Thursday, December 3, 2009

A black dog’s perspective on the Subcontinent

Winston Churchill called his frequent bouts of depression his “black dog.” Looking at the forces coming into play in and around India, Pakistan and Afghanistan it is hard for one not to be bitten by that mastiff. Truth be told there are a whole pack of mangy mutts collecting in region.

The biggest and most shambolic canine is not the one that is making the evening news on a regular basis; no it is the southern neighbor of Afghanistan that has the poorer pedigree. Pakistan is the real center of the gather storm and it is an epic mess.

There is a very good chance that Pakistan as a nation is structurally unsustainable. Simple put the nation of Pakistan is hard wired for failure. Pakistan is the Muslim rump of British India. Way before Iran picked up the banner of Nationalistic Islam Pakistan was the very first Islamic Republic.

In that fact lays the rub. Pakistan is founded on a grand idea and nation-states founded on grand ideas have a really bad track record. Think the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and you get the most recent examples of the grand idea nation state. Let us zero in on Yugoslavia because in many ways it had numerous parallels to Pakistan.

Yugoslavia was the realm of the “South Slaves.” Who were these people? They were an idea of intellectual elites. In the end the nation of the South Slaves broke apart because the real people in the geographic region bounded by the nation-state of Yugoslavia identified themselves by their ancient, cultural, religious and historical identities: Croats, Bosnians, Dalmatians (the people-not the dogs),Serbs, Montenegrins, Albanians, and Slovenes. When only five percent of the population self identify as members of the nation state, in this case Yugoslavs, you know your country is in deep Kim chi. Yugoslavia never really functioned as a stable nation-state. The only thing that ever kept it whole was some sort of dictatorial governance back up by naked force.

How does this relate to Pakistan some may impatiently ask? Pakistan is also a cobbled together conceit. While there was an Islamic Mogul empire before the British came in and mucked things up, that dynastic entity only shared religion with modern Pakistan. The nation of Pakistan “the pure country” begins and ends as an overarching dream made real by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League.

A more honest description of the process would to describe Pakistan as the result of the nightmare of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League. That nightmare was Hindu rule and Hindu oppression of the Muslim minority. The expression of this paranoia created a political and geographic oddity that made little to no sense in the real world. When first created the nation was a seriously weird entity, two Muslim geographic areas separated by a huge swath of secular India.

Still the separation of the Bengalis from the rest of the nation was the least of Ali Jinnah’s problems. The first and foremost of the elephants crashing about in the room was the very idea of a nation founded on the idea of Islam. The problem as always is in the details. Exactly form of Islam is being considered? Sunni, Shia, Ismali, perhaps one of the Sufi brotherhoods? Even if the model of Islam is the orthodox Sunni faith, then what is the next choice? Which flavor does one reach for? Exactly how do Jinnah and his heirs prevent the more fiery expressions of the religion like Salafalism becoming the norm?

The next issue on the all too long list of particulars is the actual make up of the Pakistani state is ethnic make up of the nation. This pacaderm, while smaller than huge bull of Islam is actually the more destructive to the governmental structures of the state. India also shares this constant headache with its neighbor. The nation of Pakistan is under constant threat of fracture by ethnic minorities attempting to depart the union. The whole sub content and much of Central Asia is a creation of foreign intrigues by the great powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The borders of the present nation-states bear no resemblance to the actual ethnic congregations on the ground. The Baluchis would much rather run their own affairs and the Pathans never accepted the arbitrary borders set up by the British and Russians in the colonial era nor the borders created by state of Pakistan. Pakistan is mostly an entity run for and by the Punjabis and the Sind.

It only gets more depressing from here. Not only is the nation mostly an entity run for the Punjabi and Sind, it is an entity run for the enrichment of the absentee landlords who just happen to be Punjabis and Sinds. The most basic items that a nation state is supposed to supply to its citizens, law and order, education, roads, clean water, security are not being provided by Islamabad. Instead tax monies ends up lining the pockets of the near-feudal elites that are the real power in Pakistan. Instead of governance these military and political elites only provide ever larger levels of epic corruption. It is no surprise to keen observers of the Pakistani nation that large portions of the aide given to fight the “war on terror” was whisked away into private bank accounts.

