Pakistan Today's cover May 3, 2011
It can be argued that the world’s most powerful countries are those that understand the difference between perception and reality, and attach equal importance to controlling both. Pakistan’s reality is a harsh, challenging one, but unless we move proactively and immediately to counter the further degradation of our already distorted image, it is about to get a lot worse.
Consider this, from Al Jazeera English:
“The Arab Spring has eroded many of the conventional assumptions about the relationship between dictators, Islamists and the West. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, we heard dictators playing the Islamist card for three decades – "support us unless you want the terrorists to win".
The reality has been quite different...Today, the US continues to lavishly fund the Pakistani military, while using drones and secret soldiers such as Raymond Davis to attack the extremist forces that the same regime supports. It is up to the US to stop feeding the beast.”
Or this, from The New York Times:
“... Bin Laden’s death near Islamabad has rekindled suspicions in Afghanistan…“Pakistan is the problem, and the West has to pay attention,” said Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence director of Afghanistan, who resigned last summer. Though jubilant at the death of Bin Laden, he said it was time for the United States to “wake up to the fact that Pakistan is a hostile state exporting terror.”
Or this, from Salman Rushdie for The Daily Beast:
“ There is not very much evidence that the Pakistani power elite is likely to come to its senses any time soon. Osama bin Laden’s compound provides further proof of Pakistan’s dangerous folly.
As the world braces for the terrorists’ response to the death of their leader, it should also demand that Pakistan give satisfactory answers to the very tough questions it must now be asked. If it does not provide those answers, perhaps the time has come to declare it a terrorist state and expel it from the comity of nations .”
Despite American and British efforts to diffuse the situation, this hard-line ‘enough is enough’ stance is being echoed across the globe. It is neither surprising nor unexpected, and in the long run questions of whether it is justified will remain, as they are now, relevant only to Pakistan’s internal dialogue, but more on that later. The world, like the mob, is ultimately uninterested in the nuances of things. Can it, like the beast, be lulled into stillness with the right tune?
I cannot comment with any authority on the PR plan our politicians, military, past/future leaders and broadcast journalists are currently following. I know that most of the politicos are sticking with the ostrich routine, most of our leaders are rechecking their visa-to-safer-climes status, most of our broadcast journalists are continuing to miss the forest for the trees, and that the ISPR is shooting a feature film, written possibly by the official behind the 'We're good, but we're not God' line featured in this BBC report. The two sole Pakistani voices who have spoken for us internationally today, then, are the rather Laurel and Hardyesque pairing of novelist Mohsin Hamid and President Asif Ali Zardari; Hamid in an opinion piece for The Guardian and Zardari in a comment for The Washington Post.
Both have chosen to follow what I would like to dub ‘The Pakistanian Defense’ (a nod to George Bush, which is also interestingly often a feature of the PD, as is the kind of ironic self referencing you see here). The Pakistanian Defense has a few standard features, some of which are listed below, which can be tweaked to accommodate word length, timing and audience.
1) More of my countrymen have died than all of yours combined.
Zardari, or his resident ghost writer, does it with:
“Let us be frank. Pakistan has paid an enormous price for its stand against terrorism. More of our soldiers have died than all of NATO’s casualties combined. Two thousand police officers, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians and a generation of social progress for our people have been lost.”
Hamid does it with:
“Less well known is the statistic that since the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorists have killed nearly five times that number of people in Pakistan. The annual number of Pakistani fatalities from terrorism has surged from fewer than than 200 in 2003 to almost 1,000 in 2006, to more than 3,000 in 2009. In all, since 2001 more than 30,000 have died here in terror and counterterror violence; slain by bombs, bullets, cannons and drones. America's 9/11 has given way to Pakistan's 24-7-365.”
Zardari’s piece is simple in structure and word choice, much like a lot of the hostility currently emanating from the pens of opinion makers in other countries. It, like Clinton’s ‘you cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us’, outlines the outer limits of the diplomatic dance. Hamid, on the other hand, co-opts the linguistic weapons of choice of the other side (surged, counterterror, America’s 9/11 has given way to Pakistan’s 24-7- 365) and in doing so creates a space where nuance may one day live.
