A Delicate And Dangerous Moment In Pakistan
A Delicate and Dangerous Moment in Pakistan
Observing the rise of fascism in interwar Europe, Antonio Gramsci observed that there were times in which traditional politics were replaced by mass action, turmoil, and violent attempts to impose preferred ideological solutions. The situation was "delicate and dangerous" opening up the field to "charismatic men of destiny" unbeholden to the status quo ante. Such moments are rooted in what he called the "organic crisis of the state," in which compound fractures in the economy, society, and political order result in a complete divorce of the public from traditional sources of authority.
Such is the situation in Pakistan after the murder of Benzair Bhutto. Although a cacophony from self-styled terrorism experts has proclaimed it to be an act of terror, Bhutto's death was anything but. It was a targeted assassination designed to throw the political transition from military to civilian rule into disarray. The objective was to remove the most likely source of continuity in Pakistani elite politics and to eliminate the possibility of a deal being forged between the military government of Pervez Musharraf and his eventual elected successors. It was not designed to sow random fear in the Pakistani population (as the subsequent riots demonstrate), but instead, to thwart the plans of the local elite and their foreign patrons to construct an elected façade around ongoing oligarchic rule. The perpetrators--most likely Taleban or al-Qaeda militants tacitly abetted by kindred spirits within the Pakistani security services--may well have achieved their objective.
That aside, the more interesting aspect of the event is that it is merely a potential precipitant, not a cause, of Pakistan's disintegration. The causes of the organic crisis of the Pakistani state lie in its artificial origins as a post-colonial creation; the kleptocratic character of the Pakistani aristocracy (military and civilian); the failure to offer educational and economic opportunities to the masses that would fuel growth and upwards income redistribution and therefore reduce the appeal of extremists; the obsession with militarily keeping up with India; and the long-term and ongoing murderous flirtation with militant Islam. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which also plays both sides of the fence in the so-called "war on terror," Pakistan is a poor country in which all types of investment, foreign and local, has been on a long-term decline and in which capital flight has accelerated since 2001. It has no mineral wealth or revenue from other commodities that could pad state coffers and buy mass favour. It scores low on all human development indices. It remains technologically and socially underdeveloped relative to all but the most destitute nations. In the measure that India emerges as a budding economic power, Pakistan declines.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani elite pours money into personal bank accounts and military projects, including a nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan cannot afford to do so without further impoverishing its population, but with the connivance of the US and UK, it continues receiving millions of dollars in military equipment and aid because of its purported assistance in the war on Islamicist terrorism. The murder of Benzair Bhutto says much about how successful that support has been.
Given the dire economic situation, Pakistani society is rendered by clashes between secularists, tribalists and religious fanatics, all of whom claim to have a solution to the nation's myriad ills. Because the political oligarchy has traditionally been secular as well as profoundly corrupt, they have been losing ground to tribal and religious authorities unsullied by past politics of greed. Ideological conflicts extend deep into the security apparatus, resulting in both vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military, police and intelligence services. In fact, the struggle for the heart and soul of the security apparatus microcosmically replicates the larger struggles rendering Pakistani society as a whole. The problem is not just that Pakistani intelligence services are rife with pro-Taleban and Islamicist sympathizers. Control of nuclear weapons is at stake in the intra-service struggles. Although the warheads and delivery vehicles are kept separate as a matter of course and under Army control, and the US has provided a special security detachment to help protect the warheads and weapons grade uranium cache, it is unknown how comprehensive that security really is. Even it if it was, absolute security is an impossibility even in the best of circumstances--and Pakistan is far from that.
The solution to the crisis resides in forging a political pact between secular elements in Pakistani society. That means that both military and civilian elites will have to compromise and accept mutually second-best approaches to their common dilemma. They can do so because their common enemy is religious extremism, and because the rest of the world wants to see them succeed. The reason for the latter is that only a secular government will attract foreign investors and developmental aid as well as allay the security fears of Pakistan's neighbours about a potential spillover effect.
Elite political pacts have proven useful in other countries transiting from authoritarian to democratic rule. Costa Rica in 1948, Venezuela in 1958, Spain in 1973, and Uruguay in 1985--although the individual circumstances of these countries differed, the common use of elite pacts paved the way for the eventual consolidation of democracy. These are known as "foundational" pacts, in which new rules of the political game are hashed out and mutually agreed upon. In the case of Pakistan, any such pact must center on two issues: security and corruption.
