Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pakistan: Weimar Republic of Asia?

More than 3 years ago I wrote a piece asking whether Pakistan is a failed state or the Weimar Republic? At that time, i was still an optimist and thought it was probably neither. But I did say at the end:  (the original article is at the end of this post, to see it with hyperlinks go to http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/03/pakistan-failed-state-or-weimar-republic-omar-ali.html#sthash.0aDDDW0f.dpuf  ).

So much for the optimistic version. Since this is a post about Pakistan, it cannot end without some pessimism. The most dangerous element in Pakistan today is not the Islamist fanatics. It is the rise of China. Not because the rise of China threatens Pakistan or because Chinese hyper-capitalism or cheap Chinese products threaten our industry or our social peace or any such thing, but because it may inflate the egos of the military high command to the point that they lose contact with reality and try a high jump for which we are not yet ready (and may never be ready). It’s not that the high jump will get anywhere, but that the attempt may lead us into more trouble than we can handle. Jf 17 thunder

 I say this because GHQ, for all its pragmatic pretensions, has been known to overestimate their skill and underestimate their opponents.  If China was not truly a rising power, and if Pakistan did not have some real assets and advantages, we might have been safer in the long run. But since there is an element of truth in the paknationalists notions about China and the changing global balance of power, they may lose their balance.  All I am saying is GHQ is prone to flying off on a self-generated hot air pocket even when the situation does not encourage such optimism. When the situation actually has some positive aspects, there may be no restraining them. But, I remain an optimist. I think our own weaknesses may protect us from the fate of a much stronger and more capable country (Germany in 1940).

This year, things have taken a turn for the worse. According to a report (written months ago, so not cooked up after the event), a plan was hatched in London to depose Nawaz Sharif and bring in a new government under the supervision of the army. Who knows what the real details of the plot are (it may be that the army chief, for example, was not involved, but only some generals and retired adventurers put the script together) but it hit a snag on 14th August when Imran Khan failed to deliver his promised 100,000 motorcyclists to the "Azadi March". But not to be deterred by poor crowds, he has kept up the show and the civilian institutions of the state have failed to establish their writ in spite of court orders and blatant violations of the law by Imran Khan and Qadri (including a raid on a police station by Imran Khan himself, to free PTI workers being held there). Whether this failure is due to incompetence, collusion or fear of the army (likely all three), the insistent drumbeat of speeches (and their 24-7 amplification by most news channels) in Islamabad continues and the central government looks weak and ineffectual in spite of the support of most established political parties. This is not necessarily considered a negative in Pakistan, where the government, the police, the courts and the political parties are all corrupt to varying degrees and all have their hand in robbing and insulting the citizenry on a daily basis. In fact, some leftists (and not just leftists) who are not necessarily fans of Imran Khan or Qadri cannot help but be delighted by the scenes of policemen getting beaten up and "high authorities" looking like fools.

But unfortunately (or fortunately, if you happen to think that the demise of Pakistan is in fact a desirable outcome and the sooner the better) this humiliation is not being meted out to bring about more democracy or a Bolshevik revolution (itself a most undesirable event as far as I am concerned, but i am sure many friends disagree with that) but to bring in a new cycle of military rule (this time using the "Bangladesh model" of technocrat govt to mask the "military" part) and Paknationalist cleansing. This is an old dream. Since Pakistan does not seem to conform to the dreams of "true Pakistani nationalists" (too much "disorder", too many dirty politicians, too much "provincialism", too little discipline and too few white rings on trees) there is a recurring desire to try and clean the place up (the "Chakwal solution"). Shoot the corrupt politicians. Bring in "clean people". Break up existing provinces with their linguistic and cultural identities and replace them with "more efficient smaller provinces" and "pure Pakistani culture". Get rid of "Indian culture".  etc etc....of course there isnt just ONE dream. In actual practice, the dreamers have many different dreams. Some want an end to "fake democracy". Others want an end to democracy, period ("no political parties in Islam"). Some want Swedish Social Democracy but with more Islam and fewer naked women. Some want organic farming (with "extra people" being exported elsewhere perhaps, so that some sort of Vandana Shiva paradise can be re-established with a pre-1960 population level) while others want modern progressive agriculture (Jahangir Tareen). Some want to cut off the hands of thieves (with future troublemakers, but not the current lot, having their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, as per Quranic recommendations) while others just want more handouts. But the dreams converge on the desire to destroy the current "system" and replace it with a better one. Oh well, I guess the phrase I am looking for is "useful idiots" and lets leave it at that..

