September 19, 2011Foreign Affairsmilitary-jihadi complexPakistanradicalisation

Three grand narratives of Pakistan

The accelerating treadmill of radicalisation

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

There are three distinct grand narratives of Pakistan by Pakistanis: the first is an establishment narrative of victimisation, defensiveness and denial. The second is the narrative of the liberal elite, focusing on the need for socio-economic development of a vast country of 180 million people. The third, radical Islamist narrative, sees Pakistan as an ideological enterprise under threat from the non-Islamic civilisations of the West, Israel and India. These are not mutually exclusive, and it is not uncommon for an individual narrator making an argument using one of these approaches to also draw upon threads of arguments from the others. Most seminars and conferences feature expositions of the first two narratives, with the radical Islamist view, like Banquo’s ghost, haunting the proceedings.

The establishment narrative, while acknowledging the growing radicalisation of Pakistani society, squarely lays the blame on the West’s policies. Pakistan is cast as the victim of the United States’ pursuit of the war on terror’ against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The use of drones by the United States against militants operating in the tribal areas on Pakistan’s north-western frontiers is seen as a violation of sovereignty. The powerlessness of Pakistanis to stop these attacks—and the connivance of their political and military leadership in permitting them — translates into hostility towards the United States. The civilian casualties caused by drone attacks — regardless of objective measures of collateral damage — exacerbate anti-American to the extent of causing a violent backlash. The increasing number of terrorist attacks, attributed to Islamist militant groups, are thus projected, if not perceived, as a consequence of US policies. Indeed, Faizal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American arrested after a failed attempt to set off a bomb in New York’s Times Square explained his actions as seeking revenge for drone attacks on his home country.

The establishment’s narrative is amplified manifold in the media-fuelled zeitgeist, putting Pakistan on an accelerating treadmill of radicalisation. So deep is the denial that one workshop participant denied the existence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, suggesting that videos released by the organisation were cut-and-paste manipulations of the kind found in Hollywood movies. This was before the US special forces raid on Mr bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad on May 2nd, that resulted in his killing.

The establishment’s defence of its own policies centers around Pakistan’s vexed relationship with its eastern neighbour, India. In addition to the historical disputes between them, the establishment is sensitive to the growing gap between the trajectories of the two countries. Even as this causes deep concern in Pakistan, there is a growing trend of apathy in India, especially among the younger demographic. Therefore terrorist attacks like the one on Mumbai on 26th November 2008 that originated in Pakistan, and Islamabad’s subsequent stone-walling end up shaping popular Indian perceptions of Pakistan.

The liberal elite narrative sees the source of the country’s problems as the conflict in the Pakistani mind between civic obligation to the Pakistani state and obligation to the Islamic faith.” Pakistan is seen as being engaged in a war for national survival against extremists” who want to take over the state. There is debate over whether mass poverty and lack of basic services breeds militancy, with evidence offered by both sides. However, there is general agreement that the institutional structure of the Pakistani state must change. The current structure is seen as elite-dominated, predatory and incapable of sustaining economic growth without external infusion of money. The dependence on external aid in turns makes the elite willing partners in the projects of the security establishment that seek to exploit geopolitical opportunities in ways that ensure that the financial flows continue.

Pakistan’s revenues go into three items: defence, debt-servicing and subsidies, with little fiscal space for development expenditure which might act as a channel of redistribution of wealth in a highly unequal society. In fact, the fiscal mechanism might work in a perverse way, transferring wealth from the low-income groups to the elite. For instance, 62% of Pakistan’s tax revenues accruing from indirect taxes, the benefits of which flow to the richest decile. Political power comes from using state resources to benefit favoured constituencies”.

The international community, including the IMF and the Friends of Pakistan group of aid donors, have been unwilling to bail Pakistan out in the last two years, with the former insisting that the Pakistani government follow through on the package of fiscal reforms it had agreed to earlier. A participant noted that the IMFs terms could not be implemented because the institutional structures of the Pakistani states were against it.

What then, are the prospects for change? It was noted that terrorism is weaved into the political calculations—political parties do not criticise terrorist groups not only out of fear but out of consideration for political rewards. While the judiciary has acquired a certain degree of power, its activism was also seen as a problem. A participant noted that the elite is not sensitive to ideology and do not have ownership” because it is predatory. With safety valves in the form of foreign passports and foreign capital, it is unlikely that the elite would be enthusiastic participants in a project to reform the Pakistani state.

The prognosis, therefore, is grim. The most likely trajectories of Pakistan are either towards a hybrid theocratic state” or one where holistic Pakistani nationalism” has primacy. The military establishment’s hegemony over Pakistan’s political, economic and intellectual space is likely to strengthen, allow it to continue to shape the national narrative. The military-militancy partnership is spreading, and areas from South Punjab to Sindh are falling to militant groups. The weakness of the Pakistani state, the radicalisation of society and the power of the militant groups is making the latter the new social arbiters.

Direct foreign intervention aimed to dismantle the military-jihadi complex is extremely unlikely in the Pakistani context. Ergo, the world must rely on endogenous mechanisms of change. Yet it may well be that these mechanisms are either too weak or uninterested in reforming institutional structures. However, to the extent that the external environment lets the elite off the hook, chances of change from within become less likely. The least the world can do, therefore, is ensure that foreign involvement does not damage the incentives of the Pakistani people to fix their state.

(This was written in May 2011 for an internal publication of the National University of Singapore)

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