The long slide to operatic corruption began long ago, probably right after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Here was a man who either lived too long or not long enough. Jinnah lasted just long enough to found his state in the ocean of blood that was the partition but not long enough to heal the nation from that catastrophic blow. Add to this the humiliation of loosing the Kashmir to India as well as two wars and one can argue that Pakistan is less the pure country and much more the snake bitten one.

The successors to Jinnah definitely fell short of the mark set by the founder. They chained themselves to the government in Washington, never a good idea in the cold war. India on the other hand went rouge with Nehru and placed a pox on both houses of the bi-polar world and set up third way. Thus India never became the pawn of another nations’ foreign policy. Pakistan on the other hand suffered the fate of “free nations” in the cold war. It found the government in Washington constantly interfering with its domestic affairs in order to support the status quo. This meant that an ever worsening set of tin-plated military dictators were inflicted on Pakistan with Washington’s acquiescence. The only place Pakistanis could find accountability was in the dictionary, assuming that they could even read which more and more of them could not.
The damage done to Pakistan by its faithful U.S. ally went into overdrive in the latter part of the Cold War. The support of Zia Ul Haq illegitimate military government by the U.S. had to be one of the more unkind blows to the nation-state of Pakistan. It was the U.S. support of Zia and the festering sore know as the Pakistani Military Intelligence clique that helped to destabilize the whole area.

It was Zia’s rule that set up A.Q Khan’s little shop of nuclear proliferation horrors. Without Mr. Khan distributing all that joy far and wide neither North Korea nor Iran would be the policy headaches they have become. Name a modern nuclear proliferation threat other than Israel today and you will find A.Q. Kahn’s grubby little finger prints all over that program of concern.

It was also Zia’s rule that helped to found and fund Al Qaeda. Zia and the ISS were the conduits for CIA money and weapons that finally brought the Russian misadventure in Afghanistan to its close. Osama bin Laden would still be the unhappy scion of a Saudi construction magnate if it were not for the aid and support he got from the CIA and the ISS. Thanks to the U.S. narrow and immediate interests in using any tool available to humiliate the Soviet Union it helped to create a series of events that lead to 9/11. Welcome to blowback gentle reader; payback is a brown-eyed, baby-faced bitch.

Pakistan is also probably regretting its support of the Bin Laden’s unhappy campers. The violent Salafalist ideology of OBL has found fertile soil in Pakistan. The masses of poor, uneducated, illiterate Pakistanis are easy marks for OBL’s propaganda. What OBL offers is a “true” and “pure” Islamic state to replace the non-functional, corrupt, disengaged and incompetent rule that is being supported by a foreign power. What is on offer is a facile program of reform for all the ills of the common people. Islam will bring unity, purity, independence, competent governance and the rule of law. Swept away will be all the ills imposed by the decadent and corrupt west. The cure for Pakistan’s ills is to become a more faithful (by the Salafalist definition) Muslims. The solution is to return to the Islam practice by the first generation of Muslims.

This anachronistic solution is very attractive to a people suffering under the dislocations that modernity has inflicted on them. Its only real downside is that the Salafalist solution is doomed to failure. The huge systemic forces that created modernity will continue to churn, shredding any attempt to halt them. Political, social, and religious traditions are undergoing a vicious Darwinian test all over the world and they must adapt, move or perish.

Is there any hope for the Pure Nation? Is Pakistan about to join the Dodo in extinction? If there is any hope for the nation it exists in the Pakistanis themselves. We delude ourselves to think that our policy efforts can effect the situation on the ground. No, our grand strategy is utterly flawed. Our reliance on military power and government in power is non-starter. Our policy should be two fold. First on the grand strategy phase our one and only concern is the denuclearization of Pakistan. The big booms have to go or at least be nailed down in way that nihilist of the OBL types can not grab hold of them. This should be a results orientated policy. The twin pillars should be nailing down/ eliminating the hardware and dismantling the AQ Khan Proliferation networks should be our only focus. Everything else is peripheral. The only conversations we really need to have with official government of Pakistan is “what are you doing about the nukes?”

