Arab Spring in Pakistan? No, Thanks

In an interesting and slightly misguided article about the possibilities of an Arab Spring in Pakistan, Michael Kugelman, (a senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC) begins his opinion piece with the following profound assertions:

Will Pakistan experience an Arab Spring? The question has been on many minds since revolution swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 – and especially since a major anti-government rally took place in Islamabad this month. . . .

It’s easy to understand why. Pakistan, like the Arab Spring nations, boasts a young and mobile communications savvy population. Its masses are victims of the same indignities that incited revolt in the Middle East: corruption, oppression, and injustice.

However, the similarities end there. Let’s stop talking about a revolution in Pakistan, because it’s not going to happen. (

That Mr. Kugleman’s entire argument relies on false analogies is obvious:

  •  The Arab spring has happened.
  • It was mostly a revolutionary attempt led by the tech savvy youth of several “Arab” countries.
  • Pakistan shares the same kind of material conditions with the Arab countries.
  •  Should the so-called “Arab Spring” happen in Pakistan? Yes.
  •  It has not happened.
  •  Conclusion: There must be something wrong with Pakistan.

Mr. Kugelmen then mobilizes the most hackneyed list to prove his point: corrupt leaders, Pakistani propensity for the cult-of-personality politics, and ethnic and cultural divisions. In this argument, revolution is offered as a progressive narrative that cannot be sustained in Pakistan because, we are to believe, Pakistan has not crossed a certain threshold of mass mobilization to join the other lauded revolutions that have happened and are happening in the Arab world.

The first problem with this framing of an argument is that it relies on a simplified understanding of revolution: it uses the spontaneous rise of the youth against their oppressors in Tunisia, Egypt, and other nations of the Islamic world as an ideal type. Thus, anything that cannot be posited as a universal popular response, somehow, fails to be of value.

What Mr. Kugleman and others like him fail to account for is the very complexity of Pakistan, a complexity that they posit as a detriment to the chances of any mass political mobilization.

Let us account for this complexity: Pakistan is a diverse nation, which has a written constitution, a defined system of government, a trained bureaucracy, and a viable educational system. Yes, in terms of political consciousness and political origination, Pakistan is far ahead of its Arab counterparts. Pakistanis have strong party affiliations and have several organized national parties and numerous regional political parties with very strong following. This is a great recipe for a democracy: organized political parties and their base is an absolute precondition for any viable democratic system.

Is there corruption? Yes, certainly. But all democracies have a set of illegalities that exist at legal and quasi-legal levels. The US political system is corrupt to the core: all politicians in the US system are paid for and bought by contributions. Now, of course, these contributions are legal, but if they purchase influence for the contributors, then that is a refined form of corruption.

So, yes Pakistani politicians are equally as corrupt as their US counterparts. But does Pakistan have the necessary scaffolding to structure and sustain a viable political system? Yes, absolutely.

Mr. Kugleman also forgets to mention that the so-called “Arab Spring” did happen in Pakistan and, in fact, it preceded the now valorized Arab Spring. In 2007 the lawyers movement supported by all major factions of Pakistani political spectrum was successful in not only restoring the sacked chief justice, but was also instrumental in the eventual ouster of Mr. Pervez Musharraf, the US-sponsored dictator of Pakistan.

Furthermore, given the particularities of Pakistan’s political climate, a mass revolution is the last thing needed in Pakistan. The current government, ineffectual as it may be, is the first government in decades that is almost there, almost about to finish its five-year term. The best path forward for Pakistan, reformative as it might be, is not to ask and hope for a mass revolution but the continuation of the process in the form of timely held general elections. Only this continuity will enable Pakistan to strengthen its institutions and build its political and public sphere.

So, not only has the “Arab Spring” already happened in Pakistan, it is also no longer necessary. Thus, it is the democratic future of Pakistan that we should be concerned about instead of hoping for a revolution that we absolutely do not need.


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Pakistan Civilian-Military Relations

According to an apocryphal story, immediately after General Pervez Musharraf launched his infamous Kargil offensive, the Indian Prime Minister contacted Mr. Nawaz Sharif, then Prime Minister of Pakistan.

“Mian Sahib” asked the Indian PM, “What are you doing to us? Why has your army launched an offensive in Kargil?”

“Let me ask my generals and then I will get back to you,” replied Nawaz Sharif

“That is the difference between you and us, Mian sahib; we don’t ask our generals, they ask us before they do anything” is said to have been the Indian PM’s reply.

This story, often repeated in the streets of Pakistan, is also a sort of popular self-awareness of how things stand in Pakistan when it comes to civil-military relationships.

