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Is Pakistan Collapsing?

From drone attacks to constant admonishing by the Obama administration, to a weak economy, an insurgency and target-killing of the non-Baloch in Balochistan, and a weekly dose of suicide attacks on common people, all support a perception that Pakistan is collapsing. However, this conventional understanding may not be accurate. What these events suggest is that there is a growing crisis and contradiction within and between the institutions of the state in Pakistan and these crises and contradictions, evaluated differently, might offer a completely divergent narrative. What may be collapsing is the political settlement that has existed for many decades and this may be a positive development. Democractic forces have an opportunity now to end the military's domination of Pakistan.


Is Pakistan Collapsing?

S Akbar Zaidi

charging Pakistan’s military of playing a double, or triple game, could not be counted. Having provided $20 billion as aid since 2001, the US was asking how its money was being spent and whose side

From drone attacks to constant admonishing by the Obama administration, to a weak economy, an insurgency and target-killing of the non-Baloch in Balochistan, and a weekly dose of suicide attacks on common people, all support a perception that Pakistan is collapsing. However, this conventional understanding may not be accurate. What these events suggest is that there is a growing crisis and contradiction within and between the institutions of the state in Pakistan and these crises and contradictions, evaluated differently, might offer a completely divergent narrative. What may be collapsing is the political settlement that has existed for many decades and this may be a positive development. Democractic forces have an opportunity now to end the military’s domination of Pakistan.

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi, Pakistan.

ased on a long list of events and res ponses around them, one can unambiguously answer this question as a definite “yes”.

For instance, to start with, and just in the month of May 2011, we now know that the world’s most wanted notorious man, declared a terrorist by the world, including the Pakistani civilian and military e stablishment, was found to have been living in close proximity of Pakistan’s elite Military Academy, perhaps since 2005. This has led to a suggestion that Pakistan’s military leadership, or some elements of it, knew this fact and had offered protection to him, and had been complicit in harbouring the world’s most wanted terrorist. If not quite complicit, then the military high command – for it is only the military which matters in this situation and in such relationships since it holds all power and makes all decisions – was incompetent in not knowing that he was living so close to general headquarters (GHQ) and other military stations, and that he was not in Waziristan, or hiding in Afghanistan, or preferably dead and buried somewhere in the mountainous region.

This presence of Osama bin Laden led to an extraordinary event of United States (US) SEAL military officers “invading” P akistan, violating its air space, carrying out a military operation for 40 minutes, destroying their own helicopter, killing the terrorist and his accomplices, perhaps capturing some individuals, and safely r eturning to their air bases in Afghanistan. Along with this, the US military also buried the dead bin Laden at sea, and if it was, as one suspects, the Arabian Sea, that would have meant another flight of more than an hour in Pakistan’s air space.

This event led to a severe reprimand and dressing-down of Pakistan’s military, civil and secret services by officials of the US leading the international condemnation of housing a terrorist, which caused severe embarrassment to the Pakistani military. The number of times the word “duplicitous” was heard from the US,

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Pakistan’s military really was on. While the military was quiet – it took days for it to publicly respond to all these allegations and charges – the civilian political actors, both in the government and outside, screamed that “the nation’s sovereignty” had been trampled upon, and one heard loud cries of “how dare they” resonating in Parliament, and of course, in Pakistan’s hugely independent media.

This leads to the call for an “enquiry”, a parliamentary resolution condemning the action, and such responses by the government and opposition. It also led to an unprecedented presentation by the senior military leadership, the director general (DG) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in particular, in the presence of the chief of the army staff, to parliament. This might have been the first time that the military leadership in Pakistan was made to explain something of such national importance to elected civilian representatives. Not following the defeat of the 1971 war and the first democratic government in Pakistan, or after the 1977 coup or the 1988 plane crash which killed general Zia ul Haq, or after Kargil, or following the ouster of general Musharraf, had the military leadership been asked to explain i tself. This time, the DG ISI, a serving general, offered to r esign, “if asked”, he added, while making his presentation to parliament.

