of Indian rule, but they certainly indicated a widespread rejection of the Pakistan-backed 'jihadis'.
Neither the Pakistani military nor most of the Pakistani media appear to have recognised the depth of this rejection, or what a harsh light it casts on Pakistani policies. Like the Islamist extremists Pakistan (with the support of the US) used against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, the jihadis in Kashmir have in fact done terrible damage to Pakistan. If they succeed in provoking a full-scale Indian attack on Pakistan that leads to nuclear war, that damage will be final.
Anatol Lieven, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, is the author of Chechnya and Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.