A Hard Country

A Hard Country

America continues to back the wrong parties in Pakistan.  The state hasn't fallen apart yet—in spite of US intervention. 

To judge by much Western reporting on Pakistan, I suppose I ought to be dead by now. In recent weeks, I spent a good deal of time on the streets of cities in the north of that country, asking ordinary people about their views on issues including US drone strikes, the release of Raymond Davis and the burning of the Koran. Yet despite their anger at all these things, at no time did I feel in personal danger. Expressions of anger at US policy were accompanied by declarations that “you are our guest”, offers of cold drinks, and expressions of gratitude that a Westerner had come to ask their opinions (something which, I was told, “our own elites never do”).

It’s true that I avoided notorious areas of militant support—but then, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, there are parts of New York where I wouldn’t exactly advise you to carry out interviews on the street. On the subject of Davis’ release, many of the answers were notably pragmatic: that even if they didn’t like it, it was in accordance with Pakistani and Islamic law, and if the families were satisfied with the compensation, no one else had a right to veto the settlement. This brings out two things: That if only the US could learn a reasonable respect for Pakistani national pride, it is still possible to appeal to the rationality of ordinary Pakistanis (what, oh what, are all those advisers on public diplomacy in Washington being paid for?); and that while Pakistan is indeed a violent and volatile country, much of the violence is not in fact spontaneous, but has to be carefully inspired and orchestrated.

This didn’t surprise me, because I have carried out many such “vox pops” in Pakistan over the years, often at times of heightened tension. What did surprise me—and reminded me never to be carried away by Western media reports without checking—was the speed with which Pakistan has recovered from last year’s supposedly “devastating” floods. In fact, Pakistani agriculture is experiencing a boom, largely because of the Chinese and Indian-fueled rise in global commodity prices, but also in part because the floods proved a boon to certain drought-struck areas of the country. It is true that the damage to communications infrastructure was severe in some areas—but as to the fabric of towns and villages, in many flood-hit areas you would not know that anything has happened. The reason for this however is not a cheerful one: it is that the houses are so primitive that they are easily rebuilt, and so decrepit that flood damage—and even war-damage—does not show up clearly against the general background of decrepitude. I vividly remember two years ago visiting the excavated ruins of the four-thousand-year-old city of Mohenjo-Daro, one of the centers of the Indus Valley Civilization, and being struck by how much better made and more regular the mud bricks were than those used to build the surrounding Sindhi towns and villages of today.

In addition, let me add that even after 23 years of visiting Pakistan, I can still be shocked. Some members of the professional elite—and not just any elites, but ones who in 2007-2008 were celebrated by the Western media as representing “the triumph of civil society” and a “middle-class revolution” in Pakistan—supported the recent murder of the Governor of Punjab by one of his own bodyguards, for calling for changes to Pakistan’s savagely misused law on blasphemy. Among the members of the legal profession who reasoned away this murder was a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court. In fact, the biggest demonstration of lawyers in more than a year was one in which they showered rose petals on the self-confessed murderer when he was brought to court, and offered to defend him. What is more, the religious tradition from which the murderer was drawn, and whose leaders also lined up on his behalf, is that of the Barelvis – a tradition closely related to the Sufis, bitterly hostile to the Wahhabi tradition of Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda, and one which the United States, in recent years, has discreetly sought to build up as a “moderate” barrier to “extremism”! The retired chief justice, and some of the other lawyers with whom I spoke, reinforced this extremely unfavorable impression by sneering at a woman who was gang raped as a collective punishment of her clan nine years ago, and whose attackers have not yet been brought to justice by Pakistan’s judicial system.

My maternal grandfather, an official in India under the British Raj, is supposed to have said that after more than thirty years of service in India, he thought he was just beginning to understand one Indian province. After 23 years of visiting Pakistan, I feel much the same, even having just completed a book on the country. The book is dedicated to my grandparents and my uncle (an officer in the British Indian army), partly with this perception in mind, and partly in tribute to all those honest and dedicated officials and soldiers in the Pakistan of today who help somehow to keep their country going. There aren’t very many of them perhaps, and the going is often very rough, but they still help to ensure that—once again, much Western reporting to the contrary —Pakistan is not yet a failed or failing state. Galileo’s Eppur se muove is my epigraph – “and yet it moves”.

I played with a couple of titles before hitting on the final one, “Pakistan: A Hard Country”. The first was “How Pakistan Works”. In many ways this is still the one I like best, both because it is provocative – since both westerners and Pakistanis are quite convinced that the country does not work—and because it most accurately describes what the book is in fact about. That is to say, the very complex, opaque, and contradictory ways in which Pakistan manages to hang together and carry on. The fact that Pakistan does carry on is encouraging, since its collapse would be a catastrophe for its own people and those of India— even if the latter do not recognize this —and would present a whole range of dreadful threats to the United States and the West. On the other hand, the deep elements in Pakistan’s society, economy and culture which help maintain stability and act as a bulwark against Islamist revolution are often the same forces which ensure economic, social, educational and cultural backwardness. In the first draft of the book, I used the phrase “Janus-faced” so often that my editor said that he searched for the words in order to delete them.

Another working title was “The Negotiated State”. This was rightly rejected as too boring and academic sounding but it describes much of the text very well. Throughout the chapters I describe how due to the weakness of the state, competing legal and moral orders, and a multiplicity of centers of social, economic and political power, laws and institutions which in the West are assumed to run according to strict rules are in Pakistan a matter of negotiation. On the other hand, murderous violence, which in the West would be seen as an intolerable threat to the system, is in Pakistan part of the system, subject to informal rules and restraints, and an element in negotiations. As an example, I use an anecdote from a retired general who in the 1990s was responsible for commanding anti-dacoit operations in Sindh.

A subordinate had run a dacoit gang to earth on the estate of a parliamentarian from the then ruling party, and wanted to send troops in to get them – which would have led to furious protests from the governments in Islamabad and Karachi, and most probably the immediate release of the men arrested. His commander overruled him, and instead invited himself to lunch with the landowner concerned. At the end of a convivial meal, he passed his host a note and said that he’d be personally obliged for his help. The next day, four of the dacoits were handed over to the army with a message from the landowner-politician saying that the general could shoot two of them, but could he please charge the other two before the courts.

“Any two?”

“No, he said which two we could shoot. Probably they had offended him in some way, or they were not from his tribe. As to the other two, he knew perfectly well that his influence meant that the courts would never convict them, and they would be released after a few months. The courts are useless when it comes to criminals in this country if the criminals have any connections – they are bribed, or scared, or both. That is why if you really want to deal with a miscreant, the only way is to kill him out of hand. This is a hard country, and this is the way things are here, sadly.”

The first time I heard the phrase “hard country” was in 2008, when a newly-elected member of parliament for Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (a “Scandinavian-style Social Democratic party”, as she described it to me) explained to me why he had to have five members of a neighboring clan killed that year after the clan’s gunmen ambushed and killed his nephew. The last time I heard it was from a police officer in southern Punjab in 2009 explaining to me why intimidation, corruption and incompetence in the courts meant that it was simply impossible to convict even the most notorious terrorists (something for which there is alas ample evidence), and therefore if ordered to crack down on terrorists, the police’s only option was “to take a few of the nastiest into a field at midnight and shoot them in the back of the head.” This I’m afraid has also been true of the military’s counter-insurgency campaign against the militants in Swat, which will be the subject of my next dispatch; a harsh campaign in some respects, but to date at least an undeniably successful one.