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A Country on the Brink

Wednesday 5 September 2007, by WILLIAM DALRYMPLE

Sixty years after its birth, India faces a number of serious
problems, but Pakistan’s problems are on a different scale; indeed
the country finds itself at a fundamental crossroads. We are back to
the old question, and it is not just whither Pakistan...

Amid all the hoop-la surrounding the 60th anniversary of Indian
Independence—inflatable Taj Mahals floating down the Thames, wall-to-
wall Sanjeev Bhaskar on the telly, Shah Rukh Khan popping up at
Madame Tussauds—almost nothing has been heard from Pakistan.
Nothing, that is, if you discount the low rumble of suicide bombings,
the noise of automatic weapons storming the Red Mosque, and the creak of slowly collapsing dictatorships.

In the world’s media, never has the contrast between the two
countries appeared so stark: one is widely perceived as the next
great superpower, famous for its software genii, its Bollywood babes,
its strongly growing economy and its legions of brilliant writers and
super-rich steel magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a
world centre of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama Bin
Laden and the only US ally which Washington appears ready to bomb.

On the ground, of course, the reality is very different, and first
time visitors to Pakistan are almost always surprised by the
country’s visible prosperity. There is far less poverty on show in
Pakistan than in India, fewer beggars, and much less utter
desperation. In many ways the infrastructure of Pakistan is much more
advanced: there are better roads and airports, and much more reliable
electricity. Pakistani middle class houses are often bigger and
better appointed that their equivalents in India.

Moreover the Pakistani economy is undergoing a very similar
construction and consumer boom to that in India, with growth rates of
7%, and what is currently the fastest-rising stock market in Asia.
You can see the effects everywhere: in new shopping centres and
restaurant complexes, in the hoardings for the latest laptops and
ipods, in the cranes and buildings sites, in the endless stores
selling mobile phones: in 2003 the country had fewer than three
million cellphone users; today apparently there are almost 50
million. Car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40% a year
since 2001; Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has risen from $322m in
2002 to $3.5bn in 2006.

Mohsin Hamid, author of the bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist,
wrote about this change after a recent visit: having lived abroad as
a banker in New York and London, he returned home to find the country
unrecognisable. He was particularly struck by "the incredible new
world of media that had sprung up, a world of music videos, fashion
programs, independent news networks, cross-dressing talk-show hosts, religious debates, and stock-market analysis:

"I knew, of course, that the government of Musharraf had opened the
media to private operators. But I had not until then realized how
profoundly things had changed. Not just television, but also private
radio stations and newspapers have flourished in Pakistan over the
past few years. The result is an unprecedented openness… Young
people are speaking and dressing differently. Views both critical and
supportive of the government are voiced with breathtaking frankness
in an atmosphere remarkably lacking in censorship. Public space, the
common area for culture and expression that had been so circumscribed
in my childhood, has now been vastly expanded. The Vagina Monologues was recently performed on stage in Pakistan to standing ovations."

Little of this ever gets reported in the Western press, which prefers
its stereotypes simple: India- successful; Pakistan- failure.
Nevertheless, despite the economic boom there are three serious
problems which Pakistan will have to sort out if is to continue to
keep up with its giant neighbour—or indeed continue as a coherent
state at all.

One is the fundamental flaw in Pakistan’s political system.

Democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning
remains almost the only social base from which politicians can
emerge. In general the educated middle class—which in India seized
control in 1947, emasculating the power of its landowners—is in
Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. As a
result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan the local
feudal zamindar can expect his people to vote for his chosen
candidate. As the writer Ahmed Rashid put it, "In some constituencies
if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get
elected with ninety-nine per cent of the vote." Such loyalty can be
enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars have private prisons and most
have private armies.

In such an environment politicians tend to come to power more through
deals done within Pakistan’s small élite than through the will of
the people. Behind Pakistan’s swings between military governments
and democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some
extent, the industrial, military, landowning, and bureaucratic élites
are now all inter-related and look after one another. The current
rumours of secret negotiations going on between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto are typical of the way that the civil and military élites have shared power with relatively little recourse to the electorate.

