Today Pakistan is regarded simply as 'the world's most dangerous place' but the story of how it got there is not nearly so simple as commonly depicted, writes Mosharraf Zaidi These days, there is never a dull moment for Pakistan. At home a plane crashes and thousands have died in flooding; around the world, from Times Square to London and Afghanistan, Pakistan is implicated in violent attacks. There is ethnic violence in Karachi, sectarian violence in Kurram, and full-on warfare between the Islamist radicals of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) and the people of Pakistan in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad.
The longevity of Pakistan's reign as the source and the setting for some of the world's most spectacular violence is breathtaking. Terrorism, gang warfare, ethnic and sectarian strife - Pakistan has it all. But in this, at least, the country is not unique: the community of nations has its share of basket cases, and yet their woes aren't front-page news every day of the week. With the release, on July 25, of the WikiLeaks "Afghan War Logs", Pakistan's problems again took centre stage. The documents, a massive collection of raw on-the-ground reports from American forces in Afghanistan, lent further weight to the most persistent and most damaging allegations against Pakistan and its powerful spy agency, the Directorate for Inter Services Intelligence (ISI): that the country is an unreliable ally, a duplicitous state that has authored its own misery and exported instability both near and far.
Pakistan has three key neighbours - India, Iran and Afghanistan - all of whom share a deep and abiding mistrust of the country's formal institutions. In the mainstream Indian media, Pakistan is little more than the home of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist group regarded as the perpetrator of violence in Kashmir and the organising hand behind the traumatic massacre of more than 150 people in Mumbai in November 2008. In the eyes of Afghans, the Pakistani government is responsible for a great deal of the violence and instability that has defined Afghan life for the last 30 years. In Iran, Pakistan is a place where Shiites suffer at the hands of Pakistan's Saudi-backed Sunni establishment.
Is Pakistan really "the most dangerous place", as it has been dubbed by innumerable newspapers and magazines, and now in a new book of the same name by the veteran Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul? The short answer is yes.
But the short answer only tells us so much. Understanding the problems of Pakistan requires more, despite the bottomless appetite among journalists, analysts and diplomats for easy-to-digest accounts of the country. In the wake of the WikiLeaks release, conversation about Pakistan has returned to the thorniest and most opaque of the country's problems: the status of the ISI, and the relationship between the government of Pakistan and its army and intelligence services, on the one hand, and between the ISI and the extremist groups it helped nurture. But these are not new questions, and the sincerity of the ISI has long been front and centre in any discussion of Pakistan.
Near the end of The Most Dangerous Place (Penguin, Dhs41) - whose title refers specifically to the legal no man's land inside Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) - Imtiaz Gul turns his attention to the ISI and its connections to extremist groups inside and outside of Pakistan, a history that dates back to the US and Saudi-financed jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As a reporter, Gul has few equals in Pakistan, and he relates a slew of accusations - in many cases detailed and well-supported - against the ISI, painting a rich and realistic picture without hysteria or exaggeration.
To situate the ISI within Pakistan, Gul reaches back to 2006, and to a quote from General Pervez Musharraf, speaking with an American television reporter. "Remember my words," Musharraf said: "If the ISI is not with you and Pakistan is not with you you will lose Afghanistan." To Western eyes, statements of this sort are little more than veiled threats, attempts at leverage that only confirm American suspicions of ISI complicity in the Afghan Taliban's war against Nato and US troops. But Musharraf, purposely or not, was making a more profound observation: to demonise the ISI was to demonise Pakistan. For better or for worse, the ISI remains a reflection of Pakistan's military, and that military, regardless of its complicated internal dynamics, is a reflection and extension of Pakistan's government. The government, however badly managed, and however dramatically disconnected from the people of Pakistan, in turn reflects their votes and - again, however badly - represents 180m Pakistanis. Writing this week in the New York Times, the novelist Mohammed Hanif captured this reality well, noting that the news media had come to a full-throated defence of "their spies". "Suddenly," he wrote, "the distinction between the state and the state within the state was blurred. It is our ISI that is being accused, we felt."
It boils down to this: Pakistan's interests in Pakistan and in the region are simply not the same as those that the US and other Nato powers have. Unlike alliances that go back a long way and seem to endure all shades of politics, like the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States, Pakistan's relationship with the United States is decidedly inorganic. To stimulate each other the right way, the United States pays the Pakistani military, and gingerly, its civilian government, to put the squeeze on the safe havens for bad guys in Pakistan that are targeting US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.
The message this sends to the Pakistani military and civilian elite could not be more clear. As long as Pakistan is a central and vital instrument for the military needs of the US and the part of the international community that is engaged in Afghanistan with it, there is money to be had. The financial transactions that ensure Pakistan's reluctant help for the US and Nato in Afghanistan are not a matter of pride for most Pakistanis. To the contrary, this unnatural relationship deepens suspicions about America's intentions in the region.
