Monday, February 7, 2011
Pakistan’s Decline - Five years on
IT WAS just a normal early February day. But the morning newspaper in Pakistan made a sobering read. Ten people had been killed and 26 injured in a car-bombing near Peshawar in the north-west. Five policemen were shot dead in Balochistan. At least one security official in North Waziristan died in heavy firing from Afghanistan. The next day the United Nations reported that some 25,000 people had been displaced that week by fighting in Mohmand, a tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. It warned that the number could rise to 90,000.
This does not come as a surprise to the occasional visitor. Much of the news we read from Pakistan is a grisly catalogue of suicide-bombs, sectarian slaughter, political assassination, grinding insurgency and collateral damage from the war in Afghanistan.
So, on a first visit to Islamabad and Lahore in nearly five years, my initial response was to think how the relentless tide of such reporting obscures another truth about the country: how pleasant it can be; how helpful and hospitable the people; how many well-informed, articulate and enlightened cosmopolitans there are to talk to. In the past I have always argued that Pakistan has a tolerant, flexible core that is far more resilient than it is often given credit for. Surely, that remains true.
A second response, however, was to acknowledge how much worse things had got in those five years. Three sorts of decline stand out—the linked problems of worsening security and the spread of Islamist extremism, and the economy.
The visible signs of a security threat have proliferated. Entering a foreign embassy or international hotel in Islamabad was, even five years ago, a tedious passage through metal detectors and pat-downs. Now, the checks are even more cumbersome and more of the roads are interrupted by chicanes of concrete blocks or steel girders. The Marriott hotel, where I used to stay, was the site of a massacre in September 2008, when it was bombed and more than 50 people were killed. It is even better protected now.
It is amazing what you can get used to. After years of enduring a worsening terrorist threat, many Pakistanis seem inured to all this. Indeed, they can cling to the thought that last year was not as bad, in terms of violent incidents, as was 2009—though this may have been the result of the terrible flooding which disrupted terrorist as well as official logistics, and may have waterlogged untold stocks of bombs and ammunition.
What shocked many, however, was the assassination in January of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, by one of his own bodyguards, and, in particular, the response to it. Fellow bodyguards let the self-confessed murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, get away with it; crowds have demonstrated in support of his apparent aim (to kill a man seen as a blasphemer for his campaign to amend a cruel and unjust blasphemy law); lawyers—yes, lawyers—have showered him with rose-petals, And hardly anyone has dared speak out to condemn the murder.
One who did, in Islamabad, rejects the label “liberal” for herself, but spoke of a candlelit vigil in honour of the dead governor, attended by about 100 people. “They can muster 40,000,” she said of the rallies against reform of the blasphemy law and in support of Mumtaz Qadri.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and leading advocate of liberal, secular ideals, has written of his appearance on a television chat show with two Islamic spokesmen. The audience, of 100 or so students, clapped when his interlocutors called for death for blasphemers. When Mr Hoodbhoy accused one of them—a mullah from the “moderate” Barelvi school—of having Mr Taseer’s blood on his hands, the response was a lament: “How I wish I did!”
One of the commonplaces of analysis in Pakistan is that the roots of extremism lie not just in the war in Afghanistan and the “Islamisation” of public life introduced by General Zia ul-Haq a generation ago, but in economic hardship and lack of opportunity. The economy is lurching along on IMF-provided crutches, just a few months from the next crisis. Most people also agree about some of the basic reforms needed—in particular a broadening of the tax base. But the political parties want to make sure that it is the other parties whose voters’ pockets will suffer from the broadening. So reform is deadlocked.
Pakistan is indeed still not as bad as you might think from the newspaper headlines. And when Mr Hoodbhoy, for example, talks of an impending bloodbath it is still possible to think he exaggerates. But Pakistan is bloody enough already, and it is for now a depressing and frightening place. It is not just that the decline seems unimpeded by the end of Pervez Musharraf’s inept, corrupt military dictatorship and the advent of Asif Ali Zardari’s inept, corrupt and army-reliant civilian administration. It is that the arguments of those who claim the trend is remorseless and heading for disaster seem more persuasive than those I have deployed over the years to refute them. The Economist