Pakistan: shakier than ever before

Questions are being asked about the choices Pakistan has made over the past several decades, bringing it to the point where its very existence as a functional state stands threatened.

June 07, 2011 01:54 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:06 pm IST

If the first quarter of the year laid bare the extent of intolerance in Pakistani society following two high-profile assassinations over the blasphemy law, the month of May forced the nation to look at itself. Many have turned away from the reflection — blaming the mirror for what it shows up — but some have redoubled their efforts to question the choices that Pakistan has made over the past several decades, bringing the nation to the point where its very existence as a functional state has come into question.

No doubt, Pakistan has had more than its fair share of upheavals since 1947. But no one can recall a time when the system seemed so shaky as it is today with terrorism, sectarianism, rising intolerance, an economy that grew at 2.4 per cent in the outgoing fiscal, widespread and increasing poverty amid pockets of plenty bordering on profligacy, power and gas shortages, crippling inflation, little or no investment, high unemployment levels, flight of capital — ironically, enough, in some cases to Bangladesh — a fledgling democracy plagued with a hand-to-mouth existence… And, now, a security establishment exposed to the core by the events of May 2011.

It was as if the last façade had crumbled. Not so much by the biggest news of the decade — the quiet finale of the most extensive manhunt of history on May 2 in Abbottabad — but by the attack on the naval airbase, PNS Mehran, 20 days later. Six terrorists penetrated a high-security facility of the Pakistan Navy, destroyed two aircraft and held out against the elite forces of the armed services for well over 12 hours with two of them even managing to escape, ripping apart the painstakingly cultivated legend of the invincibility of Pakistan's men in uniform.

While the U.S. use of superior stealth technology was cited as a reason for its helicopters flying in and out of the country unnoticed to take out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the armed forces had no explanation for how such a high-security facility housing crucial assets of the Navy could have been breached so easily. They were left fumbling for answers, issuing clarifications stating that someone as senior as the Chief of Naval Staff had been misquoted by the media — a rarity in a country where the media are not known to take too many liberties with the armed forces. And, again, it was the civilian government which had to come up to do the fire-fighting vis-à-vis the public perception for something which has always been so out of its domain.

Though the budget of the military and intelligence agencies is beyond parliamentary scrutiny — a point flagged repeatedly by the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif — Parliament and the Defence Committee of the Cabinet were invoked to reiterate confidence in the capacity of the armed services and intelligence agencies to meet all threats to national security at a time when they were coming in for considerable ridicule. They were the butt of post-Abbottabad jokes — again a first — and the sarcasm got sharper after the PNS Mehran attack with people taking digs galore at the “specialized businesses” that the armed services have diversified into over the years including property, cement, fertilizers, bakeries and cornflakes; the message being these preoccupations leave them with little time to defend themselves, let alone the country!

But these jokes and caustic remarks like that of leading rights activist Asma Jehangir — who called the generals ``duffers'' and urged them to return to their barracks with whatever they have amassed and let people decide the destiny of this country — do not take away the reality that Pakistan has some hard choices to make. Some of this open criticism may tone down following the chilling murder of journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad — widely believed to have met his death at the hands of intelligence agencies for knowing too much — but the hard choices staring Pakistan in the face will not go away. And, even if addressed, they will take a long time to show some results as the need of the hour is to “re-engineer Pakistan” that has been built into a security state driven by a systematically manufactured hatred for India.

According to former Chief of Naval Staff Fasih Bokhari, Pakistan has interpreted the word “security” only in military terms. And “strategic depth” has always meant getting more territory while it should have essentially meant expansion of the economy. Stating that the blame game will not get the nation anywhere, he observed at a public discourse that Pakistan needs to review its national identity, figure out its national purpose — take it away from hatred for India — and identify vital national interests.

Pointing out that Pakistan opted to be an Islamic Republic, his question was “does that make us first Pakistani or Islamic?” More critically this, in his opinion and that of lawyer Basharat Qadir, constitutionally sanctioned religious discrimination in Pakistan and created two categories of citizens; one category more equal than the other.

Drawing attention to the muddle that has been created in the Constitution, columnist Adnan Rehmat says: “For starters, Article 25 in its Part II titled ‘Fundamental Rights and Principles of Policy' guarantees equality of citizens while Article 20 guarantees the freedom to profess and practise a religion of your choice. Article 17 guarantees the freedom of association and Article 26 promises non-discrimination. And yet in the Constitution's Part I, titled ‘Preamble,' Article 2 declares only one faith, Islam, to be the state religion while Articles 42 and 91(3) dealing with the oaths of the offices of President and Prime Minister mandate them to be only Muslims. This despite Article 8 guaranteeing that laws inconsistent with or in derogation of fundamental rights to be void.”

Now this is a fundamental question that is unlikely to be addressed in the near future. Truth be told, it is way too much of a hot potato to be even touched at the moment. Why, even speaking about it publicly has become a life-threatening issue, so much so that the Jinnah Institute — an Islamabad-based think tank — kept the Pakistani media out of a function organised this week to launch its report on the status of religious minorities in Pakistan.

In fact, the PNS Mehran attack has shown how deep and widespread the malaise is. It is now no longer a matter of speculation that the terrorists had inside help. Such an attack would not have been possible without it. As a reaction, the armed services have apparently banned the activities of ‘Tableeghi jamats' (Islamic preaching groups) in cantonments. But, even if cantonments are insulated from their influence, they are deeply entrenched in Pakistani society and the rank and file of the services are exposed to them everywhere. Then there is the use of what security analyst Imtiaz Gul describes as “Islamic motivation” within the forces. “What are we preparing the Army for? To defend Islam or Pakistan?” And, this conditioning runs through entire society; brought up as it is on a curriculum of doctored history, a never-ending search for strategic depth in Afghanistan and the “obsession” with “Enemy No. 1” India.

Given the ground realities in Pakistan, voices of reason — which say abandon Kashmir, give up dreams of making Afghanistan a Pakistani protectorate, let's rebuild Pakistan brick-by-brick — can at best flag these issues but taking on a radical ideology popularised by the state is not something civil society can do alone. This transformation has to be led by the state but, from all indications, it is still unwilling to make that course correction.

India remains the ‘Enemy No. 1;' providing the rationale for Pakistan having the fastest-growing nuclear programme in the world even as global concerns of it falling into the hands of terrorists is used by the propaganda machinery to whip up the spectre of the Hindu-Christian-Zionist axis tightening the screws on the country to take away the lone ‘Muslim bomb.'

According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of nuclear physics, Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme has become the ultimate weapon of blackmail. Even if Pakistan is at the tipping point, there are far too many weapons for even the U.S. to take out. “It can do very little to take them out because that would mean a full scale war with a nuclear power. Pakistan knows this and is using its nuclear weapons as an instrument of blackmail. Pakistan knows that other countries will rush in to pump money into this country to prevent it from collapsing for fear of its nuclear weapons.” And, terrorists — of varied hue and nationality — know this, too, as they seek safe havens in Pakistan.

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