“Pakistan is best avoided in August, when the rains come and transform the plains into a huge steam bath.” I didn’t read those words, by British-Pakistani author Tariq Ali, until some time after arriving in Islamabad in mid-July for a month’s stay. He’s right, but having spent August in both Valdosta, Georgia and Baghdad I was prepared for the sultry mist that awaited me. I also arrived as many in the United States were proclaiming Pakistan a failing if not failed state—cowering under the looming shadow of an Islamic extremist takeover. But I have found that these warnings largely miss their target, even as Mr. Ali’s does not. That’s not to say the country doesn’t have problems; it has many, several of which are more important than the ones getting press coverage in the West. Nevertheless, the end does not seem nigh in Pakistan.
For one thing, Pakistan’s commercial spirit seems much too vibrant for a state on the brink of disaster. On most days, Illusions, a CD, DVD and software shop in the Jinnah Super Market in F-7 (Islamabad is a planned city divided into grids designated by letter and number) is packed with people buying video games, music and movies, all of which are shunned by Muslims of a salafist bent. Just around the corner, the two-story Saeed Book Bank is also doing a brisk business, selling everything from reprints of 19th-century British writings on Waziristan to the recent bestseller The Abs Diet. A few days after arriving, I took a ride with a friend down to Metro Cash and Carry, a sprawling store in the same vein as Sam’s Club or Costco. Though only open a little more than a year, the store seems well-established, with long lines of folks lined up to buy everything from chicken breasts to flat-screen televisions. Metro is doing well enough in Pakistan that it also has stores in Lahore, Karachi and Faisalabad.
Of course, these cash-leaking folks are upper-class Pakistanis. Vastly larger numbers of people in this country of some 173 million can barely make ends meet. As if to underscore the dichotomy, there is a refugee camp directly across the street from Metro. Its inhabitants, I am told, are Afghans who have been there since the 1980s. Needless to say, they are not major patrons of Metro. This is Pakistan: a brand new store full of stuff that could have been lifted whole out of some middle American town across the street from a refugee camp that is at least twenty years old. It’s the emergence of class war layered on top of Pakistan’s ethnographic diversity, not Islamist extremism, that could actually threaten Pakistan as a state. Yet so far there are only a few signs of the latent breaking out into the extant, and these only at the fringes of the Punjab.
One must pass through a security check to get into the Metro parking lot. Surely, a Western reporter might say, this is a sign of the jihad come to downtown Pakistan. Not exactly. The security check is pretty cursory. Pop the hood, let the guard make sure you don’t have a bomb under there, and you’re good to go. Checkpoints manned by police sweating through blue T-shirts are present all along the main avenues and roads of Islamabad. The cops wave most traffic through, and I’m still not sure what merits a stop in their eyes. The checkpoints do serve as a constant reminder that Islamabad is a target, and yet even these otherwise grim features of the urban landscape are not immune to the commercial spirit. Many of the barricades sport the distinctive red, white and blue logo of the Karachi-based candy company Tasty, which is also found on the sides of buildings, overpasses and other surfaces visible from the roads. This adds a slightly surreal element to the checkpoints, and I confess to not grasp how it makes sense for Tasty to associate its wares with tangible reminders of bombings, mayhem and gruesome death. I suppose I need Don Draper from Mad Men (seasons one and two are available at Illusions) to explain it to me.
Guards in general are pretty common around town. The upscale fashion and home furnishing store ChenOne has a guard with a pistol-grip shotgun hanging around out front. Quite a few private homes do as well. Again, this may give intrepid Western correspondents the impression that jihadis lurk around every corner. They don’t; just some corners. I went nowhere near the Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque of Islamabad that became a haven for extremists and was assaulted by Pakistani troops in 2007. Yet the environment is far from uniformly dangerous and hostile. Plenty of expats here on a longer-term basis have their own (unarmored) cars or, if they are cool, motorcycles. One adventurous expat I know has even hitchhiked at least once, and I once spoke to a freelance photographer who often takes a bus from Rawalpindi to Peshawar. While I merely wouldn’t recommend the former, the latter straddles the border between being impressively brave and playing Russian roulette.
Restaurants in Islamabad are not shuttering themselves for fear of the Apocalypse. One can readily get everything from pizza (chicken tikka replaces pepperoni), to Italian to French cuisine. The latter is available at Cordon Rouge, run by a French expat and located next to the Unique Apartments, a misnomer if ever there was one: They look exactly like every crummy apartment I lived in as an undergraduate.
