Pakistan’s Vise

Pervez Musharraf, Chief Executive of Pakistan, is in a quandary. In October 1999 he overthrew the venal and corrupt regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to bring the military back into power after a brief hiatus of bourgeois democracy. But since the constitutional coup of 1954, Pakistan has stumbled with a bourgeoisie keener to aggrandize itself by any means rather than build the productive capacity of the nation toward, perhaps, a future divestment of riches to the people – what we generally call “development.” Musharraf’s act in 1999, then, was not so much a return to dictatorship as perhaps an attempt by a secular, almost Kemalist, wing of the Pakistani military to stave off both the corruptions of the landlord-bourgeois regime and the howls of the theocratic fascists. Political critic Aijaz Ahmad describes Musharraf as a man “of the more liberal, secular wing: officers of the old stamp. But it may be too late for such as them. There are others, of a different persuasion, waiting in the wings to overwhelm them.”

Indeed, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the unfolding of the crisis in Afghanistan will provide those men in the wings with an opportunity.

President G. W. Bush offered the Pakistani government the first ultimatum on the road to war: provide military access to your airspace and your soil or else you will be treated as a state that harbors terrorists. The punishment for that will be swift. Musharraf deliberated, and then conceded.

The second ultimatum was to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Give up bin Laden, or else we will shift rubble from one valley of your emirate to another. The conduit for this was a high-level Pakistani team, people from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that was created, as it happens, during the Afghan wars of the 1980s to harness intelligence from all agencies, but to work in coordination with (but really under the control of) the CIA. General Mahood Ahmed, head of the ISI, sat with the Taliban at Kandhahar and intimated that if bin Laden is not given up, the bombardment will surely begin. The Taliban is clear that it will not act unless the Organization of Muslim States makes a formal demand, and if it is shown certain evidence of a link between the WTC and bin Laden.

In Pakistan, foreign minister Abdul Sattar hopes for a miracle.

At least Bush had the decency to ask for bin Laden. Clinton’s administration rained hellfire on Afghanistan on 20 August 1998 without permission from anyone.

Meanwhile the media has begun talking, inevitably, about the madrassas, those institutions of learning set up in Pakistan to impart theological education. It is here, we are told, that the hard-core Islamicists are being produced, people such as the Taliban, but also those who are self-proclaimed jehadis in Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere. The madrassas, in the eyes of the media and of US-Europe, becomes one of the manifestations of evil incarnate, of Islam as the highest form of contemporary fanaticism and primitivism.

But only last year, an influential US policy analyst and former State Department man, Stephen P. Cohen wrote this in the Wall Street Journal (Asian Edition, 23 October 2000): “some madrassas, or religious schools, are excellent.” Admittedly he said that “others are hotbeds for jihadist and radical Islamic movements,” but these are only about twelve percent of the total. These, he said, “need to be upgraded to offer their students a modern education.”

And why shouldn’t Cohen, who is in the news again as an expert on fanaticism and South Asia, write like this? After all, then presidential candidate G. W. Bush (and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman) went on and on about faith based education, about vouchers and school choice. In a sense Pakistan could have shown the US the way since it has already destroyed its secular public institutions in favor of the choice of theocratic fascism. And with the recent fulminations from televangelist Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (about how gays and lesbians, civil libertarians and other such symbols of promiscuousness have forced God to turn his back on the US, and send 9/11 as a wake-up call), we can be sure that faith-based schools and charity promise to Talibanize all of us.

And again, like so much else, the destruction of Pakistani education is not just the fault of a corrupt and unprincipled bourgeoisie. It bears within it at least two other forces. The first agent of change in Pakistan has been the visible hand of the International Monetary Fund. Pakistan is cotton country, with two thirds of its exports tied to this sector, but most of it is low-value added unprocessed cotton or low-count yarn that is sent off to the advanced industrial states for a 19th century style turn around – export cheap raw materials, import expensive finished products. In 1993, Pakistan, abandoned by a general global decline in the profit margins from cotton, turned to the IMF for aid and initiated the Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) that has now become legendary around the world. A month before the coup of 1999, Nawaz Sharif’s finance minister Ishaq Dar told the press that “the government has done everything possible. We have provided the conducive environment” for foreign investors. Aggressive acts of neoliberalism became the hallmark of the regime. “Distortions,” such as public institutions, came under attack from the IMF and Pakistan’s already weak education sector came under fiscal pressure. A weak educational infrastructure moved much of the lower middle class toward private education in the low to moderate cost madrassas. The IMF, then, helped move many of Pakistan’s youth to religion.

A second agent of the madness is the Cold War, and Pakistan’s efforts to gain international strength by linkages with Europe-US. On 24 February 1955, only a few months since President Ghulam Mohammed disbanded the constitutional government (28 October 1954), Pakistan joined those other votaries of the “free world” in the Baghdad Pact: places such as the Kingdom of Iraq, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Iran and the Republic of Turkey. Five years later, Pakistan tied its hands to the United States in the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a US-run alliance of states in west Asia. But for several decades the US did not provide the kind of support expected by Pakistan, so much so that at a CENTRO conference on 30 April 1963, then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attacked the United States’ aid policies to India as opposed to its indifference toward Pakistan.

