Pakistan: Day 11680, Sunday

I have got to to get out of using my sleep cycle as a organizing principle of this blog. Who cares how much sleep I am getting or how long I lie awake at night before I fall asleep?

So, the title of this post comes from a great video piece in The Onion. It is a spoof on the numbered day coverage of the Iraq war. Here a TV reporter on the Line of Control between India and Pakistan tells about the non-events of the 11,680th day of the tensions between these two nuclear armed powers.

So let’s get to the interesting stuff: the War on Terror and Pakistan. The Fulbright conference talks on Sunday were about terrorism as it relates to Pakistan. The keynote address was given by Dr. Tariq Rahman, Distinguished National Professor at Quad-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and a 1995-1996 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Texas. Dr. Rahman’s official web page is a few years out of date, but he is an accomplished scholar and an outspoken voice for progressive Pakistanis. Many of the essays on his web site are well worth reading for a Pakistani perspective.

Rather than detail all the conference talks that I heard, let me instead summarize my impression of what is happening in Pakistan, vis a vis, the Taliban and Afghanistan. In addition to the talks at the conference, my impressions were formed by conversations at dinners, in meetings with academics after the conference, and in discussions with Pakistanis I met on the staff at the USEFP, including a delightful young woman who was born to a family of the warrior caste from the area around Islamabad. She accompanied me on a visit to the Physics Department at Quad-i-Azam University and I jokingly introduced her to my host as my bodyguard. To make this role seem plausible for this  beautiful, slender young woman, I added that she was trained in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. I learned about her warrior heritage on the ride home and suggested that maybe she was skilled in ten forms of ancient Pakistani martial arts. She laughed.

From an American perspective, Pakistan seems not to be a reliable supporter of the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also appears not to be particularly stable, with the appearance of a credible threat of a Taliban takeover of this nuclear armed country. Democracy has only recently returned to Pakistan but democracy here is nearly synonymous with family dynasty and corruption. The CIA is using Predator drones to attack al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan while the US military is using Predator drones to attack Taliban targets thought to be involved in the war in Afghanistan. These attacks have increased in frequency since Obama took office. The US claims that the Pakistani government secretly supports the drone attacks, but the Pakistani government denies this more and more vociferously. What is one to think?

First let me say that we created a lot of the instability in this region. I will not claim to have made a detailed study of the modern history of Pakistan, but when India sided more with the Russians and less with the US after WWII, the US adopted Pakistan as its ally in the region. As with our “allies” in South America over the years, this often meant lending our support to dictatorial military regimes in Pakistan.

And then along came an opportunity almost too good to be true, certainly one that the administration of Ronald Reagan (the person I thought would forever top my list of worst ever presidents) was not going to pass up. The Soviet Union was involved in trying to suppress a rebellion in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was “the Evil Empire” and here they were in a similar position to the one we were in in Vietnam. The Soviet support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong was a huge factor in our humiliating defeat in South Vietnam. Now it was payback time! With the help of the Saudis as financiers and ideological supporters, and with the Pakistanis and the Iranians supplying safe havens, we created and armed an army of Islamic fundamentalists and their comrades in arms against the Russians, the northern tribesmen/warlords/heroin producers of Afghanistan.

And, sure enough, we made the Russians pay. Their humiliating defeat was surely a key in the breakup of the Soviet empire. The Russians retreated to their more traditional boundaries and are now fighting to hold the line in Georgia and Chechnya. For reasons that make me doubt the sanity of our national leaders, we continue to press them even there. (One of my hot buttons lately: Do we really want to go to war (potentially nuclear war) with the Russians over Georgia? Not the Georgia that contains the city of Atlanta, but the Georgia that borders on the Black Sea with a population about that of the US state of Alabama and an area about that of the US state of West Virginia.  Then why are we considering offering Georgia membership  in NATO?)

But back to Afghanistan. Once the Russians left we declared victory and went home. But who did we think was going to take over in Afghanistan? And did we imagine a well armed group of Wahhabi inspired, fundamentalist Muslims to feel grateful for our help, much less form a moderate, stable government that would enter a strategic alliance with us against, say, Iran? And we had encouraged close ties between the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, the ISI, and the people who would come to power in Afghanistan, namely the Sunni fundamentalists, the Taliban.

