I arrived in Pakistan a little over a week ago and virtually the first thing to happen was that my computer’s motherboard died. After many frustrating hours on the telephone to Dell it transpired that Pakistan is on some kind of embargo list and they could or would not send me a replacement part, which could not be found locally at any price. As a result, I have been working on an ancient borrowed computer (remember when a 20-gig hard drive was really big?) with limited internet access.
The next thing to happen, certainly of greater import, was a suicide bombing in a Peshawar marketplace, leaving more than 50 dead, followed by an audacious armed attack on General Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi, just down the road from Islamabad, where I am staying. At least 10 more terrorist incidents have occurred since then, and these don’t even include the Pakistani Army raids on terrorist redoubts in South Waziristan, of which there have been several. Some of them, registering only a few deaths, are reported only in the back pages of the newspapers.
On Thursday I traveled with a couple of colleagues to Lahore, the country’s second largest city after Karachi and the capital of Punjab Province, which is Pakistan’s heartland. We took the first flight down, and as we were driving into town we noticed traffic jams and police blockades. Someone called the people at the Punjab Industrial Estates Corporation, where we were to have our first meeting, and it turned out that armed groups had stormed their way into the Federal Investigation Agency building less than a kilometer from where we were to meet and had seized hostages, and we later learned that a large Punjab Rangers (a sort of National Guard equivalent) camp had also been attacked just minutes after we had driven past it.
The parts of the papers not devoted to reporting violent incidents have been full of debates over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which is to provide $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years. The bill contains language requiring the Secretary of State to certify annually that the civilian government remains in control of the armed forces, far from a certainty in a country that has been ruled by Army generals for much of its history and in which the Army is one of the largest business enterprises. This is seen as an unacceptable impingement on Pakistan’s sovereignty, even though the Democracy Charter, signed a number of years ago by Benazir Bhutto and her political arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, also a former Prime Minister, contained a similar commitment to civilian control.
On Friday I rode from Lahore up to Sialkot, one of Pakistan’s main industrial cities, about a three-hour drive that starts on a six-lane toll expressway, turns off onto a distinctly more decrepit four-lane highway, and then deviates onto a two-lane road typical of the Indian Subcontinent, in which pedestrians, bicycles, donkey carts, motorcycles, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, passenger cars, buses, and dangerously overloaded trucks all compete for the right of way. We rolled through villages and towns, one of which is supposedly the home of the Lashkar-e-Taiba criminals who murdered over a hundred people in Bombay a year ago. We rolled past strings of factories built in the middle of rice paddies and wheat fields, adjacent to squalid squatter camps, and brickworks whose blackened kilns constantly spew out dark smoke. The haze was fierce, my eyeballs felt as if they had been sandpapered, and every leaf on every tree was covered with a layer of grey dust. Sialkot is famous for its leather, wood, metal, and textile industries. It used to manufacture a significant percentage of the world’s soccer balls and badminton and tennis racquets before composite materials took over. Now there is a composites research center trying to win back some of that market for area manufacturers. Still, according to the Chamber of Commerce, Sialkot annually accounts for over half a billion dollars worth of manufactured exports and an even greater amount of sales on the domestic market. Adidas and Nike have big sourcing operations there.
Islamabad is a huge contrast to the rest of Pakistan. It is a new city, built in the early 1960s to replace Karachi as the nation’s capital, and it has the same kind of sterile planned capital look of Brasilia, Canberra, and Abuja as if the designers, in their urge to erect monuments, forgot about where the poor people, who would clean the houses, pick up the rubbish, pour the concrete, serve the tea, and cut the grass would live and work and shop. Sometimes a little sterility can be welcome after too much Third World authenticity, but Islamabad does have a weird science fiction flavor, where everything is numbered rather than named. I don’t want to give away my exact location for fear that someone will take violent exception to my remarks, but my hotel address here is something like Hotel 5, House Number 32, Street 16, Sector G7/2.
