Individual acts and the collapse of Pakistan

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Earlier this week, I wrote about an impending civil war in Pakistan, projecting a possible “complete collapse of Pakistan as a recognizable entity,” referring not to its geography (it has survived breakaway provinces before, with national identities still intact) but rather to its structure as a modern, democratic society.  Some readers were understandably skeptical.

Beyond the violence and anti-Americanism we see in western press, Pakistan is actually very recognizable to us as foreigners. They have powerful military and civil society institutions much like the West, but it’s also Pakistan’s fervent patriotic pride, their struggles with women’s and minority rights, and their constant battle between secular progressives and conservative fundamentalists that will be instantly familiar to any American. Far from the alien, failed state portrayed on television, Pakistan is a vibrant cosmopolitan society dealing with the same grand cultural questions as the United States, or most other countries for that matter.

So how then do you get from that to the complete collapse? How could their painstakingly constructed democracy just disintegrate away, and how could their powerful, western-backed military fail so miserably to protect the nation in the face of what seems only to be illiterate, fascist hill people and their sickeningly backward superstitions?

The problem is not only one of perception, that we take both the Pakistan we love (liberal, educated patriots) and the Pakistan we hate (wicked, violent Taliban) for granted – always there, never changing. But more than that, Pakistan’s uncertain future is the direct result of deliberate policy choices, by the United States, Pakistan, and certainly many others. The collapse will not be sudden and spectacular, it will be the slow culmination of years, decades, of decisions and policy actions, both large and small, from the enormously important to the pathetically insignificant.

Every ISAF soldier, every night raid, every civilian casualty, every fresh Taliban recruit, every drone strike, every Blackwater mercenary, every stolen election we overlook, every elected representative we sideline and marginalize, every “strategic summit” with tyrants like General Kayani and Musharraf before him, every unaccountable dollar we funnel to the corrupt criminals in Kabul, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, every single, tiny action is a pin prick to the stability of the region, an almost unnoticeable chipping away at the integrity of Pakistan, as well as its neighbor Afghanistan.

Pakistan is equally liable, with their long history of supporting terrorists and militants, their capitulation to the worst extremist and de-stabilizing elements in their society, their willingness to betray democracy in favor of dictatorship, their negating long-term national goals for short-term gains from unhelpful foreign alliances, their hideous victimization of their own citizens (first in East Pakistan, now in Balochistan), and of course the inexplicably obsessive apatite, the fetish, Pakistan’s elite has for war with India.

These individual policies in turn feed our mistaken perceptions. We see them as isolated, not in their complete context. Sure the civilian casualties recruit militants, we say, but we’re fighting a war. Sure the war in Afghanistan is bad, but we’re pushing the extremists across the border. Sure the extremists in Pakistan are bad, but we support the western-educated Army. Sure the Army is unelected, but the civilian government is corrupt. And on and on it goes until there’s simply nothing left. Afghanistan destroyed, Pakistan inflamed, and our own country politically and economically ripping apart at the seams. It all adds up, whether we’re awake to it or not.

None of this is new information, mind you, these are well-documented facts that have certainly been discussed at length in this space. But how is it that the democracy in Pakistan, the liberal, educated modern society so similar to the US can break down? What is it specifically that connects all of these things?  What does an American soldier in Kandahar, Afghanistan have to do with the democratic government in Islamabad, Pakistan, or any of these seemingly disparate and disconnected issues?

Believe it or not, we can see the connection in Facebook, or rather, the Internet itself. First, a report in the Christian Science Monitor [emphasis mine]:

“its now time to implenet islam [sic] and hang black water, rehamn malik and zardari till death,” posts one user, referring to the private American security firm, Pakistan’s interior minister, and Pakistan’s president.

That [Facebook Wall Post] appeared on the page of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist party that denounces democracy and campaigns for the establishment of a global caliphate (akin to an empire) based on Islamic Law. The user goes by “Commander Khattab,” the name of deceased Chechen guerrilla leader.[…]

[Hizb-ut-Tahrir spokesman Naveed Butt] claims that the SMS blasts are beginning to influence its target audience of “influential people” such as parliamentarians, lawyers, students, and journalists. “We’re steadily growing in number, as educated people realize democracy will never deliver. Practically they are seeing there is no way out for Pakistan. Secularism will never work. People are committing suicide, people are dying.” […]

Khutum-e-Naboohat faces no such difficulties in keeping its operations running. According to Mr. Rashid, wealthy donors help pay the bills while the tech-savvy youngsters among its ranks maintain their website.

“We either work from home or from the computers here in the mosque,” says Umar Shah, a web designer. “It’s important to spare time for this mission because it’s a matter of our faith.”[…]

“The government has never tried to stop it,” [Saleem-ul-Haque Khan] says.

