Monday, 31 December 2007

Riots and Riot Control

Dawn TV yesterday had an interview with a security expert, a gentleman whose name I unfortunately cannot now recall, who was asked why the rioting and looting lasted for so long and why the government was so slow to act in bringing things under control.

The gentleman, who runs a private security company said that as soon as word of banks and offices being looted reached him he started making calls to members of the civilian and military administrations asking for help. There were heated exchanges when he heard that security forces were unwilling to roll swiftly into action. In most cases the rioters and looters were given a free rein on the first night and security forces were only deployed the following day. The idea was that PPP supporters should be allowed to vent their anger in order to prevent inflaming the situation.

In hindsight, the gentleman felt, the decision to hold back was probably a wise one, because in the immediate aftermath of the news of Benazir's death, if the army and paramilitary forces had been called out, violence may well have ensued between PPP supporters and security forces. The deaths may have mounted, inflaming the situation and Sindh may have irrupted into all-out insurrection.

I was ruminating on this while an acquaintance was claiming that the rioting "proved" that Pakistan needed the army to run the government to maintain law and order, because without the army, the nation would descend into complete chaos.

I think my acquaintance was drawing the wrong conclusions. Rather, it was the army's very involvement in politics, its involvement in the government administration as a partial rather than impartial party, that tied its hands when the violence broke out. If the army had come out into the streets that first day, enraged PPP supporters would have seen them as representatives of an institution politically opposed to their party and complicit in BB's death and would have attacked them as such. An army uninvolved in politics, still maintaining its integrity as an unbiased and non-partisan institution would have had no such baggage. There may still have been violence, but the situation would not have been charged with allegations of a vested interest or attempting to suppress political opponents.

I've said it before and I will say it again, having such an overt political role in Pakistani politics compromises what should be the army's primary role of defending the country. This is something the army brass simply fails to recognise.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Who Killed Bhutto?

The internet and the airwaves are awash with speculation about how, precisely Benazir Bhutto died, and who was responsible for her death. Personally, I don't find much of this 'debate' useful. Her death came as a result of an assassination attempt, whether it was a bullet, a piece of shrapnel, or a fall that killed her is irrelevant at this point. As for who was responsible, there is little doubt that it was the work of extremists. While the question over whether the security arrangements were or were not adequate is one that shouldn't be ignored, it is also of secondary importance. The most important question is to what extent there is collusion with these extremists by members of the state security apparatus.

That there are military insiders who are sympathetic towards, and even active in aiding, the militants is beyond all doubt. There is an informative paper here on some of the recent evidence of extremist infiltration of the higher levels of the Pakistani military. However there seems to be a real question mark over how seriously this threat is being taken by the army leadership and to what extent it is willing, or able, to counter this threat.

Yesterday, when writing about the possible impact of Bhutto's assassination, I wrote:
The assumption is that Musharraf is serious about tackling militancy and is clear-eyed enough to understand what this will entail. Its possible that he doesn't feel militancy is a serious problem, or that a few missile strikes and the doling out of massive quantities of bribe money will "end militancy". Needless to say these tactics have been failing miserably for the last 5 years and will fail miserably again.

In the article I have linked to above, B. Raman writes:

Musharraf is either knowingly dishonest or is living in a make-believe world of his own, unaware of the ground realities. Only a few days before Benazir's assassination, he was bragging to officer trainees in the Defence Services Staff College in Quetta that he had defeated the terrorists outside the tribal belt and would soon be defeating them in the tribal belt too. His reluctance to order an enquiry into the extent of infiltration of Al Qaeda into the GHQ is disturbing. He has convinced himself that not only he is the most popular leader of Pakistan, but also that the entire Armed Forces are devoted to him. Anybody who says otherwise is treated by him as a traitor, arrested and harassed.

As long as Musharraf and the army high command remain reluctant to go through the painful process of a thorough house-cleaning, the security situation will not improve. The problem, of course is that, dragging skeletons out of the cupboard is never good for army morale or cohesion, and with all other possible pillars of support alienated from Musharraf, he needs the army to stand united behind him. As with so many other situations in Musharraf's rule, the inherent contradiction of being a political and military leader has led to a Catch 22 situation.

