Who Rules Pakistan?

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Discussion of Pakistan’s ability to fight the Taliban successfully has centred on the question of military or civilian government, and which is better for this purpose. But from the point of view of the administration and development of the state as a whole, it really doesn’t matter whether Pakistan is under a civilian or a military government; for a fundamental political fact about Pakistan is that the state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong.

Anyone or any group with the slightest power in society uses it to plunder the state for patronage and favours, to avoid paying taxes, and to turn to their advantage the workings of the law and the bureaucracy. Hence the astonishing fact that barely one per cent of the population pays income tax, and that the wealthiest landowners in the country pay no direct taxes at all.

As a state auditor in Peshawar said to me with a demoralised giggle, “If anyone took taxes seriously, I’d have the most difficult job in the world, but as it is I have the easiest.” The inability of the state to raise enough taxes, together with the wastage of what it does collect through corruption, undermined every aspect of government, infrastructure development, state services, and the justice system. From this stems in turn a large part of the instinctive sympathy of parts of society for the Taliban and other rebels against the state.

Society is strong above all in the form of the kinship networks which are by far the most important foci of most people’s loyalty. A sense of collective honour is reflected most dramatically in preventing or punishing any illicit sexual behaviour by the kinship group’s women, but also in working to advance the political and economic power and public status of the group.

Defence of the honour and the interests of the kinship group usually outweighs loyalty to a party, to the state, or to any code of professional ethics not only for ordinary Pakistanis, but for most politicians and officials. Just as in the rest of South Asia, a majority of Pakistan’s political parties are dynastic. The PPP is the party of the Bhutto family; the PMLN is that of the Sharif family; and the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Frontier is the party of the Wali Khan family. None of them hold elections for their senior positions, which are appointed by whoever is head of the dynasty and party.

Hence the phenomenon of a woman like Benazir Bhutto rising to the top of the political system in an extremely conservative male-dominated society, thanks to inheritance from her father. Ms Bhutto’s widower, the present President Asif Zardari, in turn became leader of the PPP and later President by inheritance from his murdered wife – without previously ever having won a single election to as much as a municipal council seat.

This weakness of the state compared to traditional society has helped to frustrate repeated attempts at radical reform and economic development. In the course of Pakistan’s sixty year history, there have been several different attempts radically to change Pakistan, by three military and one civilian regime. And they all failed. Every single one of them found their regimes ingested by the elites they had hoped to displace, and engaged in the same patronage politics as the regimes that they had overthrown.

The military governments which took power promising to sweep away the political elites and their corruption also found themselves governing through them, partly because no military regime has been strong enough to govern for long without parliament – and parliament is drawn from the same old political elites, and reflects the society which the military regimes wish in principle to change.

The Army, the politicians and the judges

Nonetheless, the only institution which has succeeded to some extent in resisting kinship loyalties in the name of state loyalty and professional meritocracy is the Army – and you could say that it has managed this in part only through turning itself into a kind of giant biradiri, serving its members’ collective interests at the expense of the state and society.

Because the Army is Pakistan’s only effective modern institution, because of the repeated failures of Pakistan’s civilian governments, because of the security threats that Pakistan faces, and because of the ambitions of the generals, the Army is repeatedly drawn into the business of running other parts of the state. Even when the Army is not actually running the state as a whole, it is often involved in matters far beyond its constitutional mandate of defending the country.

In the late 1990s, the government of Nawaz Sharif improved the provision of key services to the population by bringing in the army to help run everything from education to the distribution of water and power. So even before the coup of 1999 in which General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif, the Army had taken over large parts of the state by invitation.

Since Musharraf stepped down in August 2008, the high command of the Army under General Ashfaq Kayani (Chief of the Army Staff) has repeatedly stated its desire to keep out of politics and government. For the moment at least, this desire is entirely sincere. After both previous periods of military rule (those of generals Ayub Khan and and Yahya Khan from 1958 to 1971 and General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988) the generals wanted to stay out of government for a long time so as to rebuild the public image of the Army as defenders of the country against outside (ie Indian) threats.

The generals have also been well aware how a long period in government makes any ruler in Pakistan unpopular, because for the reasons set out above, no government, civilian or military, can ever give the population most of what it wants or needs. Finally, at the moment being in central government is such an unpopular business that the generals and even leading members of the opposition have told me that they do not want to overthrow President Asif Ali Zardari, because then they would have to take responsibility for a severe economic downturn, a widely unpopular military campaign against the Taliban, and an alliance with America that most of the Pakistani population detests.

Nonetheless, the Army has remained involved in two key areas of domestic affairs. The first obviously is the struggle with the Pakistani Taliban. But not merely is the Army conducting the actual fighting against the Taliban in Swat and the tribal areas along the Afghan frontier, it is also responsible for co-ordinating (and in effect administering) the relief and reconstruction aid flowing to these areas, and since the start of fighting with the Taliban in 2004, it has also been the key force in designing political strategies in the struggle.

The other key area is in mediating and managing disputes among the politicians – who very often themselves call on the Army for help. If in opposition, the politicians intrigue with the Army to overthrow the government in power and to replace it with themselves.  If in government, the politicians repeatedly have to call on the army to fight local rebellions and control local unrest – for it should be remembered that quite apart from fighting the Taliban and guarding against India to the east, the army and army-controlled paramilitaries are engaged in fighting an ethnic rebellion in Baluchistan and in keeping a watchful eye on simmering ethnic tension in Karachi.