For months now, one of the pet subjects for foreign correspondents based in Islamabad (or those based in New Delhi who cover Pakistan) has been the rabid anti-American sentiment that grips Pakistani cities. Western reporters and readers are understandably fascinated with the proliferation of conspiracy theories that grip Pakistan's middle classes, who now regard everything that the West does with suspicion and cynicism. For American and British taxpayers, this is the height of ingratitude, a churlish response to the billions of dollars in aid delivered to Pakistan.
What is less visible to those outside Pakistan, however, is the brutal reality of terrorism inside the country, which has now ravaged rural and urban areas alike, claming the lives of some 30,000 Pakistanis, most of those in the years since 2007. In his preface, Imtiaz Gul provides an eye-witness account of this expanding terror, describing the massive bomb detonated outside the Islamabad Marriott in September 2008 - as he sat outside at the rear of the hotel. "Once safely out," he writes, "I looked back to see the inferno spreading over the building. Hell had arrived in Islamabad, the leafy capital of Pakistan."
The sense of shock and horror that has taken hold among Pakistanis cuts across class, language and political ideologies. For veteran observers of Pakistan's government and military, like Gul, the carnage simply reflects the building - and inevitable - conflict, now an all-out war, between the state of Pakistan and the holy warriors and violent extremists it once nurtured. For the average Pakistani, however, this war continues to be perplexing. Pakistani Muslims are a lot more relaxed about their faith than Arabs, but religion is still a central part of private and public life in Pakistan. Between people's innocent and peaceful commitment to their faith, and the political exploitation of religious symbols by state organisations - Pakistani, US and Saudi - is a dangerous space. This vacuum is where confusion reigns supreme. Convinced that "good Muslims" couldn't possibly commit these dastardly acts, many ordinary Pakistanis gravitate to the comforts of conspiracy.
It doesn't help that the vocal English-speaking Pakistaniintelligentsia often confuses its westernised lifestyle - and its inclination to bomb its foes "back to the stone age" - with actual liberalism. In the absence of more credible mainstream voices, these trigger-happy Pakistani neocons have led the way in constructing a narrative opposing violent extremism, but these efforts have predictably and repeatedly failed to gain traction. Despite glorious opportunities to wrest the initiative - like the brutal occupation of Swat by terrorist groups during the spring of 2009, or multiple attacks on mosques and tombs - this clash-of-civilisations bluster falls flat on Main Street in Pakistan.
Compounding the battle for the narrative is the democratically-elected government in Islamabad. Though its own value-system is tribal and feudal, it is loaded with hawkish pro-war advisers, none of whom have constituencies of their own, and all of whom seem eager to address the country's problems with larger and larger helpings of raw military force. Violent religious extremists are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. In surveys, Pakistanis are quite categorical in their rejection of al Qa'eda, of the use of suicide bombings and the war waged by the TTP on the nation. But the militants wreaking havoc in Pakistan have little need for the public's support. Gul deftly describes one attempt to bring religious leaders together, in December 2009, to establish a consensus in opposition to suicide attacks. "Despite its good intentions," Gul writes, "the entire exercise meant little in concrete terms. At this point, no religious decree or legal order will deter militants from executing their mission."
Pakistanis hate the TTP, the al Qa'eda spin-off that has declared war on the people, the government, the military and the intelligences services of Pakistan. But these same Pakistanis see a clear distinction between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban, precisely because they do not regard the conflict in Afghanistan as an ideological one. It is therefore vanishingly unlikely that the state, military, or civilian population of Pakistan will sever ties with the Taliban across the border.
The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan is so deep and thick that it is difficult to believe that Americans ever thought it could be ended. Gul's book recounts the stealth with which Naseerullah Babar, who was Benazir Bhutto's go-to guy on national security, helped cement the relationship between Pakistani spies and Afghanistan's puritanical Islamist revolutionaries from Kandahar in the early and mid 1990s. In meticulous detail, Gul explains just how the ISI led Pakistan's engagement with the Taliban, helping to train farmers, rebuild roads and establish a telecom network that was overlaid on Pakistan's own national grid. In a classic exposition of what ails Pakistan's institutional landscape, Gul describes the manner in which the military and ISI almost completely monopolised the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul: civilian officials in Pakistan's foreign ministry, stationed at the embassy in Kabul, were frozen out of the picture by the ISI and military.
This is the quintessential truth about Pakistan. For 63 years, the military has essentially stuck its hand into every single cookie jar in public life. It has taken all the cookies, and left behind crumbs. These crumbs are the tattered, broken and dysfunctional systems, processes and mechanisms of basic governance. Pakistan's economic, social and political problems, without fail, can be summed up by this simple fact. The military's meddling has dislocated, disincentivised and defaced the basic institutions required to sustain a robust democracy.
