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The World’s Bravest Nation

by Fasih Ahmed
Behrouz Mehri—AFP

Behrouz Mehri—AFP

In unending crisis‚ there is hope and salvation yet for Pakistan.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he rains came at the end of July. Since then‚ nearly 1‚600 have died‚ more than 2‚000 have been injured‚ and at least 17 million have been displaced by the floods. Millions are at risk of death from disease and deprivation. Every province is hit. Infrastructure has been wiped out‚ and food shortages and lawlessness are inevitable. Official recovery estimates stand at $15 billion and counting. Salmaan Taseer‚ governor of the Punjab‚ the country’s richest province‚ calls this the “worst catastrophe of the 21st century.”

This Ramzan‚ the holy month of fasting and forbearance‚ there is in Pakistan the anguished introspection and self-comforting‚ posturing and hand-holding that only natural disasters of this scale can inspire. In makeshift camps that have come up in the middle of roadway medians‚ at airbases flying impossible rescue missions‚ at corner shops tuned in to flood warnings on the radio‚ on multiple television channels where true intentions are divined‚ God seems to be on everyone’s mind. What other force could be keeping this crisis-inundated Muslim country together?

Three years ago‚ Newsweek called Pakistan the world’s most dangerous nation. And yes‚ the country’s volatility‚ militancy‚ and nuclear capacity certainly pose a geopolitical risk. Indeed‚ that threat may even have grown. But it can be argued that despite the bleakness and the tragedy‚ things have changed since that report was published. Sometimes faltering‚ sometimes egregiously absent‚ mercy and forgiveness—the staple of the God-fearing—are among Pakistan’s most redeeming qualities. Neither has been exhausted in 63 years of heartbreak and hope. The capacity of Pakistanis to forgive themselves and each other accounts for the recent rehabilitation of politicians‚ judges‚ and generals. It is this undertow that gives embattled Pakistanis the sense of purpose and selflessness to journey on—and provides the country with its little understood strength.

At $7.5 billion over five years, Kerry-Lugar represents the largest ever nonmilitary aid package for Pakistan.

No one knows forgiveness quite like President Asif Ali Zardari. After the assassination of his wife‚ former prime minister Benazir Bhutto‚ he shouted down angry supporters who demanded that his home province of Sindh break away from Pakistan. He kept the peace with Nawaz Sharif‚ another twice-elected prime minister‚ who had ordered the former first husband’s arrest and torture in the 1990s. For a while‚ two years ago‚ Zardari was the country’s most popular man‚ and he was overwhelmingly elected president. He has now returned to being one of the most reviled‚ especially after his disastrously tone-deaf visit to the U.K. and France at a time the country was being devastated by floodwaters.

While the prissily attired Zardari was traveling to Europe‚ Sharif and his younger brother‚ Shahbaz‚ chief minister of the Punjab‚ were chewing the scenery with flood victims. Since coming back‚ Zardari is now compensating with competitive compassion. He is touring affected areas‚ one fifth of the country‚ dressed in dark shalwar kameez with Sindhi cap and somber expression. Because of their numbers and capacity for withstanding abuse‚ Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party are in alliance with every major political party‚ including frenemies like Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)‚ in the federal and four provincial assemblies.

This big-tent approach has also helped calm tensions in the smaller provinces where alienation and anger often turn to violence toward the state. The North-West Frontier Province now has a real name‚ Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Picking up from where former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf left off‚ representative democracy has been institutionalized in Gilgit-Baltistan‚ where elections were held earlier this year and which is disputed territory with India. The rancorous inclusiveness predicated on forgiveness has yielded some big wins for Pakistan’s democracy.

“There is acceptance of everybody’s political position and rights‚ and it shows a great maturity that I feel the democratic forces in Pakistan have achieved‚” Zardari told Newsweek in an interview in May. He was referring to the near-unanimous passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the unexpected agreement among the four provinces over divvying up national revenues. “I think both Nawaz Sharif‚ myself and all the political forces sitting today in Parliament have reinvented ourselves‚” he said. But‚ he cautioned‚ politicians “will still be politicians.”

