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The inside-out Bangladesh Solution

  • Published at 06:28 pm October 11th, 2015
The inside-out Bangladesh Solution

There may be good reason for the optimism emanating from Pakistan these days. It remains to be seen how many American and other foreign investors are seriously interested in investing in a critical Pakistani economic sector, plagued by conflicting policies and practices, and non-transparent and high-cost projects.

Without the reforms and improved governance required to clean up the energy sector, there is very little chance of solving Pakistan’s energy crises. But the fact that such a conference is being held at all implies a confidence that the image of Pakistan has improved enough to warrant seeking private foreign investment in a sector of its economy with a very ambiguous, if not downright negative, image.

This confidence stems, at least in part, from the improved security situation in Pakistan, and the general feeling in the country and abroad that the Pakistan Army is “cleaning up the mess” which years of pusillanimous and misguided policy created. The New York Times reported recently that confidence was spreading as the security situation improved. Extremist incidents have decreased in the past year, in fact, since the terrible massacre at the Army school in Peshawar in December 2014 gave the military consensus political backing necessary to go all out to eliminate the Taliban and other extremist elements in North Waziristan and other tribal agencies.

Since then, the army, through its Rangers units -- and with a sudden rejuvenation of the anti-corruption agencies -- has also moved to “clean up the mess” in Karachi. This has broken the political consensus, as the PPP and the MQM have felt the stings of the anti-corruption actions. Despite the screams of pain from these parties, the Rangers seem to be on a roll right now. I imagine that a great many non-political Pakistanis support the Karachi clean-up, thinking it is long overdue.

The real question, I suspect, is whether the National Action Plan will be carried to its logical end -- the extirpation or neutralisation of all extremist organisations in Pakistan. If so, it would be foolish to think that this can be done in less than a decade. And there is the question of whether and how it will include those groups that the army has traditionally viewed (and nurtured) as proxies. Such questions should loom large to long-term investors in Pakistan.

But the predominant theme running through this narrative is the growing political role of the army. After some initial resistance, the civilian political parties, and especially the governing PML-N, have essentially ceded political space to the military. The civilian government seems quite desultory and pliant in the face of army encroachment. Given the past history of PM Nawaz Sharif, bowing down so readily to the army seems out of character.

Jokingly, one of my friends suggested recently that once again, we may be seeing a modified form of the Bangladesh Solution coming to Pakistan. I have written about the Bangladesh Solution off and on since 2007. Briefly, it is the term we later applied to the 2007 military coup in Bangladesh which replaced the then-BNP government with a group of civilian technocrats to reform and rectify the political situation in the country which verged on anarchy.

The army was the power behind this civilian curtain, the supposed iron fist in the civilian velvet glove. This idea was attractive to some Pakistanis in the latter half of the PPP regime, in which corruption was viewed as out of control and the government as unable to find any ideology or policy except kleptocracy and holding on to power until the next election.

But in those days, a Bangladesh Solution would have required an overt army coup. In the current situation, given the army’s continued encroachment on what should be civilian political space, it would be an inside-out form of the Bangladesh Solution. An overt coup would not be necessary.

And, in any case, why would anyone want any version of the Bangladesh Solution for Pakistan, or any country? The Bangladesh Solution was a failure, not a solution at all, and in fact, the beginning of a far worse political fate. The subsequent authoritarian dystopia -- and not a military one -- has not brought Bangladeshis security and stability, but instead chaos, insecurity, and death.

Bangladeshis who speak their minds, write their opinions or oppose the government, as well as foreigners (just because they are foreigners it seems) are being murdered with seeming impunity. Bangladesh is now on the Travel Advisory lists of many countries. Quite recently, an Italian aid worker and a Japanese lettuce grower were murdered for no apparent reason.

Since this article is not about Bangladesh, I don’t want to take much space describing the dysfunction that the Bangladesh Solution ultimately brought to Bangladesh. The government’s first reaction is to blame these murders on ISIS, trying to convince Western countries that the crimes are international in character. When that proves unconvincing, it blames the opposition, the BNP/Jamaat alliance.

This fits in perfectly with the government’s campaign to eliminate that opposition. In fact, human rights organisations point out (as does the opposition) that the government security agencies themselves are in the murder business.

The number of extra-judicial killings has grown exponentially as the campaign against all opposition grows. What is left out is the radicalising effect of the government’s own repressive and often murderous policies on already-alienated individuals, who may be influenced by extremist Internet websites. It is also possible that the law enforcement agencies would be much more effective in preventing the crimes or catching their perpetrators if they were spending their time on real law enforcement and not on taking down the opposition.

Suffice to say that the Bangladesh Solution, in any form, is not what we want for Pakistan. But whether we call it that or not, there remains a fear that continuing army encroachment could lead to a similar setup in Pakistan -- a civilian front for a military government. This is not inevitable, but not impossible either: It depends on the civilian parties actually governing. 

The abject retreat of the political parties in the face of the Peshawar massacre was necessary, I think, to avoid an out-and-out fracture of civil-military relations. But in the long-run, it will not be military ambition that decides the issue.

It is whether civilian governments can rise to the challenge of governance, implement policies, make decisions, and carry out necessary reforms -- in other words, lead the country. The previous PPP government’s only claim to fame is lasting the full five years; the present PML-N government has, so far, not even that to brag about.