It was only with the Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Ayatollahs to power, as well as with the Soviet entry into Afghanistan, both in 1979, that Pakistan became important to the United States. All those years of waiting paid off for the bourgeoisie, because for a brief instant, during the 1980s, the US seemed to be in the country to stay. Giddy with expectation, the Pakistani elite welcomed the transformation of the society, created the ISI for the CIA’s use in Afghanistan, and then pushed ahead all manner of neoliberal cruelties on an already impoverished nation. Certainly the per capita income increased during these years, but class inequality widened beyond imagination. Even those at the World Bank who collect these statistics became horrified.

By the time Afghanistan crumbled into the hands of the Taliban in 1996, Pakistan had already been abandoned by the US, like a tired warhorse sent off to pasture without so much as a bag of oats. Congress stopped the sale of F-16 aircraft even after Pakistani hard currency had changed hands; sanctions for this or that plagued the US-Pakistan relationship, as the US tried to disentangle from its ally and reach out to the emergent market of one billion Indians. In 1995, slow GDP growth and high inflation forced the Pakistani government to curtail the IMF programs, thereby losing loans and other revenue supports. The government turned on its people again, this time with a devaluation of the rupee by seven percent (this over and above a three percent gradual depreciation), a seven percent increase in oil prices and the imposition of a five to ten percent regulatory duty on imports, as well as a tighter monetary policy. The macro indicators smiled, and so did the IMF, but the mass of the population entered an economic sinkhole.

No wonder, then, that US-style capitalism seems so remote and unreasonable, because while the dollar elite make good in the cities, the rupee masses seem to run up against the walls of the local madrassa. In 1995, the year of the downfall, UNESCO reported that almost two thirds of the adults in Pakistan are illiterate, and of women, the number rises to three quarters. The working-class and peasantry do not have access to any education, and the vibrant free press in Pakistan (it has been so since 1987, although there are always attempts to curtail it) has produced excellent work on the disenfranchisement of this vast section of humanity. The dollar elite holds a monopoly to the finest schools and colleges, and many of them find their way to colleges in Europe-US since the profits of the bourgeois-landlord set-up enable them to pay full freight. The lower middle class and whatever exists of the middle class does not have access to either decent public education or to the English-medium private schools. They go to the madrassas.

“As Pakistan’s state-run educational system steadily collapsed,” writes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, “these madrassas became the only avenue for boys from poor families to receive the semblance of an education.” By the late 1980s, the madrassas already numbered over thirty thousand (with about a third of them registered with the government), and most of them existed even then along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. These madrassas claim their lineage from the 1860s when an Islamic seminary was formed in Deoband (northern India), a lineage that is textually conservative and, in its current incarnations as orthodox as Saudi Wahhabism. The Deobandis filled the interstices of Pakistani society, notably in the sphere of education, and their political agencies turned their attention more to armed rebellion than to electoral politics. While the Jama’at-I-Islami, the political wing of the Deobandis, drew a virtual blank in the otherwise boycotted elections of 1985, the same formation mobilizes over two hundred thousand cadres to its annual conventions (latterly close to half a million people come to its conferences). The Lashkar-e-Toyeba, perhaps the most orthodox of the Right and one that only draws three percent of its followers from the madrassas, calls upon four hundred thousand to its annual conventions at its home base in Muridke. This power translated into political capital in 1993 when Benazir Bhutto welcomed Jama’at cadre into her government. Elections, therefore, are of no interest to the Jama’at when it already controls the base of Pakistani society.

What seem to bother many people is that the terrorists of 9/11 were older and better educated than one expects. But this should not be a surprise because the madrassas attract the lower middle to middle class, mainly boys with poor prospects of class advancement or even of class maintenance. The Jama’at and the Tehrik Minhaj-ul-Quran draw from this class set, while the Tanzeem-ul-Ikhwan, according to writer Arif Jamal, appeals to retired army officers who retreat into the world of the middle class. Not only, therefore, are key people in the army part of these formations, but many analysts make the case that the rank and file and junior officers took their own education in the madrassas alongside those who became professional jehadis and it is this lot that will not take Musharraf’s concessions to the US and against the Taliban easily. The madrassas have close ties with the Taliban as well as the rank and file of the Pakistani army, and any resentment against US-driven globalization that one has, the other shares. This is Musharraf’s quandary.

To put Kashmir on the agenda as a bargaining chip was perhaps a way to mollify the rank and file, perhaps avert a certain coup if the US does bomb the Taliban from Pakistan. One wonders if the US State Department has considered the costs of this exercise. A coup in Pakistan, not tomorrow or the next day, but soon; a Talibanist regime in Pakistan, and the Taliban, bombed, but like Saddam, still in the saddle. Meanwhile in India, we are still stuck with a coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the mirror image of the Jama’at. All these theocratic regimes have at least one thing in common: they have slammed the brakes on the dialectics of history. Unwilling to see the contradictions of social life in the modern world, most of them, like the US president, tend to divide the world into Good and Evil, in stark moral categories that fails to capture the mess of human life. If those whom you disagree with are Evil, then nothing remains for you to do than to kill them. Theocratic fascism of the Bush-Taliban-Hindutva variety wants to slam the brakes on the dialectics of history. With nuclear weapons and macho, downtrodden religiosity in the mix, the future looks mighty bleak. 9/11, then, may be relegated to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as compared to what came next, the mustard gas trenches that wiped out a generation of Europeans.

Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College, Hartford, CT

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).