In the military circles, of which I was a part for fourteen years of my life, the civilian administration is always seen as corrupt and inefficient. This view is, of course, partially true especially if one compares the two systems without incorporating their attendant peculiarities. It is easy to be professional and efficient in the military: everyone is trained to do their job and there is an established hierarchy of rank structure buttressed by an uninterrupted history of functionality as an institution. Furthermore, the military leaders only have to deal with highly indoctrinated troops who, being soldiers, have no right to any kind of free will or civic rights. It is easy to command and manage a captive audience.

Our civilian systems, however, neither have a continuous history of functionality nor do they comprise a system in which the hierarchy is clearly established and articulated. Because of various martial laws and other military interventions neither the people nor the so-called leaders have truly learned the ethics and politics of public political life. Resultantly, most of our politicians see their offices as a path to self-agrrandization and have no qualms about using their influence to enrich themselves. Since the system is unstable, the politicians’ psyche is connected to short-term goals. So, instead of refining their message and streamlining a long-term, people-oriented politics, our politicians are more focused on the short-term goals. If the threat of military take-overs had been eliminated, just like the Indians did, then over the last sixty years we would have also developed a more responsive and transparent system of politics and governance.

Pakistan is also still burdened with a medieval system of production in which the large landholders still rely on captive labor to continue reproducing the inequalities that we inherited at the time of the partition. How is the army to blame for this? Quite simply, one look at who did the military mobilize during their regimes will be a good answer: Ayub Khan relied on some heavy weights of Pakistani feudality and Zia-ul-Haq, despite his pseudo-Islamic policies, also worked through the same ”notables” in all regions of Pakistan. Mr. Musharraf, notwithstanding his pronounced liberalism, also worked with cahudries of Gujraat and other such parasites to keep his regime functional. In the entire thirty or so years of the aggregated military rule, not even one of them even hinted at land reforms or tried to disrupt this unjust, unequal system of wealth distribution. In fact, by supporting the zamindars and the waderas, the military has provided them new inroads into the nation’s politics: pretty much all major parties now field feudal candidates from the rural heart of Pakistan, candidates who are basically there to safeguard their own interests and to maintain the status quo.

It is often declared that without the army, Pakistan will disintegrate as a nation. Maybe, that is partially true as a functional national government does need a strong and established armed force to maintain order within its borders, to provide emergency relief, and to also safeguard against foreign aggression. But a deeper look at our system suggests that military itself has become the main cause of Pakistan’s instability and bleak future. This isn’t something new; one look at human history is enough to prove that eventually it is always the high military expenditure that brings nations and empires down. At the height of its power, the Roman Empire relied heavily on the Roman legions for the expansion of empire. But in the end the legions themselves became too expansive to maintain and thus became the cause of the failure of empire. Same happed to the Soviet Union. We are headed the same way. We all know that we cannot afford to spend so much on the military but we must, as our politicians neither have the courage nor the popular support to reign in the military elite.

The civil military relationships in Pakistan, therefore, are a symptom of a nation gone wrong, a nation in which people are still living in squalor while their leaders and their generals live like kings.

It is quite obvious that our politicians are mostly corrupt and probably do not care about the people, but part of this apathy is systemic: if the politicians are in it for the short term and do not have to worry about their long term obligations to their constituents, then the system does not force them to become more receptive to popular demands. The generals, on the other hand, have no reason to pander to the people especially if they can continuously rely on popular distrust of the politicians and a constant invocation of outside threats. The result of this military civilian symbiotic relationship is that Pakistan has increasingly become a dysfunctional state in which might is right and the only way to make ourselves look better is to keep deriding other nations.

Rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a direct result of, among other things, the unequal and unjust society that the army and the politicians have constructed over the years. Think of it this way: if you feel powerless and silenced with no recourse to a functional justice system or a vibrant social system, then you will sign up with anyone who promises to literally restructure the entire socio-economic edifice. The left in Pakistan has never been able to promise such an upheaval: in fact, the Pakistani left, whatever is left of it, has itself become an elitist pursuit by some real and mostly pseudo intellectuals whose political alignment is mostly with the feudal or industrial bourgeoisie. In such a scenario, only the most fundamentalist mullahs can mobilize the people as they can, at the end of the day, at least promise revolutionary change.

In wake of the recent Memogate scandal and other national debacles, it has become evident that the interest of the army and those of our politically elected leaders are on a divergent course. Yes, we need the armed forces: at least, they provide employment for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis directly and indirectly. But we need an army that knows that it is one tool in the hands of popularly elected governments, an army that enables Pakistan to become a viable, pluralistic democracy.

