Michael KreponGravity’s Gone

As Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers sings, “been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m floating.” Events in Pakistan remind me of this lyric. On March 2nd, Pakistan’s Minorities Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down getting into his car, the same fate that befell the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, on January 4th. Both men sought to reform the blasphemy law.

As revised during Zia ul-Haq’s rule, the blasphemy law applies to “Whoever willfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an.” Another provision states that, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life.”

The blasphemy law is used to settle scores, suspend due process, and impose the death sentence. Apparently, the blasphemy law now provides license to kill political opponents, as well. The government of President Asif Ali Zadari, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, was also assassinated, has backed off of seeking reform of the blasphemy law. Zadari chose not to attend the funerals of his Cabinet Minister and his friend, the Governor of Punjab.

It has become difficult to identify positive trend lines in Pakistan, where growing nuclear stockpiles provide no protection against bad governance and great misfortune.

Two positive indicators in recent years were a vigorously free media and the lawyers’ movement that prompted the departure of the last military ruler who stayed too long, Pervez Musharraf. These hopeful developments now appear in a different light. Many media outlets constantly drip poison into Pakistan’s political bloodstream. Progressive voices are few in number and under great strain. Lawyers do not leap to the task of prosecuting Muslim assassins and the planners of bomb blasts in markets and mosques. The central government fails badly at delivering public services.

The country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, rightly complained that England bequeathed Pakistan a moth-eaten state due to its odd geographical boundaries. Rampant corruption eats away at what’s left of the state’s fabric, most evocatively in the detention of the former Minister of Religious Affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi. Kazmi, a member of Zadari’s party, is accused of ripping off pilgrims during the Hajj.

Pakistan’s strategic culture feeds on grievances and threat inflation. Its political culture has devolved into little more than point scoring and deflecting responsibility. The case of the recently released Raymond Davis, alleged robbery victim turned deadly avenger, fuses all of the above. U.S.-Pakistan ties are worst I can recall in almost two decades of visits, and are likely to deteriorate further. Matters will not improve as long as Washington engages in counter-productive tactics on Pakistani soil in pursuit of a muddled strategy in Afghanistan.

Will Pakistan go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? There is, after all, a demographic time bomb happening in Pakistan as in other Muslim countries. Young people have many reasons for bitter resentment. And still, Pakistanis persevere. An off-the-books economy keeps the country going, even though inflation is above 15% and rising, few pay taxes, and the avoidance of hard choices is foreclosing economic growth and foreign investment.

Almost everyone consulted on a recent trip (admittedly a very narrow sampling) dismissed the possibility of a popular revolt. The only well defined unifying national impulse is dissatisfaction with the status quo; almost everything else – including the role of religion in the state – divides. There are many outlets to let off steam. Stifling autocracy isn’t the problem in Pakistan: different governments, civilian and military, have been tried. Governments change after failing, but familiar faces and terrible problems endure. Mass protests in Pakistan are usually not spontaneous. Catalytic, nation-wide protests would make it very hard for any government to keep the country stitched together.

Pakistani military officers told me that, like their Egyptian brethren, they would refuse to fire on protesters. Presently, it seems unlikely that they would face this dilemma. There appears to be widespread resignation, not anger, directed at the current government, and recognition that there are no quick and simple answers to the country’s plight. Pakistan feels to this outsider like a country in depression, not on the brink of upheaval. Then again, I’m in no position to sense a bottom-up revolution in Pakistan.

Might this mood of depression pave the way for a government led by religious extremists? Voting blocks in Pakistan tend to be very well defined, although as a result of the current rot, voting preferences might change. As is evident from the current government’s back-peddling on reforming the blasphemy law, religious zealots have less of a need to assume high office: even if religious parties remain a distinct minority, they have good reason to believe that the authorities will not push back against their favored political causes. Extremism in the defense of Pakistan is becoming less of a vice.

Crises love company. Pakistan and India may compete for headlines with other crises in the months to come. Many groups are well armed in Pakistan. Some fight each other. Some fight U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Some fight and do deals with the Pakistan military. Some, most notably Laskhar-e-Toiba, remain linked to the security apparatus, serving as unconventional reserves in the event of a war with India – a war that the LeT might spark by attacking iconic targets on Indian soil. With the renewal of Indo-Pakistan dialogue and the possibility of modest but useful agreements, the likelihood of another high-profile attack within India grows, especially if the Pakistan Army leadership opposes meaningful steps toward normalization.

