Saturday, August 17, 2013

Not even feudal

The many pieces of the Pakistan puzzle. Review of "Pakistan: A hard country", by Anatol Lieven

The good news is that Pakistan is quite a stable country, in the opinion of the author, a King's College, London scholar with who has travelled and interviewed extensively all over Pakistan (excepting where he would be killed, in the vicinity of Waziristan!). The bad news is that much of this stability is due to the most backward elements of its society- the immovable tribalism, corruption, poly-theism, and divisiveness of its politics, which prevent any single revolutionary movement, Islamist or otherwise, from sweeping the country or breaking it apart. And the one thing all Pakistanis agree on? That they hate the U.S. and India.

It is an excellent book, delving into more details than I thought possible for a Western author. Each province is discussed in some detail, each party explained, and the obscure workings of the military and graft system untangled, at least slightly. He commends the hard-working nature of Pakistan's politicians, who have to juggle an unending stream of favors, bribes, nepotism, and more or less formal militias and street fighting, leaving little time (or desire) for grand visions, party ideology, or good government technocracy.

But let's back up a little. Pakistan was founded (67 years ago this week) from the dissolution of British rule over India, in Britain's dramatically weakened state after world war 2. The Muslims of India knew they would never get to rule in a future Indian democracy, (despite their history of presumably glorious Mughal rule), and, among many other things, asked for a legally stipulated 50% share of all government positions. Well, that was typical ... and hardly realistic, so what started as an abstraction, threat, and bargaining chip - partition- turned into a slapdash reality, as a boundary commission composed of Cyril Radcliffe and colleagues (who knew nothing of the area) took a month to draw a border, known as the Radcliffe line. Mixed communities on both sides were quickly ethnically cleansed, and what was a roughly 20% Hindu population in the future Pakistan became less than 1%. Hundreds of thousands died, and many millions fled to their newly declared religio-ethnic homelands.

While the haste of line-drawing was certainly a defect, one has to say that the competing model taking place in Israel/Palestine, where a line is never ever drawn, is hardly better. But it was really the implementation that failed- the British cut and ran within two months, and virtually no one on either side was prepared to take over their new nations, let alone manage (i.e. police) the gradual disentanglement of centuries of mixed living. Who was more at fault? Well, India still has roughly as many Muslims as Pakistan does, at about 13% of its population, so just going by the numbers, the ethnic bias of the Muslim side seems distinctly stronger. After partition, Pakistan proceeded to start three wars against India, each of which it lost. It also lost its co-religionists in Bangladesh who originally constituted "East Pakistan", and who were regarded as distinctly inferior by their Western brothers. Nor was Pakistan ever taken seriously by the Islamic world at large as its leading nation and beacon, as it had hoped.

A miscellaneous picture from contemporary Pakistan. Breakfast on the train, by Steve McCurry.

So Pakistan arose in tumult, wedged between two highly artificial boundary lines, and while more or less purely Islamic, still contains multitudes, including all possible sects of Islam. The refugees from India formed a special community and party in Karachi, founded on their special sacrifice for Islam (the Muhajirs), which again, the other communities are not terribly impressed with. The Punjabi farmers constitute the heart and majority of Pakistanis, ringed around by India on one side, and their tribal cousins the Sindis to the east and south, the Pashtuns to the north, and the even more tribal Balochs to the far east on the border with Iran. Each community is of course riven itself with various political lineages and ethnic allegiances. Indeed, the only national and highly functioning "tribe" of sorts is the army, which preserves a prim and disciplined, but not always intellectually penetrating, legacy from the British and more recently its U.S. relationships.

For example, the Pakistanis routinely blame the US for "forgetting" about them and about Afghanistan, after the Soviets were driven out. But we didn't live next door. Pakistan did, and its military establishment and ISI kept funneling money and arms into the Afghan civil war, and thereafter supporting the Taliban. Lieven discusses in detail how the ISI saw the unrest and strife in Afghanistan as a model for what Pakistan could also do to Kashmir. Promoting development in Afghanistan doesn't seem to have crossed anyone's mind in Pakistan.

Two other critical sources of fracture are, as Lieven portrays it, language and the judicial system. The official language is Urdu, which is largely Hindi written in an Arabic-like (via Persion) script. It is used by only a minority of the population, and what is more, is frowned upon by the true elites who speak English. Most of the population speak one of the many local languages- Punjabi, Sindi, Pashto, Hindko, etc.