Mehran and Shahzad Events

Soon after these developments relating to Osama bin Laden, a terrorist attack took place at a militarised navy base in Karachi where, according to different reports, four or 10 militants held the airbase and its residents hostage and captive, where a state of siege lasted for around 18 hours or so, after which the base was eventually “liberated”. While there have been a number of attacks on military establishments in Pakistan over the last decade, including one extremely embarrassing one at GHQ in Rawalpindi in October 2009, where numerous military men were held captive, the brazen attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi, so soon following the events

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outlined above, caused considerable concern amongst naval actors as well as members of political parties and civil society. There were calls for the resignation of the naval chief and acknowledgement of massive military (or state) failure. It was believed that most of the attackers were P akistanis, the militants may have belonged to any one of the numerous terrorist organisations in Pakistan, but perhaps even to the military services themselves. In other words, an “inside job”.

Soon after these series of events, a wellrespected journalist, Saleem Shahzad who, like a number of Pakistani journalists, had been reporting on terrorism and militants – perhaps the only story in town

– was picked up, tortured and then murdered at the end of May. In the past, whenever military or civilian men have been picked up, tortured and killed by groups which can broadly be called “The Taliban/ al-Qaida”, there has been an announcement made that so-and-so was murdered by such-and-such group because he was an “American or CIA agent”, a traitor, or an informant. The groups who do the killing give their reasons. In the past, there have been allegations that even the Military Intelligence (MI) or ISI or some other state institution has threatened and roughed up c ivil society members and journalists.

Immediately after Saleem Shahzad’s murder, the ISI issued a statement that they did not kill the journalist. This was quite unprecedented, since the ISI seldom make such announcements. It was forced to do so because Saleem Shahzad had actually been picked up by the ISI in October 2010, something that they acknowledged, and he had warned his friends that he was receiving threats for his reporting. His last two stories had argued that the Taliban had infiltrated the Pakistan navy and that the navy was trying to cut a deal with some known militants and that the deal had gone wrong, hence the attack on PNS Mehran.

All these events and their consequences took place within a single month. If one were to step back another few months and start from January this year, at least one (and probably many more) significant events and responses to it, which have a bearing on the “Pakistan-is-collapsing” thesis, is worth noting. In January this year, the governor of Pakistan’s largest province, the Punjab, was assassinated in the afternoon by his own bodyguard. His bodyguard confessed to his crime and claimed that he had murdered the governor because he was trying to repeal the blasphemy law. This law, introduced by Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, was meant to deliver the death penalty to anyone – almost always a non-Muslim – who committed blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam, against the Quran or against the religion of Islam, broadly defined. A number of individuals are in jail on account of the blasphemy law awaiting trial or having been sentenced, awaiting execution. Moreover, many of those who have been accused on account of this law have been killed in extrajudicial killings committed by individuals or organisations. With a Christian woman convicted to death on account of the law, many individuals were agitating for amendments and in the way individuals were targeted. There was little mention of a repeal. The governor of the Punjab was one of those individuals. His assassin said that the governor was, in fact, trying to repeal God’s Law and hence he killed him.

Assassination of Punjab Governor

What happened after the assassination c oncerns us here. Firstly, the self-confessed a ssassin was heralded as a champion, a ghazi, a fighter for the cause of Islam. He was garlanded by a large number of lawyers when he was presented in court, and there were few lawyers willing to take up the case against him. While the social m edia such as Facebook and the like are not as prevalent as in Egypt and elsewhere where it has been part of social movements recently, a Facebook account in support of the assassin was set up and apparently had thousands of followers. Moreover, the overly active and zealous electronic media had numerous analysts appearing on live television defending the assassin, or at least not condemning him outright, while a few, very few, liberal participants did. The ratio of those who thought this was a heinous crime to those who defended him or were apologists for his cause would be close to 1:30.

The death of the governor led to a number of other outcomes or responses as well. Firstly, there was complete silence from the main political parties, the Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League.

Very few members of either party, including senior government and political officials, dared to attend his funeral. Neither the chief minister of the Punjab nor his brother, Nawaz Sharif, went to pay their condolences to the assassinated governor’s family in a society and culture where such condolence visits are mandatory and cut against all personal or political prejudices and animosity. In death, the governor, who had a very colourful social life and long political life, was ostracised like he had never been when alive, only out of fear that anyone seen sympathetic to him would also be considered a sympathiser of someone who actively wanted to repeal the blasphemy law and was hence, in some way, anti-Islamic.

