The day I arrived in Lahore, two stories dominated the newspapers’ front pages. The Supreme Court had declared the Ministry of Railways the most corrupt department in the country. No surprises there: the minister in charge, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, a veteran rogue who has served in almost every government over the last three decades, making lots of money along the way, is currently an MP for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) government. It’s widely known that anyone hired by the railways department has to pay a bribe, with the amount determined by the seniority of the post. Figures released last year by Transparency International show that there are rich pickings to be had across the board. Corruption has increased under the present government, and Pakistan is in the bottom third of TI’s annual corruption index.
The other story was far more interesting. On 4 January, a US military aircraft had crashed, or been brought down, in a mountainous Taliban-controlled region in eastern Afghanistan. After much delay the US admitted that the plane was a Bombardier E-11A, a communications and intelligence-gathering jet. Nothing odd here either, perhaps, but within hours Iranian state television was claiming that among those killed was Michael D’Andrea, head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center and the man behind the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
D’Andrea, a convert to Islam and a protégé of Mike Pompeo, was nicknamed the ‘Dark Prince’ and ‘Ayatollah Mike’ by his alienated colleagues at the CIA. After 48 hours, the Pentagon stated that investigations had been delayed by bad weather but that the crash ‘appeared to be accidental’ – a conclusion called into question by the Iranian reporting. The CIA has yet to confirm or deny whether D’Andrea was on the plane: all it has said is that the bodies of two crew members were recovered from the site. At the beginning of February a retired CIA officer, Philip Giraldi, suggested that ‘many who were following the story were inclined to believe the account circulated by Iran and other media outlets because the United States has a recent track record of lying about nearly everything.’ If Tehran’s version is correct, it reveals a surprising, and relatively new, degree of collaboration between Iran and the Taliban. At a time when the US is engaged in intensive negotiations with the Taliban over troop withdrawal, the implication that the Taliban downed a US jet with the help of Iranian intelligence would represent a serious challenge to Washington. If Ayatollah Mike has been taken out, the message to the CIA is very clear: an eye for an eye.
In Pakistan itself, at least on the official level, things carry on much as always. Politicians with clashing ambitions and mutual suspicion come and go, switching political parties at the drop of a coin (or two). New parties emerge promising change, but no change comes. If anything, things get worse. When Khan launched his campaign against the traditional parties, in 2018, he won over thousands of young middle-class professionals and students who hoped that the family fiefdoms – the Bhuttos’ Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Sharif brothers’ Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the Party of Islamic Scholars, formerly led by Maulana Mufti Mahmood and now by his son Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (known as ‘Diesel’ because of his questionable oil dealings) – could be sidelined or defeated. The once all-powerful PPP is paying the price for its corruption: its power is now limited to the Zardari-Bhutto stronghold in Sind province. The PML-N, the second largest party in the National Assembly, lost 84 seats at the last election.
But Khan’s failure to deliver on his promises has led to a sharp decline in popular approval. Diesel and his supporters have organised mass demonstrations, demanding Khan’s resignation (as he did his predecessor’s) and endlessly defend traditional religious society. A fortnight ago, two female polio nurses were killed by ‘traditionalists’ while on their rounds. Their offence wasn’t vaccination, but their gender. In this misogynist atmosphere politicians keep their silence. The police, ‘traditionalists’ themselves, can’t be counted on to defend women against male violence, which runs through all levels of Pakistani society. The PTI-led federal and provincial governments are incompetent. The chief ministers of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are widely ridiculed, including by PTI bigwigs. TV chat show hosts are saying that the only reason that Usman Buzdar, the chief minister of the Punjab, is still in his job is that Bushra Bibi, Khan’s latest wife, had a premonition that Buzdar’s departure would soon be followed by her husband’s. The generals are getting nervous. The Sharif brothers, currently in London, are letting it be known that the military has been sounding out potential replacements for Khan; Shahbaz, the youngest brother, hopes to be the chosen one. But Pakistanis know better than to trust the army, or God, to improve things. I found myself thinking of a famous Sufi hadith. One day, the Prophet noticed that one of his followers had stopped attending daily prayers. Muhammad asked him why.
‘Forgive me,’ the man replied, ‘but each time I come to pray my camel disappears.’
‘Why don’t you tie him up?’ Muhammad asked.
