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Home > News > Columnists > Harold A Gould

Pakistan: Will the fatal cycle continue?

December 12, 2007

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The political meltdown in Pakistan continues to send shock waves through the White House, the American foreign policy establishment in general, and indeed throughout the West because, on the surface, there seems to be no end in sight.

Even after a phone call from US President George W Bush [Images] followed by the hasty visit of Deputy Secretary of State John D Negroponte to Islamabad, the best that the US could do was extract a pledge that elections would be held but only under the aura of continued 'emergency rule,' where obviously they would be rigged to favor the dictator.

Clearly all this signifies the demise of whatever hope was left that the dictatorship General Pervez Musharraf [Images] imposed on his country eight years ago was destined to lead Pakistan into the green pastures of liberal democracy, as Musharraf had pledged.

It has led instead to political disaster both from the standpoint of American strategic interests and the hopes by the Pakistani middle-class that popular government was only a step away.

The most recent succession of American administrations (Bill Clinton [Images] and Bush), much as had their predecessors, bought the old siren song that the quick fix of military rule was in America's strategic interest; they invested billions of dollars and mountains of political capital in it, only to see it come crashing down in shambles, just as had been the case with every previous attempt to create a stable, politically viable Pakistani state by fiat, from the top down, instead of painstakingly cultivating it from the ground up the way its neighbor, India, has done.

As Jim Hoagland recently put it in the Washington Post: 'The [current] struggle is now more about power dynamics than about restoring democracy, which never sank deep roots in Pakistan.'

This, of course, is the essential point. You don't create civil society overnight, nor do you mandate it at the behest of paternalistic military dictators. The right conditions and resources upon which the edifice of democracy can be erected have to be created and sustained at the grassroots. This was never allowed to happen in Pakistan by the oligarches who rose to power after the country's creation in 1947. Instead, these feudal, bureaucratic and military factions, cloaked themselves in the garb of Islamic pseudo-theocracy, then squandered unlimited political opportunities to build real democracy for more than half a century and thus follow the path toward a mature polity and secular state which India successfully coursed.

They were aided and abetted in this undertaking by America's Cold War and anti-terrorism obsessions which, whatever their merit, blinded it to the historical, cultural and strategic realities that were driving South Asian politics.
It is this failure to realistically confront the social complexities of the region, which required the pursuit of consensual politics and genuine democratic institutions, as India did, that ineluctably led to dictators like Musharraf.

This did not happen overnight by political chance or short run 'opportunism' and 'corruption'; it is a systemic problem; the byproduct of having made the wrong political choices at the outset of Pakistani independence, and succumbing to the shallow rationalisations for doing so emanating not only from the perpetrators themselves but from the mainstream media and press, as well as the American foreign policy establishment, who justified them on the grounds of Realpolitik' -- the compulsions of the Cold War and terrorism, and the claim that the maintenance of 'order' was more essential than facing the messy business, as India did, of gradually building political consensus among the country's diverse sociocultural groups by providing a secular arena where the differences among them could be bargained out.

In short, the spectacular events now unfolding in Karachi and Islamabad have a history that must be appreciated in order to make sense of them; they are classic manifestations of how in politics, as indeed in life, the past is invariably prelude.

It is the price Pakistan is now paying for more than two generations of a misbegotten belief that the profound ethnic, cultural, linguistic and historical differences between Punjabis, Bengalis, Baluchis, Sindhis and Pathans could be papered over behind the facade of a unitary State based upon one language (Urdu) and legitimised by a shallow version of politicised Islam promulgated by a junta of Punjabi generals and colonels, outdated imperial bureaucrats, and feudal landlords.

They are the reason why Pakistan transited from Jinnah to Pervez Musharraf. For Musharraf is not the first but merely the latest in a string of military dictators which Pakistan has cast up since its birth in 1947. So in principle there is nothing new here; the present situation has followed a well-established pattern in Pakistani political history.