One can add an even longer list of events and their consequences and outcomes and not dwell on the question any longer and say that Pakistan is on the verge of collapse. From drone attacks to constant admonishing by the Obama administration, to a weak economy, an insurgency and targetkilling of the non- Baloch in Balochistan, and a weekly dose of suicide attacks on common people, all support this conclusion. This is now the conventional wisdom from Pakistanis and others, as well.

However, this article argues that this is not the case. Instead, what these and other events suggest is that there is a growing crisis and contradiction within and bet ween the institutions of the State in Pakistan and, in fact, these crises and contradictions, evaluated differently, might offer a completely divergent narrative. What may be collapsing is the political settlement that has existed for many decades and, in fact, these can become very positive developments.

A Different Explanation

If some of the events in the month of May have been quite unprecedented even for Pakistan – Osama bin Laden living in A bbottabad and then being killed by “invading” US forces; the attack on the naval airbase PMS Mehran in Karachi – so has been much of the reaction to these events.

There is no contesting the fact that over the last six decades, the most dominant of all institutions in Pakistan, without doubt, has been Pakistan’s army. It has ruled directly for 33 years, and has determined the direction of the State and most of its institutions –

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including political parties and general elections – for almost as long. It is not just Pakistan’s military which has dominated Pakistan’s political and even economic spaces, using its might to privilege itself in a lopsided field determined through its hegemony, but over the last four decades, many of its clandestine o rganisations (primarily the ISI, but also MI) have had a particularly strong influence in controlling the activities of political actors, as well as institutions and individuals who belong to civil society.

Foolish Adventures

The military’s overtly acclaimed numerous foolish adventures include the 1965 war, Kargil, coups in 1957, 1977 and 1999, and their resulting consequences of causing the loss of East Pakistan following a brutal genocide by the Pakistani army of its own civilians. Islamisation resulted in the worst kind of sectarianism in Pakistan and is the precursor to much of the militancy and fundamentalism in the name of religion in Pakistan today, and Pakistan’s military general-presidents eagerly embracing front line status in 1979 and 2001, bringing different wars home to Pakistan. There are other crimes as well, such as discarding and disregarding the Constitution, imprisonment, victimisation and even the killing of political and civilian opponents. The covert adventures of Pakistan’s ISI are too numerous to enlist and include supposed involvement in the Mumbai attacks of 2008 and the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, the Indian Parliament attack of 2001, sup porting jihad in places ranging from the Sudan to Chechnya, Kashmir to Indonesia. In addition, there is excessive e vidence which shows how the ISI has helped create terrorist organisations to use in Kashmir, Afghanistan and also at home, in Pakistan.

However, this is probably the first time that Pakistan’s military has been publicly criticised and attacked for numerous shortcomings which led to some of the events in May. Neither the “humiliating” loss of East Pakistan nor the stupidity of Kargil elicited the same public response. Of course the new non-state electronic media has played a major role in this. Sadly, military generals, whether in 1957, 1977 or 1999, were welcomed by civilian politicians to take over government, always supported by some political group or the other as well as in Musharraf’s case, by civil society and lifestyle liberals. Since military generals, and the military more generally, have been seen as saviours of the nation, there has been little criticism or opposition to their taking over power.

Hence, the space which has been created (or won) by some sections of the non-military sector in finding some voice following the events described above is a major departure from the past. Perhaps for the first time, the hegemony of the military has been questioned, even challenged, with demands that (military) “heads should roll” on account of loss of Pakistan’s “sovereignty” and strategic security failures. If the military cannot defend Pakistan’s border/sovereignty, or its own military bases, then who will, is the question being asked, even in Parliament.

The front page of Pakistan’s leading English daily, Dawn, on 8 June 2011, had the headline: “PML-N [Nawaz Sharif’s p arty] in Savage Attack on Generals”! A ccording to the paper, in the National A ssembly, “the role of top generals, particularly vis-a-vis the so-called war on t error, came under scrutiny”. Moreover, the “lifestyle of top generals using expensive limousines”, each worth “eight crore rupees” and their “inability to fight”, is how a senior member of Parliament referred to the Pakistan naval chief of staff coming to the PNS Mehran in a BMW soon after the attack. What is also significant here is not that the PML-N “savagely” attacked the military generals in the budget debate in the National Assembly, but such a serious newspaper chose to use such words as its main headline on its front page. Television talk shows, of course, have had a field day in attacking the military, again for the very first time since the media emerged in around 2006 or so. The extensive revelations in Dawn, reproducing memos from WikiLeaks, have shown how the military has been complicit in the US drone attacks, while trying to show a nationalistic and patriotic public face.