The government hasn’t done anything to stop the extremists plotting its destruction, but it has taken other actions. From Reporters Without Borders [emphasis mine]:

“The situation of online free expression is deteriorating in Pakistan,” the press freedom organisation said. “The vice has been tightening since access to Facebook was blocked in mid-May. The country seems to want massive Internet surveillance and is moving towards a targeted filtering system that is neither transparent nor respectful of rights and freedoms.”

Among the sites to be kept under watch are Yahoo!, MSN, Hotmail, YouTube, Google, Islam Exposed, In the Name of Allah, Amazon and Bing. Thirteen sites have already been blocked including,,,,,,,, and

The government can monitor and block access to sites like YouTube and Google, sites which allow the free flow of information for not only blasphemy, but dissent, accountability, and all manner of democratic movements. Meanwhile the extremist, anti-government forces are allowed to flourish without fear. Right there is everything you need to know to see the grand connection.

Why is the government blocking access to dissent? Because the extremists call it blasphemous. Why must the government give in to this? Because it is weakened from both the US’ marginalization of democracy and foreign backing of extremists, allowing the Taliban to “punch above its weight,” and forcing the government to punch far below theirs. Where is the real power in Pakistan? With the Army and intelligence services, supported by the US, who then in turn support the extremists and militants. What allows those extremists to advance into Pakistani society? They blur the issues of the US war in Afghanistan and our policies in Pakistan (“black water”) into domestic politics (“hang…zardari”).

The liberal, educated Pakistani democrat has an ally in the extremist who wants to fight the US puppet government, who in turn has an ally in the Taliban fighting the Americans, who in turn has an ally in Afghanistan whose family was killed by NATO bombs, who in turn has an ally in the Pakistani intelligence services, them an ally in the Army, and those in the Army undermine the government which, of course, then sets off the liberal, educated Pakistani democrat.

Get the picture? This is where it all crashes together, the crossroads of the war in Afghanistan, “Strategic Depth,” undermining democracy in Pakistan – everything. This is how it works out, how we’ll see the “complete collapse of Pakistan as a recognizable entity.” There is no awesome explosion, no moment of shattering, no one thing to pin all the blame on.

That’s  just what the complete collapse looks like. No one left we can recognize as an ally, only violent resistance, war, and destruction. No more vibrant, democratic society, no more progressive struggles, no more women’s, minority, or even human rights. Only war remains, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and likely spreading out into India and across the entire sub-continent. No one sets out deliberately to cause these massive problems, of course. These huge issues like US imperialism in Central Asia, the Long War, and the collapse of Pakistan weren’t created out of thin air, they are simply the consequences of many smaller, individual actions, the war in Afghanistan and “strategic depth” and so forth.

That these problems are so enormous does not, however, mean that they are ultimately un-solvable. In fact, the exact same principles that went into creating these problems – disconnected, individual actions, is precisely what will work for us to help fix these problems.

Pakistani citizens are standing up, rejecting the extremists’ calls for violence, fighting the corruption of their elected officials, and working in all branches of the government to reform their fragile system. Each individual adds up into a movement, and that movement adds up to stifling their country’s descent into civil war.

But we as Americans also have a responsibility to act individually. Every time you call congress (dial (202) 224-3121 and ask for your representative), every meeting you attend, every bit of pressure on your government – it all adds up. A few concerned filmmakers and journalists becomes Rethink Afghanistan. A couple of dedicated bloggers becomes Firedoglake. A handful of progressive activists becomes ActBlue. Small, disconnected acts turn into a huge movement. Your short meeting at your congressman’s office turns into their vote for reforming our policies toward the region, into ending the war in Afghanistan, peace in Pakistan, and free and stable governments for both Pakistanis and Afghans.

No one action created the horrendous instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and no one person, not even President Obama himself, can end the war and solve these problems by themselves. The problems will be solved the same way they were created, through concerned, individual citizens taking action for themselves.

And the best place to start is helping to end the war in Afghanistan. Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page, and check out the Rethink Afghanistan Meetups in your area. It all adds up to real change.

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  • “And it can’t happen here…” – Frank Zappa once said sardonically.

    Mexico is hollowing out too, with rumors the government is backing one cartel against the others.

    What’s your take on the ISI? I hear they are a government unto themselves that doesn’t pay much attention to what the ostensible government is doing.

  • The area of Pakistan Afghanistan and India are somewhat false borders drawn at the behest of the British Imperialists, The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is not a border to most of the local people. The Pushtans live and work on both sides and are mostly related to each other. If the West got out and stopped propping up this leader and that leader it would probably break down to its more natural borders which are family/tribal.

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