Musharraf had three predecessors each of whom frustrated and aborted the growth of viable civil institutions and resultantly paved the way for him, and provided the institutional basis for his staying power. Ayub Khan started it in 1958 and endured until 1969; Yahya Khan followed in 1970 and lasted long enough to perpetrate genocide and secession in Bangladesh, and military defeat at the hands of India.

After an interlude of struggling popular democracy, achieved under Benazir Bhutto's [Images] father (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), who eventually was judicially murdered for his efforts, Zia-ul Haq mounted the dais in 1977 and reigned for 11 years until still unnamed assassins did him in. Finally Musharraf ended another interlude of civilian government under Nawaz Sharif with his coup in 1999.

In each instance Pakistan's military dictators rose to power by promising 'order' and a vague, paternalistic kind of 'Islamicised,' partyless government which Ayub Khan disingenuously termed 'basic democracy.' In the words of Husain Haqqani, 'Ayub Khan wanted Pakistani nationalism to reflect pan-Islamic aspirations and a fear of Hindu and Indian domination.' (Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military)

In this vein, as well as with the variations on this theme that each subsequent dictator initiated, the aim was to create the illusion of representative government without the substance, so that real political power could remain in the hands of the military-bureaucratic-feudal nexus. In all four instances the outcome was the same: Military dictatorship worked in the short run; it made the trains run on time, as the old cliche goes. But in the end the allure of absolute power corroded what honesty and integrity existed among the generals and the colonels just as surely as open politics allegedly had done among the civilian politicians whom the generals and colonels deposed.

The Nawaz Sharif-Musharraf political interlock was merely the most recent manifestation of this fatal danse macabre, which has lain at the heart of Pakistan's half-century long political pathology. And of course each cycle squandered more precious years during which party-structured, open politics might have been able, not unlike its neighbour, India, to evolve into a workable civil society.

What is even more tragic is that US diplomacy, which might have made a difference, instead acted as an enabler of authoritarianism by pursuing a militarised grand strategy almost exclusively fixated on short-term tactical results when what Pakistan has always needed if it is to avoid political self-destruction is comprehensive social reform.

The question now remaining is what does the future hold for Pakistan? Will the fatal cycle continue? Clearly it is poised in such a fashion that at least three outcomes are possible.

1. Pakistan can revert to another round of military dictatorship. General Musharraf and his cohorts are clearly trying to rig the system to make this possible by refusing to de-link January's promised elections from Emergency Rule. The Pakistani military-economic complex is so deeply entrenched that this may indeed in the end be the outcome. As Ayesha Siddiqa (a security analyst and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy) has pointed out, the Pakistani military controls almost half the country's economy. They have a lot to lose from meaningful political reform; but what they need to realise is how much more in the long run they are destined to lose by standing pat.

2. Because clinging to the old pattern may well result in 'mullahocracy' after military dictatorship once more has run its inevitable course towards political collapse. In the absence of a consensus between the military and moderate forces, the only remaining alternative is civil war between the gathering storm of Taliban extremism and what is left of civil society. Nobody can predict what this might yield, but a nuclear-armed jihadist state cannot be discounted.

3. Finally, there is a third alternative, which may not be as farfetched as some might imagine. This is the rise and eventual triumph of South Asian political culture over the forces of radical Islam and Punjabi militarism. By South Asian political culture, I mean traditions of political and ethno-social accommodation which reach back to the origins of South Asian civilisation, and which have enabled its great regional subcultures, regardless of their differences, to retain their individuality and sanctity within the ambit of central systems which regardless of doctrinal orientation acknowledged the need for political consensus. All of the successful pre-modern states, whether Hindu or Muslim, achieved this intercultural modus vivendi. India has achieved it in modern times.

The critical variable for Pakistan at this crucial juncture, therefore, is whether the contemporary and rapidly growing Pakistani middle-class, which values political accommodation (the South Asian political model) over a continuation of theocratic militarism and anti-Indian obsessions can maneuver the army back to the barracks where they belong, and confine the mullahs to the mosque, where they belong.

A daunting challenge, to be sure, but no longer an impossible dream in the face of the social changes the global economy and the information revolution have wrought.

Harold Gould is a visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia.


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