Evil Eighties

Salman Tarik Kureshi reflects on what it means when a state no longer has a monopoly on the use of force

Evil Eighties
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

(Dwight D. Eisenhower, former US President)

Those of my readers who have been hunters will know the feeling. You raise your shotgun, sighting along the steel barrel and press the trigger. The goose, or bustard, or pheasant seems momentarily to shudder. And then it drops, stilled forever by the awesome power that the hunter holds in the barrel – the power to deal out death. And this immense surge is less than a tiny atom of the kind of power that has carved out kingdoms and built empires through the ages: military power.

For, it is military power that not only carves out states and defends them, but the control of which is basic to the very existence of a state. This was what the great Chinese poet, revolutionary, military strategist and nation-builder Mao Zedong referred to when he said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” With some initial clandestine assistance from the USA, Mao captured firepower, on behalf of the Chinese masses – first from the Japanese occupation army, and then from the Chinese Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek, with considerable help from the USSR.

Anti-fascist resistance fighters from Italy - many European countries had to deal with large armed groups after World War II

When Mao Zedong’s party finally came to power, his enormous country was awash with guns. Mao Zedong understood, back in 1949, that the presence of all this leftover weaponry would pose critical challenges to the Chinese state that he intended to build. Therefore, he set about absorbing his own partisans, as well as the many other weapon-wielding Chinese citizens, into the Red Army.

Now, it is almost a cliche that if a state is to remain a state and not ‘fail’, if a society is to remain functional, the organs of the state — the military, paramilitaries and police — must establish and assert monopolistic control over serious weaponry. Gun power, if set loose and released from control of the state, is a power for the anarchic destruction of the state that has unleashed it. These destructive forces were unleashed in Pakistan during the 1980s, when the retrograde regime of General Zia-ul-Haq distributed guns across the land. That he and the institution that he commanded did this in cahoots with the USA and Saudi Arabia, in order to drive those dreadful Russian Communists out of Afghanistan and establish ‘strategic depth’ in that country, is not in question. The USA pursued its own raisons d’etat, as it then perceived them – and as is now differently perceived by Trump and his minders. We needed to think of our own country’s sovereignty and integrity, whether under Zia or thereafter.
The Chinese, with a many times larger problem, managed to resolve it. So did the countries of Europe, replete with former Resistance fighters after World War II. And Vietnam. And Cambodia

For us Pakistanis, both the social order and the stable survival of the state have, for some time, been at risk. This is a risk that may have diminished of late, but remains grave.

We live in a country bristling with guns and bulging with bombs. And it is the armed and trained remnants of the Afghan Jihad and their linear ideological descendants that are responsible for the disorder and terrorism our country has faced. But, as we saw, the Chinese, with a many times larger problem, managed to resolve it. So did the countries of Europe, replete with former Resistance fighters after World War II. And Vietnam. And Cambodia. It seems that, where there has been even a minimal patriotic sense within the ruling groups, the urgency of sucking all surplus weaponry into governmental armouries and absorbing those trained to use it into the armed forces of the state, has been appreciated.

In Pakistan, there are at least four kinds of actors (other than the ‘legitimate’ state actors) who bear arms...and, all too frequently, use them. These, in ascending order of ferocity, are: straightforward criminals; the goons who protect VIPs, wealthy tribals, rural potentates, and urban tycoons; the armed brigades associated with political parties and movements; and the insurrectionists and terrorists lumped together under the rubric of ‘Islamic militants’.

A Mujahideen fighter aims an FIM-92 Stinger missile at passing aircraft, Afghanistan, 1988

Starting with the first of these, all societies have their criminal underworlds and Pakistan, too, is richly endowed with such. Whether Karachi’s car and cell-phone snatchers, the dharels of interior Sindh, the badmaashes of Punjab, ordinary murderers, or the drug peddlers universal in our pious country, there is a colourful variety of armed lawbreakers in our cities and villages.

The point is that crime pays (or not) everywhere in the world. And everywhere criminals are organised and armed — none more so, perhaps, than the US or Colombian criminal syndicates. But the US and Colombia and Italy and all the other countries with armed criminal gangs are in no way threatened with state ‘failure’ or social collapse. Does the existence of gangs of ordinary criminals, however well armed and organised, erode the foundations of a society or a state? It does not. Nor do the squads of ‘body guards’ that follow certain rich and powerful individuals.

But, in Pakistan, beyond these, there are much more deadly entities. I refer to the armed militias or bands maintained by political parties. It is not my intention here to pillory any specific party, or its corresponding students’ organisation or armed phalanx, for maintaining bands of so-called bodyguards. Let us merely accept that the practice exists, that it is by no means a new practice (even in pre-Partition India, there were the Calcutta Muslim League, the Hindu RSS, the Sikh Akali Dal, the Khaksar Tehrik) and that official/ elite support renders the police helpless before such entities.

What can the inadequate numbers of our ill-organised, poorly trained, poorly armed police force do to stem the tide of violence perpetrated by the armed thugs of such political entities as the Mutahidda, the Haqiqi, the Jamiat-i-Tuleba, the Punjabi-Pakhtoon Ittehad, the PPP, the JSM, the BSM, and so on? These entities, sometimes exceedingly well armed, were extensions of political parties and sought to protect or further their political programmes. And, of course, they had the open backing of one or the other elite group – whether political, ethnic or religious.

Thus, as we see, the proliferation and arming of certain political groups — most prominently in the 1980s (those dark years again!), but prevalent before and continuing thereafter — and the Establishment’s failure to adequately confront them, is where the serious destabilisation of Pakistani society began.

But the Evil of the Eighties did not end there. It was a short step from there to the creation of the large-scale militias of armed ‘Islamic’ militants, against whom the Pakistan Army has been fighting for the last few years in a desperate battle for our very survival as a society and state.

The step of enabling them was taken by the ruling elite in the 1980s. That even our later civil and military establishments continued for a long time to turn a blind eye to the barbaric treason of the insurrectionists, and that their fellow travellers elsewhere in the country still remain active and capable of putting up a fight today, passes astonishment...