Things That Have Changed

Before one makes the point that much has changed in Pakistan in recent years, perhaps sharply so since the middle of the last decade (probably 2007), one needs to articulate, in extremely brief form, a sentiment and perspective of what existed.1

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Pakistan has not been a democracy for almost all the 64 years that it has existed, with the exception of perhaps the Z A Bhutto era of 1971-77, although many scholars have called that a period of civilian authoritarianism or even dictatorship. There are many reasons why democracy has not existed in Pakistan, and these range from explanations that the political leadership which created Pakistan was composed of migrants from what became independent India who had no political roots in Pakistan, to arguments which suggest that Pakistan was an overdeveloped state, with the bureaucracy and military being the most organised and powerful institutions dominating the country right from 1947 onwards.

In more recent years, the last two decadelong military coups (1977-88, 1999-2008) have been supported by politicians who have even invited the military to take over in one case, and by civil society actors and “liberals”, in the second case. Both the military generals Zia and Musharraf made deep inroads into the non-military political and civic sectors, creating alliances with different groups of people. Accomplices were always willing partners to the military, and collaborators were always willing to have access to power. It has been the access to the centre of absolute political power, i e, the military, which has allowed sections of Pakistan’s civilian and political groups to support military dictatorships. A key explanation for why military rule has been so prolonged in Pakistan is the presence of critical support from different sections of society, including j ustifications for military rule from the j udiciary. While some actors and groups have given willing and voluntary support to military dictators to benefit from access to the seat of power, others have been bought over, bribed, cajoled, threatened and convinced with offers they could not refuse. The long and lucrative arms of the military have ensured that opposition to military rule remains muted. A final and important explanation for why military rule persists in Pakistan is because it has been given active diplomatic, military and financial support by the US and its allies, both in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in 2001 following the American-led invasion of Afghanistan.

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Hence, through suppression, victimisation, exile, as well as through accommodating different groups and actors, all backed by the powerful support of the US, Pakistan’s military dictators have ruled with ease for 20 years since 1971. However, some things began to change in 2007.2

Again, just to summarise some of the key developments since 2007, one can see the rise of a broad, politically active, civil society movement, led by lawyers asking for the reinstatement of the chief justice of Pakistan (and other judges) who had been summarily dismissed by Musharraf in March 2007. In July 2007, a mosque and madrasa based in the heart of Islamabad was attacked and “cleared” of armed militants by Pakistan’s law-enforcing authorities resulting in many deaths estimated at anything between 100 and 1,000.3 While the judges were reinstated, Musharraf imposed an “emergency”, not quite martial law, but suspending all basic and constitutional rights in November 2007. In 2007, political activity also started and formerly exiled Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharrif were both given permission by the military to return to Pakistan to contest the elections. Musharraf had cut a deal with Benazir Bhutto where he would continue to serve as a civilian president while she would become his subservient prime minister, the best form of collaboration and accommodation possible, far better than any attempts made in the past, ideally suited to both, as well as to the US fighting its war on terror.

One of the most important developments in Pakistan in recent years has been the electronic media explosion which has taken place since about 2005 or 2006. When the 2002 Musharraf elections were held, there was only one private TV channel. In 2008, when the next elections were held there may have been around 60 or so in regional languages, many of which were 24-hour news and information channels. The lawyers’ movement of 2007 was shown live on every channel in Pakistan, where the 18-36 hour long-marches of the chief justice were watched by people of all sorts of ethnic and class backgrounds right across Pakistan. This was the first live television revolution of its kind in Pakistan, which had a huge and enthusiastic participatory audience. The military attack on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad mentioned above was also shown live, as was extensive footage on Benazir’s assassination in December 2007. This was a real media revolution which has helped provide information and explanation of events that have taken place in Pakistan since 2007.4

Following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, with Musharraf basically having lost any hope of staying on and with the military also tired and less popular after eight years of rule, elections in 2008 brought about a victory for the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party with Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister and Asif Ali Zardari eventually replacing Musharraf as president of Pakistan. One needs to emphasise that the 2008 elections were the fairest and freest since those held in 1970. There have been seven elections held between 1970 and 2008, but all have been manipulated, rigged and predetermined, usually by the military. Pakistan had moved from electoral politics in the 1990s to a praetorian democracy in 2002, to an evolving and emerging democracy after 2008. Despite instability and rumours galore about the collapsing presidency or the fall of the government, a transition to a democratic order seems to have been made.5

And Those That Haven’t...