But thats not what triggered this post. What triggered this post is the notion that all this is itself a symptom of that good old social phenomenon "things fall apart".  It used to be the case that a general would just poke the president in the ribs and send him on his way (Sikander Mirza, literally poked in the ribs to encourage him to leave) and the political class and civil service would (overwhelmingly) fall in line and take orders. That was in "old Pakistan". That fell apart in 1971, but new Pakistan retained the institutional characteristics and ideological peculiarities of old Pakistan (in fact, they became more concentrated once the inconvenient Bengalis exited Jinnah's dream palace). General Zia conducted his coup without any fuss. Sure, he then had to hang Bhutto and flog tens of thousands to keep the show on the road, but at least the civil service remained fully loyal (Roedad Khan rising to become secretary general of the interior before retiring and writing about dreams going sour and now joining Imran Khan!). Generals Aslam Beg and Waheed KakaR did their thing via President GIK but by 1999 things were messier. At least one general went along with an attempted pre-emptive strike on the army by the prime minister before the old ways prevailed. But even that was smooth sailing compared to this farce. Now the army chief may not even be the main conspirator! Retired generals and (perhaps, if even half the rumors are true) some soon to be retired ones are trying one thing, the chief is trying another. The good old bureaucracy has long since splintered into various camps. The police is looking shaky. Old reliables of the deep state are present on all sides of the "revolution" and cannot seem to agree on one deep state script. The corrupt politicians are proving surprisingly resistant to "positive change". Journalists are in opposing camps. Media houses are openly fighitng each other. Even the main actors (Imran Khan and Qadri) dont seem to be on the same page. And to top it all, Punjab has one set of priorities and all the other provinces seem to have very different ones, not just amongst the people (where it was always thus perhaps) but even among the leaders of those provinces. Even the Taliban are not united any more. Is this a good sign or a bad sign?

In the short term, it must count as a bad sign. Whatever your politics (and if you are reading this in English on the internet, your politics are likely to be either paknationalist or leftist...or both; cognitive dissonance is not just a river in Egypt) the country as a functioning state needs certain institutions to function at bare minimum levels. Last year there was even hope that in Pakistan those institutions may be strengthening and may now include a superior judiciary, an election commission and a parliament, but thanks to Imran Khan and his "youthful" supporters, all that has been delegitimized very thoroughly. Still, that is India-level dreaming, forget about that. What about having a police force and a civil adminstration? what if you no longer have those either? that has not happened yet, but both are being battered as we speak. No big deal you say. They are corrupt, incompetent and useless anyway...mostly true, but then, they are all we have. What happens when they are gone? Some army officers and their cousins (which covers most of the Punjabi middle class) are probably going "you forget the army", but no, I didnt forget them. The army is the pride of Pakistan. Still disciplined, united, well armed, etc etc. But there has NEVER been a martial law in which they actually ran things at the local level. The country has always run (and never run too well, but it is what it is) using the civilian instittutions of the British Raj. Ideally, the aim would have been to remodel them over time into improved versions suitable for an independent democratic country, but what with ideological confusion and martial laws, that never really happened. So OK, they are pretty bad by now, even compared to British Raj standards. But they are all there is. Lose them and its over, Even if root and branch replacement is someone's aim, no replacement actually exists, so the question is academic.
Are we heading for that point? Please give your opinion in the comments.
My own feeling: we are headed that way and if this goes on, it could become irreversible. I am an incorrigible optimist, so I dont think its too late yet. If MNS survives AND actually learns some lessons and rules a little better (less reliance on police and gangsters, more inclusive and responsive government) AND his victory pushes intelligence agencies a little on the back foot, then institutions may come out a little stronger and more secure. But that seems increasingly unlikely (perhaps it always was, I dont know). If he does not survive this and we are to host the Bangladesh model, then things will look better for a few months (at most), then decay much faster than before as the emperor is seen to have no clothes. That will then lead to Paknationalists "doubling down", with the possibility that the full Chakwal solution may finally be attempted. Provinces will be broken up, political parties will be decapitated. "Bad journalists" and intellectuals will be arrested or exiled. The ideological vacuum will be filled with Paknatinalism, which is just too shallow and confused a construct on which to base a successful state. Chaos and/or war with India will follow as the cart follows the horse.
Too pessimistic? What do you think?



