Pakistan on the Brink | The Nation


Pakistan on the Brink

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Pakistan today is a complete mess, a sad example of what can happen when a once-favored "frontline state" is reduced to the status of a cold war orphan. In his recent brief visit President Clinton urged a quick return to civilian rule, but in fact few Pakistanis mourn Gen. Pervez Musharraf's overthrow last October of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's corrupt and oppressive pseudo-democracy. The poor and the secular-liberal intelligentsia pray that the new military regime will prevent a slide toward further chaos. These hopes are likely to be dashed, since the regime is paralyzed by internal divisions. Mohammed Aziz and Mahmoud Ahmed, the two key generals flanking Musharraf, are known for their sympathies with the fundamentalist Taliban.

About the Author

Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali is an editor at New Left Review. His latest book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power (...

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Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama, the possibility of a serious discussion about a US exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon.

Several tests confront the new strongman of Pakistan: Will he be able to modernize the economy and end the corruption and violence that plague the country's major cities? Has he the will to disarm the fundamentalist militias, which have been fighting a sectarian civil war for nearly three years, without disturbing the unstable equilibrium within the army? Will he be able to make peace with India? These are the questions that a US President visiting a decaying protectorate would have addressed if he were genuinely interested in the welfare of the country. In all three areas, however, Washington is incapable of providing guidance. The US/IMF neoliberal agenda forbids desperately needed economic reforms, Washington is deeply implicated in the rise of the fundamentalist groups through its multibillion-dollar aid to the Afghan mujahedeen, and America's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes a mockery of its repeated demands that Pakistan and India sign the pact.

A basic modernization of Pakistan would include drastic land reform and a tax on wealth, increased state spending on primary and secondary education and healthcare, more public housing and the development of new medium-sized towns to decrease the pressure on large cities. A massive reduction in the military budget is crucial--roughly 6 percent of the country's GDP is devoted to the country's bloated military, about twice what is spent on education and health combined. And any serious political reform would include constitutional rights for women and minorities. The UN Development Program's gender empowerment measure, which rates gender inequality in areas of economic and political participation and decision-making, ranked Pakistan second worst in the world. Last year there were more than 1,000 "honor killings" of women.

Far from representing progress toward a solution, the October putsch has multiplied a succession of cumulative problems. It is true that the new regime has constructed a civilian charade around itself. Think tanks are flourishing, just like the poppy fields producing heroin under Taliban supervision next door in Afghanistan, but their presence solves nothing. Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz, a soft-spoken, US-educated former employee of Citibank, might appease the IMF and the World Bank, but free-market fanaticism can only enlarge the space for the armed bands of Islamists who roam the cities, unchecked and unafraid, the only available alternative to globalization.

In successive general elections, the people have consistently voted against hard-line religious parties. The strength of religious extremism, till now, has been derived from state patronage rather than popular support. The groups that are currently paralyzing the country were the creation of the late and unlamented Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who received Saudi petrodollars and political, military and financial support from the United States and Britain throughout his years as dictator, from 1977 to 1988. The West needed Zia to fight its war against the former Soviet Union after that country invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Nothing else mattered. The CIA turned a blind eye to the sale of heroin, supposedly to fund that war, and the results are hideous: The number of officially registered heroin addicts in Pakistan rose from 130 in 1977 to 30,000 in 1988. Now there are several million addicts.

It was during this period that a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools) was established throughout the country. Initially, most of these were funded by foreign aid from a variety of sources. These schools became the training grounds for a new-style religious "scholar." Since board and lodging were free, it was not only the children of poor Afghan refugees who flocked to receive this privileged and unique instruction. Poor peasant families were only too happy to donate a son to the madrassahs. It would be one less mouth to feed at home, and the boy would be educated and might find a job in the city or, if he was really lucky, in one of the Persian Gulf states. These childern were taught verses from the Koran and the necessity to lead a devout life--and to banish all doubt as well. The aim was clear: These madrassahs were nurseries designed to produce fanatics. As they grew older the children were instructed in the use of sophisticated weapons and taught how to make and plant bombs. Agents from the government's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided training and supervision and observed the development of the more promising students, or taliban, who were later picked out and sent for more specialized training at secret army camps, the better to fight the "holy war" against the Communist unbelievers in Afghanistan.

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