By Mosharraf Zaidi
June 10, 2009
The targeted killings taking place in Karachi have brought back memories of the 1990s and Operation Cleanup. That military operation effectively routed the street power of Version 1.0 of the MQM, disabled the organization of the MQM to mobilize young people for demonstrations of street power, and through the courts system, systematically delegitimized its leadership. It was an operational victory that disembowelled Karachi and its politics. Sensing that undercurrent of bitter resentment against the operation, Gen Musharraf and the military adopted a different strategy when they took power in 1999. The idea was to re-engage the MQM, largely on the back of the economic promise of Karachi, a massive urban area, by all international standards, that was left far behind in the global race between cities for investment capital, jobs and infrastructure. Karachi's retarded growth in the 1990s was not only a problem for Karachi, and for Muhajirs. It was a Pakistani problem. Solving the problem would produce many benefits, from rejuvenating the microeconomy of Karachi, to healing the political economy of Pakistan.
The strategy seemed to have worked. By engaging the MQM, the military was able to defuse much of the tension that had defined relations between urban Sindh and the Pakistani establishment. The engagement of course, came in the shape of making the MQM a partner in the traditional patron-pillage model of Pakistani politics. It did not come in the shape of substantive improvements in governance, but rather in the bells and whistles of roads, bridges, parks -- not to mention pomp and privilege for MQM ministers at the federal and provincial levels that had previously been hard to win, and easily lost. Of course, even though it achieved some things immediately, the strategy was also wrought with danger. The original grievances of the people that formed the MQM were never, ever, really addressed. One needn't have endorsed the original agenda of the MQM to see how linearly consistent it was Muhajir identity in urban Sindh. Simply put, the MQM wanted an end to the affirmative action (or positive discrimination) quota system in Sindh province and it wanted the repatriation of the almost 300,000 Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh, back to Pakistan.
Instead of challenging the established political Holy Cow of Sindh's quotas, or beginning a process of reconciliation with itself, by absorbing the stranded Pakistanis of Bihar into Pakistan, the military supported Musharraf to do simply what any dictator would do. He bought his way out of the problem by providing the massive infrastructure grants to the MQM-dominated Karachi district government (but only after the people of Karachi got smart and elected an MQM administration at the local level).
The army and its chief, much the same way that the bureaucracy (and any given district commissioner) would have done, decided that a political force (like the MQM) cannot simply be killed off, or wished away. The plan was to simply mainstream the MQM into Pakistan's politics, neutralize the violent streak of a still nascent political entity, and allow the people of Karachi to live in a city they deserved -- peaceful, prosperous and ready for the 21st century. As formulated, it was a pretty good plan.
Of course, very much like a district commissioner, Gen Musharraf did what all bureaucrats trained to think in short-term tactics, instead of long-term strategy, do. He did whatever was necessary to achieve desirable outcomes in the present, disregarding both the past, and the future. Disregarding the past was a dangerous mistake because the clues to the MQM's political legitimacy did not lie in the party's ability to mobilize young people to exercise street power, it lay in the issues around which the All Pakistan Muhajir Students' Organization (APMSO) was originally formed, and which the MQM ostensibly stood for in its early days.
Disregarding the future was an ever more dangerous mistake, because there was no attempt during the Musharraf-era of trying to address the blemishes on the MQM's reputation, and hold people to account for indiscretions, crimes and misdemeanours. How could a military dictator dictate political ethics or moral equilibrium to a political party? Of course, he couldn't. But the point is that the baggage of being a steadfast ally of Musharraf is very heavy baggage to carry.
The mistake that Pakistanis will make, in trying to understand the latest string of violence in Karachi is to either demonize or defend specific political parties -- the MQM, the ANP, and others. But arresting violence in Karachi is not fundamentally about politics, even though violence wears political clothes all the time. It is about the Pakistani state and its duty to protect citizens from violence -- no matter who is pulling the trigger. Failure to protect citizens is a grave failure. All around the country, this failure is increasingly prevalent.
Pakistan simply cannot afford the luxury of normative discussions about good and evil. Those days are over, and the era of endlessly meandering moral questions and answers in Pakistan needs to come to screeching halt if this country is to survive, in any meaningful way, these most testing of times.
It seems that no matter what the cause, and what the era, Karachi is like a theatre for mayhem – ready to go, raring to go in fact, at the drop of whatever hat one can find -- where people that like to kill people can do it, and do it with impunity. No matter who is doing the killing, it is almost always innocent Pakistanis that are the ones dying. Everyone remembers the targeting of Shia doctors in the 1990s, but no Sunni was safe from bullets and bombs either. Muhajirs were not safe, and neither were Sindhis, Pakhtuns, Punjabis or Baloch. Now the battle lines are drawn differently, but similarly. The Winter '08 and Spring '09 collection was a barrage of ANP versus the MQM violence. And it seems the Summer '09 is going to be peppered with the MQM versus the MQM.
Some will call identity politics a poison. They'd be wrong. The ability of perpetrators of violence to indulge in violence, and to get away with it is the poison. There is really only one antidote to such poison. It is a state that can stand up to being bullied. It is a frontline police service capable of disincentivizing violence. Such a service must not only be a deterrent, it must also be ready to "cock the hammer", when "its time for action".
If someone wants to make living in Pakistan unsafe -- whether in Karachi, or Bajaur (or any place in between) -- the Pakistani state has to make the cost of doing so, prohibitively high. In other words, to quote Barack Obama, from a year ago, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun." The Pakistani state has to start bringing guns to knife fights.
So far, the equation in Pakistan is that indulging in violence of any kind only accrues material and political benefits -- hardly any costs. As we're finding out in Swat, the tough guys aren't so tough when Pakistan demonstrates the kind of chutzpah that any state claiming to be an Islamic republic should have -- a keen eye for the violent guy. Using that keen eye to identify and disable violence is not only a functional necessity; it is the morally correct thing to do.
The caveat is that to uphold and retain moral superiority in the face of perpetrators of violence, the executors of violence need to have moral authority. Traditional politicians, (and indeed military officers that don't get out much) all continue to believe that their land holdings, wealth, popularity or uniforms afford them some kind of moral authority. They are wrong. Mad mullahs have discovered, thankfully, that their pulpits too are no source of moral authority.
Where there should be moral authority, Pakistanis have traditionally afforded little of it. Policemen that are dying left, right and centre in the line of duty. They fall silently and with little pomp. They not only need to be feted for their bravery, they need better equipment, better training, and a legal and regulatory framework that does away with the ambivalence of the Police Order 2002, the amendments to the order, and the impact of the rightful death of the magistracy as it had existed previously -- affording agents of the executive branch -- commissioners, district commissioners and assistant commissioners -- levels of authority that are completely inconsistent with democracy.
Unpacking this is a job, that is sadly far beyond the capacity of a ruling political elite that is still blinded by petty patronage. In NWFP and Balochistan, led by whatever second-tier resources that remain in the emaciated, but once proud and competent District Management Group, provincial governments are begging to be allowed to press the refresh button, and return to the "good old days" of magistracy. That train has left the station. A return to a Gen Zia's version of local governments (the 1979 law), as an escape from Gen Musharraf's version (the 2001 law) is like cutting off the nose to spite the face. It is a typically Pakistani state response to a problem. If this state wants to survive, it will have to do better.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. mosharrafzaidi.com
Source: The News, Islamabad