Confused Americans in Pakistan

Red Cross Nurse. Pakistan, 2005.

Pakistan’s ongoing deterioration has produced a sub-genre of journalism that is obsessed with how confusing it seems. Nahal Toosi has written the latest example for Politico. While the main subject is the Abbotobad raid, Toosi also dissects the apparent contradictions of Pakistani politics.

I often read and overhear the phrase “immense contradictions of Pakistani society” when Americans discuss Pakistan. This can be in reference to any number of social divides: secularism and Islamism, modernity and feudalism-tribalism, elite prosperity and widespread poverty, and so on.

Unfortunately, the question of what produced those divides rarely gets asked, let alone answered. This is why the country seems unfathomable. Americans are especially susceptible to this, because they lack the tools for asking structural questions. Pakistan is deeply affected by developmental conflicts, so if we don’t talk about them, the country is impossible to understand. The result is that even highly intelligent people like Toosi end up missing the mark.

Pakistan has always been a violent country, owing to the bloodbath of Partition, and sordid imperial rulers before that. However, the situation only began to really fall apart once wealthy elites like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto opted for violently suppressing dissent, especially in the future state of Bangladesh, rather than concede to demands for greater democratization.

This set the stage for further degrees of state violence under General Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977 and explicitly sought to undermine left-wing gains such as the nationalization of many industries. Pakistanis often talk about a “long shadow of Zia ul-Haq” because his technocratic governance affected every area of society.

Inequality skyrocketed as the economy grew, and Zia empowered a newly-wealthy middle class that was deeply inspired by Saudi Wahhabism and eager to consolidate its position in the national order. These are the Pakistanis who voted overwhelmingly for the socially and economically conservative Nawaz Sharif in last May’s election. They are currently jostling for control with more classical elites like Bhutto’s supporters, whose are secular, but more as a result of their personal wealth and resulting proximity to Western institutions in the country.

They find occasional support in marginalized groups in Pakistan’s least developed areas, especially its minority-dominated provinces that straddle the Afghan border. These are populations that have reacted to economic scarcity by falling back on what they know, namely, violent forms of tribalism, and feudal practices that are articulated with a modern twist, like acid throwing.

Of course, these trends are present all over the Muslim world. I think that most people would consider them to be relatively tame in Pakistan if not for an upsurge in militarism that it has witnessed over the past few decades, especially since the late 2000s. We have to remember, though, that there is an economic basis for the security crisis as well. Even before the War on Terror, Pakistan never really developed provinces like Balochistan, Khyber-Pakthunkhwa, and the Tribal Areas. When it did, it was not in an equitable manner. This is why they are lawless enough to house militants in the first place.

It is also important to note the long-term effects of the Soviet-Afghan war, when drugs and weapons flooded into the country. This caused local rivalries to become far more explosive, especially as ethnic groups closed ranks in order to access limited resources. It is naive to think that this would have never happened if the economic situation wasn’t so volatile, but Zia’s moves against social democracy (in addition to his well-known empowerment of Salafi jihadism) certainly did their part.

Pakistan’s future is uncertain, but it is even more so when we are unable to discuss the actual problem. The country is falling apart because of a failed system of economic governance. Repairing it won’t solve all of Pakistan’s problems overnight, but it is the most important step to realizing a desperate need for social change. Americans who work with the country are crucial allies to making that happen. However, they can only begin to assist if they admit how many of Pakistan’s issues are rooted in a flawed approach to its economy.


Photograph courtesy of Christophe Laurent. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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