Let’s face it. We made our bed here and now we are lying in it. If there is any silver lining here it is that maybe governments are starting to realize that supporting terrorists, even if you agree with their causes, or just want to have a proxy fight with an enemy, will come back to bite you. So India, under Indira Gandhi, supported and trained the LTTE. They paid her back by assassinating her son. This year, India did not interfere with the Sri Lankan government wiping out the LTTE. Pakistan has supported insurgents in Kashmir and Afghanistan and now find them attempting to take over Pakistan itself. The Pakistani Army is now in a push to destroy the Taliban in Pakistan. And we, having created the jihadist movement to punish the Russians, are now condemned to relive Vietnam in Afghanistan. Have we learned our lesson?

(A bit off topic, but maybe representing a light at the end of the tunnel: Some major party politicians in Tamil Nadu shamelessly and recklessly exploited the conflict in Sri Lanka in the recent Indian elections. Some went so far as to say that they would guarantee the creation of a separate state in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankan Tamils if elected. These politicians were uniformly and decisively defeated at the polls helping the Congress Party in India to form a stable government with no need for participation by extremist groups. Compare that to the fear-mongering that lead to GW Bush’s re-election in the US.)

Another problem the US has in Pakistan is in trying to identify the players. From my  talks with Pakistanis, the issue is that pretty much every Pakistani can be classified in many ways. Are they successfully engaged in the modern, Western-oriented, capitalist economy, or not? Are they successfully engaged in the traditional feudal economy, or not? (For example, I was told that it is not only the Taliban that want children not to go to school. There are many feudal lords that prefer their people ignorant, and thus easier to control, as well.) Are they Sunni? Sufi? Shiite? Christian? Hindu? Fundamentalist or moderate? Which of the many languages do they speak? What tribe do they come from? Are they Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, or Beluchi? Have they been displaced by war? Are they trained for war? By whom?

It was interesting to observe that the Muslims I met in Pakistan used the same language that I’ve heard Christians in the US use in regards the culture wars: “Who are XXX to decide what my faith is?” Substitute “Taliban” for XXX in the case of Pakistani Muslims and “fundamentalist Christians” in the case of US Christians. For the record, leading Pakistani Muslim religious leaders recently met and declared that suicide bombing was against Muslim law. They would have done the same thing for Predator drone attacks, but it is not Muslims carrying out these attacks.

One effect of these multiple ways of slicing the Pakistani populace is the apparent difficulty of reconciling agreements made with the government of Pakistan and the actions that actually take place in Pakistan. The Pakistani government mostly speaks for…the Pakistani government, and, with the restoration of democracy, secondarily for the progressive, West-leaning population. And “government” does not include the army, which seems to form its own semi-autonomous entity whose aims and goals are not always identical with those of the government. Many Pakistanis I talked to were concerned that the army was not serving the democratically elected government. They argued that if the army truly supported the government, then the army would have prevented the advance of the Pakistani Taliban toward Islamabad a long time ago. Several Pakistanis felt that the army’s lack of action conclusively demonstrated the army’s sympathy for the Taliban. The other issue raised was the competence of the military. Many claim that the military is entirely focused on the threat from India and thus the army’s weapons and tactics are inappropriate and ineffective for combating the Taliban guerrillas, despite the Taliban being a demonstrably greater threat to…whom? Of course, everyone I talked to were progressive Pakistanis, so the Taliban threat is to progressive Pakistanis, their lives and their modern way of living. They are the part of Pakistan the West supports, but they are not all of Pakistan. In fact, I am not sure just how much of Pakistan they do represent, population-wise. The respected Pakistani newspaper Dawn had a poll on its web site. The question, arising from a statement made  by a Taliban leader, was “Is democracy incompatible with Islam?” The Taliban leader’s answer was “yes” with the implication that the decisions of a democracy should always be subject to review by religious authority. When I last saw the poll, Dawn readers were about evenly split on the issue.

And then there are the leftovers from supporting the insurgency against the Russians in Afghanistan. After 9/11, we asked the Pakistani military to do a complete about face, from providing training and arms to the Afghan Taliban, to demanding the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban be wiped out. Under military rule, Pervez Musharraf mostly did stop supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but, as you  can imagine, this 1984 style shift of enemies left people generally confused and unsettled about us.