Our politicians also need to learn that they are servants of their people and unless they internalize this core principle, they will continue the inane and self-serving politics that has now made them a joke in the region as well as in the world.

If the present government finishes its term, ineffective as it maybe as a government, it will be the first popularly elected government to do so in my entire lifetime. So, yes, their corruption and failure notwithstanding, let us aid and help this government so that we can have another and yet another popularly elected government. A functioning system of politics is the only way for Pakistan to become a viable nation and for that to happen, the Pakistan army will have to learn to think of itself as an instrument of Pakistani state and the generals will have to learn to be servants of their people: Yes, the very people whose poverty and suffering underwrites the privileges that our generals enjoy as their rights.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

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Pakistan Should Re-evaluate its Relationship with the US and NATO

Photo From Dawn

In wake of the recent killing of Pakistani soldiers as a result of NATO bombing, Pakistani government has gone into a crisis mode and so has the Pakistani public: while the civilian government and the army have issues some powerful rhetorical statements, including the ultimatum to the US to vacate their base in Balochistan, the Pakistani people are out in the streets protesting against yet another violation of their airspace by their so-called allies.

Yes, I know Pakistan is weak and needs all the friends in the world that it can gather, especially against the daily terror unleashed by the Taliban and others in its cities, villages, and public spaces, but does that mean that Pakistan should be a total hostage to the interests and policies of powers that suffer no direct consequences of their actions in the region.

Here is a sad irony: while the Pakistani troops were being killed by NATO bombers in the tribal region, the US citizens were camping outside corporate big-box stores to purchase the latest gadgets at reduced prices. Is this what Pakistan is underwriting with its sacrifices? Are we there to serve the empire so that its privileged citizens can buy their video games in peace, while our children suffer of malnutrition, our cities stink of raw sewage, and while our soldiers are being killed by the very allies for whom over three thousand of them have died in the past few years.

Yes, the war against fundamentalism is in the best interest of Pakistan, but why should we call it a WAR? Why not call it a struggle and then harness all resources, mostly peaceful and pedagogical, in order to win this struggle against intolerance and terror. In my meeting with a senior ISI officer last year, who happens to be an old friend and my mentor in so many ways, the most important thing that I learned was this: Even the ISI knows that this struggle cannot be won through military action alone and that in order to win, Pakistan would need a lot of international support to literally rebuild its national infrastructure. Yes, rebuild the educational system, the healthcare system, and the system of law and justice. Of course all these sectors are considered “non-developmental” sectors by the IMF. So, if the US is so committed to the long-term interest of Pakistan, then where is the help to restructure and overhaul Pakistani economy and the public sphere?

Sadly, it is quite obvious that the world economy is not really “Flat.” Third world nations have now become living and ghettoized sweatshops for the developed nations: how else could Walmart sell its crap for so less to its American customers. Politically also nations like Pakistan are expected to submit their national will to the dictates of the likes of USA; that, the surrender of our national will, is too high a price for a nation .

The current policies and agreements with the US and NATO, let us not forget, were forged by a dictator under duress. It is time that the popularly elected government asked its people, the people who are the true owners of the nation, as to what its policy should be. Yes, our people are poor and not highly educated but you will be surprised to know that most of them are politically more aware than their average American counterparts.

So, this time let this not again be another set of empty slogans and un-implemented ultimatums: let us remind our so-called allies that killing our soldiers and civilians–even if it is hot pursuit or collateral damage–is not acceptable under any circumstances. I mean what was the army high command doing when two of their posts were under attack? Obviously, according to the protocol, the officers on the posts must have reported what was happening, must have asked for aid: Why did no aid arrive? Where was Pakistan Air Force whose job it is to defend the nations borders? Or was the current military leadership following the same cowardly policies as the ones followed by Pervez Musharraf when he abandoned his soldiers to die in Kargil!

This is also the time to ask these hard questions of our military commanders: did they let these soldiers die in vain without even mounting minimal countermeasures? And if they did, doesn’t that mean that they have let down the very soldiers they expect to die for their country on their orders? Yes, enough empty posturing: answer our questions honestly. Your troops deserve the answers and so does the nation.


