A Journey Through Pakistan
Nasik Elahi

Pakistan is a country that defies ordinary explanations.  After spending six weeks I am still confused with an equal measure of negative and positive sentiments.  

A good measure of a country is in its traffic.  In Pakistan traffic is a state of functional chaos:  congestion compounded by disregard of the basics of courtesy and rules.  The structure of roads and traffic lights is basically overwhelmed in most urban centers.  Police traffic control is virtually nil; the few police present are routinely ignored and even issuing traffic summons can make cops lose their jobs.
Law enforcement is the vital aspect of national life that is teetering on the edge.  Crime is rampant, police corruption is endemic and many police stations are better described as torture chambers where few citizens dare to enter.  The professionalism in police ranks is best described as pathetic.  Nearly sixty percent of the force is employed as security guards for the VIPs and their extended families while the ranks of the officers are politicized to answer to their political overlords rather than perform as professionals. 
A good example of such dysfunction is the forensic program in the country.  The government of Punjab has spent nearly $30 million to establish an unfunctional program, most of which was spent on a kickback scheme involving Cleveland;  the Cleveland connection was jailed by the local US authorities but the Pakistani players continue with no threat of accountability.  I had specifically warned against such developments in my capacity as a national consultant on forensic programs some six years ago.  My advice was ignored by Punjab and other provincial and central authorities and they continued to develop their schemes.  There exist a paltry forensic program at the national level and provinces like KPK, Baluchistan, Karachi and Sindh have made little progress over the past six years.
As a result, policing cannot address the challenges of either crime or terrorism.  The forensic evidence is nonexistent and cases are so badly prepared that they fail the basic standards of acceptability.  The court system is equally politicized into a state of ineptitude where few cases are adjudicated;  there also exist functional disparities between the lower and higher judiciary that is similar to the police ranks.
The economy of Pakistan is a mystery to many experts.  The country is faced with a chronic shortage of energy that makes both the industrial and social sectors underperform.  The government has become an employment agency;  both bureaucracy and state owned institutions have become unwieldy because of the bloat imposed by successive governments.   The spotty energy supplies have forced people to resort to highly expensive alternatives;  those who can afford it have generators others use lead acid batteries that is a public health disaster.  The country is kept afloat by billions of dollars in reparations by overseas Pakistanis, loans and grants from US and other countries.  Pakistan has the distinction of one of the lowest ratios of tax paying citizens in the world.
Despite the underperformance of the economy and government the most striking feature is the wealth gap and the conspicuous consumption of the haves.   The country is full of malls with imported luxury products and restaurants teeming with customers.  Another arena of excess is to be found in the marriage halls where people expend beyond their means on clothing, accessories and food.  The main source of such wealth is crony capitalism. corruption that siphons off resources from the national enterprise,  underground economy, drugs and smuggling.  A lot of such wealth is parked in places like Dubai and is also used to spark real estate booms in virtually every city in the country. 
Speculative and unplanned developments are placing huge strains upon the poor infrastructure.  Rampant corruption further saps the creative energies and cost overruns that stall rather than further projects.  The catalog of such misadventures, from setting up energy plants to the airport in Islamabad, keeps growing and yet there exists no accountability of either the government or officials.  The power elite are oblivious to the larger national interests and have managed to profit without being responsible as leaders. 
Ironically, Pakistan has a thriving media.  The content is mostly entertainment with little public service.  There is a lot of one-sided commentary about what is wrong but there is no effort to build either consensus or hold people responsible.  The Imran Khan wedding got more coverage than Peshawar school massacre or the army campaign in the tribal area combined.
The Pakistan army is a behemoth the country cannot afford in its current form.  It is equal parts economic and fighting force.  It has the choicest real estate and industrial holdings in the country that provides significant benefits to its ranking officers.  Strategically, it is fighting on too many fronts and losing them all and yet continues to guide foreign and domestic policies.  The campaign against the militants in the tribal belt has been ramped up but the gains and strategy remain a mystery because they are among the taboo subjects that cannot be discussed in public forums.  The army remains focused on India as its main theater in most conflicts ranging from Afghanistan to the insurgent movements in Sindh and Balochistan and look with considerable concern at the actions of the Modi government and its increasingly close relations with the US after the Obama trip to India.