More than two years after their return to greater national relevance‚ both the PPP and PMLN seem to have broken the claw-and-kill cycle that marked their relations. Despite the old tensions that seem to simmer just below the surface and the provocative‚ made-for-television rhetoric‚ the parties have come together when it most mattered. Like Zardari‚ opposition leader Sharif has never been accused of caring too much for the country or being unimpeachably honest. Derided for being soft on the government‚ Sharif has come close on several occasions but always stopped short of calling for the ouster of the ruling party.

The overthrow of any government is impossible without the direct or indirect endorsement of the Army‚ which continues to call the shots on foreign policy and national security. It resented attempts by the government to bring discipline to the country’s unaccountable defense budget and to subordinate their spy wing‚ Inter-Services Intelligence‚ to civilian leaders chiefly through strings attached to the $7.5 billion in nonmilitary economic aid signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama. The Army issued a formal denunciation of the aid in an unprecedented move that was cautiously but widely criticized across the political divide. In most instances‚ to avoid upsetting the powerful Army‚ critics will use Musharraf as a euphemism and symbolic stand-in for the institution. Recently‚ the government gave Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani an unheard of full-term extension in a move that is believed to have been favored by the Obama administration.

Zardari and his government shouldn’t feel too bad. Pakistan is not alone when it comes to the military command wanting or getting to have their way. “Both [India and Pakistan’s] governments at times‚ if not all the time‚ are victims of the entrapment of intelligence agencies‚” says Jaswant Singh‚ an influential member of India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. “Governments must govern; they must not work on the basis of ‘OK‚ you’re the intelligence agency‚ you tell us what to do‚’” he told Newsweek.

The Army runs Pakistan’s largest corporate empire. It is in every line of business including hairdressing. And while it is the country’s only truly egalitarian organization, where pluck ensures social advancement and the fulfillment of the Pakistani dream, its growth has come entirely at the expense of other institutions and has starved public-sector development. Each time it has assumed power, the country has lost ground—literally and metaphorically—starting with the handing over to China of a part of Kashmir, Pakistan’s sacred security cow, in 1963. In 2002, Musharraf apologized to Bangladesh, former East Pakistan, for the Army’s role in the genocide that led to the 1971 break-up of Pakistan. The petrodollar- and U.S.-funded Afghan jihad brought down the Soviet Union but left Pakistan awash with the militancy the Army is battling today partly as atonement. The military’s poor choices in the tough years of sanctions in the 1990s intersect with the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Libya, and Iran—allegedly by Dr. A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s bomb.

PPP and PMLN seem to have broken the claw-and-kill cycle that marked their relations.

Khan denies any wrongdoing and says his confession on national television in 2004 was made under pressure from Musharraf. “[Former prime minister] Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain gave an interview in which he reiterated that I had done nothing wrong and saved Pakistan from disastrous consequences by taking sole blame,” he told Newsweek in an exclusive interview. Musharraf pardoned Khan the day after the confession, and Khan remains a cult figure in Pakistan. Musharraf created the Strategic Plans Division to address global proliferation concerns and manage the country’s nuclear assets. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official at the organization said the outfit was created before Khan’s confession and has “instituted a cradle-to-the-grave arrangement of oversight to ensure scientific manpower remains regulated.” On paper, the SPD reports to the prime minister.

Under Kayani, the Army has consciously been working to redeem itself by overt displays of professional, nonpolitical conduct. It’s been given a fillip by its valorous operation against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan, its handling of the refugee influx from Swat, and the rescue and relief efforts after the floods. But by its outré patriotic outrage over U.S. aid and Zardari’s visit to Chequers and the behind-the-scenes pressure on the Zardari-led government to re-restore Iftikhar Chaudhry as the country’s chief justice in order to head off a confrontation with the opposition and civil society, it remains engaged in the political.