The second major problem that the country faces is linked with the
absence of real democracy, and that is the country’s many burgeoning
jihadi and Islamist groups. For twenty-five years, the military and
Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services
Intelligence, or ISI, have been the paymasters of myriad mujahedin
groups. These were intended for selective deployment in first
Afghanistan and then Kashmir, where they were intended to fight proxy
wars for the army, at low cost and low risk. Twenty eight years after
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, the results have been
disastrous, filling the country with thousands of armed but now
largely unemployed jihadis, millions of modern weapons, and a
proliferation of militant groups.

While the military and intelligence community in Pakistan may have
once believed that they could use jihadis for their own ends, the
Islamists have followed their own agendas. As the recent upheavals in
Islamabad have dramatically shown, they have now brought their
struggle onto the Pakistani streets and into the heart of the
country’s politics.

Ironically, it was exactly groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, who were
originally nourished by the military, that have now turned their guns
on their creators, and which have been responsible for the recent
rash of assassination attempts on President Musharraf. It is now
clearer than ever that Musharraf cannot have the blessings of the
Americans while continuing to employ the jihadis. In the battle for
the soul of Pakistan, Musharraf has to choose

The third major issue facing the country is its desperate educational
crisis. No problem in Pakistan casts such a long shadow over its
future than the abject failure of the government to educate more than
a fraction of its own people: at the moment a mere 1.8% of
Pakistan’s GDP is spent on government schools. The statistics are
dire: 15% of these government schools are without a proper building;
52% without a boundary wall; 71% without electricity.

This was graphically confirmed by a survey conducted two years ago by
the former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician, Imran Khan, in
his own constituency of Mianwalli. His research showed that 20% of
government schools supposed to be functioning in his constituency did
not exist at all, a quarter had no teachers, and 70% were closed. No
school had more than half of the teachers it was meant to have.

Of those that were just about functioning, many had children of all
grades crammed into a single room, often sitting on the floor in the
absence of desks. There is little wonder that Pakistan ranks among
the very lowest countries in the world according to the human
development index of the UNDP.

This education gap is the most striking way in which Pakistan is
lagging behind India: in India 65% of the population is literate, and
the number rises every year: only last year, the Indian education
system received a substantial boost of state funds; and there is
anyway a long tradition among Hindus of making terrific sacrifices in
order to educate children.

But in Pakistan the literacy figure is under half (it is currently
49%), and falling: instead of investing in education, Musharraf’s
military government is spending money on a cripplingly expensive
fleet of American F-16s for its Air Force. As a result out of 162
million Pakistanis, 83 million adults of 15 years and above are
illiterate. Among women the problem is worse still: 65% of all female
adults are illiterate. As the population rockets, the problem gets

The virtual collapse of government schooling has meant that many of
the country’s poorest people who wish to enhance their children’s
hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place the children
in the madrasa system where they are guaranteed an ultra-
conservative but nonetheless free education, often subsidised by
religious endowments provided by the Wahhabi Saudis.

Altogether there are now an estimated 800,000 to one million students
enrolled in Pakistan’s madrasas. Though the link between the
madrasas and al-Qa’eda is often exaggerated—the overwhelming
majority of international Salafi jihadis associated with Bin Laden’s
group are middle class and educated in Western-style colleges—it is
true that madrasa students have been closely involved in the rise of
the Taliban and the growth of sectarian violence; it is also true
that the education provided by many madrasas is often wholly
inadequate to equip children for modern life in a civil society.

Sixty years after its birth, India faces a number of serious
problems—not least the growing gap between rich and poor, the
criminalisation of politics, the flourishing Maoist and Naxalite
groups that have recently proliferated in the east of the country.
But Pakistan’s problems are on a different scale; indeed the country
finds itself at a fundamental crossroads: as Jugnu Mohsin, the
publisher of the Friday Times recently put it, "after a period of
relative quiet, for the first time in a decade, we are back to the
old question: it is not just whither Pakistan, but will Pakistan
survive?" On the country’s 60th birthday, the answer is by no means