The inevitable embroilment of the Army in politics was shown in March of this year, when in an effort to preempt growing threats to his rule, President Zardari decided to strike against the main political opposition, that of Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) party. This party forms the government of Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab, under Mr Sharif’s brother, chief minister Shahbaz Sharif. President Zardari therefore procured a judgment from the Supreme Court (then in his pocket) that the Sharifs’ election had been invalid, and immediately used this to dismiss the government of Punjab and impose central rule.

The Sharifs in response launched a mass protest movement against the Zardari administration, demanding the restoration both of the Punjab government and of the original Supreme Court which President Musharraf had sacked illegally in 2007, and which President Zardari (despite repeated promises) had failed to restore. In the face of these protests, the Punjab police collapsed, and President Zardari (so I have been told by very senior sources in both military and politics) had to ask General Kayani if the army could be used to suppress the protests. When General Kayani refused, all that was left to a humiliated president was to restore the Supreme Court and Punjab government, albeit with certain military-negotiated conditions to protect the President’s position. The restoration of the Supreme Court had been the key demand of the lawyers’ Movement which helped bring down President Musharraf and which has continued a lower-level agitation against President Zardari.

However, those who believe that the Lawyers’ Movement represents the growth of a new civil society and law-abiding middle class consciousness in Pakistan need to take a closer look at how Pakistan’s judicial system actually operates, and also at the behaviour of some of the lawyers since they emerged as a powerful political force. As one informed description of the state legal system has it, “Below the level of the High Courts all is corruption. Neither the facts nor the law in the case have real bearing on the outcome. It all depends on who you know, who has influence and where you put your money.”

It is in fact the appallingly slow, corrupt and unjust nature of the Pakistani justice system which has driven so many Pakistanis to prefer Shariah law, and therefore to have sympathy for the Taliban when they offer it as an alternative. Taliban justice may be rough, but it is quick, transparent, relatively honest and conducted in peoples’ own villages in their own language – not in English in a district court many miles away.

Quite apart from corruption, the lawyers’ attitude to law in general can leave something to be desired. When I was in Lahore this summer, defence lawyers of the district court beat up a policeman who had challenged their client’s case – and did so in front of the court. When this was shown on television, the next day they beat up the TV team which had taken the film. As a Lahore journalist friend said cynically, “Well, the Army wears uniforms and beats up people, and so do the police. So why shouldn’t the lawyers? It’s what you do if you have power in this country.” In other words, most of the judiciary is no more immune than anyone else to the political culture of Pakistan as a whole.

Fighting the Taliban

Does the rottenness of the state system mean that there is a real risk of the Taliban prevailing in Pakistan? Not really, because the kinship networks and ruling class structures which help prevent economic and social progress also help prevent revolution – which would be very contrary to the interests of the Pakistani ruling classes.

It is above all thanks to these locally dominant urban and rural bosses and their kinship groups that over the years, beneath the froth and spray of Pakistani politics, the underlying currents of Pakistani political life have until recently been so remarkably stable. Civilian governments have come and gone with bewildering rapidity, whether overthrown by military coups or stranded by the constantly shifting allegiances of their political supporters. Yet the same people have gone on running these parties, and leading the same people or kinds of people at local level. The same has been true under military governments.

So far, Taliban insurgency has been restricted to some of the Pashtun areas, which are linked ethnically to Afghanistan and which have a history of religious-inspired revolt going back a century and a half to repeated jihads against the British in the region. So far, there is no evidence of this kind of insurgency being able to spread from the Pashtun areas to other parts of the country – and the Pashtuns make up only some 12 per cent of the population of Pakistan, and those areas affected by rebellion much less than that. To carry out a successful revolution in Pakistan as a whole, the Taliban would have to start a rebellion in Pakistan’s heartland, Punjab.

It is of course true that as tragic events in recent weeks have shown, the Taliban do have enough support to carry out terrorist attacks across much of Pakistan. But terrorist attacks and insurgencies are not the same thing. Only rebellion, and the actual seizure of power in large and important areas (as the Taliban managed for a while in Swat and the tribal areas but nowhere else) can overthrow the state.

Terrorism can kill people and damage the economy, but it cannot destroy the state and may even strengthen it. Apart from anything else, as Taliban attacks become more savage and indiscriminate, so more ordinary people are likely to lose their qualified sympathy for the Taliban and support tougher measures against them.

This shift in public opinion has already been visible since April of this year, when after signing a peace agreement with the government which provided for the introduction of Shariah law in Swat, the local Taliban used the resulting ceasefire to move into the neighbouring district of Buner. Together with Taliban atrocities against ordinary people (as opposed to politicians, soldiers and policemen, who do not necessarily receive much sympathy from ordinary Pakistanis) this led for the first time to a measure of real mass support for an offensive against the Taliban.

The military carried this out successfully in Swat, where many Taliban and their commanders have been killed or captured; and they are now trying to do the same in Waziristan. For the first time, the military also had the full support of most of the politicians in doing this – whereas previously, the soldiers and the politicians had spent much of their time trying to shuffle responsibility for tough actions off onto each other.

As a result of the Taliban’s seizure of Buner and growing terrorism deep in Pakistan, a majority of both politicians and generals finally realised that if this was allowed to continue, then the blow to the state’s prestige would be such that state failure might even be possible. The Pakistani ruling classes – in or out of uniform – have the strongest possible collective interest in preventing this, and I believe that they will do so. Whether they will be able to reform the Pakistani state and reduce the underlying reasons for Taliban support is much more doubtful.

Anatol Lieven, Kings College – Professor in the War Studies Department at  Kings College London and author of “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism”Currently writing a book on Pakistan to be published 2010


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