Enough Already: Let’s Give Pakistan Some Love

Those of us who are addicted to news and the blogosphere are aware of the thrashing that Pakistan and Pakistan army ahs been getting from all quarters since Osama Bin Laden (OBL) was served a healthy dose of the same medicine that he himself was a master at concocting. Yes, he is dead, killed, kaput for the crimes that he committed against humanity. But Pakistan, it seems, is still reeling from the aftershocks. Just one look at one Pakistani blog aggregator’s front page is enough to guess the most popular topic of the past few weeks:

In a rather subdued but straight speech the Prime Minister of Pakistan–a man I respect for not having abandoned his party for the Musharraf float–admitted that just like all other nations, Pakistan and its intelligence agencies had also failed in locating and eliminating OBL. I think it is time to give the Pakistani government some benefit of doubt and admit that such failures do occur and that there is no need to look for exotic conspiracies behind it.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C, in the true spirit of American politics [which involves kicking your opponents when they are down] the vultures are already sharpening their claws to dig into Pakistan’s lifeline. Senator Patrick Leahy sugegsted that the US aid to Pakistan should be reviewed and, maybe, stopped. This is the stupidest thing that the US government can do, but stupidity is also a hall-mark of American politics and is not necessarily native to Pakistan alone.

I think any reduction of aid to Pakistan would be downright stupid and destructive. Yes, Pakistan has failed but so have the  the intelligence agencies of the world: weren’t they all looking for OBL?. Let us not kick Pakistan when it is down: let us help this courageous country up, for its people have suffered immensely in this endless war on terror and while I don’t get starry-eyed when I see a Pakistani general in uniform or hear a Pakistan politician, I do care about pakistan and its people. So, let us stand with pakistan and let us stop opportunists here and abroad from stomping Pakistan into further misery and shame.

As I have written elsewhere, Pakistan has sacrificed deeply and suffered greatly in this war and it is now time to acknowledge that and to stand by the people of Pakistan.

So, against the current trend and  going beyond my own critical writings about this event, I would like to send my love and best wishes to the people of Pakistan.


A Pakistani General Resigning?

The Pakistani generals are not famous for resigning, not even when they lose half a country (Yahya Khan) or start a disastrous war without the knowledge of their government (Pervez Musharraf). In fact, when they make huge blunders, they usually tend to sack the elected governments and declare themselves the rulers of our poor nation. We are the only nation in the modern history that has been conquered by its own army four times.

So, the recent rumors that General Pasha, the erstwhile head of the ISI, is likely to resign are rather more of a wishful thinking. No sir, our generals do not go down with the sinking ship, they just leave the ship on their reserved life boats, or, in this case, golden parachutes. So, I will belive it when I see it.

The case against the ISI head is rather strong: Under his watch Osama bin Laden was discovered to have been living, for five years, right next to the very factory where officers are produced. This is not just incompetence; it is rather a deeply ironic and sadly hilarious incompetence. I mean no one would belive this if this had been written as fiction or made into a movie.

Here is an organization that eats up a large chunk of our national budget, is rarely audited, and is not directly accountable to anyone if Pakistan and now we have found it to be extremely incompetent.

If we are setting up the precedence for resignations by our generals, then let us also put the DG MI on this list as well, for it is his job to know such things about terrorists and stuff as well. And also the head of the Pakistani Air Defense–both army and airforce–should also be kind enough to tender their resignations for failing to detect American gunships flying over their territory.

It is hard to resign as a general: there is so much to lose. But I think this time there is no hiding behind the national security skirt as the national security itself has been found to be lacking a skirt.

So, let us have it from our armchair generals: a bit of courage to take responsibility. A resignation, or a few resignations, and public apologies to a poor nation that underwrites their priveleges would be a good start.

I will believe it when I see it!

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Editorials Politics

PPP+PML (Q) = A Coalition of Shame

Image via Wikipedia

Today fourteen members of the PML (Q), all allies of former dictator Pervez Musharraf, joined the Pakistan People’s Party’s cabinet. This is a moment of shame for the PPP: Mr. Zardari has, true to his own shameful history, betrayed the trust of PPP workers and the general public of Pakistan by aligning himself with those who had sold their loyalties to a dictator in return for power.

Yes, this will probably keep Mr. Zardari and his cohorts in power, but let us not forget that these are the very people under whose watch–Musharraf included–Benazir Bhutto was murdered. And some of those who should have ensured BB’s safety and did not, will now be in the cabinet of her husband’s political coalition: shame. Out of all the PPP top brass, only Senator Raza Rabbani has shown the honor and courage to object to this by resigning his cabinet post: we salute senator Rabbani for his principled stand. As for Mr. Zardari, this goes on to prove yet again that his sole interest lies in staying in power and principled politics is  something that he and his ilk are completely unfamiliar with.

So, let us just call it what it is: a shameless, self-serving, opportunistic politics.

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