Politically, Pakistan is at the cross roads.  The conventional makeup of political parties like Muslim League, PPP and MQM with their entrenched familial leaderships are being challenged by Imran Khan and his dharnas.  His movement has eroded some of their influence but since he offers no comprehensive national program beyond his civil disobedience, the canny politicians have come together to ride out the dissident.  The next episode to the political drama has yet to develop.
The country is also faced with a highly tenuous situation between state rights and central authority;  Baluch and Sindhi issues are being ignored by the Punjab centric central government.  A long simmering near civil war between intelligence agencies,  militants, criminal and political forces that range from nationalists, waderas, radicals and Indian agent has gone on for years.  The political parties are vested only in their areas and pay little heed to coherent national interests or policies;  PPP runs Sindhi government while Karachi is controlled by MQM with other areas under the control of the religious militants.  Such dysfunction feeds into the violence that has divided the nerve center of Karachi into battle zones that exact a daily toll of dead bodies and businesses.

People are benumbed by the challenges.  They are tuned off to the daily catalog of calamities as a trial by God.  They find solace in an obsessive exercise of religion while dispensing with the ethics or morality associated with it.  Self righteousness by sect and belief is the norm;  those who disagree are deemed guilty of blasphemy and a fate prescribed for nonbelievers.  Since the problems are all deemed as divinely guided individual responsibility is notably absent at all levels of society.  The sense of innocent helplessness is further explained by conspiracy theories for major events as manipulation by some foreign foe; India and US head the list. 
Education in Pakistan has undergone a prolonged period of degradation.  It started with the Bhutto nationalization program in the seventies and continued with the increased defunding during the Zia era.  The existing centers of education for the middle class became hollow shells while the education of the poor masses shifted to madrassas funded largely by Saudi and ultraorthodox sources.  The Musharaf era denationalized education but turned every college into a university and further loosened the standards.  Today sham universities registered through paper affiliations hand out degrees in various parts of the country.  The more expensive teaching institutions are extended employment schemes for teachers who augment their incomes as after hour tutors rather than teach during regular classes.  As I have discovered in working to establish a genuine teaching institution for forensic and law enforcement you are encouraged to take shortcuts instead of establishing the appropriate standards.   Despite these profound shortcomings a fair proportion of bright students still come through.  Imagine the results if the system were to be streamlined with better standards.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Pakistan is that despite all the problems the country is mired in it is still intact.  The country has the necessary human capital to move forward but it is being constantly hampered by its existing political, social and religious leadership. The dharna disobedience is giving rise to a challenge to the existing order.  It can either provide a way to remove the abusive excesses in the system towards better governance or it can open the floodgates to even sharper conflicts.  The future of Pakistan remains to be decided.


  1. Visiting Pakistan after living in America for a long time is bound to be disappointing. Nasik Sahib mentioned in the beginning that he had mixed, negative and positive, sentiments after spending six weeks there. I spent a little less than two weeks in Lahore about a month before him. The positive sentiment that I found him expressing was that Pakistan was still standing. I think it is a little unfair to disregard the extraordinarily tough situation that Pakistan is dealing with. Most of the times leadership, politicians or military, is given the thumbs down and blamed for the failure but I think that the general public, awaam, is responsible for their fate. Let’s take the traffic situation that can’t go un-noticed; the roads were not bad, had lanes clearly marked but no one cared to stay in any lane, motor bike riders criss-crossing from the front and back like cosmic rays bombardment – don’t these people have common sense? Why should government be blamed? Mall road, Canal road, Ring road and all the underpasses and overhead bridges are beautiful but the users are hardly better than donkeys. I accept that corruption and lawlessness is the responsibility of the government but why people bribe police and tax collectors in the first place, why people throw garbage on the road side, why men stare girls …. is government to be blamed for everything – I don’t think so.
    Pakistan got sucked in Afghanistan twice, first against Russia and then in the line of fire after 9/11. It’s easy to blame leadership with hindsight but on both occasions there really wasn’t any different choice. Proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is now being fought there, fundamentalists from within are waging brutal war, India is forcing Pakistan to spend its considerable resources on defense and if Pakistan is still standing, it is not a small positive.