In a press conference yesterday, the Interior Minister claimed that Baitullah Meshud and Al Qaeda were behind the assassination. An audio recording of a telephone conversation between Meshud and someone else was presented as evidence [you can read the transcript here]. Mehsud has denied his involvement, for whatever that's worth.

Whats interesting here is that firstly, if you read the transcript, it was the unnamed Maulvi who claims responsibility for killing Benazir. Meshud only congratulates him. Secondly, Meshud is speaking by mobile phone, whose location can be easily tracked if one knows what number to look for, and he actually gives his location in the conversation.

What is odd here is that in the press conference, the Pakistani military lays the blame for all the suicide bombings and assassination attempts over the last few months at the feet of Meshud. They are recording his phone conversations, so they know where he is. So if he is regarded as the 'mastermind' of all these terror attacks, why haven't they dropped a precision missile on his head before now? Perhaps there is a reasonable technical explanation, but I don't know what it might be.

That Meshud is a militant leader, I have no doubt. But I am suspicious of this claim that he is personally behind all of these attacks. I'm sure he is cheering them on, and he probably provides a safe-haven and material support for the people behind them from his self-declared Islamic Emirate of Waziristan, but I doubt he is the one ordering and planning the attacks. I get the feeling that one needs to look somewhat closer to home for that. It is quiet possible also that Meshud remains an "intelligence asset" for the military, who are keen to have a force to use against perceived threats in the region [particularly Afghan and Indian intelligence across the Afghan border] with plausible deniability. The military may well be willing to overlook his extracurricular activities in exchange for his services. This also fits well with the military's continuous distinction between 'legitimate' Taliban fighting for their religion and freedom for Afghanistan from 'foreign influences' and 'illegal' Al Qaeda planning terror attacks in Pakistan and abroad. He may simply be a convenient figure for the military to blame for everything - somewhat like how Osama Bin Laden became a catch-all figure to blame to the Americans for all sorts of Islamist militancy a few years back.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Essentialising Culture

There is a very good post at the 'Kings of War' blog run by the King's College War Studies Dept. called 'The Trojan horse of culture'. The author is writing in relation to Counter-Insurgency Operations, but what he highlights is part of a broader trend of 'essentialising' culture - in other words thinking of some kind of idealized view of a society's culture as essential to its nature and the all-directing force behind the behaviour of its individuals. The author rightly describes the risks of this kind of view. In its most simplistic forms, it is little more than a form of racism and is about as useful in understanding the people it attempts to describe.

Its interesting that here in Pakistan, the military [and indeed many people in the society] tend to essentialize culture as well. In many ways this is a hold over of colonial thinking, soundly internalized by the army brass and bureaucratic elite in colonial educational and training institutions. This kind of thinking has had numberless harmful effects in Pakistani military [and therefore foreign policy] thinking.

One example can be found in the 1965 war. Raised on the colonial British myth of Punjabis and Pathans being a 'martial race', very different in essence to the 'effiminate' peoples of eastern and southern India, the military rushed into its foolhardy 'Operation Gibraltar' in 1965 with confident assertions that 'Hindu' India would be too cowardly to risk an all out war, and that, even if all our war came, in the words of Zulfiqar Bhutto, one Muslim soldier would be worth ten Hindu soldiers. History bears witness to the fact that the Indians not only did not flee in abject terror of the Pakistani army, but inflicted serious reversals on it. By the time the ceasefire was signed, the Pakistani position was desperate. The 1971 war was an even bigger military disaster.

But still the essentializing myths persist. Citing the repeated conquests and plundering raids of India by a variety of Muslim adventurers from Mohammad Bin Qasim in the 8th century to Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th, all part and parcel of a national narrative of martial prowess, Pakistanis still insist on the inherent inferiority of Indians when it comes to war. The myth is also deployed in other ways. Most political commentators who insist that Islamist militants should be given free reign in the tribal areas, and that the army should not oppose them, tend to reverse this myth of martial prowess and insist on the inherent superiority of the Pathan and Afghan as a fighter, as well as their inherently 'Islamic' nature. Thus the Taliban are presented as fighting to preserve their culture and Islamic identity against foreigners and the desultory efforts and rubbish performance of the Pakistani army in battling militants explained as the natural outcome of trying to oppose militants who have inherent fighting prowess ingrained by their culture.

