Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown

Iftikhar H Malik
19 November 2007

Pakistan's current political dilemma is both cyclical and exceptional. It arises from immediate political circumstances yet is rooted in its the country's six decades of history as a state. This combination of elements underlines the endemic nature and seriousness of the crisis.

Pakistan has long been misgoverned, by military regimes and political parties alike. But the latest phase of misrule involves even greater dangers than in earlier periods. The exercise of power in increasing swathes of territory along the border with Afghanistan by Taliban-style extremists, and the frequent bombings in the cities, signal the extent of current insecurities. The president-general, Pervez Musharraf, responds by arguing that even greater repression and control is necessary to secure the country. But the new forms of law and violence that are becoming routine indicate that Pakistan has moved out of his grasp, and that the way of governing the country which Musharraf represents has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Iftikhar H Malik is professor of history at Bath Spa University, England, and is also associated with Wolfson College, Oxford. He is the author of Crescent between Cross and Star: Muslims and the West after 9/11 (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Also by Iftikhar H Malik in openDemocracy:

"Musharraf's predicament, Pakistan's agony" (4 September 2006There are many aspects in Pakistan's fluid situation which deserve attention; some - such as the role of the military, of the political opposition, of the lawyers' protests, and of Washington, have been addressed in openDemocracy articles by Irfan Husain, Salman Raja, Shaun Gregory and Ayesha Siddiqa.This article adds another factor to this mix: the way that the effect of the bloody, stalemated "war on terror" in Afghanistan and across the Afghan-Pakistani border has been further to damage the Pakistani body-politic and spread insecurity through its institutions and citizenry.

If the source of much of Pakistan's crisis is in Afghanistan and the adjacent "Pushtun belt" of Pakistan, so must at least some of the ingredients of its resolution. Here, the circumstances of war and social change are the context in which a narrow, dogmatic strain of Islam vehemently opposed to the west has coalesced with a pervasive Pushtun resentment that a six-year-long United States-led military onslaught against their kith and kin across the border has reinforced. Musharraf's perceived subservience to American pressure in facilitating the US campaign, and in the deployment of his own forces to combat "extremism" (only to be met more often than not with humiliating defeat, enforced surrender or retreat, or face-saving deal-making), are interpreted by his enemies as evidence of weakness. The momentum is with the adversaries of Pakistan's state, who feel empowered that the tide of history is with them.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan's accelerating crisis:

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan signals red" (5 July 2007 )

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Salman Raja, "Pakistan: inside the storm" (9 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

Paul Rogers, "A Pakistani dilemma" (15 November 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

A problem of accountability

This is where the role of Pakistan's army becomes crucial: as a defender of "order" and "security", but also as the last line of defence for the beleaguered president-general himself. What is becoming clear is that these two objectives are now in tension. The army, after all, has its own extenseive interests to protect in the current situation: for it and the whole defence establishment has flourished as it accumulates physical and financial assets that give it an unaudited and unaccounted hold on the nation's resources and choices.

The Pakistani military elite's use of its wealth, power, foreign backing and intelligence networks to promote its own unilateral policy beyond democratic accountability is becoming less and less tenable. Two features of the current crisis highlight this. First, the extent of instability (which stretches from Balochistan to Waziristan and even now the scenic tourist area of Swat) and violence (which includes bomb blasts in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Tarbela and Sargodha) is unprecedented; among the lessons are a new degree of sophistication and acumen among the suicide-bombers, and a confusion among the army as to its proper professional role in countering such threats.

Second, an age of comparatively open media - typified by the internet, a crucial mechanism (via blogs and video-reports as well as newspaper websites and online forums) - has shattered the traditional control mechanisms employed so long by Pakistani regimes to maintain their untouchability.

In each case, the desire to centralise power and wealth, to subordinate society to a political and military elite, has helped create a counter-trend that in the long run can only frustrate it. The determination to protect privilege, control the country's destiny and make its security dependent on cooperation with with an ideologically driven Washington administration has proved incapable of guaranteeing social order and progress. Instead, there is pervasive bitterness among Pakistan's people, a sense of thwarted possibility.

The absence of legitimate mechanisms for the transfer of power in Pakistan has never been so manifest [Pervez Musharraf's replacement by General Ashfaq Kiyani (if that much-rumoured event indeed occurs) would only prolong the crisis, besides adding one more episode to a recurrent pattern. What Pakistan needs is something more fundamental: removal of the emergency's draconian laws, restoration of judicial independence and reinstatement of sacked judges, an end to curbs on the media, and the restoration of the 1973 constitution - followed by elections under the auspices of an independent election commission and untainted by intelligence agencies.

This is the minimum Pakistanis deserve. When they do, and restore a minimum of democracy and civil society to their national life, the next stage will be to examine the deeper causes of the misgovernance that has plagued them for so long.

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