  2. Both of you,Nasik Elahi and Babar Mirza are saying the same thing: situation in Pakistan is intolerable. There is no silver lining. Can I suggest a small but a very powerful catalyst for the change? Local Government. Yes, a genuine local government on the model of USA. In America,(even in other civilized countries of the world) every small or a big city has a local government. A local government is responsible for its city or town, has municipal courts, has its own school board, maintains its local roads, has its own police force, maintains municipal services like garbage collection, drainage etc. A local government is funded by its inhabitants by real estate taxes. It receives a portion of money from Income Tax returns of local residents. It also receives money from fines such as traffic violations within its jurisdiction. Though the local government cannot do anything on the Province level (such as legislations of civil and criminal laws, state tax policy, High Courts, state troops, etc) or the Federal level (defense, foreign affairs, fiscal policy, Supreme Court, armed forces, etc) it can revolutionalize Pakistan on the local level.

    The Supreme Court of Pakistan wants early election for local bodies, but the provincial governments are not going for it. In addition, even all the political parties are not whole-heartedly supporting it. It beats all logic. It is very frustrating.

  3. Here is a an article written for the Friday Times, Pakistan. I have the permission of the author to forward it to Thinkers Forum. Please review and publish.*****Suhail

    Sent: Friday, May 09, 2014 3:32 PM
    To: Rizvi, Syed
    Subject: My article in The Friday Times

    Suhail : Here is my article in the TFT that you may like to forward to your friend who maintains a web. All is well and hope yours are also. Qadeer

    Promise of freedom
    Mohammad A Qadeer TFT Issue: 09 May 2014

    Pakistani society can be Islamic and modern, if it becomes pluralistic and multicultural

    Promise of freedom

    Two insurrections pose an existential threat to Pakistan. One is a long-standing guerilla struggle of the Baloch nationalists for their cultural and political rights as well as for the control of the province’s economic resources. The second rebellion is recent in origin but poses a lethal challenge to the Pakistani state. Lead by the Taliban movement known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), its goals are revolutionary: to take over the government and enforce their own version of Islamic Sharia laws. The TTP is intertwined with the Afghan Taliban and has links with Al Qaeda of the global Jihad.

    The Taliban have exposed the military’s vulnerability by attacking such high security establishments as the army headquarters, air bases and army garrisons. Their aims extend beyond toppling the government. They have also blown up mosques and shrines of the Islamic sects that do not subscribe to their puritanical beliefs, targeted cinemas, and music stores and girls’ schools to purge ‘corrupt western culture’.

    The South Asia Terrorism Portal estimates that 51,585 combatants and non-combatants have been killed since 2003. The military has lost 5,681 soldiers and officers. The injured are in the hundreds of thousands and displaced persons number in the millions. Karachi and Peshawar have suffered particularly from Taliban’s suicide bombs, targeted killings and kidnappings. But other cities have not entirely escaped. Taliban seem to have cells everywhere.

    Taliban’s aims extend beyond toppling the government

    The state cannot collect taxes from the rich and influential, enforce laws and provide basic services. Electricity outages have crippled industries and made daily life unbearable. Almost one-third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Pakistan has become a country of ‘hollow institutions’ where instruments of a modern state exist in form, but they fail to perform their mandated functions.

    The enigma of Pakistan is that its state is imploding but its society is resilient and people entrepreneurial. The society is modernizing fast. Almost 27% of households in the largest province, Punjab, have motorcycles. There are about 100 TV channels and 650 registered newspapers and magazines in Pakistan. About 70 percent of the population has cell phones, filtering down among the poor of this low-income country. The stock exchange has been on a tear, setting new records in prices and trade. Real estate is booming. Cities are choked with traffic.

