The state withers away in Pakistan

by Omar Ali

3 days ago the Pakistani Taliban raided an outpost of the levies, a paramilitary force recruited primarily from the Afridi tribesmen of the Khyber agency. Poorly equipped, poorly paid and left to stand on the frontlines of the war against the Taliban with little or no backup from the army, the levies lost 3 men and another 23 were captured. The next day the “local administration” spent a busy day contacting “tribal elders” to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of those poor men. But the talks failed and

the captives were executed and their bodies dumped a couple of miles outside the city. This is not the first time the local Taliban have captured levies or other paramilitary forces and it is not the first time they have executed them.

On the same day, a related anti-Shia militant group blew up three buses carrying Shia pilgrims to Iran.

20 or so people were killed. Dozens more injured. Again, this is not the first time such an act was commited. In fact scores of other pilgrims have lost their lives on that very road in the last few years and more will probably do so in the months and years to come.

There are literally dozens of such videos. In most of them the Taliban make speeches about the fact that these soldiers are working for the apostate Pakistani regime alongside the US and other infidel powers, and anyone who works for that regime will face the same fate. In the case of Shias the message is even simpler: they are heretics and they must all die. But the Taliban are not the only people doing the killing. There are several videos of Pakistani soldiers executing Taliban prisoners or beating them up. There are also videos of children killed by Pakistani or American bombing. There is a video somewhere of American soldiers urinating on dead bodies. Not as gruesome as some of the work done by Taliban videographers, but as Hamid Gul has repeatedly pointed out, the Americans are pussies.

War is hell. We know that. But what struck me about these news items was this: in both cases (the attack on Peshawar and the attacks in Mastung) the “local authorities” generally know where to find the attackers (they frequently negotiate with them, they send “elders” out to talk to them, the attackers don’t even hide their faces in most videos, large numbers of armed men don’t just drop in from the moon and disappear back into the mother ship, etc.). And these are certainly not the first such attacks, so the “authorities” have had more than enough time to find out that something is rotten a few miles from their provincial capital. Yet there is remarkably little response. The local deputy commissioner or political agent is not held responsible, nor do the various other local “law enforcement” mechanisms swing into action as if something terrible has happened. The army, armed with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces, stationed in tens of thousands in the same cities, proud of being the “seventh nuclear power in the world”, does not swing into action. Prime ministers and Presidents don’t fly in to take charge of the situation.

On the contrary, there is remarkable vagueness and confusion about what is happening and who is responsible for dealing with it. The provincial government (an elected regime that has lost hundreds of party workers to the Taliban, most recently the senior provincial minister) is not asked why they don’t do something because it is widely understood that they are not in charge and it’s not up to them to “do something”. The civil bureaucracy and police have no jurisdiction or else wriggle out with vague insinuations that it’s all in the army’s domain. The army, recipient of billions in US aid for “anti-terrorism efforts” and the institution that is de facto (if not de jure) responsible for tackling these killers is extremely vague about their identity. In Baluchistan they pretend to have simply washed their hands of the whole matter. In KP (Peshawar) they say they are fighting “an amorphous enemy”, which presumably means they are off the hook.

There may be many reasons why the Pakistani army is so reluctant to fight the Pakistani Taliban. Lack of capacity is sometimes cited. Others believe it is complicity, not inability, which prevents any action. But this is not a post focused on why the army does or does not fight its former blue-eyed boys in the Jihadist movement. My point today is simpler: There is a state called Pakistan. It exists (whether it was a good idea or not is another story; you can see my views on that). It has a structure. That structure; corrupt, inefficient, “unequal, sexist, racist, neo-imperialist”, whatever, can fall apart. If it falls apart, you will have anarchy and civil war. Neither is a pleasant experience. And once that happens, it can take decades to settle on new arrangements. What follows in the interim is usually extremely unpleasant. Humpty Dumpty is not put together again with kid gloves. Ask Chinese people who lived between 1911 and 1976 for details.

“Strategic depth” and the “leveraging of asymmetrical assets to support national policy priorities” is National Defense University level stuff. The neo-liberal world order and its disastrous consequences are arguments for which you need a university degree (and no, the “neoliberal world order” does not necessarily and automatically demand civil war and anarchy). But no state, not Leninist Russia, not Maoist China, not George Washington’s America, not the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, tolerated, AT ALL, the existence of free-lance bands of armed men. The illiterate (but capable) Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia understood this. Modern India, which is very much a work in progress and is as incompetent and corrupt a regime as any in Pakistan, seems to understand this. EVERYONE seems to understand, it but the Pakistani army high command does not? Don’t they teach this in National Defense University before they teach all about DIMEFIL and its importance in Pakistani Afghan policy?

I will digress here with a few words for my Westernized Pakistani Leftist friends (everyone else can jump ahead). Yes, yes, we all hate the neo-liberal new world order. But dear well-meaning darling souls, if the shit hits the fan in Pakistan, it won’t be happening in some other country where we can cheer the revolution and its transformation of “power relations” while bemoaning its inevitable but understandable “excesses”. We are talking about this happening in Pakistan itself. We still have friends and family there. Mummy and Daddy’s little house in Model Town, Uncle Jimmy’s pleasant little farmhouse in Bani Gala. Do keep in mind, they are also IN Pakistan.

