Pakistan’s War with Itself

Pamela Constable gave a talk at the UW Law School this evening to the Seattle World Affairs Council about her latest book, Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself.   Constable is a deputy foreign editor at the Washington Post.  She has extensive experience reporting from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other places in South Asia.  Here’s my summary of her talk.

Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world, by population.  For most of us, it is “a country of events,” as she put it, a place where things, usually bad things, happen.  Constable’s goal this evening was to help us understand the political, social, and religious challenges facing the country. 

The core paradox about Pakistan is that historically it’s a democratic, moderate Muslim, militarily powerful country with enormous natural & economic resources that has failed to achieve its potential.  Worse yet, political and religious extremists are essentially at war with the moderate center of the country – hence the title of her book. Why?

Her talk was a little rambling and anecdotal, but in the end managed to illustrate the problems facing the country.  Here are a few key points I took away:

  • Ordinary people in Pakistan have essentially no access to justice.  Corruption is rampant from the courts on down to local police and city officials.  More importantly cases are decided not on the basis of legal merit but on the relative political clout of the people involved. 
  • State-run schools are terrible and leave a void that madrassas, often Saudi funded, have moved to fill.  Worse there are no jobs for well-educated Pakistanis to move into, so many leave the country.
  • People, led by politicians, blame external forces – the West and India are favorites — for Pakistan’s problems and are in denial about the domestic origins of many of them.  The military has only recently begun to acknowledge that militant groups created originally to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan have turned against the Pakistani state. 
  • The most disturbing trend Constable discussed in the increasing emotional attachment of people, even well-educated people, to extremist religion, and the use of religion as a justification for violence.  For example, She described the Jan. 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province.  Taseer, an Islamic moderate, was killed by one of his own bodyguards, apparently in retribution for his opposition to harsh anti-blasphemy laws.  Thousands of people demonstrated in the streets – in support of the murderer!
  • And lest I forget, did the Pakistani authorities know that Osama bin Laden had been living in their midst in Abbottabad? Constable thought that someone in Pakistan certainly knew but she doubted the highest authorities, especially military authorities were aware of it. Her rationale is that the military leaders were so humiliated by the US operation and its blatant disregard for Pakistani sovereignty that the damage to the Army’s prestige is on par with the loss of Bangladesh.  I dunno …

In her wrap-up, Constable talked about the need to strengthen the political and religious center in all countries. Extremists, she said, are the real threat everywhere.

I must say that after listening to this talk, the future of Pakistan looks pretty bleak to me. There doesn’t appear to be a competing narrative to compete with religious extremism that can offer its people hope and dignity. 

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