2) Pakistanis want peace, not war.
Zardari raises the facts that:
“Radical religious parties have never received more than 11 percent of the vote. Recent polls showed that 85 percent of our people are strongly opposed to al-Qaeda. In 2009, when the Taliban briefly took over the Swat Valley, it demonstrated to the people of Pakistan what our future would look like under its rule — repressive politics, religious fanaticism, bigotry and discrimination against girls and women, closing of schools and burning of books. Those few months did more to unite the people of Pakistan around our moderate vision of the future than anything else possibly could.”
Hamid reinforces that with:
“If Osama Bin Laden's death means that the war in south and central Asia can now begin to end, that America can begin to withdraw its forces from the region, and that Pakistan and Afghanistan can somehow rediscover peace, then one day there may be celebrations here as well.”
3) They will be gunning for us even more viciously now.
Zardari points this out with:
“Only hours after bin Laden’s death, the Taliban reacted by blaming the government of Pakistan and calling for retribution against its leaders, and specifically against me as the nation’s president.”
Hamid says it with:
“As news of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's death reverberates in Pakistan, embassies here are shutting down, hotels are ramping up security, restaurants are reporting cancelled reservations and public gatherings like plays, concerts and lectures, are being postponed. The feeling in Lahore is familiar: it is like the dread that lingers over the city in the days after it has suffered a massive terrorist attack. This time, though, the attack has not yet happened, and the dread spans the entire country. Pakistanis know they may pay a blood price for Bin Laden's killing. A purported mirror has been broken. Bad luck is to be expected.”
Zardari makes the mistake of sticking with the royal ‘we’, demanding an acknowledgement of worth nobody currently wants to give us. Hamid comes in from the other end and makes us ordinary, human, sketching life for Pakistanis in details The Other can understand, even if they are details actual ordinary, human Pakistanis would scratch their heads at (hotels, restaurants, plays, concerts, lectures…er…what?). A universal symbol of bad luck, the broken mirror, is weaved in too, to reinforce the pathos and significance of ‘dread’ and ‘blood price’. Zardari invites you to stick a sock on your hand and pillory his pomposity. Hamid invites you to sit down, listen and sympathize.
4) Why on earth would we want to make the most trigger-happy nation in the world angry with us?
Zardari feels the best way to make this point is:
“The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s…My government endorses the words of President Obama and appreciates the credit he gave us Sunday night for the successful operation in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. We also applaud and endorse the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that we must “press forward, bolstering our partnerships, strengthening our networks, investing in a positive vision of peace and progress, and relentlessly pursuing the murderers who target innocent people.”
Hamid goes with:
“But there are other, truly frightening theories, such as that even in a town with as dense a military presence as Abbottabad, Bin Laden managed to elude Pakistani security forces, suggesting a remarkable degree of incompetence. More terrifying still would be if there were official complicity in harbouring him, putting Pakistan on a collision course with the US. Pakistanis must hope that neither of these is true.”
The royal megaphone of royalty sticks with the moving speechwriting software writs and having writ moves on. Hamid establishes the difference between the sheep and the shepherds with one fluid reference to the ‘incompetence’ of the state within a state that consistently fails to protect its charges.
To be fair to President Zardari, this is where the difference between a novelist and a head of state is, governed by realpolitik as much as it is by style. The privilege of implying, publicly, that their nation's army is either incompetent or duplicitous rests only with one. This is evident also in the contrast between Sir Salman Rushdie's Down With Pakistan and David Cameron's more measured public stance.
5) Forget the past, it is not in our power to change it. Lets talk about what happens next.
According to our president:
“We can become everything that al-Qaeda and the Taliban most fear — a vision of a modern Islamic future. Our people, our government, our military, our intelligence agencies are very much united. Some abroad insist that this is not the case, but they are wrong. Pakistanis are united.”
According to one of our brightest literary lights:
“In the meantime American, Pakistani, Afghan, and terrorist commanders will go on conducting their operations, the slaughter will continue, and human beings – all equal, all equal – will keep dying, their deaths mostly invisible to the outside world but at a rate evoking a line of aircraft stretching off into the distance, bearing down upon tower after tower after tower. Bin Laden is dead. But many Pakistanis sense the impending arrival of yet another murderous plane, headed their way.”