Even away from Islamabad, it’s not evident that Pakistan is at the precipice of catastrophe. One of the ways Pakistanis (and the Brits, when they were here) beat the summer heat is to head for the hills of Murree, so I did likewise. About two hours’ drive up winding roads outside Islamabad, Murree is both beautiful and much cooler than the capital below. The biggest danger in Murree is the traffic on narrow roads clinging to the side of steep hills. At several points, only the most delicate of maneuvers got me around heavily-laden jingle trucks approaching from the other direction. After passing through a checkpoint at the entrance to the Pearl Continental Bhurban, the fancy hotel in the area, we walked into a lobby packed with people. Clearly neither the poor economy nor the jihadis have dented the local hotel business.
Vacation to Murree is not limited to the rich. The lower-end hotels we passed were not hurting for business, and the main market was bustling. I later learned that part of the reason everything was so crowded was that many Pakistani vacationers who would normally have headed for war-torn Swat, the “Switzerland of Pakistan”, had chosen to come to Murree instead. Murree, incidentally, is also the original home of Pakistan’s premier beer, appropriately called Murree Beer. Production is now mostly in Rawalpindi, though it can be tough to get in Islamabad. It is sold openly down in Karachi.
Another weekend trip to a farm outside the city with a mixed crowd was equally bucolic. A swimming pool with just a tinge of green algae was refreshing, and the barbecue was delicious. While I was there, I shot a few nine-millimeter rounds with former members of the Special Service Group (SSG), the main Pakistani special operations unit. They were consummate professionals, some having been on President Musharraf’s security detail. They were also polite enough not to mock my mediocre pistol marksmanship. None of them seemed to be deeply concerned about the collapse of the country. Of course, I can’t help but note that, if one had partied with comparable figures in the Shah’s Iran in 1977, they would not have been concerned either.
Other signs that the barbarians are not quite at the gates are the topics making the rounds in Pakistan’s robust and diverse media. The fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) certainly get their share of headlines, but they don’t dominate front pages as you would expect if the “miscreants” (a term commonly used for the Islamic extremists) were on the verge of taking over. The ongoing power crisis gets extensive coverage, as load-shedding, a euphemism for rolling blackouts, affects far more people than militant violence. Islamabad does relatively well in this regard, most parts of the capital getting power more than 16 hours a day. But when I set up a meeting with a retired general we still scheduled around the times when he knew he wouldn’t have power. Other parts of the country do much worse, with some rural villages getting only a few hours a day. Protests against load-shedding take place frequently, and frustrated Pakistanis have taken government officials hostage in protest.
In addition to the power crisis, the ongoing legal battles over former President Pervez Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) in November 2007 get plenty of air time. The act, which was used to replace recalcitrant judges such as Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, was declared unconstitutional at the end of July, and the old judges were ordered to be restored. Musharraf was subsequently charged with illegally detaining judges and high treason, the first time a former Chief of Army Staff has been charged with a crime. However, there appears to be little appetite among politicians for forcing a confrontation with the army. Some may see this as a version of fiddling while Rome burns, but it probably indicates just the opposite. Pakistan’s politics has always been contentious, so in context this looked almost like a sober and sensible compromise. The judges got what they really wanted, while the politicians and the army appear to be studiously avoiding conflict. Moreover, the judges have agreed to take steps to clear the massive judicial backlog, another of Pakistan’s major problems. They are even talking of giving up vacation time to make it happen—no small concession.
Talking to various locals has not given me the sense, to paraphrase Yeats, that mere anarchy is about to be loosed upon the nation. No one seemed deeply fearful about the coming failure of the country. Certainly they all felt Pakistan had serious problems. A day-laborer with whom I spoke was a Christian and therefore concerned by the recent anti-Christian violence in Gojra. Yet he was also encouraging his younger brother to go to school for a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Starting a four-year program hardly seems like good advice to give your kid brother if you think the country is going to collapse before he can collect a degree.
I also talked to folks from Karachi, where security problems are principally about crime rather than terrorism and insurgency. A fellow MIT alum now runs a socially conscious start-up company in a Karachi neighborhood that is the Pakistani equivalent of Southeast Washington, DC or South Central Los Angeles. The concerns there are robbery and kidnapping for profit, rather than suicide bombing and extremist take-over (though there are some extremists there).
Of course, I could be wrong about Pakistan’s stability. As I said, no one in Iran had a sense the Shah was going to fall until near the very end, and in general when brittle systems collapse, they do so very quickly. But in the Iranian case it was not so much lack of capacity to violently retain the throne but a lack of the will to do so that led to the fall of the Shah. The Pakistani government and especially the military appear to retain both capacity and will. This was also the assessment of the astute Mr. Ali in “Pakistan at Sixty”, a 2007 London Review of Books essay from which my opening quotation was drawn. In Ali’s judgment, “The threat of a jihadi takeover of Pakistan is remote.” On the other hand, the likelihood that government and society here will solve the country’s many other serious problems and put it in a position to totally eliminate the extremist challenge is equally remote.