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A Dictatorship in Drag

As riots and demonstrations unfold in the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan’s system of government continues to rumble along in its usual dysfunctional way. The Wall Street Journal

Fresh clashes between antigovernment protesters and police broke out in the Pakistani capital’s government quarter on Monday, a day after the military warned the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against “further use of force” to quell the spreading unrest.

Pakistan’s military also deployed armed soldiers around government buildings, checking the protesters’ advance on the prime minister’s official residence as darkness fell in Islamabad.

The police, which had been at the forefront of resisting the protesters over the weekend, retreated to the edge of the government quarter.

The renewed violence, which adds to a political crisis that threatens to bring down Mr. Sharif’s government, came as the military denied Monday that it had asked the prime minister to quit or that it was supporting the protesters.

Pakistan is and has been for many years a dictatorship in drag: the military and intelligence establishment actually run the country, but they prefer to mask their control with a veneer of civilian rule. The security establishment keeps firm control over all the important issues: relations with India, the size of the military budget, the nuclear program, the relationship with various terror groups, and anything else considered “strategic.” The civilian government exists to be blamed for the many cascading and accelerating state failures in Pakistan, ranging from its inability to provide power and water to its incapacity to protect its citizens from violence or give them education. Civilian politicians are compensated for their inglorious participation in this ugly farce by the rich pickings associated with holding office in one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

This system of government isn’t a secret; pretty much everyone in Pakistan knows at least in some part of their minds that civilian politics is a farce. But there are reasons why many otherwise intelligent people keep getting suckered into believing that electoral politics in Pakistan means something real. Culture and identity have a lot to do with it. Just as professional wrestling fans root for their heroes even though they know that the match is fixed, so partisans can support a party even when they know it has little or no substance. In Pakistan, where bitter regional and ethnic rivalries lurk just beneath the surface, identity politics also plays a role. Some parties and movements are identified with Sindh, others with the Punjab, others with the northwestern, predominantly Pashtun part of the country. Interest also plays a role; changing the government in Islamabad won’t stop the country from gradually sinking, but it will change who gets government contracts and jobs, and that is something.

The democracy industry cheerleaders, who’ve in recent years made careers out of pretending to spot, and getting paid to advance, non-existent “transitions to democracy” in countries like Egypt and Pakistan, cheered the transfer of power from the corrupt and discredited PPP government under the Bhutto clan to the current government as the first peaceful transfer of power in Pakistan’s history. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. It was the first time the army felt secure enough to change its dress without a coup. But to confuse that with a democratic process is the kind of ludicrous mistake that only career NGO officials and tenured academics can make. These are the same people who think that holding “elections” in “countries” like the Democratic Republic of Congo is a worthwhile activity that will advance human wellbeing in some ineffable way.

It is not and never has been part of the security establishment’s intention to let any civilian politicians actually succeed. Not that it’s hard to prevent them: conditions in Pakistan are so miserable for so many people and the state is so wretchedly ineffective at every level that any government will soon lose popularity. (That, after all, is why the military doesn’t want to rule directly. Why should Pakistanis blame the generals for the failure to fix potholes, address poverty, provide decent schools or stop rampant street violence?) Given that, there is nothing easier than to encourage rival politicians to launch street demonstrations and national campaigns. They too will fail, of course, if they ever take power, but they’ll be able to comfort themselves with the wealth they accumulate in the interval between getting sworn into power and being tossed out in disgrace.

Most of the world looks at Pakistan and sees a state in the process of catastrophic failure. The security establishment, especially the parts of it that increasingly share the radical Islamic views of some of their clients, don’t see things that way. They believe that Islam is on the march and that Pakistan will triumph in the end. In the teeth of global opposition, they’ve built an expanding nuclear capacity. They believe that India’s Muslim population is restive, oppressed, alienated by the new BJP government, and turning toward more radical forms of Islam. India may be bigger and richer than Pakistan, they realize, but they have a deep and instinctive belief that what they see as the lower civilization and religion of superstitious Hindus will ultimately crumble before the force of Islam. From their point of view, Islam had conquered most of India before the British arrived and was in the process of comfortably digesting Hindu culture and converting the population until the British intervened by breaking the Muslim empire and giving the majority of the country back to, as Pakistani national security types often believe, incompetent Hindus. Now the British have gone, the U.S. is in retreat, and history is getting back to normal.

They also believe that Saudi Arabia, worried about Iran and feeling betrayed by the United States, is going to turn to them for help, and that the Saudis will provide the cash they need to feed the military machine as the Americans back away. They think they have successfully defended Afghanistan, first against a Soviet takeover and then against the American attempt to crush the Taliban. They see the Americans heading for the exit, with the Afghan government weak and divided. Across the Middle East, Islamist and radical governments are kicking out the American puppets, and from Russia to the Far East, the Western world order is trembling on its foundations.

Meanwhile, the dictatorship in drag approach works very well inside the country. The civilian politicians are completely incapable of escaping the inglorious role to which the military has assigned them, and the widespread, free-floating outrage that is the major emotion in Pakistani national life is generally directed at the civilian sock puppets rather than at the real power centers.

American policymakers, who are demonstrably poor at understanding the motivations and outlooks of the many leaders around the world who do not share the liberal internationalist worldview of the American political elite, have a hard time understanding Pakistan. To most outsiders and westerners, the Pakistani security establishment is witlessly presiding over the self-immolation and self-sabotage of the nation. From their own point of view, Pakistan’s leaders are sitting pretty. 

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  • lukelea

    American policymakers, who are demonstrably poor at understanding the motivations and outlooks of the many leaders around the world who do not share the liberal internationalist worldview of the American political elite,

    Ain’t that the truth. When will they ever learn? It didn’t used to be this way, did it? Couldn’t this be considered a failure of the Ivy League to properly educate our governing elites? Might political correctness have anything to do with it, as part of a general unwillingness to look facts in the face? Ideological blinders, or something like that.

  • Verinder Syal

    Pointed, hard hitting analysis. What would you recommend the US do? India? Are there any good choices other than muddling through?

  • FriendlyGoat

    Because they have nukes, the West is not going to attack and occupy. Because it hasn’t been working ANYWHERE, we’re probably not going to see Islamic populations vote away Islam—-even though secular elections were not something to scoff at until at least tried again and again.

    All parties are most likely best served in Islamic places such as Pakistan and Egypt by military governments for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to criticize this, but we do know that Islam under a pragmatic chain of command is better than willy-nilly Islam running wild, don’t we?

    The long-term hope may still reside in wireless digital tools which help people stop believing in Islam.
    Yes, there is a L-O-N-G in “long-term”.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “American policymakers, who are demonstrably poor at understanding the motivations and outlooks of the many leaders around the world who do not share the liberal internationalist worldview of the American political elite, have a hard time understanding Pakistan.”

    Why should we care how a backward culture thinks? It’s not like they are suddenly going to become strong and a threat. And while we would like to have many strong trading partners, as this increases the size and efficiency of the American Global Trading system, which benefits everyone. Pakistan is hardly a big strong trading partner, and even if they were gone would have only a tiny effect on the market. Their entire economy is $574 billion which is 0.65% of the world economy, so if they were to disappear tomorrow, the world economy would barely notice.

    Every time I hear someone saying we should do something, it makes me want to slap them upside the head. What do these idiots expect us to do, sprinkle them with magic fairy dust, and suddenly they won’t be a backward ignorant Islamic culture anymore?

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