BOSTON — I must say I wasn’t sorry to leave Karachi, Pakistan’s crumbling, seaport city and financial center on the Arabian sea.
A city of more that 18 million, Karachi is rife with violence and may be home to more Al Qaeda leaders than Waziristan on the frontier with Afghanistan. Thirty-four murders one day, 37 the next, usually by young men on motorcycles shooting point-blank and fleeing through the choking traffic as criminal gangs compete for turf. "Karachi’s Agony,” headlined one newspaper.
Of course, Pakistan's problems are not limited to Karachi — as today's deadly double suicide blasts along the Afghan border show — but Karachi is vital to America’s war in Afghanistan. Eighty percent of war supplies flow through its port and on up over the Khyber Pass. There is no substitute. One hundred dollars worth of Afghan-bound gasoline would cost $1,000 coming through central Asia.
Yet supplies are not secure. I passed the burned-out hulks of oil tankers on the Grand Trunk Road on the way to the frontier recently. In every Pakistani town I visited things have deteriorated from my previous visit seven years before. Security is a thousand times worse. The capital, Islamabad, is locked down Baghdad-style, with blast walls, barbed wire, check points and hotels converted to fortresses with armed guards.
The once-efficient civil service has deteriorated in every province. The level of English, though widely taught, has become less and less evident. Good people emigrate. The country sinks into debt, and infrastructure everywhere is deteriorating.
An elected civilian government is back in power, after a long stint of military rule. But as has happened so many times before, the civilian government has turned out to be corrupt and inefficient.
President Asif Ali Zadari, the widower of the slain Benazir Bhutto, is unpardonably weak, and his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, is hardly any better. Zadari is seen as an accidental president, elected in a wave of emotion after his wife’s assassination. He has surrounded himself with cronies, some of whom were his jailmates when he was doing time for corruption. Although he hasn’t been nailed for corrupt acts while in office, he is still known in many circles as “slum dog billionaire.”
Pakistan’s semi-feudal system of rich land lords and near-serfs came under criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Pakistan’s rich should start paying their taxes, and not depend on America’s taxpayers — ironic in that America hasn’t figured out how much to tax its rich. But the situation described in Daniyal Mueendin’s “In Other Rooms Other Voices” is accurate — almost a pre-French Revolution state of affairs.
The army, which has ruled this country for more than half its existence, controls foreign policy. The most powerful man in Pakistan is General Ashfaq Kayani, army chief of staff.
Meanwhile, the Islamic insurgency, which Pakistanis once thought was confined to the northwest frontier, where jihad has been going on for centuries, has now spread to the cities. A campaign of violence and bombings here, in Lahore and in Islamabad spread from the frontier in retaliation for the army’s entering into South Waziristan in force.
The sum of all American fears is that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, to which the WikiLeaks material attests. And there can be no doubt that the Islamic threat to the state is growing.
Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said 60 years ago upon independence: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state."
When I first came to Karachi 40 years ago, there was still some remnant of Jinnah’s dream. No longer. The state has been hardening its Islamic grip with tolerance falling by the wayside. The Shia minority is often set upon and murdered. The tiny Christian minority has been persecuted and burned alive by mobs. The unrelenting Wahhabi version of Islam, imported from Saudi Arabia and practiced by Al Qaeda, is at war with the softer, more tolerant Sufi tradition of the Indus. The blowing up of Sufi shrines is a common occurence, demonstrating the battle for Pakistan’s Islamic soul as the Taliban insurgency becomes nationwide.
Meanwhile the cold war with India continues apace. Pakistanis believe India is helping Baluchistan separatists in that province on the Afghan border. “That’s their way of getting back at us for what we do in Kashmir,” said an amazingly frank military officer. Money flows to developing more nuclear weapons, and most of the army is facing east towards India.
America is driven mad by Pakistan’s coddling of some Taliban groups, but Pakistan believes America is on its way out of Afghanistan, and wants to ensure that it has some friends in the post-American Afghanistan. Meanwhile, American popularity sinks among the average Pakistani. Pakistan may be one of the most anti-American countries in the world now.
There are some bright spots. Pakistan has finally realized that Islamic extremism is a mortal danger. The courts guard their independence from political pressure, albeit not always responsibly. The press is remarkably free.
A commentator named Fasi Zaka, in the Karachi Tribune, recently wrote: “Pakistan, you are a failed state. Not because of Zadari. Not because of America. But because you are a failed people.” I don’t agree with that, but it shows a lack of confidence growing in this country.
Pakistan is not a failed state, but it is increasingly in danger of becoming one. And the stakes for America make Afghanistan seem like a side show.