‘I put my trust in Allah,’ the man said.
‘Tie up your camel first,’ Muhammad said, ‘then put your trust in Allah.’
Two things remain constant: the role of the Pakistan army, permanently embedded in the country’s politics, and corruption on a huge scale. After the first military coup in 1958, the Punjabi poet Ustad Daman wrote: ‘Now each day is sweet and balmy/Wherever you look: there’s the army!’ It’s still there, but not always visible. Following three disastrous periods of military rule, the first of which led to Bangladeshi independence in 1971, the army has been largely content to let politicians do the dirty work. But the real ruler of the country remains the chief of army staff – currently Qamar Jawed Bajwa – flanked by colleagues who include the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). It has become customary for chiefs of army staff to pressure Parliament to extend their three-year terms. This isn’t popular in the army – it disrupts the promotion process – but politicians don’t dare refuse. Last November an unknown petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court to reject Bajwa’s latest demand. He then panicked and attempted to withdraw his appeal, but the chief justice insisted that the case be heard. The verdict came quickly. Bajwa was allowed a six-month extension, with Parliament instructed to make the final decision. All three parties voted for the extension.
Last month, in response to accusations from the opposition that Khan was nothing more than a military stooge, one of his more flamboyant ministers, Faisal Vawda, arrived at a TV debate carrying a large military boot. He placed it on the table and said to his counterparts in the PPP and PML-N: ‘Don’t claim it’s just us. You lick this boot too.’ He was right. When I asked people why chiefs of army staff were so desperate to stay in office, only one person ventured an opinion: ‘They have become politicians. Two or three more years and they can make a lot more money, accept more gifts, consolidate foreign bank accounts and grab more land. What other reason could there be?’ She should know: her son is a retired general.
The army is currently focused on suppressing a relatively new political movement, the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) – a secular, non-violent, anti-war movement that seeks to defend the civil and social rights of Pashtuns, who have been in the frontline of the forty-year war in Afghanistan. Successive US governments and think tanks have failed to distinguish between the Taliban and the Pashtun population as a whole. In order to please them, the Pakistan army, in receipt of billions of dollars after 9/11, initiated large-scale clearances of the Waziristan borderlands, displacing thousands of Pashtuns. Some were put into refugee camps; others fled to Lahore and Karachi, where there is a large Pashtun population that settled in the 1960s and 1970s.
Young Pashtuns, regarded with hostility and suspicion by the military and police, and often living in desperate conditions, have developed an astonishing degree of resilience. The PTM rose to prominence three years ago following widespread protests at the police torture and killing of the 27-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud, a popular model in Karachi. Its demands include an investigation into the whereabouts of missing persons presumed killed or held in secret ISI prisons, and an end to Pakistani and US surveillance. The size and success of the movement – it has two elected members of Parliament, who are also frequently harassed and arrested – has unnerved the military and led to brutal repression. Unlike other movements, the PTM isn’t under the control of the intelligence agencies, and it has a power base in areas that are considered strategically vital. Its political approach couldn’t be further from that of the numerous fundamentalist groups that the military establishment nurtures and supports. It has become a beacon for Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike, uniting almost every progressive current in Pakistan. Already this has led to the emergence of young women leaders in parts of the country where the assertion of ethnic identity has long been inseparable from the assertion of patriarchy. Khan appeared to welcome the movement at first, but soon changed his mind. In private, some of his ministers absolve themselves by blaming the army for the violence. But if they can’t stop state brutalities, what does it mean to say they’re in power?
A few days before I arrived in Pakistan, Manzoor Pashteen, the charismatic leader of the PTM, was arrested yet again. Protests began the same day in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. A number of demonstrators were arrested and charged with sedition (colonial era laws are still used throughout South Asia). Lawyers lodged appeals and on 3 February the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, Athar Minallah, granted universal bail and confronted the deputy commissioner, who – it was clear – had rubber-stamped the arrests on the instruction of the intelligence agencies. ‘On what basis have you charged them?’ he asked. ‘Who ordered you to do so?’ Satisfactory answers were not forthcoming. Minallah’s name is likely to go on a blacklist. That the only positive political development in Pakistan’s recent history is under critical threat from the state is just one of many indications that no lessons have been learned. And if the CIA is listening, drones are definitely not the answer.