From a security perspective, Pakistan's secular elites need to renounce their traditional rivalry with India, including support for irredentist Muslim movements in Kashmir and elsewhere. They need to engage India in mutual nuclear disarmament negotiations. They need to stop interfering in Afghan affairs. Most of all, they need to turn their strategic perspective inwards and gain effective control of their national territory, particularly the tribal hinterlands of the North and West and especially the border with Afghanistan. This will require re-directing the military's focus away from high technology weapons acquisitions prompted by the rivalry with India and towards counter-insurgency and low intensity conflict operations. Since the latter will involve bloodshed, resources directed into urban and rural infrastructure development in the areas in which extremism has taken root must accompany the shift in focus. In order to facilitate this carrot and stick approach, international material support will be essential.
The second issue that the Pakistani elites must confront is their own behaviour. Historically acting more as an organized white-collar crime ring than an aristocracy, Pakistan's elites--to include the Bhutto clan--have amassed ill-begotten wealth with callous disregard for the fate of their people. Their money comes not from the fruit of their own labours but from plundering state assets, skimming percentages on government contracts and engaging in cronyism in private sector transactions. That has opened the door for militant nationalist and religious challengers, who can claim with some degree of truth that the entire Pakistani system of authority owes its existence to its subservience to Western interests. For no other reason that self-preservation, elite business as usual must end, and that has to be brokered within the framework of a political pact.
The immediate signs are not promising. The Pakistan People's Party--the vehicle for the Bhutto family's dynastic pretensions--decided to anoint Benzair's husband Asif Ali Zardari and nineteen year old son Bilawal as co-leaders following her death. Known as Mr. Ten Percent for his kickback demands during his tenure as Minister of Finance during her first term in office, Zardari is a polo playing playboy with a roving eye and private penchant for scotch. As for Bilawal, his age and cocooned youth spent in private boarding schools abroad and now Oxford ill-suits him for the rough and tumble politics of his birth country, at least for the time being. Returned former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group), has a dubious record of courting extremist religious factions, ordered the first Pakistan nuclear weapons test in 1998, and started the ill-fated Kargil War against India before being deposed the Pervez Musharraf in 1999 on corruption charges. Another opposition leader, Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain and leader of the movement for Justice (PTI) party, has displayed more personal cowardice and vanity than courage over the past few years, and is unlikely to attract more than sycophantic support from people enamored of his cricketing prowess and jet setter lifestyle.
That leaves former General Pervez Musharraf as the default option. It is unlikely that he had a part in Bhutto's murder because he had the most to lose in that eventuality. His already tenuous legitimacy has been glaringly exposed, and even if he continues to receive public support from the High Command (most of whom he helped select), it would not be surprising if the military leadership decided to withdraw its vote of confidence in him as national leader. They can only do so, however, if they have the makings of a political pact and revised timetable for electoral transition on the table. That remains to be seen.
India has much to lose if Pakistan spirals into chaos. Beyond having to deal with calls from Hindu militants to root out Muslim activists within India in order to prevent the "Talebanisation" of Indian society, it will have to act to safeguard its national security, which means armed intervention against Pakistani nuclear weapons sites. In order to forestall that terrifying prospect and prevent a major border war, the international community--read the US and UK--will have to intervene with force. That raises the possibility of a larger regional conflict and certainly makes efforts to stabilize Afghanistan more difficult. China will not stand idly by while its southwestern borders are threatened.
Thus India and the wider international community have to play a moderating role, pushing secular moderates within Pakistani political society towards compromise solutions to the current impasse. India may offer a return to disarmament talks if a domestic political pact can be brokered, and in concert with other powers it can offer developmental aid to its weaker rival as a gesture of peace and reconciliation. Above all, the international community must use diplomatic leverage to convince Pakistan's elite that its very survival as a nation-state is at stake unless a secular political pact is reached.
The situation is, therefore, delicate and dangerous but not yet hopeless. What is needed is enlightened leadership, both foreign and domestic, to hammer out an acceptable compromise to the issue of Pakistani governance. Re-direction of the military's strategic perspective is essential. The hardest part will be to convince Pakistani elites that their own survival depends on their abandoning the politics of corruption and self-service which has been their trademark since independence. Formal agreement on universal self-restraint amongst secular elites when in government, in other words, is the key to an orderly electoral transition and post-authoritarian rule. Anything short of that opens the door to unknown charismatic men of destiny--and those men may well come from the Taleban or al-Qaeda.