    Fashion shows, literary festivals and music competitions give a cosmopolitan sheen to alistscities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad-Rawalpindi. About 12-13 billion dollars are remitted annually by Pakistani expatriates, buoying up the consumer culture. A visitor to Pakistan would be dazzled by the palatial houses and overflowing restaurants. Yet it is a country where death stalks everyday and poverty drives people to suicide. People have become fatalistic in the face of violence and disorder.

    Why has Pakistan come to this? Of course there are the usual explanations: political instability, democratic deficit, recurrent military rules, deviation from its ideology, corrupt and poor administration. And then there are theories of blaming others, Indian conspiracies, American perfidy, Jewish hostility, international attempts to neutralize the only Muslim nuclear power and so on. Underlying them are deeper and enduring conditions that have torn Pakistan apart, but are not open to discussion.

    Pakistan is besieged by moral and intellectual crises. Its imagined culture is based on ideas and beliefs that offer little guidance for the lived life. Pakistan’s state has continually retreated in the face of the Islamic clergy, thereby yielding to them the authority to forge moral narratives. Pakistan’s ruling elite adopted the strategy of ‘playing along’ with the Mullahs, hoping to appease them politically without facing up to the consequences of their promises. Even the Taliban were initially nurtured by the state as an instrument of Jihad in Indian Kashmir and for maintaining influence in Afghanistan. They are now bringing Jihad home.

    Pakistan’s successive constitutions have been documents of contradictory goals. They promise democracy, freedom, equality and social justice, while envisaging bringing laws and social life in line with the requirements of particular interpretations of Islam. Islamic teachings admit of many interpretations, liberal, orthodox, modernist, fundamentalist and sectarian. The authority to interpret Islamic provisions has been conceded to Mullahs and traditionalists. In the contest for the power of agency, the liberal Islam has lost to the fundamentalist certainties of those who have the pulpits.

    While the Islamic political parties have repeatedly failed in elections, they captured the universities and shaped the school curriculums in the1960s and 70s. Generations of engineers, doctors, teachers and military men, albeit the educated classes, have grown up on a diet of orthodox Islamic ideas and rituals. The Islamization of personal beliefs stands in contrast with the modernization of lifestyles. Individuals bridge this chasm by rationalizing their own lifestyle as the reflection of the ‘real’ Islam.

    The Taliban have grown out of this ideological conundrum. The Islamic political parties and the clergy savor the prospect of the Taliban ushering them to power.

    Despite past failed peace agreements, Pakistan’s government is again negotiating with the TTP. Most of the political parties and religious bodies favor peace negotiations. They argue that the Taliban, ‘are our brethren’, why not negotiate with them, as even the US and the Afghan leaders have been courting the Afghan Taliban. The TTP has suddenly become a stakeholder in national affairs. By negotiating with the Taliban, the government has unwittingly changed the political map of Pakistan. Islamic parties and Mullahs have become power brokers by becoming interlocutors for the Taliban.

    The state has not protected free speech. Since the 1970s, Islamic student organizations have been allowed to violently repress alternative viewpoints in universities and colleges. Educational curriculums have been turned into indoctrination tools of orthodox religiosity. Over the years Islamic scholars of liberal leanings have been hounded out, while the state stood as a mute witness. General Zia’s regime sanctified these practices. In Pakistan, the state intervenes in religion to support the orthodox narrative.

    Presently journalists who express liberal views are attacked. Mullahs issue Fatwas with impunity declaring other sects as apostates liable to be killed. Blasphemy laws have led to mob justice. Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus as minorities get no protection from the state. The state has surrendered its responsibility to protect people from the zealots’ violence. Self-censorship is the rule for survival.

    Pakistani society and state are unsustainable by the extant narratives of the Islamic order. But liberal Islamic ideas and secular narratives have been practically banished. The expediency politics of the ruling classes, both political and military, has suppressed alternative viewpoints.

    Pakistan’s society can be Islamic and modern, if it becomes pluralistic and multicultural. To attain that, the state has to forcefully implement the constitutionally promised freedom of thought and expression and provide security for open inquiry. No one should be allowed to threaten others for their views and issue Fatwas of death. Coercive powers should be reserved for the due process of the state.

    – See more at: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/promise-of-freedom/#sthash.BfO6zbg2.dpuf


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