The other policy pillar should be a people-to-people based program. Since the Pakistani government is epically corrupt the U.S. must go over, through and around it as much as possible. A focus on local, NGO efforts should be the sin qua non of US efforts. The official government of Pakistan should only be tolerated as much as it is the gatekeeper to local NGOs. If there is a different way to reach these community activists and community efforts the U.S. should take advantage of it. The U.S. should focus on organizations like Oxfam, UNICF, Doctors Without Borders, etc. This is admittedly a very slow process. Still it neatly dovetails with Obama’s community activist back ground. It is supporting local solutions to local issues. Instead of the “pragmatism” of great power calculations our sole focus should be the real pragmatism of helping people achieve better lives. This will have the added benefit that U.S. taxpayers’ dollars are not going to line some corrupt official’s Swiss bank account.

The other advantage with the NGO approach is that it puts the official Pakistani government on notice that we really do have our limits. Plus if Pakistan does break up our nation will have connections with the leaders of whatever political formations occur after the collapse of the nation. There is a definite possibility that the only thing that our policy may be able to achieve is a soft landing and a velvet divorce of the Pakistani nation. This is not a particularly happy thought but it may be, unfortunately, reality.

On a happier note if our real goal is short-circuiting the rise of Salafalist tyranny than once again the people-to-people route is the most promising. By putting our money were our mouths are, by supporting the worth of women in Pakistan with cold hard cash, we can do much to relegate the notions of the grumpy mullahs to the dust bin of history. Misogyny is impossible to sustain when women have social and economic powers.

Such a grass roots strategy has little chance of being adopted though. Political realities work against it. Our obsession with quick results and aversion to complexity are our real opponents, not the Taliban. It is just too easy to resort to big-footed methods than to do the hard work of bottom up reconstruction. It far too easy to ignore the systemic problems with a top-down approach; add to the mix our incessant political sniping and it is hard to see any kind of successful results.

Our political culture is so caught up in the incessant conflict between the reactionary right and the Cold War “liberal’ Status Quo that novel solutions die on the vine. We are stuck in the rut of seeing everything via the lens of the long gone struggle against global Communism.

Violent Jihaddism is not the challenge of the old Soviet Union. The containment policy that finally freed Europe from the rule of the Commissars is of no use against non-state actors. Our support of the corrupt local government, our support of oppressive illegitimate authoritarian local regimes is even less wise than it was in the days of Ronald Reagan. Without the threat of Communism our claims of supporting the “freedom loving people of the world” rings that much hollower. Our blind support of the corrupt local status quo undermines our goals of encoring “moderate” regimes in the Islamic nations. More and more the choice is between the disconnected and corrupt elites and the radical reformers who want to install an Islamic state. Instead of effecting stability we are increasing polarization.

It is hard to see where our divided and divisive politics manages to do what is actually required. Our policy needs to be based on three things: facts on the ground, facts on the ground, and facts on the ground. It needs to be concerned with raising the material well being of the local population. Everything else is white noise. But one thing our media saturated culture is obsessed with is white noise. Such things as the “Clash of Civilizations,” “The War On Terror,” “The Islamic Menace,” and others create tons of heat but very little light. Take care of the little things like food, water, health, and education and the bigger things will take care of themselves. A people enjoying material well-being and security will be much less attracted to radical solutions. A people enjoying the blessings of the rule of law, who have redress to the courts, will be much less willing to pick up a weapon to set things right. No one in our leadership seems to be aware of these simple facts. They rather rip each other apart for short term political gain. This failure of imagination is most dangerous and depressing of the barriers we as a nation encounter. Who let this particular black dog in? We did dear reader, we did.
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