Last month, I transited through wonderful new airports in New Delhi and Bangalore. They had very little security. There are many other targets to choose from.


  1. FSB (History)

    Positive trend lines in Pakistan will emerge when foreign troops leave the region, and when the drone strikes begin to have a success rate of >2%.

    The latest long distance drone murder of civilians from Langley does not bode well for positive trend lines.

  2. Ataune (History)

    Local and national entities are not by far the only forces present in the Pakistan political scene. India, essentially -but not exclusively- with Kashmir problem, is playing a negative and destructive role. And, the massive US presence in Afghanistan and all over the Middle-East is a great gamer changer too. Focusing on blasphemy laws and religious aspect of Pakistan’s polity is over-simplifying and will lead you to erroneous conclusions.

  3. bmark (History)

    I see parallels between the use of the blasphemy law and the use of drones. In both cases the operative parties make unilateral decisions about who lives and who dies. Due process is suspended. No recourse is available. Assassination by robot (drones) is no more holy, ethical or moral that assassination by gun, poison or knife.
    US foreign policy mimics Muslim extremism. And even goes so far as to let the fanatics set the bar and claim our military is only responding to them.
    Time to call off our own extremists. There is nothing Christian about killing people. And even less so in the cowardice of remote control from Nevada, no less.

    • FSB (History)

      yeah except that one is within the country and one is without. The arrogance implicit in the alleged parallel is rather astounding.

  4. CaptainCanuck (History)

    As terrible and destabilizing as RPV attacks and the presence of foreign troops in the region may be, I think it’s a real stretch to assert that positive trend lines would emerge if they stopped.

    Are there stronger correlations with misery around the globe, than with corruption and poor education? And these two horsemen run amok in Pakistan.

    Bangladesh has suffered neither death-by-Hellfire nor foreign military debacles in recent times – yet the scale of human misery there is unspeakable. Gravity there might well be pointing the other way.

    Michael’s post is a thought-provoking exploration of where Pakistan is, and may be going.

    The commenter’s suggestion that this complex morass would develop positive trend lines if foreign armies left it alone, seems trite.

    • FSB (History)

      Perhaps the views of the ex-CIA station chief in Kabul would move your views a tad:


      – The situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse as a direct consequence of the U.S. war raging on the Afghan border. U.S. policy has now carried the Afghan war over the border into Pakistan with its incursions, drone bombings and assassinations — the classic response to a failure to deal with insurgency in one country. Remember the invasion of Cambodia to save Vietnam?

      — The deeply entrenched Islamic and tribal character of Pashtun rule in the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan will not be transformed by invasion or war. The task requires probably several generations to start to change the deeply embedded social and psychological character of the area. War induces visceral and atavistic response.

      — Pakistan is indeed now beginning to crack under the relentless pressure directly exerted by the U.S. Anti-American impulses in Pakistan are at high pitch, strengthening Islamic radicalism and forcing reluctant acquiescence to it even by non-Islamists.

      Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down. Pakistan is experienced in governance and is well able to deal with its own Islamists and tribalists under normal circumstances; until recently, Pakistani Islamists had one of the lowest rates of electoral success in the Muslim world.

      But U.S. policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism to combined fever pitch. As Washington demands that Pakistan redeem failed American policies in Afghanistan, Islamabad can no longer manage its domestic crisis.

  5. Damien LaVera (History)

    Kudos on teh DBT reference.

  6. Anon (History)

    This discussion is a bit like watching eunuchs describing the kamasutra. Does anyone notice a correlation between the war on terror and the increased terrorism in Pakistan? OK then. I think FSB has a point about that, and it is backed up the Pentagon’s 2004 report on Strategic Communication. I can dig it out if anyone is interested. Also read Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos”

  7. John B. Sheldon (History)

    Michael, you have thrown down the gauntlet! By working in a DBT lyric into your post I must now consider retaliation in kind. You’ll see something soon, and I’ll try to work an entire chorus in.

    Hope all is well and see you in Geneva.

    • krepon (History)

      OK, John:
      Gauntlet deterrence: The DBT are coming to C-ville on April 16th. Can you find a suitable excuse to be in the DC area?

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