Needless to say, once you have excuses like these, few feel the need to try to understand what is happening in a more detailed and intelligent manner. That the socio-economic and political environment of the tribal areas in 2007 is very different from 2000 is not understood. Nor that in 2000 it was very different from 1975, before the area was flooded with weapons, cash and drugs. The fact that culture is neither monolithic nor immutable does not occur to these people and therefore the response to militancy and extremism becomes circumscribed, banal and ultimately ineffective.

What Next?

I had been gearing up to write a post on the coming elections, the possible outcomes and what they might mean for the country, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto seems to have thrown all the old equations out of the window.

So what will happen now?

The immediate reaction from the western press seems to be one of doom and gloom. 'Pakistan stares into the Abyss' says one experienced and usually level-headed blogger; 'Tentative steps towards democracy may become headlong rush into political chaos' warns the Guardian; the USA Today feels that Pakistan's best hope of 'becoming a stable democracy anytime soon may have died with Benazir Bhutto'. BBC is a little more circumspect, calling the assassination a 'severe blow to hope for stability' and asking 'what next for Pakistan'? CNN was constantly abuzz with discussion over what this means for the 'War on Terror' with repeated references to nuclear weapons and Islamist militants.

My own view of the situation is firstly, no, Pakistan is not going to immediately fall apart and leave nukes in the hands of Islamist militants. Secondly, yes, this is a severe blow to hopes for stability and Pakistan is headed for a political crisis. As for reversals for democracy, well, one is hard pressed to describe the previous political process in which Benazir was involved, as a movement towards 'stable democracy'.

This is not to say that our political leaders might not still manage to drag the entire nation into chaos - its possible I suppose, given the state of affairs and the seemingly miraculous ability of our political leaders to really make a mess of things. However, that will require some effort and a whole series of mis-steps.

For the immediate future, I think this leaves Musharraf's political future in deep trouble. Make no mistake, the man himself may survive, but I think hopes for taking serious measures to tackle extremism in the country could only have happened with political support from the PPP. There are certainly close advisers of Musharraf and people in the military who don't feel that the PPP is needed, but these people seem to spout such delusional fantasies of their own accomplishments, that they either have a very loose grip on reality or they are more interested in self-serving hypocrisy than tackling militancy.

All this is quiet apart from the fact that most people are holding Musharraf personally responsible and in the current climate of outrage and anger, various politicians may sense blood and try to bring him down. Nawaz Sharif seems to have already unsheathed his knives by announcing the PML-N will not take part in elections. Having lost the prop of being the army chief, and with his own political party, the PML-Q consisting of a band of mercenaries, Musharraf is at his most vulnerable. So far both these pillars of his authority seem to be standing by him, but it remains to be seen if they will do so if push comes to shove. Furthermore its not immediately clear who will take over the reins of power in the PPP now that Bhutto is gone, and if Musharraf will be able to make a deal with them. The three names being mentioned so far are Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Asif Zardari and Aitizaz Ahsan.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim is the titular head of the PPP, but he was in this position precisely because he was a 'yes-man' - someone who Benazir could trust to follow orders while she was in exile, and without a very strong base within the party apparatus. Asif Zardari seems to be maneuvering to take his late wife's position, and he can rely on his marital connection for mass support, but if he were to lead the PPP, one simply cannot see Musharraf coming to a political accommodation with him. It would be the height of hypocrisy for a president who took power with the promise to deliver accountability and honesty to form a political alliance with the man reputed to be the most corrupt in the country. As for the third candidate, Aitizaz Ahsan, who is still languishing under house arrest; he has been the most outspoken voice against the military and Musharraf in the country over the last year, and he is unlikely to enter into any kind of political arrangement with Musharraf.