Let me try and simplify this argument (all this directed at my Westernized elite liberal friends only):

1. All modern states are evil. All war is evil. All power is evil.

2. Colonial powers are evil. Western colonial powers were especially evil (if you don’t wish to apply the term “colonial” to the Russian or the Arab empire, I will accept that too). And US neo-colonialism is very very very especially evil.

3. We hate this evil way of organizing human society and would love to transcend it. We must transcend it. The sooner, the better.

4. But until we do so, or until someone else does so (lets be humble enough to recognize that if comrade Mao and comrade Lenin couldn’t do it with ruthless armed revolutionaries at their disposal, we are not likely to do it with a keyboard), there are a few elementary features that every state has to aim for, even if it does not immediately achieve them. If state A is unable to implement them in area X, then state B must do so very quickly after pushing out state A. Elementary stuff. The suppression of mob violence and non-state militias. Don’t do that and you have chaos and/or civil war and revolution on your hands.

5. It is hard to find an example of in which the sequence of chaos/civil-war/revolution led directly to a better life for the great mass of the people alive when the chaos set in.

6. It is especially important not to try this experiment in Pakistan. We are from Pakistan. What exists is bad, but it’s not hopeless. It can be improved. Break it and you will have a mess on your hands that is guaranteed to be worse than what exists today.

OK, back to the main point. I am not saying Pakistan’s ruling elite is already done for. They will probably act against these groups at some point after having made the job extra hard for themselves. And though the confrontation will be bloody and prolonged, the state will probably prevail in the end. Modern states are very resilient and are hard to defeat by non-state actors (another more powerful state chipping in, as in East Pakistan in 1971, is a different matter). Cuba comes to mind as an exception, but counter examples are far more numerous.

In fact there are rumors that the army may have struck a new deal with the US that involves US approval for an army-backed “caretaker” regime. Some new move is said to be afoot with Allama Tahir ul Qadri providing “moderate Muslim” cover, with the MQM and anyone else over whom the army (or, in this case, the London police) has enough leverage, lining up to “demand” a new caretaker regime. But the whole exercise smells too much of past interventions and lacks even the manufactured legitimacy that attended those attempts at nation building. I am not hopeful that any new “government of all talents”, especially one based on transparently false premises like the Tahir-ul-Qadri/MQM revolutionary wave, will solve our ideological conundrum. We all understand that it breaks GHQs heart to fight against the very forces they thought would lead them to conquests from Khorasan to Kashmir. And yes, it is difficult for many Pakistanis to accept that people sincerely committed to Islam and Islamic supremacy are now to be ruthlessly crushed by the country that prides itself as the citadel of Islam. But mistakes were made and karma is a bitch. Someone somewhere will have to bite the bullet. The point is that it will be no easier to do that with a new caretaker regime than it is with the (admittedly incompetent) Zardari regime. Because the principal obstacle to taking decisive action is not corruption or mechanistic institutional weaknesses. Corrupt and incompetent police forces and armies can still defeat major rebellions (with a little help from their friends. See Taiping rebellion in China). What is lacking here is will; it seems it’s very painful for GHQ to muster the will to act against Islam and the “ideology of Pakistan”. But as noted above, things have become so bad, they have become clear. Pakistan’s ruling elite can either relinquish control in large areas or clear those areas. Controlled burn and other holding strategies that accept such a level of violence against state forces may have been a way to have our American aid and eat our jihadi cake too, but that whole strategy has now become non-viable. Negotiations and “peaceful solution” are beautiful ideals, but the other side is armed and ready to kill. No state can permit such force to remain active within its domain and appear not to care. To do so it to undermine the viability of the state itself. The viability of the Pakistani state may be just a theoretical problem for the Guardian newspaper, but its life and death for the Pakistani elite… OUR elite. If things fall apart, they will not be easy to put together again.

The choices are simple. The Pakistani state can permanently abandon large areas to armed forces that refuse to recognize its authority (and will then face the prospect of fighting these forces wherever the new border is drawn, since their ambitions are vast). Or it can re-establish control. Everything else comes after this first elementary choice is made. Its time to choose.

Finally, a few words for friends who think a post-Pakistan solution would be best. How do you plan to get there? Between what exists now and what may exist after Pakistan is no more, lie civil war and massive disorder. And organized forces will have to fight it out in that transition. Which forces do you imagine doing that work, and why do you expect them to do it to your liking?

PS: On an unrelated note, I notice that Zizek has called out the poco crowd:

Also, I really hate all of this politically correct, cultural studies bullshit. If you mention the phrase “postcolonialism,” I say, “Fuck it!” Postcolonialism is the invention of some rich guys from India who saw that they could make a good career in top Western universities by playing on the guilt of white liberals.

There is likely to be an urge among the more intelligent and established postcolonial types to let the matter go (as with states, there are elementary first principles in academic disputes and number one is the “mutual bullshit protection clause”). But in this realm I am with the revolutionaries. Don’t worry about collateral damage and self-inflicted wounds. Ignore the business about airing dirty laundry in public. Let Zizek have it with all keyboards blazing. I urge my “postcolonial-culture studies” brethren (and sisteren) to please respond to Zizek. Harshly.

“There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

PS: thanks to Myra Macdonald, whose post inspired this one over the weekend.