Yet the justice system runs on English, due to its British precedents and structure (save for trial by jury, which was left out of the bequest, oddly enough!). So the vast majority of the population can not speak the language of their own justice system, let alone write it (indeed, literacy overall in any language is about 57%). And most of the functionaries who must operate in English do so tenuously. Combined with pervasive and flagrant corruption, this means that cases can grind on, Kafka-esque, for decades, amid misunderstandings and hidden influences. This means in turn that both officialdom and private citizens take matters into their own hands as a matter of course, using "encounter killings" on the part of the police, and blood feuds, kidnapping, general violence and riots by the latter.
An informant in Swat tells Lieven: "A khan politician would use his gunmen to seize some poor farmer's land and his political connections to stop the administration doing anything about it. Then he would say to the farmer, 'Sure, take me to court. You will pay everything you have in bribes, you will wait thirty years for a verdict, and the verdict will still be for me. So what are you going to do about it?' Well, when the TNSM [local Taliban branch] came up that farmer could do something about it. He joined them."

It also means that the alternative systems of justice offered by the Taliban, advertised as Sharia, (though typically owing as much to the tribal code of pashtunwali), is for all its flaws, extremely popular with Pakistanis in Pashtun areas and beyond, mostly because of its great rapidity and effectiveness. Crime, drugs, and "licentiousness" can be cleaned up virtually overnight. Yet upon closer inspection, the beneficiaries grow a little less enamored of the Taliban's justice, bought as it is at the price of totalitarian terror, and capricious, often downright un-Islamic, barbarity.
Indeed, the whole sense of justice is slightly different than Westerners might imagine. Lieven mentions the concept of honor or reputation (izzat), prevalent not just in tribal areas, but all over Pakistan, indeed all over southwest Asia: "Walsh speaks of izzat as an individual matter, but it is equally important to famillies, extended families, and clans. Indeed, most crimes committed in defense of izzat (and for that matter, most crimes in general) are collective crimes, as other family members join in to help or avenge their injured kinsmen in battle, to threaten witnesses, to bribe policemen and judges, or at the very least to purjure themselves in court giving evidence on behalf of relatives. This is not seen as immoral, or even in a deeper sense illegal. On the contrary, it takes place in accordance with an overriding moral imperative and ancient moral 'law', that of loyalty to kin."

The larger political system is likewise fractured, with overlaid westernized, feudal, and tribal institutions. The upper levels of government operate ostensibly on a western model, with prime minister, president, parliament, etc. But scratch the surface, and the substrate looks much more like a tribal system. The main parties are basically hereditary fiefdoms. For instance, the PPP of the Bhuttos are waiting for Benazir Bhutto's son to come of age to take over from the lackluster husband Asif Zardari. Their program has virtually nothing to do with ideology or approach to governance, but rather with patronage down a chain of smaller office holders to the local big-man system that runs most of Pakistan. Rural landholders are commonly referred to as the "feudals", but I think that oversells their powers of organization and governance. There are many tribal elements involved, and not just in the explicitly tribal areas.

The fuel of this system at all levels is patronage, graft, deceit, and corruption, whereby taxes are forgiven and neglected, jobs handed out, police actions directed for polical ends, and contracts let for projects that are never built. This leads to a dynamic where each party can only be in power briefly, since its empty popular campaign promises never are or can be fulfilled, nor enough graft generated to satisfy all adherents, leading to a cycle of disappointment and party-switching, not to mention governing mediocrity.

The author, like most observers, is starkly judgemental and anxious to see Pakistan modernize. But what would that mean? As people, we are all competitive, and Pakistanis are clearly prize specimens of competitive spirit, accessorized with a variety of narcissistic delusions, from the superiority (indeed the truth) of Islam on down to Pakistan's leading role in the Ulema, their superiority over India, obsessions with tribal honor and patriarchy, their especially toxic feeling of superiority over Afghanistan, and in general the various successes they would have but for the evil conspiracies of the US.

The problem is, delusions aside, that this competition is mostly zero-sum. One political party wins so that it can take the jobs away from the other party and give them to its incompetent hacks. The military promotes the perpetual war with Eastasia so that it can keep eating the lion's share of the budget, not to mention billions in aid from the US. But the society at large does not benefit. Tribal competition may be great for genetic evolution, killing the unfit and distributing spoils to the most ferocious and clever. But it does not (on any acceptable time scale!) generate cultural or economic development. That only happens when human competitiveness is channeled into constructive pursuits, the capitalist system being a prime exemplar, and professional governance another. The hidden hand is fueled by human competitiveness and existential necessity just as surely as are the most bitter tribal feud. But it creates far more wealth and public good (when properly regulated!). Pakistan's per-capita GDP ranks 141 in the world, out of 187 countries, significantly behind India, among many, many others. Much is due to complete lack of population control, but that is only one facet of Pakistan's deep failures of civil and institutional development.

