Pakistan is today the international equivalent of a Monty Python sketch on the lines of the Dead Parrot. You can almost hear John Cleese belt out. “This is not a country, it’s an ex-nation. It has gone to meet its maker. Pakistan is pushing up the daisies. It is no more. The country has kicked the bucket …” The situation is beyond hopeless and has done the full loop from fear and terror to comedy and then all the way back to farcical incompetence.
Perhaps the only smart action in United States President Barack Obama’s foreign policy with respect to Asia (see Obama has battles in Asia Asia Times Online, August 14, 2010) was the coining of a new “AfPak” strategy. This is appropriate in more ways than what immediately meets the eye – not only do you need to act in Pakistan in order to eke out gains in Afghanistan – the ostensible primary motivation of the combined strategy; but also perhaps because of the subtext of lumping two of Asia’s failed states together.
Whatever doubt anyone had about the stability of the Pakistani state has been fully erased over the course of the past couple of years. Most recently, the floods that inundated the country laid bare its multiple weaknesses, including:
- A government ridden with corruption and incompetence.
- Political leadership that is the very definition of sclerotic.
- An army that is chiefly concerned with its own ends.
- A people who are incapable of looking past petty differences at a time of national need.
President Asif Ali Zardari was gallivanting around the world when the floods hit, and was unable or unwilling to come back home and direct the rescue efforts. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 9:
Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, has dismissed criticism of his absence overseas during the worst floods in his country’s history, as his government, hounded by insurgency and dogged by economic malaise, comes under fire for its response to the disaster.
… Opponents have denounced Mr. Zardari for going ahead with a scheduled visit to France and Britain. He has said his tour has helped inform the world about the floods and allowed him to appeal directly to world leaders for help, and he has called on critics not to play politics.
Critics said he pressed on with the visit so he could attend a rally in Birmingham of his Pakistan People’s Party, where he would court party donors. Mr. Zardari was in the middle of a speech at the rally on Saturday when an elderly man in the 1000-strong crowd hurled both shoes at him – a traditional insult in Islam. At the same time there were noisy protests outside.
The Pakistani media have been very critical of the President. An editorial in the newspaper Dawn said Mr. Zardari had traveled to England “as a man possessed, who cares nothing for the torrents at home”.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, said Mr. Zardari’s decision not to change his itinerary was a serious blunder. “I think there will be a political fallout,” he said. “These are the times that leaders bond with their people, or destroy that bond if their leadership is not involved. This is true everywhere. People don’t like it if the President is remote and doesn’t seem to be involved at times of calamity.”
As the government stood accused of corruption and incompetence, public opinion of the country’s armed forces rose over the course of August. However, a large part of this popularity may have been ill-deserved as a New York Times investigation found a number of instances of the army making the flood situation worse by diverting waters away from its bases towards previously unaffected areas; but also indulging in media manipulation to ensure that politicians continued to bear the brunt of criticism as a “soft” target. Ali Sethi reported in the New York Times on August 26:
What were soldiers doing on the highway?
The answer came in evasive, fragmented sentences: there was an airbase on the Sindhi side of the highway. This was where the military’s newest F-16 fighter jets were parked. But local residents believed that the base also housed the notorious American drones used to kill Islamist militants in the mountains. If true, this meant that the military was getting tens of millions of dollars a year in exchange, none of which trickled down to the local population.
The armed forces were going to save the base at all costs, he explained. But they didn’t want to draw attention to their own role – or to their interest – in the diversion of the water. Hence the presence of the land-owning politician; if there was any fallout, he would take the blame, and the soldiers would appear to have acted on his personal wishes.
… The policeman said that when he arrived the landlord and an army major were standing on the highway and supervising the giant excavators making the breach. But the policeman and his commissioner had pleaded with them to stop. And another tribal chieftain-turned-politician from an endangered village on the dry side had appeared with his armed guards and joined the commotion.
“It was turning into a fight between the provinces,” said the policeman darkly. “But then, I asked the major, ‘Are you from the Pakistani army or the Sindh army?’ And that shook him. He understood what I was saying. He apologized and withdrew the excavators.”
… In the morning, we were told to get out of the town.
The soldiers had made the breach after all: but in another location, and quietly, without arousing suspicion. The water was on its way.
In an article on September 5, Carlotta Goll writes in the New York Times to highlight the fraying of the national fabric as provincial rivalries are exploited as part of the flood response:
The floods are still devouring villages and farmland in the southern province of Sindh, and about 800,000 people remain stranded and without food, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program of the United Nations, said in an interview during a visit to Pakistan last week. Nearly 10 million people are considered short of food and their situation will remain precarious for six months to a year, she said.
One of the most angry accusations has come from Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a former prime minister whose constituency in the province of Balochistan has been almost totally inundated. Jamali criticized members of the government, accusing them of intentionally redirecting floodwaters through Balochistan and inundating the homes and farmlands of one million people in the country’s poorest province.
Much of Balochistan is already embroiled in a separatist revolt, and Jamali warned that the latest careless treatment by the government would only worsen the popular mood. “A Baloch does not forget what happens to him,” he said.
And worse happened to the country’s minorities, as the country’s The Express Tribune newspaper reported on August 18:
The government and local clerics refused to shelter around 500 flood-affected families belonging to the Ahmadiya community in South Punjab’s relief camps. Not only that, the government also did not send relief goods to the flood-hit areas belonging to the Ahmadiya community, The Express Tribune has learnt during a visit to the devastated Punjab districts of Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur.
Muhammad Iqbal Sohrani, a member of the Ahmadiya community, told The Express Tribune that around 40 Ahmadi families who took shelter in a state-run school at Jhakar Imam Shah near Sumandri, some 40 kilometers from DG Khan, have not received any relief either from philanthropists or from the government. He alleged that relief packages were being distributed through local lawmakers who have been told by the district administration that the Ahmadis are not eligible for any support.
Saleem Chandia, another Ahmadiya community member, said that he along with 40 other community members rented a house but after two days their landlord was forced by local clerics to evict them. Chandia said they were offered help by their own community members after wandering for several days in search of shelter.
There aren’t enough specialist phrases in the English dictionary to fully capture the predicament that is Pakistan. A hybrid term such as “tragi-terror” may describe such countries that, in exporting terror to the rest of the world, merely end up blowing their own people sky high.
With any semblance of a nation essentially washed away in the recent floods, Pakistan will once again descend into anarchy; to be heroically rescued by the armed forces in its role as the sole surviving national institution. A cycle of violence towards minorities and brinkmanship with neighbors such as Afghanistan and India will inevitably follow from an army takeover of the government. Disenfranchised once again, the troubled youth of Pakistan will turn increasingly towards terror networks as a means to hit back at the army and the rest of the country.
As the world observes the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, the goings-on in Pakistan lay credence to fears of multiple repeats, fueled by Pakistani cannon fodder and directed by al-Qaeda and the like against Western powers.
America’s leaders have been distracted by political issues at home and thus far this year been focused on debates around the country’s strategy with respect to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan; despite the fact that none of these countries presents a credible threat to the rest of the world.
The real threat is Pakistan, and it remains largely ignored by America and Europe.