Three grand narratives of Pakistan

The accelerating treadmill of radicalisation

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 IMF’s 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)

Pax Indica: The call General Kayani cannot make

A pessimistic prognosis regarding Pakistan’s transformation

Imagine that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani wakes up one fine morning and decides that the Talibanisation of his country now risked destroying the military establishment that nurtured it since 1947. The militant groups that the army had used to attack India and Afghanistan on the cheap were not only creating trouble for Pakistan around the world, but had wrecked Pakistani society and its economy. General Kayani can tolerate all that, but reckons he will soon have to choose be-tween cutting them down to size or joining their bandwagon, perhaps as their “amir-ul-momineen.” Imagine that he chooses the former option, if only to con-tinue enjoying the “al-Faida” that has come the Pakistani army’s way since 9/11.

“Get Pasha on the line,” he barks at his orderly. Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, chief of the Agency That Should Not Be Named, picks up the phone from his well-appointed office in the unmarked building near Islamabad’s Aabpara market.

“Pasha, shut them all down, and this is an order.” General Kayani doesn’t stop for pleasantries or preamble, fearing that the ever-reasonable Pasha will find ways to dissuade him.

“Sir, yes sir! And what then, sir?” Pasha asks. Kayani has known Pasha long enough to know this was not a rhetorical question.

How will the Pakistani government — which can’t even collect taxes, electric-ity and water bills from anyone who refuses to pay them — demobilise hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate, violent, combat-hardened and thoroughly radi-calised young men? The civilian political leadership, bureaucracy and police sim-ply do not have the capacity, competence and power to put anyone other than low-ranking jihadi leaders under arrest, that too temporarily. The only institution that has the prerequisites necessary to take on the jihadi groups is the Pakistan army.

Those on the margins are likely to explore alternatives to martyrdom, but the hard core of the jihadi firmament won’t give in without a bloody fight.


Forty-year-old Brigadier Adnan, tasked to dismantle and neutralise a jihadi hub in South Punjab, tugs at his beard. He has deep misgivings about the mission he has been charged with, even as he gathers his officers for the operational brief-ing. As he explains how they will take out the militant headquarters and such, he sees that most of his subordinates have puzzled looks on their faces. Finally, the brigade-major, an energetic 25-year old infantryman, speaks up. “Sir, why are we targeting these boys?”

“Because, uh, they are putting Pakistan in danger.”

“How sir? They are only fighting against the Amrika, the Israel and the India. They are only doing what we should. They are doing it because our Crore Com-manders have decided that al-Faida is more important than the real mission. And sir, you do know that our men watch television.”

Brigadier Adnan gives his beard another tug. This was not going to be easy.


2000 militants surrendered in one week, and it fell to Colonel Bashir to deal with them. They had been lodged in a hurriedly erected camp outside the village for identification, debriefing and triage. If his job was not difficult enough, the bloody Americans wanted to poke their noses into his business. Their spies were everywhere. Yet he knew his problem was the easy one – the really wicked prob-lem would begin when these boys went home to their towns and villages and fig-ured out there was nothing for them to do there. Some would find ad hoc employ-ment with the local feudal landlord, who could use their special talents. Most, however, would do — what? Other than working the farm for the landlord, there was little to keep them occupied, much less employed.

Colonel Bashir was not even thinking about their minds. Would minds, once radicalised, ever shrink back to their original state?


Now you know why General Kayani will never give such an order in real life. The Pakistani state and its society simply does not have what it takes to dismantle, demobilise and de-radicalise the hundreds of thousands of militants that operate in that country.

In a 2007 study on militant recruitment in Pakistan, C Christine Fair, now as-sistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies notes: “Limited evidence suggests that both public school and madrasah students tend to support jihad, tanzeems, and war with India, and are more intolerant toward Pakistan’s minorities and women. Thus, if Ethan Bueno de Mesquita’s model is correct, creating educational and employment opportunities may not put an end to militancy because tanzeems can recruit from lower-quality groups. In the long term, however, interventions of this kind may diminish the quality of terror pro-duced, rendering tanzeems a mere nuisance rather than a menace to regional secu-rity. This would be a positive development.”

That would be a positive development, yes, but, as she points out in the very next sentence, “(the) problem with school reform and employment generation ef-forts is not only that they may be beyond Islamabad’s capability and resolve but also that there may be no feasible scope for U.S. or international efforts to per-suade Islamabad to make meaningful reforms on its own.”

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this is going to get a whole lot worse, as the population grows, the education system continues to radicalise minds, the media reinforces prejudices and the military establishment exploits geo-political opportunities to stay on the same dangerous course.

In the face of this grim reality, the antics of the motley bunch of slick political operators that pass off as the Pakistani government are tragicomic. Politicians like Yusuf Raza Gilani and Shah Mahmood Qureshi mask their impotence by outrageous grandstanding intended to score points with the military-jihadi com-plex.

It is a good idea for India to engage the various players in Pakistan to manage — to the extent that it can be managed — the fallout of the turmoil across its north-western borders; so, too, to engage all of Pakistan’s external sponsors. Even so, neither India nor the rest of the world can escape the consequences of Pakistan’s transformation. Driven as much by strategy as by sentiment, Prime Minister Man-mohan Singh is genuinely committed to leaving a legacy of good relations with Pakistan. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

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