Pakistan is on the clock. “A fast-expanding Islamic insurgency…threatens to devour the country,” wrote The New York Times this month. The 175 million-strong nation has been on deathwatch since at least February, when The Atlantic Council sounded the alarm that Pakistan was headed for turbulence within twelve months. Recently, General Petraeus’s advisor shortened the time frame to within six months. “We could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” said David Kilcullen. “Al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover—that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.”
Tick tock. Boom.
It would be difficult to know from recent articles that Pakistanis scored a stunning mass-political victory only a few weeks ago. Instead, the press has been parroting Washington’s conventional wisdom on Pakistan as a country coming apart at the seams. There is no civil society here, only loons and goons that need to be bombed. The U.S. has based its actions on this decades-old story, and that has now helped produce the very realities Washington claims only to describe.
The only ones, it appears, who are cheerfully ignorant of the impending apocalypse are Pakistanis. As Kilcullen described this nightmare, Pakistanis were celebrating the reinstatement of their Chief Justice to the Supreme Court after week-long mass protests. “Fairytale endings are indeed possible in Pakistan,” declared the country’s oldest English-language daily. That morning, the national flag was re-hoisted at Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s home, marking his return to the bench.
There was dancing in the streets. There were rose petals.
It was the culmination of a two-year long struggle that began in 2007, when then-Army General and President Pervez Musharraf unconstitutionally sacked the judiciary.
Evoking Gandhi’s long march against British colonial rule, thousands of Pakistanis marched across the country to the capital, Islamabad, this March to demand that the government restore the judiciary. It was the second such mass protest. Last June, protesters took a similar route in the first long march.
Historically not known for its dissent, Pakistan’s judiciary had posed constant problems for Musharraf. First, it blocked the government’s privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills. Then, Chief Justice Chaudhry began investigating cases of missing persons who, evidence suggests, were forcibly disappeared by Pakistan’s infamous spy agencies.
At its critical core, the democracy movement is an amalgam of lawyers, businessmen, students, workers, and yes, journalists. But those who marched include a mixture of political stripes and various socioeconomic classes. They poured in time, effort, and—when it seemed as though the government may not hesitate to use violence—courage.
Their goal has been deceptively simple: the reinstatement of judges. But the “debate is much larger than restoring the judiciary,” law professor Osama Siddique told me when I met him last year in his sun-flooded office at the elite LUMS University in Lahore. Siddique, who teaches constitutional law, explained that the movement is, at heart, “about whether this country can actually have a democratic government for a change.” It is a movement for the rule of law.
That goal fostered new relationships and mobilized diverse networks which turned into a cross-class and broad-based movement. It drew people like Samad Khurram, a key student activist who had no initial political inclinations. And it finally spilled onto the streets as protests.
“The feeling on the ground was brilliant, very fearless,” said exhilarated student activist Adaner Usmani on the first day despite arrests and the government’s ban on gatherings. Protesters expected the police to block them. “But we were really surprised that we didn’t get any resistance” until quite late, said Karachi dentist and popular blogger, Dr. Awab Alvi during a phone interview. By the third day, Information Minister Sherry Rehman had resigned in protest. Others followed. By the fifth day, Prime Minister Yusef Raza Gilani had conceded.
And that’s how the government lost to a democracy movement.
But while the civil society networks fostered by this movement aren’t going to disappear, it has received scant attention from the American press beyond the street protests. To the extent that it was covered, articles discussed this civil society movement largely in terms of the possibility of chaos, and as a diversion from dealing with the insurgency.
Once the street protests were over, the story was dropped altogether in favor of the ‘failed state’ narrative promulgated by Washington. That’s the story of a country teetering on the edge of madness, strapped to a nuclear bomb, about to commit suicide and take America with it.
Kilcullen’s opinion—of a Pakistan undone within six months—was upgraded to fact by the New York Times which topped its Pakistan-related analysis shortly thereafter with the headline “Time is Short as U.S. Presses a Reluctant Pakistan”.
In late March, Foreign Affairs produced a three-day roundtable called “What’s the Problem with Pakistan?” proceeding to discuss the country as though it were a psychiatric patient refusing its happy pills. “Unfortunately for Pakistan,” declared Ashley Tellis from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “the West is losing patience with its shortcomings—and while Pakistan may be slowly changing, the threats emerging from that country toward the rest of the world are increasing fast.” The real issue in—and indeed with—Pakistan is militancy.
Civil society disappears, and the discussants recast the protests as a fight between two political leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari and his political opponent, Nawaz Sharif. That kind of politics—and the movement along with it—can then be deemed irrelevant. Thus, Shaun Gregory, author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State, writes, “As for Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, this is a wholly unnecessary fight that diverts huge amounts of political energy from real priorities.”
Not to be outdone, Foreign Policy, last month, ran the “Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan”, an allegedly humorous “Georgetown cocktail party” primer on—as it turns out—the Taliban, the Pakistan Army, the tribals, and other assorted bogeymen. Published in the same month as the protests, it fails to mention the democracy movement even once. Its sole success is being unintentionally honest about its name as it lurches through a fool’s errand, reducing the entire country to six pages of chaos, crisis, and crazies.
The ‘tick-tock boom’ has been around since as early as 1964, says University of Chicago historian and blogger Manan Ahmed, with the publication of Lawrence Ziring’s The Failure of Democracy in Pakistan. By the 1970s, Pakistan had been tagged a troubled state based on development indicators established at Harvard’s Institute for International Development, as well as its Center for Development Studies.