The old article from 2012 follows.

PAKISTAN: FAILED STATE OR WEIMAR REPUBLIC?

by Omar Ali

I recently wrote an article with this title that was triggered by a comment from a friend in Pakistan. He wrote that Pakistan felt to him like the Weimar Republic: An anarchic and poorly managed democracy with some real freedoms and an explosion of artistic creativity, but also with a dangerous fascist ideology attracting more and more adherents as people tire of economic hardship and social disorder and yearn for a savior. While the Weimar comparison was new to me, the “failed state” tag is now commonplace and many commentators have described Pakistan as either a failed state or a failing state. So which is it? Is Pakistan the Weimar republic of the day or is it a failed state?  For my initial answer, you can read the article in the News, but when that article was circulated among friends, it triggered some feedback that the blog format allows me to use as a hook for some further discussion and clarification.

Some friends disagreed with my contention that Weimar Germany was too different to be a useful comparison. Germany and Pakistan may indeed be apples and (very underdeveloped) oranges, but the point of the analogy was that the current artistic and creative ferment in Pakistan is not sustainable and just as the Weimar Republic fell to fascism (not to state collapse), Pakistan’s current anarchic spring is a prelude to fascism.

It’s a fair point, but I think the crucial difference between Pakistan and Weimar Germany that I should have highlighted is the decentralized and broken up nature of the polity, with so many competing power centers that it is very hard to imagine a relatively modern fascist takeover (which, I assume, is the danger we are being warned against).

To make this point clearer, let’s look at the power that is supposed to be the agency of incipient fascism in Pakistan; Liberals who fear a fascist takeover almost universally regard the military high command as the center of this fascist network. They may regard the Jamat e Islami, with its long history of organizing thuggish student and labor wings, its close alliance with the jihadist faction of the army, and its systematic (islamicized) fascist ideology, as the ideological center of such a takeover. But they expect the army and its intelligence agencies to be the actual executors of Pakistani fascism.  Thus, they point towards army apologists like Ahmed Qureshi and Zaid Hamid as propagandists who are preparing the ground for this supposed takeover.

But a closer look reveals a vast gulf between anarchic and incompetent reality and slickly presented “paknationalist” propaganda. The army’s “Islamist-fascist” wing has been pushed back by 10 years of American vetting of the high command that makes it hard to imagine a successful Islamist version of fascism. Of course, some leftists accept that, but believe that the threat was never from “Islamo-fascism”, but from good old fashioned fascism in the German and Italian mode, led by army officers in Western uniforms, not by the beards and their gangs. But that leads to two other problems; one is ideological, i.e. what will be the ideology of this fascist takeover? In Germany and Italy it was German and Italian nationalism, but Pakistani nationalism minus Islam is still too incoherent to be useful for this purpose (which is why the small sliver of educated westernized paknationalists who flock around army websites are so ineffectual and confused). But the critical missing component is not ideology (which can be created from very thin gruel if needed), the critical missing component is capacity; the army cannot even control its own agents in the tribal areas and South Punjab. It could not fix the electrical grid after running the system unchallenged by civilians for almost ten years. Its ministers and trouble-shooters ran a semi-functional Pakistan Railways into the ground during a similar period of direct military control. Even during martial law, they are forced to make deals with corrupt and useless politicians to keep other corrupt and useless politicians at bay. This, in short, is the gang that cannot shoot straight. They may be more capable in some areas than their detractors imagine (witness the efficient handling of the Raymond Davis families by the ISI or their ability to make nuclear bombs or advanced aircraft) but they really cannot make the trains run on time even if they do take over again. Their strong points are limited to a few areas (very good at milking their foreign patrons, for example) but their weak points are far too many and are getting worse. The threat is less serious than imagined.

