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The state of Pakistan

Irfan Husain
21 May 2006

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, has of late come to resemble a politician on the campaign trail in desperate search of re-election. In the process, he is making rash promises and savaging the opposition, even though there will be no elections until October 2007.

But more importantly, he is seeking to bolster the ragtag coalition of parties supporting him in and out of parliament. In particular, he is urgently attempting to cement the gaping cracks in the rump faction of the Muslim League that backs him. For this, he is obliged to delve deep into the cesspit of Pakistani politics, a sure measure of how keen he is to hang on to power.

A sign of this is his reported promise to a group of MPs from Punjab that he will halve the prices of essential food items through state subsidies. His hapless prime minister, banker Shaukat Aziz, must have cringed at this bit of populist sloganeering, as he is presumably better acquainted with the laws of supply and demand than his military boss.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, where a version of this article was published on 20 May 2006

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

The general also lashed out at the "charter of democracy" signed by the opposition leaders (and former prime ministers) Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in London on 14 May, calling it "a political gimmick" and its architects "enemies of democracy". In response to a question, however, he confessed he had not read the document. And yet, the main thrust of the charter – due to take effect on 2 July – will no doubt irritate him when he gets around to reading it, as it asserts a determination to bring the army under civilian control.

Another sign that Musharraf is in campaign mode is that in the 25 April "reshuffle" the cabinet was swollen to nearly eighty ministers. In part, this also reveals Shaukat Aziz's political weakness: lacking a constituency, he is forced to bribe parties, factions and individuals by allotting them ministerial portfolios in exchange for their support.

In nearly seven years in power since his coup of October 1999, Musharraf has nothing to offer except more of the same, and people are simply tired of hearing promises from the same person. It is certain that they will hear the same pledges from Musharraf's eventual successor – but whoever that is, they are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt for a few years before the cycle is repeated.

The military mind

Musharraf's seizure of power was soon followed by a seven-point agenda (or was it five points, or nine? Who remembers – and more to the point, who cares?). In any case, the programme was soon dumped in the black hole where all political promises are lost for eternity, and its elements no longer resonate in the public consciousness. In proposing it, Musharraf was making the familiar mistake of all military rulers before him (and probably after him): confusing the might of the military with the ability to make things happen outside the barracks.

This error of judgment also reveals a potent truth that Pakistan's political class need to understand and register. Political power is a far more elusive thing than the announcement of military orders. To exercise it effectively, a leader must be able to coax and cajole as well as command. The military mind, however, only understands the latter. This is revealed in the natural cycle of dictatorship: in its early days, a policy of "shock and awe" can work, as the opposition is cowed; but when after a while the uniformed rulers are revealed to be just like their civilian counterparts (and less effective to boot), the novelty wears off and the dictator is seen as yet another power-hungry politician.

Every dictator faces two problems: how to win legitimacy, and how to stay in power. They are often intertwined, with the result that the dictator fritters away the bulk of his political capital by pursuing both ends simultaneously. This reinforces an endemic problem of authoritarian rule: when state power is used almost exclusively to perpetuate one man's reign, governance is ignored. The elaborate structure of the state is directed towards the benefit of the ruler and his immediate clique of supporters. The biggest beneficiary is the army which is the ruler's source of power, though civilian collaborators too are thrown a few crumbs to keep them on side.

When, as in Pakistan, this pattern is repeated time and again, it is inevitable that the authority of the state itself starts to dissolve. The government of the day comes to be seen as the biggest law-breaker of all, depriving it both of legitimacy and most of its deterrent powers. In such a situation, the flourishing of corruption and insurgency across the country (in Baluchistan as well as the northwest border with Afghanistan) comes as no surprise. People see those in power feeding at the public trough, and want to have their share. In their contempt for the enfeebled central government in Islamabad, they take up arms to solve real and perceived local problems, or to pursue ideological agendas.

So when the respected Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace rank Pakistan as ninth in the list of failed or failing states (alongside Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Haiti, and Afghanistan itself), Pakistanis need to reflect on why we are in this unwelcome company. Instead, most commentators here in Pakistan and several elsewhere have dismissed the report out of hand, often imputing bizarre motives to the authors. Instead of debating the factors that have led to the rankings, opinion and letters columns have been full of denunciations of the rankings.

Also on Pakistan's politics and conflicts in openDemocracy:

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet"
(March 2004)

Muzamil Jaleel, "Kashmir's bus ride to peace" (April 2005)

Paul Rogers, "The Pakistan risk"
(March 2006)

Maruf Khwaja, "The Islamisation of Pakistan" (April 2006)

Maruf Khwaja, "The Baluchistan battlefront" (February 2006)

The state breakdown

A state can be considered to have failed when its writ is ignored by the majority of its citizens. Consider this example: more than three years ago, Musharraf vowed to the world that he would bring the madrasas (Islamic seminaries) under control. The president, despite having an army of half a million as well as the entire state apparatus at his disposal, has been unable to do anything to change their curricula or get their accounts audited. Even his own ministers and senior members of the ruling coalition disagree with him on the danger these seminaries pose.

When the religious parties threatened to launch a movement against the government if it went ahead with its plan to drop the religion column in the new machine-readable passports, Musharraf immediately backed down. Similarly, he has expressed a commitment to building five dams (including the Kalabagh dam) by 2016 to address Pakistan's water-supply problems, but has shown signs of wavering after meeting fierce opposition to the project.

It is a good thing in politics to evolve a consensus. The problem in Pakistan is that Musharraf is unable to create such a consensus, and is forced to retreat from controversial decisions, because he does not have the power to impose his will even when he is convinced these decisions are good for the country.

What is evident on the macro level is also apparent on the micro. Pakistanis can see the breakdown of state authority around us in every facet of our lives. The lawlessness; the corruption and inefficiency of our courts; the chaos in our educational system; the disregard for the environment; the virtual collapse of the power grid in many areas; and the bureaucratic gridlock that has paralysed the country – all bear witness to how far Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf has sunk.

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