The recent history of Pakistan seems to be one of crisis after crisis, punctuated only by periods of waiting to see what the next crisis will be. Developments in the last month, however, have been ominous and dangerous even by Pakistani standards, raising genuine fears that the crisis now developing may reduce the country to levels of disorder and chaos unprecedented even in Pakistan’s turbulent history. In a country crying out for change, some even look forward to such a development, welcoming almost anything that might break the current pattern of political corruption and incompetence. That, however, is to assume that there is the prospect of something better emerging from it, of which there is sadly little sign.
The first of these developments last month was the confirmation of Asif Ali Zardari as president of Pakistan, in succession to Pervez Musharraf, who was finally forced to step down in August. Although Zardari was the leader of the largest political party in parliament, until he was actually elected as president there had been a sense among many Pakistanis that not even his own MPs would permit so discredited and unpopular a figure to actually assume the top job. The reaction to his election was one of general dismay that even Pakistan could sink so low as to be represented on the world stage by a man notorious for his greed, dissolution and venality. His embarrassing subsequent performances at the UN and in the US have only added to the general sense of incredulity and despair. Zardari is perhaps the one man whose election as president could make some Pakistanis look back at Musharraf, just weeks after his long-awaited exit, and think that perhaps he was not so bad after all.
The second development was the confirmation on September 10 that US president George W. Bush had issued a presidential order in July authorising US forces in Afghanistan to expand their operations into Pakistan without any reference to the Pakistani authorities. This story was leaked to the New York Times to coincide with the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, in order that the Bush administration could portray itself as proactive in its pursuit of the “war on terror”. There was evidently little thought of the fact that it was a confession of blatant breaches of international law, and would inevitably have a destabilising impact on Pakistan, supposedly a key US ally.
In truth, the revelation only confirmed what many had suspected; there had already been a number of suspected US airstrikes on targets in Pakistan, some of them causing civilian casualties, in previous weeks. The story sparked a series of anti-American protests across Pakistan, but little response from the government, which did not even dare to go through the motions of a protest against the US, either directly or through the UN. Most interesting, perhaps, was the response of the Pakistani military. Shortly after the publication of the story, it was reported that US helicopters attempting to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan had been turned back by defensive fire from Pakistani positions, raising hopes that the military might at least try to defend the Pakistani people even if the government did nothing. Such hopes were quickly dashed, as the military denied the stories and blamed the defensive firing on local tribesmen. The Pakistan military, long regarded as the only effective institution in the country, and which has justified its massive budget on the grounds that it is charged with defending the country, turned out to be too scared to admit responsibility for standing up to the foreign power that poses the greatest threat to the country and is hated by virtually all Pakistanis.
The great danger to Pakistan now is that America’s determination to militarily combat Islamic opposition to its global hegemony will thrust the country into the sort of civil war that it has already provoked in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan has long been under virtual US occupation thanks to the subservience of successive governments, but the facts that it has operated through local proxies rather than taking open control itself, and that its operations have been largely restricted to areas bordering Afghanistan, have prevented the country as a whole from being consumed. Open American warfare in any part of the country, and the cooperation of the government with it, will open the whole country up to military resistance from armed Islamic groups that have so far been admirably restrained in their operations. If that happens, the US will not hesitate to destroy the country’s infrastructure, and allow it to fall into chaos and disorder, regardless of the consequences for Pakistan’s people, rather than allow anti-Western forces to establish any sort of power.
Faced with this threat, the response of most Pakistanis is one of despair and resignation. Although the vast majority of Pakistanis still look to Islam for solutions to their problems, the manifest and repeated failures of the country’s Islamic movements throughout its history have taught Pakistanis to expect little from them. The Jama‘at-e Islami remains the country’s largest Islamic movement, with an organised infrastructure which means that many Islamically-committed and active Pakistanis tend to work through bodies affiliated or associated with it; but its political record inspires little hope. The Taliban and similar groups are popular in particular areas; elsewhere in the country, their resistance activities are supported but there is little sympathy for their limited political outlook. Most of the smaller Islamic groups that make up the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) political alliance are largely discredited. All over Pakistan, there are Muslims who yearn for an Islamic leadership in the country with the vision, commitment and quality shown by the leaders of Islamic Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, for example. Tragically for a country with so long a record of commitment to Islam, there seems to be no sign of such a leadership emerging in the foreseeable future.
As Pakistan faces up to what may be the gravest crisis even of its troubled history, perhaps its only hope is that the depth of the problems it faces might prove the impetus for the emergence of a new and dynamic Islamic leadership. Failing that, one can only pray that the damage the US does is limited, and that Pakistan’s people demonstrate yet again their remarkable capacity for enduring and surviving crises that few other countries or peoples could cope with.