“That narrative slowly percolates from the social sciences into the humanities and politics and State Department folks and outside of academia,” says Ahmed. “They’ve been saying this stuff for forty to fifty years, and there’s been no attempt to rethink or reformulate that narrative.” For Washington, the story has provided rationalizations for supporting dictators, encouraging repressive tendencies in successive Pakistani governments, and, lately, killing Pakistanis with drones. ‘Pakistan is chaos,’ the strange logic goes, ‘and the US will contain that chaos through dictatorships and bombing.’
Reporters, too, have their own ends. The “Idiot’s Guide” is—again, perhaps unwittingly—truthful about this, advising, “Tick off the name of a Taliban leader or two and make a reference to North Waziristan, and you might be on your way to a lucrative lecture tour.” Indeed. Journalism is a business, and the story sells.
Another issue has to do with what counts for ‘expertise’ on Pakistan, and who counts as an “expert.” Media discussions about the country routinely favor current or former government employees, security experts, think-tank political scientists and—in a circular fashion—journalists who’ve spent time filtering their reporting on Pakistan through these other groups. See the Foreign Affairs roundtable and this New York Times commentary for two examples. It’s a nexus of experts that’s close to Washington. The resulting expertise then, has much to do with security talk and U.S. concerns, and little to do with the complicated realities on the ground.
So whether the day’s news is about extremists or civil society activists, the story consistently remains one that’s about chaos, existential threats, and failure. Just take a look at early April’s New York Times Magazine cover word art for ‘Pakistan’: Perilous, anArchic, broKe, vIolent, Splintering, corrupT, Armed, goverNable? This serves as the title graphic to a story that’s actually about the protests.
Chaos is ultimately a story line that’s easier to recount with insurgencies than mass democratic politics. Hence, articles about the democracy protests regularly re-frame the story to focus on the insurgency. For example, a New York Times analysis dismisses the uprising of civil society as an interruption to the real task of counterinsurgency. “The way ahead is likely to be messy for everyone, including the United States, and could turn out to be a major distraction from efforts to counter the insurgency, which is spreading closer to the main population areas.” Pakistanis, in other words, are a nuisance to their own history.
The article explains that this is Washington’s view, too, as it tries to “convince Pakistan that the insurgency, not internal politics, was the most important challenge.” Everything else is just the distracted meanderings of a civil society with a massive attention-deficit.
Official opinion turned news turned judgment: A New York Times editorial on the protests begins by observing that it took “huge street protests and the threat of chaos” to compel a resolution. Chaos. Check.
The editorial continues, sidelining the protests to shift the story towards insurgency. “Mr. Zardari will have to do a lot more to calm the political turmoil and confront the extremists who threaten Pakistan’s survival.” Existential threat. Check.
Next, it discusses police officers’ reluctance to enforce the house arrest of Nawaz Sharif, who was to help lead the final stage of the Long March. Had the police complied with the house arrest, it was likely that protesters would clash with them as they had been doing throughout the march. The Times had this to say:
“Yet the process was flawed. It was unsettling to watch police officers in Lahore, Mr. Sharif’s power base, allow Mr. Sharif to escape house arrest. Pakistan’s coup-prone Army did not try to seize power. Instead, the chief of staff prodded Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif to compromise. That is certainly an improvement over the past. But it is also a reminder of the weakness of Pakistan’s democratic institutions.”
Granted, the Times editors have been drinking their own Kool-Aid, but it takes special people to be unsettled by police officers refusing to shed the blood of civilians demanding the rule of law. Sharif is a crook and a corrupt politician, but insofar as he stood in support of the lawyers’ issue, it’s very possible that demonstrators would have confronted the police and demanded his release.
Second, is the army’s unwillingness to seize power part of the “flawed process”—since that’s what the paragraph purports to discuss—or an “improvement” or a “reminder of the weakness of Pakistan’s democratic institutions,” or all three? The declaration of an all-out war on logic is ultimately necessary to pummel the story of the democracy movement into an account of crisis and failure.
Pakistanis are now debating their movement. Some, like Dr. Alvi, are chagrined about the closed-door deal making in the final hours of the protests. Others say it’s just the beginning. “This mobilization and consciousness should now translate into other constructive avenues,” says Siddique, currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard.
But while Pakistani civil society debates what’s next, it may be derailed by the American Tourette Syndrome. The enduring ‘failed state’ narrative, deployed by Washington, repeated and popularized by the mainstream American press, has worked in narrowing the debate on Pakistan to security-talk. Paradoxically, the U.S. may be exacerbating problems by acting on the ‘failed state’ story it endlessly repeats to itself.
The American military has been recklessly bombing FATA. Recent figures by Pakistani authorities said that of the sixty U.S. drone attacks between January 2006 and April 2009, only ten hit their targets. In all, the strikes have killed fourteen Al Qaeda leaders and 687 innocent Pakistanis, making the success rate of the attacks not more than 2 percent.
This belligerent policy appears incapable of delivering anything but insults to the very region from which General Petraeus has said that the next 9/11 is likely to come. But, the American press, rather than opening a sphere of discussion has been—intentionally or unintentionally—building consent for questionable government policies that are now expanding the theatre of war into Pakistan.
“If we can just get three or four elections strung together with full terms, I can guarantee good things will be happening,” Ahmed argues. That has not happened because the stakeholders always need something to happen in Pakistan right away. “Combat communism now. Expel Russia from Afghanistan now. Find Osama Bin Laden now. Don’t worry about this democratic thing.”
But Pakistanis, who have been the main victims of terrorism with over a thousand deaths last year alone, have clearly shown that they do worry about that “democratic thing.” Instead of peddling Washington’s chaos theories, the press should take care to listen.Madiha R. Tahir is a writer in New York.