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‘Quit Pakistan Syndrome’: A Country Loses Faith in Itself

On a recent episode of “Khari Baat” (“Straight Talk”), a popular Pakistani talk show, journalist Hassan Nisar bluntly captured the mood of his nation: “No normal Pakistani in his right mind would stay in this country for an extra 24 hours if given the option to emigrate.” His view echoed the findings of a poll by Gallup Pakistan released in April, which showed that 27 percent of all Pakistanis want to leave their country and settle abroad. The decision in March by George Fulton—a British citizen who became a Pakistani celebrity when he traveled through the country for a televised documentary in 2005, learning Urdu, and marrying a local girl—to return to England was perceived by many to be the beginning of the end.

The reasons for this “quit Pakistan syndrome,” as it has been termed by the local print media, seem obvious at first. In recent weeks, terrorists with links to extremist organizations have attacked a bakery and a bazaar in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, stormed a naval base in Karachi, opened fire on a security check point in Upper Dir, killed dozens of young cadets training for the Frontier Corps in a suicide bomb attack in Charsadda, and blown up NATO supply trucks and US consulate convoys. Hundreds of innocent Pakistani citizens have been killed in these attacks—meant to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden. Over 4,300 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks since July 2007.

But the current impulse to flee represents a real sentiment that goes beyond a defeatist response to terrorism. It is also a harsh rejection of the Pakistani establishment—the Pakistan Army, intelligence agencies, and political class as a whole. Tellingly, in a television interview following the terrorist attack against a major naval base in Karachi last month, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and leading human rights activist Asma Jehangir lashed out against the Pakistan Army—not the attackers. In her diatribe, she urged corrupt generals to abandon their flawed policies, return to the barracks, and permit Pakistanis to live in peace. In this endlessly tweeted and blogged clip lay the idea that Pakistan has been hijacked not by extremist interlopers, but by the very people entrusted to defend its prosperity.

Public anger against the Pakistan Army and its intelligence apparatus—specifically, the notorious ISI—has been mounting since the May 2 raid on bin Laden’s compound. Many Pakistanis increasingly recognize that the establishment’s decision to cultivate militant groups (of the sort that participated in the anti-Soviet “jihad” of the ’80s and continue to engage in asymmetric warfare in the disputed territory of Kashmir) as “strategic assets” has tarnished their country’s reputation, making it a hub of terrorism that must withstand repeated violations of its sovereignty. The popular and widely trusted political talk show host Kamran Khan, for example, recently expressed the sentiment that Pakistan has become synonymous with terrorism, letting loose with a televised tirade. His anger was particularly meaningful as Khan is known to maintain close contacts with high-ranking army personnel. Recently, personnel of the Rangers, an official paramilitary force, were caught on camera shooting dead a young, unarmed man at point-blank range in Karachi. The perception that the Pakistani military establishment targets its own people is causing such an uproar—much of which is documented 24-7 by the country’s vibrant, freewheeling media industry—that the Pakistan Army officially requested that the press and other civil society members curtail their critique during a conference last week.

Additionally, there is growing horror at the extent of human rights violations in Balochistan, the country’s largest province. Well over a hundred lawyers, journalists, and political activists have been targeted by the intelligence agencies in what Amnesty International calls “kill and dump” operations. The assassination this month of prominent Baloch intellectual Saba Dashtiari led to days of unrest. Such targeting apparently extends to journalists as well. On May 31, Syed Saleem Shahzad, a journalist who exposed Al Qaeda links within the Pakistan Navy, was found dead outside Islamabad. His killing, widely attributed to the ISI, was not an anomaly: In 2010, reporter Umar Cheema was abducted and tortured by agency personnel; in 2005, Hayatullah Khan was found handcuffed with a bullet to the back of his head after breaking the story about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The only sentiment that trumps most Pakistanis’ disappointment in their army is their disgust for the civilian government. When brought to power in 2008, the ruling coalition was seen as an embodiment of the people’s triumph—a grand rejection of military dictatorships and the terrorism that led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto—ushered in through free and fair elections. The previous year, a nationwide movement in support of an independent judiciary had brought together the free media, lawyers, students, and other democratically minded citizens, and played a part in Musharraf’s resignation. This government’s five-year term was meant to initiate a golden period of democratic transition. Instead, Pakistanis have had to suffer a puppet government that has ceded social space to extremists and surrendered political power to the Pakistan Army, making a mockery of all that a civilian dispensation should imply.

These are mutually reinforcing problems: The inadequacies of the civilian government appear to be encouraging the worst tendencies of the military. Rather than use the questions provoked by bin Laden’s death to hold the Pakistan Army accountable, the civilian government toed the line alongside the armed forces in reacting against unilateral strikes by Americans. This mistake was repeated a few weeks later: Instead of demanding accountability for security breaches that enabled terrorists to attack a naval airbase in Karachi and destroy an expensive, high-tech aircraft, the government rewarded the Pakistan Army with a 12 percent increase in the defense budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, coming to a grand total of approximately $5.6 billion. Coupled with a roughly $3.4 billion grant for security expenses, these defense expenditures represent a full one-third of next year’s budget.

This kowtowing comes from the same civilian government that handed over jurisdiction of the Swat Valley to the TNSM, an extremist organization, in 2009. And one that failed to protest the successive assassinations of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti for speaking out against Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law earlier this year. In short, this is a civilian government that has allowed fundamentalism and intolerance to become hallmarks of the Pakistani public sphere under its watch.

To be sure, the government has made some progress on certain fronts. The 18th Amendment to the constitution, passed in 2010, devolves power to the provinces, and the “Beginning of the Rights of Balochistan” package begins to address Baloch grievances—for example, the usurpation of revenues from the region’s natural resources by larger provinces—by making provisions for increased resource allocations to Balochistan and promises for socio-economic development. But these are undermined by the government’s failure to push back against those forces that threaten recent democratic gains.

Pakistanis are a resilient and patient people. They have demonstrated that time and again during their 64-year history, most recently during the devastating floods of 2010. Groups of angry, misguided, violent youth seeking legitimacy in Islamic rhetoric cannot easily convince them to abandon the national project of democracy building. That has been demonstrated in the Swat Valley, when local intelligence helped the Pakistan Army flush the area of militants. But there is growing and profound disillusionment amongst many Pakistanis, and the sense of fear and futility is spreading. As the journalist Nisar put it, Pakistanis just want to live in a country where their children can peacefully attend school and prosper. That desire requires the security situation to improve, but it also necessitates that the establishment refocus its priorities to address the needs of the people.

Huma Yusuf is a columnist with Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper and the 2010-2011 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.