So far, those who think attrition would weaken the cults if the standoff is prolonged are being proved wrong.
Pakistan was first softened by a decade of terrorism by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the name of Islam, then challenged from within by two personality cults responding to a state that could no longer stand up to violence. Imran Khan, leading the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and Tahirul Qadri, leading Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), have brought it to its knees.
How has Pakistan met the challenge of terrorism? By assimilating it into its guts and opposing a scared and willing-to-help world with its isolationism. The people had to choose between a timid definition of what terrorism actually was and a more powerful assertion of the accusation of “enemy without”.
State ideology became more radical instead of what was required: a gradual dismantlement of the religious state to differentiate between the state and terrorists. More and more, paranoia became the expression of the state. “Foreign hand” was killing the state, not anyone from within. The state failed the challenge of assigning priority to what endangered it. The old danger was from India. It couldn’t be superseded by a new danger that was inside the state, and therefore outside the charter of action of the army. Since India was no longer globally isolated, Pakistan responded by taking on the world.
The state responded wrongly to the question of who threatened more: India and the world led by America, or the Taliban? It thought this extreme isolation would be relieved by unstinting support from China and some Arab states. But this thinking was doomed, as the state nurtured elements that threatened both China and the Arabs too.
No state interested in surviving can support a nation determined to isolate itself before going down. But leveraged by “pivot”-driven strategies in an increasingly multipolar world, the state in Pakistan still got support without being liked. It misread this support.
Used to private armies in Sindh and Balochistan, which meant its writ was weak there, the state bred jihad-related private armies in south Punjab too, pushing local, feudal politicians to embrace military strategies opposed to democracy simply to avoid getting mauled by these armies. This weakening of the state manifested in its losing the functions devoted to serving the masses. It became less and less able to support its existing network of mass education and public health. As in Egypt, these functions were devolved to radical elements.
Employment as a jihadi in a shrinking economy became attractive for the youth. The prompting from the state to this encroachment came early: through devolution of the function of war-fighting (jihad) to radical elements. The state was unable to digest the consequences of asymmetrical warfare, which it used to offset the disadvantage of unequal power. This happened because its ideology prevented it from giving birth to individuals capable of breaking the shackles of uniform thinking. Pathbreaking statesmanship was seen as heresy.
Personality cults in private armies were engendered by rightwing fascism aimed at transforming society and the world. Al-Qaeda brought the idea into Pakistan, where private armies devoted to jihad were fertile for it. The caliphate in Afghanistan was headed by a semi-divine but illiterate man. Radical organisations are all run by leaders with a personality cult. The cult derives not from secular charisma, but divine revelation. Cult organisations may be opposed to one another on the basis of mutual apostatisation, but they are led by men inspired by religion, if not a direct connection with god.
The men who die for national armies are filled with the rhetoric of nationalism. But national armies function within the ambit of the laws of war agreed among nations. Men who fight for private armies are psychologically chained to the charisma of the cult leader. It is moot whether a suicide-bomber kills himself by his own will or is forced by the will of the cult leader.
Two cult leaders — one with his private army — are present in Islamabad’s Red Zone. The state that talks to them begins its discourse with “inshallah”, the same as the cult challenger, just like the Arab armies in the Middle East that cry “Allahu Akbar” before killing each other. The two cults challenging the state today are clearly different, as all cults must be varied. One leader is a cleric and can ask his followers to lay down their lives without fearing disobedience from them. The other is less sure of obedience but relies on religious inspiration and knows that dead bodies will ensure success.
The state has become vulnerable after “gifting” dead bodies to the first cult leader in Lahore. Realising that another such gift in Islamabad to the two leaders prompting their flocks not-so-subtly to violence will spell an end to the constitutional state, the government has agreed to suffer a gradual weakening of its writ instead. The “constitutional” consensus in parliament and in public is changing subtly as time wears on. More and more politicians are asking the government to bend on points where earlier they recommended firmness. This is being observed carefully by the two cult leaders and inclines them to prolong the standoff.
So far, those who think attrition would weaken the cults if the standoff is prolonged are being proved wrong. An extended lease of life comes to the cults from the media, which is involved in intense coverage competition and a not-so-clean polarisation that makes it lose sight of what is constitutionally right. The attrition being suffered by the government comes from a different direction. Normally, it should not fear prolongation of the standoff, or not more than the cults in any case. But it is under pressure from the changing nature of the state itself.
Jihad has undermined the national economy. Because of terrorism emanating from its own nature, the economy languished when other states of South Asia were posting high growth rates. Now, during a global downturn, it is less likely to get external support. The Islamabad standoff therefore imposes economic attrition on the government. The two cults are attracted to the prospect of economic disruption through the roadblocks erected by the government. People in Pakistan, as in Europe and elsewhere, will not listen to arguments about the economic downturn and will demand suspension of the laws of economics. The government cannot argue that the cults have caused public suffering.
The biggest danger faced by the government is a breakdown of the “democratic consensus” already undermined by ideology and irredentism. The political parties now supporting the “constitutional consensus” in parliament are showing signs of returning to normal internecine rivalry.
Significantly, parties in parliament, roughed up by coups in the past, stand united but will adjust to another coup if pushed. Frequent toppling is not good. It inculcates a habit that makes people see democracy as abnormal interlude. September being the month of victory against India in 1965 doesn’t help either. A wobbly state is still showing signs of democratic backbone. But for how long?
The writer is with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’