Richard Reeves

O, Pakistan!

NEW YORK -- I cried for Pakistan on Thursday night, not for the first time. And I'm sure not for the last.

I have lived there, worked there, gone back again and again to see friends, many of them former classmates of my wife's at Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs. It is, for me, a lovely and lively place, except that it is ever on the verge of blowing up itself or its neighbors or more.

It is the most dangerous place in the world. It does not change much, and when it does, it is usually for the worst. We all saw that last Thursday -- and things will get worse.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is dysfunctional, and it has been most of the time since its bloody birth on New Year's Day in 1947, when the British left colonial India divided into three parts, separate and unequal. There was what we now call India. As they raced for the ships home, the Brits of the Raj decided without too much thought to create two inherently unstable Muslim nations more than a thousand miles apart on either side of the new Hindu-dominated India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. All the Pakistanis may have been Muslims, but they were different people speaking different languages.

West Pakistan became what we now call Pakistan, a country of 165 million people, most of them poor and ignorant, living in a different century from the rest of us and, often, each other. East Pakistan is now Bangladesh, after revolting in 1971, with help from India, against oppressive rule from West Pakistan.

This is how Pakistan works:

It is a military dictatorship, as it has been for most of its 60-year history. The reason for that is simple: The military is the only functioning institution in the country, controlling its own cantonments (or towns), roads and vehicles, corporations, schools and hospitals -- to say nothing of guns and a few atomic bombs.

To rule, the soldiers are required to provide reasonable security for the country's few and highly educated elites and allow ignorant mullahs with their Quranic law and madrassas to control "the masses." And in some of those rural areas, tribal areas, the central government has little or no power. (Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding and plotting in those tribal areas, hard places that make the old Wild West seem like Paris.)

Everybody is in on it when it suits their purposes. The United States poured money into the country -- and looked the other way as the bomb was built -- when it was our base for supplying the tribal armies that drove out the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Then we came back after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to overthrow the Taliban, the Pakistani-supported Islamic government that took over after the Soviets.

Our comings and goings only when we have needed Pakistani turf have generated massive anti-Americanism in the country. The belief that Gen. Pervez Musharaff and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto are tools of the United States is the reason their lives are ever at risk. Both will probably be assassinated before this is over. The dictator of the day when I was there, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, was killed when his plane exploded in mid-air.

This may sound simple to some, but re-reading what I wrote in the 1980s, I realize that my own view of how Pakistan can survive has not changed. The country's greatest (and solvable) problem is illiteracy. Most Pakistanis -- not the ones we meet -- cannot read or write. (The quoting of the Quran that we see and hear every day is usually from memorization rather than reading.) The "masses" are ignorant of the world outside and are easily manipulated by soldiers, politicians and mullahs, many of whom are astoundingly ignorant themselves.

A lot of people will die there now, killed by each other during a kind of endless cultural war as the rich and the army fight to keep the masses in their place. Americans, when it suits our purposes, will be there to help the ruling classes. Like the Pakistani elites, an impressive but frightened bunch, we are not interested in modern concepts of freedom, democracy and justice. What they want and what we want is order -- and only the army can provide that for the next few decades.

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