It has been the military’s material might which has led to its domination over the State which has given rise to the military reinventing itself as the sole guardian of Pakistan’s many boundaries, frontiers and terrains. It has assumed the right to speak for the nation and its constituents and to even represent the nation. The justification for the national security state was created by Pakistan’s military and the numerous civilians in positions of influence and power who have provided support to the military in one way or another. Whether using the threat from India, or more recently as the defenders of Pakistan in the war against terrorism and against militancy, the military in Pakistan has used its power and position to create the narrative of the national security state, a state where the military defends the people, the frontiers and the interests of all Pakistan.

Most recently, the military’s bluff has been called and it is clear that it has been unable to determine whose interests it serves, what those interests are, and, hence, its inability to defend those interests. Moreover, this lack of clarity and a mbiguity about what exactly Pakistan’s interest ought to be has cost the military dear in terms of its reputation and image. It has, in fact, seen another layer being removed from the facade of what was justified as Pakistan’s national security state. The falsity of the notion of the national security state has once again been laid bare.

Pakistan’s state, in fact, is a national i nsecurity state and has been one for some years now. The military’s inability to protect anyone’s interests other than its own narrow ones, in terms of economic and material privileges, underscores this impression. However, an important point which needs to be highlighted is that the military’s invention of itself as the saviour of Pakistan and as the defenders of the land and the faith is completely justifiable when one examines the interplay and p ositioning of different social forces.

Probably for the very first time, the military is being seen as the cause and creator of Pakistan’s numerous problems and certainly not as the nation’s saviour. This, despite the fact that western scholars and hacks continue to write in their columns and books that Pakistan’s army/military “is its only hope”, and that it is “an efficient and well-disciplined, united” institution. And the US administration continues to sidestep the freely and genuinely elected democratic civilian government in Pakistan (only the second one despite eight general elections) and talk to and cut deals with the military directly, strengthening the latter at the cost of democracy. The criticism and attacks on the military in the public media have been strong and has certainly damaged the reputation of the military, challenging its h egemony over the state.

Why would the military not defend the interests of its large constituency and why should it not claim to speak as the nation itself? Institutions which are allowed to dominate will enforce that domination, and this should not come as a surprise. However, the problem in this relationship of power between the military and civilian and (for once) democratically elected institutions is not so much the strength of the military, but more importantly the cowardly, dithering and weak civilian elites and the compromises

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they make with m ilitary power. The DG ISI who, as mentioned earlier, spoke in front of the National Assembly after the Abbottabad raid volunteered to resign “if asked”. He was never asked. What might be collapsing in Pakistan is the dominance and hegemony of the military, but for a New Pakistan to emerge, politicians will have to press for more space and enforce public sentiment. It is not often that one gets this chance to actually overthrow Pakistan’s military. Notes 1 This section, and some of the ideas in this paper draw on a previous article written in this journal, “State, Military and Social Transition: The Improbable Future of Democracy in Pakistan”, Vol 40, No 49, 2005. In that article I had argued for the improbability of democracy taking root in Pakistan for a numerous set of reasons. However, events since 2007 have proven me wrong. One certainly gets a sense of a growing embeddedness of democratisation in Pakistan and that there are an increasing number of groups and interests in protecting and promoting forms of democracy. What we do not know, however, is whether this a permanent change or a brief moment of contradiction to the norm. 2 These themes have been discussed in greater d etail in Akbar Zaidi (2011) Military, Civil Society 3 4 5 and Democratisation in Pakistan (Vanguard, L ahore). Many of the subsequent suicide attacks in Pakistan are said to have been in response to this a ction by the State. This is not to state that the media is necessarily a positive motor of change, bringing in democracy and liberty, for the media in Pakistan has played a dangerously reactionary role as well. Some have argued that the media trapped the assassinated governor of the Punjab into saying things that he did not mean, which resulted in his being killed. One must add that Pakistan’s democracy is a n ewly emerging democracy and comparisons with India, or even Bangladesh, are misleading. It is still in the stages of developing and only more years of civilian assertion will ensure that Pakistan actually becomes a democracy.
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