One possibility is that Makhdoom Amin Fahim may become a compromise candidate to lead the party between different factions within the party. If this were to happen, some kind of political accommodation between the PPP and Musharraf would still be on the cards.

But of course all this conjecture is based on 2 assumptions, neither of which can be taken for granted:

The assumption is that Musharraf is serious about tackling militancy and is clear-eyed enough to understand what this will entail. Its possible that he doesn't feel militancy is a serious problem, or that a few missile strikes and the doling out of massive quantities of bribe money will "end militancy". Needless to say these tactics have been failing miserably for the last 5 years and will fail miserably again.

The second assumption is that Musharraf still has full control over decision-making within the military-PML-Q setup. Some observers speculate that he has already become something of a lame duck, dependent on the COAS and senior PML-Q leaders. If the PML-Q bigwigs are exerting more influence these days, the idea of an alliance with the PPP may be stillborn.

But that is mere speculation. Right now its still difficult to see where the chips may fall.

Edit: I came across this article in the IHT which echoes a few of the points I've made.

Islamic Pluralism vs Monoism

Having been inactive as a blogger over the last month, there are a great many things which I want to write about. We live in, alas, interesting times and there has been plenty of grist for the mill in this last month of 2007. But first up, I want to draw attention to a recent article at the Pak Tea House on the 'Dynamics of Change in Islamic Law'.

Here is a quote:

In my view, the most important crisis that Muslim society miserably failed to handle during Islam’s sojourn into modernity is diversity. By diversity, I mean religious heterogeneity in any form, may it be the pronouncement of legal injunctions, opinions regarding societal norms or something as personal as individual religious practices.

Therefore, whether it is the abundance of contradictory fatwas on issues as diverse as women leading prayers to Muslims attending Christmas celebrations to Islamic prohibition of images to what constitutes death, Pakistani brothers arguing about the bare heels of a Chinese sister during Hajj or my grandma’s queasiness while watching me pray in a manner other than our family’s religious school, there is an invisible urge to see a kind of religious monism; a CONSENSUS based on an almost Utopian unity of intelligibility, opinion and action.

I would go as far as contending that pluralism, when it manifests itself in any of the above forms does not resonate well with the conventionally perceived absolute nature of religious discourse. And this perception, while breeding religious exclusivism and thus extremism, also undermines the true rationalistic nature of Islamic legal tradition.

Its an interesting article about an important [perhaps even 'key'] issue in Islamic societies. I left the following in the comments section of the post:

Thanks for your post - you have addressed a very important issue. However you should also try to see this attempt to 'see a kind of religious monism' in its historical context - part of the attempt to bureaucratize and rationalize a wide variety of norms in to one acceptable set is about trying to build an Islamic 'identity' in the modern sense. I am not sure if this has always been the case.

Reading about Ibn Batuta's travels in the Islamic world of the middle ages, one is struck by the sheer variety of norms of dress, behaviour, interaction between sexes and ritual in different parts of the Islamic world. Nowadays many would view this diversity through the lens of an idealized 'correct' form of rituals and norms, with the different societies being placed on a scale of being more or less religious. But this strikes me as a very modern conceit.

If there is such a thing as an 'Islamic civilization', then it must embrace its own diversity. It was the pluralism of Islam in the classical age - which causes so much confusion and division amongst those seeking a 'pure' Islamic law - which is its most striking feature, as well as, perhaps, the foundation of its greatest achievements.

I'll try and flesh out these ideas here on my blog later.

Friday, 21 December 2007

On the Uses and Abuses of the Law Enforcement Apparatus By the Ruling Elite

Exhibit A - How 'law enforcement' officials are put to work suppressing dissenting voices:

The police attacked a rally taken out by students and activists to show solidarity with the deposed Judges in Islamabad on 17th December. More photos here.

Exhibit B - How 'law enforcement' officials are put to work promoting the ruling elites:

Policemen putting up hoardings bearing the bicycle on a green field symbol of the pro-Musharraf political party the PML-Q. Note the stacks of hoardings in the police pick-up.