The most important of these institutions are parliament, the bureaucracy and local government. Throughout Pakistan, at both the national and subnational levels, military rule in Islamabad has sought to use all three institutions to justify, validate and sustain power. At those moments when military rule has subsided, these institutions have reliably and self-destructively battled one another. The cancers that eat away at the basic effectiveness of government are much deeper and complicated when we try to examine FATA, the place that Gul's book is really about, "Pakistan's lawless frontier".
The constitution of Pakistan does not apply in FATA. Instead, the area is governed by a set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations, established during the British Raj - when the tribal leaders were allowed to administer their own justice. For Pakistan's ruling elite, FATA serves as a buffer between Pakistan and Afghanistan - helping to keep the matter of the contested border safely unresolved. FATA has always been, and still remains, a black hole where everything is permitted - drug smugglers, kidnapping gangs, murderers and mercenaries all seek and find refuge there, because the Pakistani police have no authority in the territory. Within Pakistan, FATA is referred to as ilaaqa ghayr - literally "strange place", but more poetically, "the place where anything goes".
The failure to establish any modern legal framework in FATA is only the most glaring of Pakistan's institutional failures, though it may be the most costly. Analysts have long speculated about whether the government will ever manage to plug the legal black hole there, and Gul has a succinct and depressing answer: "The government is finding it hard to completely replace the FCR with the normal laws of Pakistan in FATA because of stiff opposition from strong pressure groups like the civil bureaucracy and the maliks. Under the current system, bureaucrats and maliks constitute a privileged class. That is why most of them want to retain much of the FCR and tailor amendments to restrict their scope."
This then, is where Pakistan stands today. Its institutions destroyed by regular military interventions, security ravaged by terrorists, torn internally by competing narratives, and run like a personal piggy bank by the combination of myopic politicians and bureaucrats that cannot see past their own noses. Pakistan is a super-sized country. Within the morass of institutional decay, ideological confusion, and violent chaos, the country somehow manages to keep ticking. Natural disasters get dealt with in a stunningly effective partnership between the military, civilian government, and a civil society that is robust, diverse, and extends far beyond the hackneyed NGO culture that dots Islamabad's posh neighbourhoods.
Pakistan, for all its backwardness, did in fact manage to produce, and protect a nuclear arsenal. While the country's infrastructure is desperately inadequate, the network that does exist is not reminiscent of a sub-Saharan country on the brink of liquidation, but rather an emerging market that's been horribly, horribly mismanaged. The institutional decay is not inevitable, and there have been glimmers of hope for its reversal. A two-year long agitation, led by the legal community and supported overwhelmingly by an emerging urban middle class, helped restore an unjustly dismissed chief justice in March 2009. In April this year, parliament passed 102 changes to the constitution in a reforms package called the 18th Amendment Bill, which effects a radical decentralisation of power and may restore the lustre to the bright spots of Pakistan's original federal structure. Since 2002, Pakistan's electronic media has exploded, offering nearly 30 news channels and a range of almost 70 different channels of entertainment, ranging from the sacred (religious programming) to the often profane (political talk shows, Pakistan fashion weeks, and multiple music-video channels, and even more religious programming).
Most of all, change in Pakistan is being manufactured in its cities. It is not always pretty. The emerging middle class in these cities is nationalist, insecure about its Muslim identity and concerned that the rest of the world wants to dominate Pakistan, and strip it of its traditions and culture. Still, like all middle classes, its primary preoccupation isn't being the flag-bearer for Pakistani morality, but being the country's bread-winners.
It was the arrival of terrorism in the cities - and among the middle classes - that precipitated the dramatic shift in the military's own attitude toward domestic terrorists. As Gul writes: "When the militants moved the war into urban centers, attacking civilians and the security forces alike, in the latter half of 2008, the GHQ [Army headquarters] finally woke up." But Gul knows that the GHQ can only do a sliver of what's needed for Pakistan. Sure, it can help US forces devise an exit plan that doesn't spoil President Obama's domestic political agenda. It can even help scorch the earth, to clear safe havens for terrorists. But the most positive thing about Pakistan in 2010, amid all these disasters, is that the military is still reeling from the bloody nose it got when last it took power under Musharraf. Even the military knows that it cannot stimulate the economic revival the country so desperately needs; it knows that the bureaucracy requires reforms that can only be enacted by politicians, and that those same politicians are the only people capable of negotiating the difficult existential questions now facing the country. The shotgun wedding between the United States and Pakistan has empowered and enriched the military and political elite, but the resulting marriage may not last far beyond the current phase of US and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Then, perhaps, Pakistan might turn its attention to devising Pakistani solutions to Pakistani problems, to bringing about the profound changes needed in its own institutions - and when these come to pass, finally, Pakistan might have a shot at being a valuable and reliable country, for its own people, for its neighbours and allies, and for the rest of the world.
Mosharraf Zaidi has served as an adviser to governments and international organisations on the delivery of aid in Pakistan and Afghanistan.