Pakistan for Beginners: 2

Since my last visit to Karachi, my friend the poet had spent many months in jail, for social reasons. That is to say, he knew somebody who knew somebody who was the wife of the second cousin by marriage of the step-uncle of somebody who might or might not have shared a flat of someone who was running guns to the guerrillas in Baluchistan. You can get anywhere in Pakistan if you know people, even into jail. My friend still refuses to talk about what happened to him during those months; but other people told me that he was in bad shape for a long time after he got out. They said he had been hung upside-down by the ankles and beaten, as if he were a new-born baby whose lungs had to be coerced into action so that he could squeal. I never asked him if he screamed, or if there were upside-down mountain peaks visible through a window.

Salman Rushdie, in his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan, Shame, 1983
pakistan flag

On Pakistan today, I find openDemocracy, “free thinking for the world,” as the site calls itself, to be a great nest of wisdom and links. None of the news — about remedies for the Musharraf coup, or the election prospects in January — is encouraging. Follow the unlovely trail of links from Shaun Gregory’s piece earlier this month, Pakistan: Farewell to Democracy. Neither is there much cheer in our conversation here with the editor of the “Terror and Democracy” section of openDemocracy, Kanishk Tharoor.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Kanishk Tharoor (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3)

Kanishk Tharoor observes the “asphyxiation of political space” in Pakistan under General Musharraf. He makes it sound a lot like Iran under the Shah, or Algeria in the civil war of the 1990s. Pakistan is not about to choose Islamist rule, he says, but neither in his review is there much evidence that any of the “agents in play” in Pakistan are capable of delivering security, stability and more than a semblance of democracy anytime soon.

Note also the New York Times’ striking report from Jane Perlez in Islamabad today, deflating at least in Western eyes the returning anti-Musharraf hero, Nawaz Sharif. In hindsight he is made to sound like the problem, not the solution, in Pakistani politics, a fundamentalist and nationalist who detonated Pakistan’s first nuclear weapons in 1998 and seemed trigger-happy a year later about using them in the Kargil crisis with India in a disputed piece of Kashmir. The key witness is Bruce Riedel, who was on Bill Clinton’s NSC staff, and the nut grafs recount Sharif’s “tense meeting” with Clinton on July 4, 1999. This was the Times account in the print edition today:

Mr. Clinton became angry, complaining that Pakistan had promised but failed to bring Osama bin Laden to justice from Afghanistan, Mr. Riedel recounted. Mr. Sharif had allowed InterServices Intelligence, Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, to work with the Taliban to foment terrorism, Mr. Clinton told him.

The president got specific about the nuclear threat: “Did Sharif order the Pakistani nuclear missile force to prepare for action? Did he realize how crazy that was?” Mr. Clinton effectively asked, according to Mr. Riedel. “You’ve put me in the middle today, set the U.S. up to fail and I won’t let it happen. Pakistan is messing with nuclear war.”

“2nd Rival’s Return to Pakistan Resurrects His Problematic Past,” by Jane Perlez in Islamabad, New York Times, November 27, 2007, page one and A8

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