And speaking of 1984, we have now completed a rapproachment with Pakistan’s great enemy, India. We, of course, do not see it this way. We believe we can be friends with both Pakistan and India. The Pakistanis (and, I dare say, the Indians) probably do not see it this way. From the Pakistani perspective, it was one thing when both India and Pakistan had US sanctions against them because of their development of nuclear weapons. But now we have concluded a deal to end those sanctions on India, effectively admitting India to the legitimate nuclear club, but leaving Pakistan as a nuclear pariah. France rushed in to conclude a nuclear deal with Pakistan “in principle”, but the US Congress, not without reason, continues to pressure Pakistan on a number of fronts, the nuclear arms issue being one of them. You can imagine that, from a Pakistani point of view, there is now some uncertainty about whose side we are on.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the issue of corruption. Pakistanis  described the government in Pakistan as pervasively corrupt. Not that this is any different from any earlier government in Pakistan. The two most influential political parties in Pakistan, the current ruling party, the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), and the current opposition party, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) are considered essentially equally corrupt. Government posts are given to the supporters of the party that won the most recent election without much regard to experience or competence.  Government salaries are uniformly low, so using ones political appointment to maintain a standard of living commensurate to ones political appointment is a standard practice. As I will describe in a separate post, there was some discussion of a program to introduce recent advances in physics education to Pakistan. One person told me quite directly that I should not even think of doing it at a public university as most of any grant money would be siphoned away as “administrative costs” and end up in a politician’s pocket. This concern has also been raised by the US Congress is their deliberations about increasing military support to Pakistan.

I will say that democracy as practiced in Pakistan seems little different from democracy practiced in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The major parties are all associated with a family, kind of like The Godfather. So in Pakistan the PPP is the party of the Bhutto family. The current prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari, is the husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Probably the strangest example to a Westerner is the Congress Party in India. Congress was the party of Mahatma Gandhi. Then Indira Gandhi. Then Rajiv Gandhi. Now, Rajiv’s Italian born wife, Sonia Gandhi. The Indian electorate seemingly did not care that Ms. Gandhi was not even a native of India. Perhaps for this reason, Ms. Gandhi did not put herself up as prime minister, instead supporting the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh. (Or perhaps she had noticed that all the previous Gandhis had been assassinated? Or, given that Singh is an economist, maybe she channeled Clinton’s rule that “It’s the economy, stupid.” In any case, she remains both alive and the leader of the Congress Party.)  But Singh is getting on in years and recently had heart surgery. So, everyone expects that Singh will retire in a few years giving way to Rahul Gandhi, Sonia and Rajiv’s son.

You may have read recently about demonstrations in Pakistan that succeeded in restoring the ousted, respected, non-corrupt, chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. An independent and incorrupt judiciary is a necessary component of a true democracy, so this was good news, right? The Pakistanis I met agreed that the restoration was a good thing. But, in Paul Harvey style, I will now give you “the rest of the story.” The demonstrations were led by the leader, Nawaz Sharif, of the opposition party, the PML-N. Restoring the ousted chief justice seems like an appropriate thing for the opposition party to be doing. But there is more. It seems that both Mr. Sharif and the current prime minister of Pakistan, Mr. Zardari are under investigation for corruption. Conviction would disqualify the the guilty to hold public office in the future. So a subtext of Mr. Sharif”s leadership to restore the chief justice was to protect himself and his party. For, given the personal and family nature of politics in Pakistan, if Mr. Sharif were to be found guilty and unable to stand for election, not only would he and his family suffer financially, but also his political party. The reluctance of Mr. Zardari to reinstate the chief justice was along similar lines. If he were found guilty, then his family and party would be ruined. The expectation now is that with Mr. Sharif’s success in reinstating the chief justice, neither man will want to go to court, so some accomodation, bypassing the Supreme Court, will be worked out to forgive both men’s past corrupt activities, thus maintaining the (corrupt) status quo in Pakistani politics. And now you know…the rest of the story.

So what is the take away message about Pakistan? Are the Pakistanis the “good” guys or the “bad” guys? The take away message is that we Americans have to stop thinking in these simplistic terms. Life is messy. “Surgical” strikes aren’t, and, if they ever are, Big Brother will have finally taken over. Innocent civilians will always die in war. War will always be hell and lacking in moral certitude.  I have become profoundly less interventionist in viewpoint the more I have learned about the history of  US actions in Asia. Post World War II, we just do not have a good record of securing peace in Asia. And I would say that a big reason for that is that we do not know enough about Asia to appreciate what is really going on. And until we do, we should resist easy categorizations and keep our military at home.

Hmm. Why did I think you  would be any more interested in that diatribe than my sleep habits? I will have to think this over before I post again…



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