What to do? From the US perspective, my prescription would be for the US to end monetary aid to Pakistan, or at least put it on the same footing, per capita, as our aid to India, which would amount to the same thing. The stunning process by which, after many decades of alliance, we are thoroughly and universally detested in Pakistan, points to very deep psychological issues which money does not help, within a relationship which could be called abusive. Anyhow, what Pakistan needs from us and from the West generally is not money, let alone aid to its military, but content- intellectual, managerial, governmental, institutional, philosophical. We should be on the friendliest possible terms on all those fronts, but not in ways that blackmail us into giving them money for their efforts (or lack thereof) towards being a basically civilized state. The cold war is long over, and Afghanistan has far more urgent need for our aid, for, among other things, defending itself against Pakistan. We have shown that we can do without military transport through Pakistan. China's relationship with Pakistan is far from being a threat to our interests either. Just as our process of leaving Afghanistan promises to ease a great deal of bitterness and tension there, disentangling our relationship with Pakistan would do likewise, benefiting both countries.
An interviewee in the Mohmand agency on the Afghan border talks about his brother: "He joined the Taleban because he believes in Islam, and because the Americans attacked Afghanistan without cause. Afghanistan is an occupied country like Kashmir. He and other Taleban do not want to fight the Pakistani army, but they have no choice because the army is attacking them on the orders of America. The Taleban would like to make an agreement with the government here so that they can go and fight in Afghanistan. But America doesn't allow the government to do that. It wants war in Pakistan so that Muslim will kill Muslim."

  • Another typical, duplicitous day with India: "On Tuesday, Salman Khurshid, India's Minister of External Affairs, told reporters that there was a sense of shock in New Delhi over the 'ceasefire violations by Pakistan,' and a spokesman for the ministry confirmed that the tensions in Kashmir would delay secretary-level talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbors (Dawn).  In his statement, the spokesman for the ministry said, 'For peaceful dialogue to proceed we need an environment free of violence and terror. And certainly what has happened last week doesn't fit into that.'"
  • Is Pakistan getting serious about its internal terrorism?
  • Egypt looks headed back down a similar path as Pakistan, as a militariocracy.
  • A little commentary from a British onlooker.
  • Another zero-sum activity that gives us nothing.. day trading.
  • How it works in Pakistan-on-the-Mersey.
  • Studies in US corruption.
  • Indeed, our mortgage crisis is one long litany of unprosecuted criminality and corruption.
  • Conventional, even elite, wisdom isn't very good. Everyone, please think for yourselves!
  • Not only is the 401K "system" off-loading risk from employers to financially unskilled workers, and allows employers the a la carte option of zero cost for providing a "retirement benefit", but the plans are also structured to fleece employees. Great job, congress!
  • Tempest over the IMF & Rogoff.
  • Robert Bellah as closet theologian and evangelist.
  • Religion and intelligence.. hmmmm.
  • Liberals unclear on the science concept.
  • On the psychology of evolution. Why we don't believe in it. I can add one more facet of likely disbelief. Humans are very groupish and tribal. We are attuned to very small gradations of difference between ourselves and others.. even non-existent differences cooked up in ethnic fantasies. This is one reason why some Americans are called African-American as a matter of course, while virtually none are called German-American or Russian-American. So the idea that a monkey is our "uncle", as it were, if many times removed, is instinctively disturbing, unless we have, as the article notes, adopted a very abstract and long-range view of time and change in biology.
  • Economic quotes of the week, from Bill Mitchell:
"The deficit should be whatever is required in each period to ensure that effective demand is at a level that is consistent with achieving potential output – that is, full employment. That might require a continuous sequence of deficits forever. Most likely given the historical behaviour of the external sector and private domestic sectors in most nations."
  • And.. from Bill Black:
"Given the fact that the CEOs of large fraudulent lenders are criminally liable for tens or even hundreds of thousands of acts of mortgage fraud we should be seeing our prisons overrun with elite white-collar criminals.  Instead, the DOJ has no convictions of the elite bankers who led the control frauds that caused the crisis."

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