Supposedly there are shantytowns on the outskirts of the city, but I have yet to see them. All I have seen are wide, tree-lined avenues, luxurious houses, big cars, upscale shopping centers, and the aforementioned monuments to government and national pride. The greatest monument of all, Pakistan’s atomic bomb, is not on display, though people often refer to it in conversation, as in “If we can build an atomic bomb we can do anything.” Zulfikar Bhutto, Benazir’s father, and 1970s Prime Minister who was later deposed and hanged by General Zial ul Haq, said “If India builds the Bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry. But we will get one of our own.”
Bhutto has much else to answer for, including botched land reforms, nationalization of all of Pakistan’s heavy industry, banks, and rice, flour, and cotton mills, introduction of ruinous subsidies on fuel and food, and ruthless suppression of political dissent. The result was an ongoing political crisis that continues to this day, and economic sclerosis from which the country has only recently emerged, growing at more than six per cent annually since 2002 until recent political and economic events caused it to slow to around 5.5 percent in 2008 and a projected 2.0 percent in 2009.
Many of the Pakistanis I have met are educated, urbane people with English or American accents and impeccable tailoring. Still others are more identifiably local, with accents and mannerisms of the Subcontinent, and sometimes wearing long beards and native dress. All of them can speak eloquently about the tragedy that is Pakistan and can dissect the failings of governments past and present. Not one of them can even hint at a solution.
I have yet to meet anyone who has a good word to say about the current President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, who is almost universally described as a semi-literate, uncultured crook and a convicted felon. I have no idea whether those charges are true, but it says something when a democratically elected president is treated with such contempt. Though, come to think of it, so was George Bush. Malik, the duty manager at my hotel, expresses fondness for the former military leader Pervez Musharaf. He was strong, and when he was President the dollar was worth only 62 rupees (it is now up to 83).
Without trying to sound insulting, I have asked several Pakistanis why their country is in such a mess, and the answers almost always boil down to the United States, India, and Britain. India is accused of trying to destabilize Afghanistan as if that country didn’t have enough home-grown destabilization. As evidence, the recent opening of Indian consulates in several Afghan cities. The U.S., of course, armed the anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan and then let the country descend into civil war once the Russians had left. The British set the whole thing in motion several hundred years ago, while Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, in 1947 may have been too preoccupied by his wife’s carryings-on with Jawaharlal Nehru to pay much attention to the impending partition of the Subcontinent, in which around 15 million people were displaced and a half million lost their lives.
If you want to silence a Pakistani ask him why India has been able to develop a robust democracy and Pakistan has not. Apparently, it is India’s fault because its existential threat to Pakistan fostered the emergence of a security state dominated by the armed forces. I have so far met only one Pakistani – a University of Kentucky civil engineer – who is willing to blame his own country. “All people here do is talk,” he says. No one is willing to do anything. He also speaks scathingly about corruption, which recalls the worst days of Suharto’s Indonesia, and he tells me not to believe anything I have been told. Everyone, he says, is out for himself, and would rather stab you in the back than work with you towards a common goal. It’s a society built on suspicion and distrust. I have no way of verifying any of this, but it seems to jibe with what I have observed.
Pakistan matters. With 175 million people, it borders Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China, and it has the Bomb. Zulfikar Bhutto, it turns out, was right. People pay attention to Pakistan, in large part because he forced his people to eat grass so that they could have nuclear weapons, and the prospect of a failed state with nukes is too grim to contemplate. I can’t tell you how likely this is to happen. The people I talk to detest the Taliban, while also claiming that it hasn’t more than 20,000 or so hard-core members. If Pakistan, with over a million regular and paramilitary troops and the sixth-largest standing army in the world cannot defeat a relative handful of ragtag, if disciplined, militants, it is cause to wonder what exactly is at the heart of the Pakistani state. Conspiracy theories flourish in this part of the world, and it is said – not only here but in the Western press – that at least some elements of the security apparatus actively support the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and domestically. Whether that is a function of ideology or the profit motive I don’t know, but it brings to mind uncomfortable memories of the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh, when army generals and their subordinates were selling weapons to the enemy.
I wish there were an obvious solution, both for Pakistan’s sake and for ours in the West. Unfortunately, few people in Pakistan seem to have any clue what a workable solution would look like. And those who dictate American policy in the region, though they possess great certainty, are even more clueless.