Ironically, the independence of the judiciary and media—two major power centers that are seeking to serve at the same time as institutional memory and collective conscience—came thanks to Musharraf, the most recent of the country’s four military rulers. The judiciary has always been bent to suit the wishes of military and civilian autocrats. In 1954, the federal court validated the extra-constitutional dissolution of Parliament in a judgment that would become a precedent to sanctify all future martial laws. In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on flimsy grounds.

This changed in 2007 when Musharraf tried to fire top judge Chaudhry, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Musharraf administration in 2000. But this time Chaudhry refused to back down. This started the lawyers’ movement, a tenacious, irresistibly pluralistic, colorblind, and largely peaceful nationwide mobilization of lawyers, civil society, and political parties that was fueled by Chaudhry’s everyman heroism and that permanently weakened Musharraf. Pakistan had never before seen such protests in favor of the rule of law. Chaudhry was reinstated by his peers in July 2007 but put under house arrest four months later when Musharraf imposed an emergency. The chief justice was restored to office by the Zardari-led government in March 2009 under popular and political pressure.

The Supreme Court under Chaudhry is, so far, an equal-opportunity offender, and in reclaiming its jurisdiction, its zeal is sometimes misplaced. The court struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the amnesty order issued by Musharraf that led to the return of both Bhutto and Sharif. In the detailed judgment, the court excoriates corrupt, self-loathing elites as well as the Army. The court is currently hearing cases regarding Zardari, the 18th Amendment that institutes parliamentary proceedings for the appointment of judges, and lawmakers who filed false college degrees with the election commission in order to run for office. In Chaudhry, many see the only man who can bring down Zardari. Chaudhry seems to know where to draw the line and has not taken the bait because removing Zardari will be messy and the ensuing confusion could well destroy the court.

Some 80 percent of Pakistanis strongly disapprove of suicide bombings, 8 percent voice some support, according to a recent poll.

The lawyers’ movement inspired by Chaudhry’s defiance would not have been possible without the activism of the media. Pakistan has more than 60 cable channels, and censorship is no longer a practical option. Despite the odd kerfuffle with the government, the fiercely vocal media remains sufficiently powerful to prevent any meaningful defamation laws from being legislated. Absent such laws, claims of self-regulation by the media will continue to be an excuse for their excesses. “No media baron should be allowed to choose or influence the future political direction of the country,” says Zardari, a favorite whipping boy of the evening talk shows. “They can advise, they can give their opinion, but nobody has the right to say ‘I will make and break political forces.’”

Bringing into focus areas that have historically been overlooked and neglected, media channels also espouse humanitarian causes and doggedly follow up on crime stories to ensure viewers feel empowered through a sense of justice. The rising power of Pakistan’s 24/7 media is recognized by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes it a point to hold televised town-hall meetings when in Pakistan. The counterbalance, however misplaced, being provided by news channels is helping democracy. Sayeeda Warsi, the Pakistani-Briton chairman of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party agrees. “It has an extremely vibrant and independent media, and I think that is certainly something positive that came out during the Musharraf years and it must be encouraged,” she told Newsweek. “Democracy has to be allowed to mature, and in that maturity, many mistakes will be made,” she says, adding that the media and politicians should be forgiven their mistakes.

Press freedom only goes so far. Few electronic- and print-media organizations will criticize their peers or discuss taboo subjects like the persecution of the minority Ahmadi community, excommunicated by the state as a sop to the rightwing, or the heartless application of blasphemy laws that target the weakest in society. The media plays to the gallery, its self-important triumphalism overriding larger societal interests. Until recently, many television channels glorified terrorists, even referring to killed militants with honorifics.