Zardari takes the opportunity to tell people Pakistanis are united against ‘terrorism’. Hamid points out that Pakistanis are united only in being the direct target of everybody else’s cross hairs.
The defining characteristic of The Pakistanian Defense, finally, is that…
6) People are no longer buying it.
And that, really, is the point of the deconstruction. It doesn’t matter how well or how badly written our responses to this situation are, what notes we hit or don’t hit in our explanations, the rest of the world no longer gives a shit.
Consider this, from an Economics Times report on our President’s article:
“Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari defended his country on Monday against accusations it did not do enough to track down Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but made no direct comment on alleged intelligence failures…Zardari provided no detailed explanation on how bin Laden managed to live for years undetected in Abbottabad, a hillside retreat popular with retired Pakistani generals just a few hours drive from Islamabad. “
Or consider this, from one of the responses posted to Hamid’s article in The Guardian:
“I once referred to Pakistan as the classic informant, who tells the thief about the whereabout of the owner of the property and then informed the owner of the property the thief is coming…Pakistan as I have also posted before is a country the world should fence off and throw away the key. It is a country that its only contribution to the world is misery and danger to lives and limbs. In fact it is terrorist country. The most dangerous terrorist country on the planet.
Every western gov't including ours should not only cease aid to Pakistan, immigration from Pakistan should also be stopped. The world should let Pakistan sleep in the bed it made.”
Back now, to the question of whether the bile and revulsion this ‘rogue state’ and ‘terrorist sanctuary’ is currently provoking is justified. You can choose to find your answer amongst the six points of The Classic Pakistanian Defense outlined above. You can find it while channel surfing, watching someone like Ansar Abbasi holding forth on how Osama Bin Laden was a Muslim Hero. You can find it in the pages of an Urdu paper as a columnist obsesses over the burial ritual of one murderer and not the mass graves of the multitudes of innocents he, and those he was a figurehead for, killed. You can find it in the online edition of an English one detailing how the banned Laskhkar-e-Taiba held funeral prayers for Bin Laden in Karachi today.
People of that ilk make Pakistan’s image crisis worse by openly exposing their – and by extension our - tolerance for intolerable positions. If what the foreign commentators I have quoted above said offends you, and you think they are refusing to distinguish between Pakistanis and those elements within Pakistan that gave Bin Laden shelter, acknowledge the role those elements play in shaping the outside world’s refusal to make that distinction. This, from outside the bubble, is a country where a sentence is blasphemy but a murder is not, rape victims are vilified for attempting to challenge patriarchy, terrorists are sheltered after slaughtering innocent civilians, and the challenge to sovereignty by a western force is always more important than the steady, decades long erosion of sovereignty by some imported, medieval hogwash.
Once, there might have been room in the world for an ideology that thinks it is special, God gifted, exempt from the rules and norms of the comity of nations of which one commentator speaks, but that place has already been taken. Certain Pakistanis need to accept that we are not Israel. By this I mean we cannot defend an indefensible position by virtue of association with unshakeable allies because really, at the end of the day, we have none. Even Saudi Arabia had the sense to let its most notorious son slip quietly into the sea, we on the other hand built him a home in a hill resort.
Today, we have a twofold crisis. One, the incompetence, exposed, of a bloated institution that has never lost an opportunity to enrich itself and steadfastly refused to fix itself. Two, a perception that Pakistan is populated by illiterate Muslims who will come out on the street to protest Danish cartoon strips but not to protest an almost comical, internationally inflammatory misstep. How do we fix the first? The rogue state within a state needs to be broken, examined forensically, and rebuilt in the shelter of a democratically elected civilian government, never to take a step without a popular mandate again, and then only to protect our citizens not endanger them further.
How do you fix the second? For a start, apologize. Apologize Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, to the world for not keeping your side of the bargain, to your country for letting us be shamed on your watch. Apologize even if it kills you. Because your subsequent loss of face might embolden you enough to hold others accountable. And because somebody or the other is always trying to kill you anyway and you might as well die on the right side of the line.