The Power of Pakistani Conspiracy Theories
By Ahmed Rashid for The New Republic
Pakistan is not a failed state, or as yet a failing one, even though it may be in a state of chaos or meltdown. Unlike really failed states, it has a powerful army and a corrupt, run-down, but still functioning bureaucracy, judiciary, and police force. Pakistanis perform outstandingly well in the realm of culture: in the arts, television, fashion design, pop music, and of course cricket. What is missing are adequate social services, such as health care, education, population-control programs, and jobs for a population that is nearing 200 million people. Like many Arab countries, Pakistan faces a youth bulge, with an estimated 60 percent of its people under twenty-five years old.
For these young people without adequate education and employment, who have to deal with a corrupt system that offers no panacea to the poor, joining an Islamic extremist group is not at all unusual. It is the norm. For this reason, a replay of an “Arab awakening” in Pakistan would not lead to the dawn of true democracy, but rather to a mass movement whose leadership would swiftly fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, who would then try to overthrow the state.
What Pakistanis desperately need is a new narrative by their leaders—a narrative that does not blame the evergreen troika of India, the United States, and Israel for all of the country’s ills, that breaks the old habit of blaming outsiders and instead looks at itself more honestly and more transparently. Pakistanis as a nation seem incapable of self-analysis, of apportioning blame according to logic and reason rather than emotion.
Along with the causes that I listed above, the wave of intolerance sweeping the country is also due substantially to the conspiracy theories put about by the ruling establishment and their allies in the media. These various hallucinations paint Pakistan as the victim, maligned and wronged at the hands of foreign powers—especially the United States and India. In the imagination of many Pakistanis, the country is regularly used for some geopolitical aim by the Americans and then discarded in favor of India. These sinister outsiders want to subvert, destroy, and undermine Pakistan—but no logical reason is offered as to why. And few will publicly argue that in fact it is the selective state sponsorship of extremism that is destroying the country.
The narrative that has been peddled by the state for much of the past decade is that Pakistan is being undermined by the presence of American forces in Afghanistan, and that if they were to leave the Pakistani Taliban would go home, the suicide bombings would cease, and everything would go back to normal. The ultimate aim of the United States in Afghanistan—so the narrative continues—is to capture Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, even as India is busily dismembering Pakistan by funding Baloch separatists and the Pakistani Taliban. But if that is so, why on earth did the state allow the revival of the Afghan Taliban in 2003, which has only delayed the American withdrawal from Afghanistan? And for those demanding higher military budgets, the most self-serving conspiracy theory is that Pakistan is locked in an interminable conflict with India, which cannot be resolved.