This confusion is abating. National revulsion at the assassination of brave Bhutto, the Taliban’s overreach in Swat, their merciless public flogging of a 16-year-old girl that was caught on video, and the spate of suicide bombings in urban centers registered in the Pew Research Center’s survey released in June. It shows 80 percent of Pakistanis strongly disapproving of suicide attacks with only 8 percent voicing support. The limited aid work being done by front organizations for militant groups in flood-affected areas will, at least temporarily, help restore their public image, but the poll is a clear sign that Pakistanis are fed up with militancy.

Even if sometimes selective and hysterical, the media’s scrutiny of politicians, previously accountable only to the Army, is positive for Pakistan. The television commentariat took strong issue with Sharif’s government in the Punjab providing at least Rs. 80 million in taxpayer money to the Jamat-ud-Dawah, the philanthropic arm of the Al Qaeda affiliate Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was banned by the U.N. following the group’s involvement in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The pundits also slated the younger Sharif’s statement in March at a madrassah in Lahore where he called on the Taliban not to launch attacks in the province because he and they are “fighting for the same cause.”

Pakistan’s powerful understand that the country’s challenges make the moment bigger than the man. “Pakistan today is faced with such challenges that one needs to forget about most of our internal and our personal issues and get on to the larger agendas, because those could sink the country,” says Zardari. Pakistanis have a been-there, done-that wariness of political experimentation and have settled on representative democracy as the most prudent solution. Citizens have repeatedly rejected the artificial strictures placed by military rulers on political figures like Bhutto and Sharif by voting them in. The remarkable political resurrection of Zardari and Sharif is not for lack of options. Cricket star Imran Khan, respected for his philanthropy but mocked for his pro-Taliban views, has been an upcoming politician for more than 14 years. Yet Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, with its clear anticorruption plank, has only ever won one seat in the federal assembly.

Each institution takes purposefully arrant positions in order to achieve the always-sought middle ground.

The moment is not lost on the young, either. Social and political activism, discouraged under military rule, is back, fueled by modern platforms like the social-networking website Facebook. Unlike protests in the U.S. and Europe against the Iraq War, street demonstrations in Pakistan tend to yield results—as they did with judge Chaudhry’s restoration. This sense of empowerment is amplified and assisted by the media—and it is not limited to the realm of the political. Students and civil society coordinated their efforts to undertake one of the largest humanitarian relief operations in Pakistan’s history after the 2005 earthquake. Similar fervor is now on display as the country battles its worst crisis yet, a crisis that would perhaps overwhelm any government in the world.

Tensions among the government, Army, judiciary, and media are new and healthy for Pakistan. Each institution is testing how far it can go, but tends to back down when the framework that affords them the space for these tensions seems to totter. The media’s wagers on the imminent demise of the PPP-led government have been proven wrong, embarrassingly and repeatedly. Each institution sometimes takes purposefully arrant positions in order to achieve the acceptable middle ground that it had quietly and actually always sought. From these tensions that restore a measure of accountability to Pakistan’s power structures has emerged an uneasy equilibrium of tolerance and forgiveness. This equilibrium should last and be preserved, at least until 2013 when Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Chaudhry, and Kayani all complete their terms in office.

Politicians will make mistakes. It was wrong for Parliament to surrender Swat to the Taliban, as it did last year, despite the fact that a year earlier Swat had gone to the polls and—like the rest of the country—resoundingly chose the secular PPP and its ally, the Awami National Party. Ethnic battle lines and political turf wars are responsible for the bloodletting in the megalopolis of Karachi. The perception of large-scale corruption in government remains inadequately addressed. There are other things that are entirely unforgivable. Everyone came out to protest against Facebook in May, but few felt they needed to demonstrate against the daylight massacre at two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore the same month, or against the apathetic, near-cowardly state response to those attacks.

Regret, says Zardari, is an indulgence. “Life has so many regrets, you can’t even start,” he says. “But then you forgive yourself, accept the fact that you were wrong, and go on.” That’s a lesson Pakistan knows well.

From our Sept. 6‚ 2010‚ issue.

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