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Pakistan living on the edge

On January 16, hundreds of radical Islamist fighters overran a military fort at Sararogha in south Waziristan, apparently facing mixed resistance from the troops stationed there. Seven soldiers of the Pakistan Frontier Corps are reported to have been killed, while 15 fled to the safety of a nearby military post, and another 20 were reported missing. Just a day later, 'dozens' of Pakistan troops are said to have simply abandoned another post along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, after receiving threats from the same Taliban forces that had earlier overrun the Sararogha Fort.

Abruptly, doomsday scenarios are being conjured up, with commentators questioning the 'Central Government's ability to control the border area'. A succession of terrorist and suicide attacks across the country has also added to the sense of crisis: There were as many as 56 suicide attacks in 2007, as compared to just seven in 2006, and January 2008 has already witnessed three; further, 2007 saw 3,599 terrorism related fatalities in Pakistan, as compared to 1,471 in 2006. Predictably, the vision of a Pakistani meltdown is now taking hold of the imagination of many outside commentators.

But this is, in fact, far from the Pakistani reality. The Pakistan Army has certainly taken something of a beating over the past over a year -- and particularly after the Lal Masjid assault in July 2007 -- but its collapse is far from imminent. Indeed, despite the recurrence of jihadi violence in the shape of a rising number of frontal attacks in the Waziristan Agencies and the North-West Frontier Province, and the bombings and suicide attacks in other areas as well, including some at the very heart of the Army's power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the crisis appears far more acute from a distance than it would be on the ground. This is the case despite credible reports of significant demoralisation and rising dissensions in the lower ranks in the Army, and a number of incidents, such as the 'surrender' of more than 300 troops to a gang of some 20-odd Taliban in August 2007, that will deeply embarrass the Army command and President Pervez Musharraf. Such incidents are, no doubt, the more incomprehensible and disgraceful in a situation in which the Army has virtually been deified over the entire period of the country's existence. They are not, however, an accurate index of the projected 'collapse' of the Army's power in Pakistan.

Indeed, notwithstanding the seriousness of each of these incidents, or of their cumulative impact, the real crisis in Pakistan is not the psychological and physical havoc each such attack, bombing or debacle provokes. Pakistan's real crises are, on the one hand, the steady erosion of the Army's moral authority and the systematic and unprecedented challenge that is being raised from jihadi ranks in the country and, on the other, the Army's sustained and devastating, albeit gradual, assault against the institutions of civil and democratic governance in the country.

As the Army loses prestige and looks, inevitably, for some credible political partnership to share the burden of the nation's destinies, it is confronted with the political and administrative wasteland that it has itself created over the past decades, and the rising graph of institutional despoliation that the Musharraf regime has inflicted on every non-military organisation and agency. It is here that the gravest of vices of an authoritarian regime manifest themselves - by the time the despots begin to realise their own mistakes and limitations, they have already enfeebled, crippled or destroyed any popular or democratic alternative that could assume charge of the reins of governance.

This is the Pakistani dilemma today -- and it is the dilemma that inevitably confronts all non-democratic societies at some stage or other. Regime change or the transition of power frequently threatens to aggravate existing crises, as deeply debilitated successor systems would be forced to grapple with escalating problems -- thus providing a justification for the preservation of the increasingly burdensome and ineffective despotism. The TINA ('there is no alternative') factor becomes the core of the destructive dynamic that progressively erodes systemic capabilities.

This, indeed, is the greatest virtue even of immensely imperfect democracies -- such as India's own: Democracy restrains the greatest excesses of parties in power, prevents the assault on constitutional institutions from escalating beyond a certain threshold, creates a quantum of continuous public feedback that no junta of corps commanders can replace, and provides for a smooth transition from one regime to another, without the traumatic dislocations more authoritarian systems experience.

The crisis in Pakistan is precisely the manifest lack of a mechanism for the necessary transition that could secure a reversal of the hurtling decline of the past over eight years of Mr Musharraf's disastrous rule, even as the imperatives of a change are widely recognised. The more Pakistan sinks into chaos and violence, the more crucial will be the role of the Army in preserving a modicum of order and control. And yet, the more the Army exerts itself in fulfilling such a role, the more it escalates and deepens the destructive dynamic that has the country in its stranglehold.

There is, in this, the appearance of a terminal deadlock, unless the country discovers in itself the capacity to abruptly and completely reverse the patterns of the past; to reject the radical Islamist mobilisation that has not only been the principal tool of extremist and terrorist recruitment, but also of political management by all state agencies -- military, civil and democratic; and, to embrace the fullest democracy, with all its flaws and its apparent propensities for delay and inefficiency. This will not, of course, automatically and immediately restore order and justice to Pakistan -- and may, indeed, see some measure of short-term escalation in prevailing disorders. It would, however, set into motion processes of corrective accommodation of various apparently centrifugal forces in the country, install a more responsive political system, and address many of the underlying inequalities and inequities that manifest themselves in apparent Islamist extremism, but that are more accurately sourced in a range of enduring social and political disparities.

Slow, painful and frustrating as such a pathway may appear, in contrast to the 'commando quick fixes' that the Army and Mr Musharraf promise, this is the only realistic avenue for Pakistan to escape the increasingly existential crisis that threatens to envelop the state and its militarised agencies. The sooner the people of Pakistan, but more importantly, the country's military leaders themselves, realise this, the greater the hope and possibility that Pakistan will survive the present century with its integrity intact.

(Published in The Pioneer, January 19, 2008)





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