November 01, 2009

Pakistan Dispatch: State of the Nation

Nine days is a long time in Pakistan these days.

Since Londonstani went off on his (mostly) road trip around Pakistan a lot has happened. Not much of it has been good.

Several incidents occured on the day Londonstani climbed into a car and drove several hours eastwards. On October 24, the Pakistani army said it had captured Kotkai, the home village of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. However, considering Mehsud was not based there and the area contained no real Taliban assets, structures or stores, Kotkai's capture seems more of a morale boost than a key achievement. 

The same day, in Bajaur north of Waziristan, a drone missed its target - apparently senior Taliban commander Faqir Mohammed - instead killing 22 others. Londonstani had thought that the less than surgical drone strikes might dampen what has become a widespread desire to see the army deal with the Taliban threat, but that was not the case. Also on the 24th, the Pakistani military lost a helicopter in the rough area of the drone attack. Although, a technical fault was the stated reason for the incident which killed three soldiers, there were reports that Taliban fire had brought it down.

A car suicide bomb exploding at a police checkpoint on a motorway seemed a relatively minor incident by Pakistan's standards as only one person died. But depending on your point of view it was either a worrying sign that militants were dispatching car bombs all over Pakistan or a signal that Pakistan's law enforcement agencies were proving capable of picking up information on such hard-to-spot threats and communicating them in time to officers on the ground. Of course, for the officer who died after stopping the car, causing the driver to detonate, it was just bad.

On October 27, a second high ranking military officer became the target of an assassination attempt in Islamabad. Brig Waqar Ahmed Malik survived when a gunman fired at his car. Brig Moinuddin Ahmed was killed along with a soldier in a similar attack on October 22.

October 28 saw what Reuters called Pakistan's bloodiest militant attack in two years. A huge car bomb ripped through Meena bazar in Peshawar. The dead are still being pulled from the rubble, but the most recent death toll is around 120.

Of a truly gruesome attack, this is the harrowing image that will stick with Londonstani for a long time:

"A fire-fighter said that many children and women trapped in the debris of several buildings were crying for help, but rescue workers could not reach them because of huge flames."

The Taliban and al-Qaeda have since denied involvement in the attack. One local newsreport in Urdu quoted a Taliban spokesman saying that Western private security firms were probably behind the blast. However, Pakistani reports carried comments from local shopkeepers saying that they had received threats from militants who didn't approve of the market's popularity with women. It's not beyond the realms of probability that at least one bunch of people amongst the diffuse groups that are referred to as the Pakistani Taliban thought the attack would be a great idea. And when it actually happened, more senior strategists quickly realised its potential to alienate public opinion in a big way.

Of course, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in Pakistan over the same period. A day after the attack, she faced a group of students who articulated the deep suspicion most of Pakistan now feels towards the United States.

“What guarantee can the Americans give Pakistanis that we can now trust you ... and that you guys are not going to be betraying us like you did in the past,” one student asked at a “townhall-style” meeting Mrs Clinton held at the Government College University in Lahore.

The student was being overly polite. The reality is that if you polled 10,000 Pakistanis on the question; "Do you feel the United States is secretly funding the Taliban to destablise the country?" the answer would be something like 96 percent "yes".

So not something that's gonna get fixed by the visit of one US official whose charm-ammunition is the line; "I had Pakistani friends at college".

Part of the reason for Londonstani's tour was to find out what the much-mentioned "real" Pakistanis think. In Londonstani's mind this phrase is used when people mean "poor, probably illiterate and unexposed to Western media, outlooks or views". There is a nagging feeling then that wealthy, literate (at least in English) and Western educated/travelled Pakistanis are then "unreal", however, that is another discussion.

What follows is a summary of many conversations had in Punjab, Pakistani Kashmir, NWFP and Sindh:

In very stark terms; the army has lost its traditional authority as the only neutral and relatively competent public institution. Previously, the army stepped in to separate warring tribes in FATA. Now the tribes gang up to take on the army. It's previous aura has gone.

The government is full of incompetent crooks, installed by the Americans, who are like rabbits in headlights when it comes to the country's many economic and political problems (not even counting security). While the country slides off a cliff, the ruling party guys line their pockets and wait for the last plane to Dubai/London. The government is not providing educational services, electricity, water, jobs or anything else. At the same time, for the average man or woman any interaction with the government is likely to be short and brutal or long and grindingly painful. This is true whether to you getting paperwork done or are stopped for a driving offence.

Outside the main cities, the army/police is not in control. Even in the towns where they have garrisons, they are boxed in. There's a definite sense that "ungoverned spaces" are expanding and government control is shrinking. On certain main roads in Punjab (let alone NWFP or Sindh) locals advise against driving at night in case of banditry. 

In terms of perception of religious observance and its role in public life, there seems to be a shift towards the more severe and less tolerant. This doesn't necessarily translate always into practice, but more a shared understanding that more severe and more rigid must equal more righteous, and that those who are very severe (or even just look it) must be deferred to.

Now, where this gets scary is when you hear a conversation like:

Person 1: "The Taliban couldn't have blown up the market in Peshawar because a Muslim wouldn't do that."

Person 2: "No, the Americans did it. But you know, the market that got blown up catered for women. And you know it's haram for women to go out of the house."

Person 1: "oh.....yeah"


To come: Pakistan Dispatch: Conversations with "real" Pakistanis.

In the meantime, Londonstani is gonna figure out how to get more photos on the site.