 A lot of feedback comes from the opposite extreme: the people who are convinced that Pakistan is on an unstoppable slide to disaster. To these people, the army is less capable than I indicated. Since they believe that all other institutions have already become junk, the army is the last wall standing between the current disorder and total state collapse, and the army is not immune to decay. Since the army has been ruling the country in one form or the other for decades, it has become politicized and discipline, morale and professional competence are deteriorating. Add to that the fact that the army is now fighting a civil war against the very elements it created and lionized for years and is doing so without any ideological framework beyond conspiracy theories about Hinjews and CIA agents. This situation is not sustainable and the army itself will crash and burn at some point, with horrific consequences. Meanwhile, the country is splitting further on ethnic and sectarian lines and is always one step away from economic chaos. No one, not the army, not the mainstream political parties, not the intelligentsia, has a coherent framework in which they can disengage from Islamist millenarian dreams and rebuild the country as a more normal country “developing” country.

Again, some of the points are fair points, but I think the doom and gloom may be exaggerated. First of all, it is very hard to break up a modern post-colonial state. It’s been done, but it is not easy and it is not the default setting. The modern world system is heavily invested in the integrity of nation states and while some states do fail in spite of that, this international consensus makes it difficult to get agreement on any rearrangement of borders. In most cases, distant powers as well as surrounding neighbors find it more convenient to find ways to compromise within existing borders. Even a spectacular failure, like the collapse of the Soviet empire, actually ends up validating already existing borders rather than creating entirely new ones. The supranational structure of the Soviet Union collapsed, but its component nations remained almost entirely within their existing borders. In this sense, Pakistan does not have 4 separate ethnically and culturally distinct units joined by weak supra-national bonds. Even an extremely unhappy component like Baluchistan is not uniformly Baloch. In fact, Balochis are probably no more than half the population of that province. Sindh contains large and very powerful Mohajir enclaves that do not easily make common cause with rural Sindh. More Pakhtoons live in Karachi than in the Pakhtoonkhwa capital of Peshawar. Economic and cultural links (especially the electronic media) unite more than they divide. If nothing else, cricket unites the nation. In addition, the reach of modern schooling and brainwashing is not to be underestimated. Even in far flung areas, many young people have grown up in a world where Pakistani nationalism is the default setting.

Economically, the country is always in dire straits, but agribusiness and textiles are powerful sectors with real potential. More advanced sectors can easily take off if law and order improves a little and irrational barriers with India are lowered a little bit.  The nation state is not as weak as it sometimes appears to be.

 So much for the optimistic version. Since this is a post about Pakistan, it cannot end without some pessimism. The most dangerous element in Pakistan today is not the Islamist fanatics. It is the rise of China. Not because the rise of China threatens Pakistan or because Chinese hyper-capitalism or cheap Chinese products threaten our industry or our social peace or any such thing, but because it may inflate the egos of the military high command to the point that they lose contact with reality and try a high jump for which we are not yet ready (and may never be ready). It’s not that the high jump will get anywhere, but that the attempt may lead us into more trouble than we can handle.

 I say this because GHQ, for all its pragmatic pretensions, has been known to overestimate their skill and underestimate their opponents.  If China was not truly a rising power, and if Pakistan did not have some real assets and advantages, we might have been safer in the long run. But since there is an element of truth in the paknationalists notions about China and the changing global balance of power, they may lose their balance.  All I am saying is GHQ is prone to flying off on a self-generated hot air pocket even when the situation does not encourage such optimism. When the situation actually has some positive aspects, there may be no restraining them. But, I remain an optimist. I think our own weaknesses may protect us from the fate of a much stronger and more capable country (Germany in 1940).

- See more at: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/03/pakistan-failed-state-or-weimar-republic-omar-ali.html#sthash.0aDDDW0f.dpuf