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Reflections of a systemnik

Mosharraf Zaidi
Tuesday, Sep 14, 2021

The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban poses a grave danger to Pakistani society and state – but these dangers are not what a typically Westernised lens on Pakistan may suggest they are.

The Westernised lens sees the world divided into neat halves: the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are those with clarity about terrorism, the bad guys are terrorists. Those with clarity about terrorism see all others as being on a long journey that begins with a lack of clarity and ends with a dangerous shoe on a plane, or knife, or folk, or in a bus, or a car, or a mosque – somewhere, somehow, dangerous, and lethal.

In the Westernised lens, to protect those that are not terrorists, we must root out and eliminate terrorists. So went the Western campaign in Afghanistan, enabled and supported by many who are non-Western. Find and kill terrorists. When the dust settles, the good guys will win and the bad guys will be vanquished. What happened? Apparently, the story started with one gang of bad guys, a group named Al Qaeda, and ended with twenty or more: an alphabet soup of terrorists with a mission to take over half a dozen or more countries and territories. For Pakistan, the worst of these is the TTP – but the list is long and of interest in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Dushanbe, Tashkent and beyond. Now, the Taliban are back in charge in Kabul, and the bad guys are split into bad guys that we have to work with (the Taliban) and bad guys we have to kill (TTP, Al Qaeda, Daesh, BLA and a host of others).

In short, the US/Nato/ISAF mission has been tweaked and modified and handed over to the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, plus Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and most intriguingly, Qatar.

The grave danger to Pakistani society and state should not be so hard to discern. If the United States had to evacuate Kabul at the mercy of the Taliban in the way we watched the story play out since the middle of August, what chance of success do the countries that have been left with the residual US mission have of performing much better? More importantly, what social and political process did Pakistan go through to decide that the mission of containing the terrorist threat in Afghanistan is a worthy and achievable mission for Pakistani state and society?

The answer, like so many choices that have been made on behalf of the Pakistani people in the last seven decades, is: no process at all. These kinds of existential questions are thrust into and upon Pakistan, and the country’s elite is afforded ‘complete freedom’ to choose between a range of bad choices. At least in Russian roulette, one chamber is empty. Pakistan’s elite is forced to play with a loaded gun.

The grave threat of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is that a binarised conversation about what they represent will continue to further divide Pakistan into pockets of opinions that are increasingly incapable of interacting and negotiating with each other. Like so many other failed states in the wider Muslim world, once the Pakistani elite becomes entirely seized with its own survival, rather than with negotiating and moderating within different parts of society, Pakistan may be looking down the barrel of an inescapable and multifaceted economic, social and political crisis. Many would say this process is well underway already.

This dark prognosis does not require a lot of imagination to conceive. The ordinary Pakistani does not have much confidence in the state to begin with. The debate around so many issues is now so starkly partisan, that for half the country (those below the age of 23) engaging with and investing in the world beyond oneself according to traditional rules of the game – a republic, a constitution, elections, and rule of law – may seem an increasingly useless endeavour.

In part, the meteoric rise of messianic cult-like movements is informed exactly by this wider malaise that afflicts traditional instruments of socialization and politicization. Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s spirit haunts Pakistan, not because of the inherent appeal of his message alone, nor because of the incredible oratory and storytelling power he had – but because counter-narratives to Rizvi have the appeal of a stale piece of bread. Insipid, uninspiring, moulding and damp to the touch – young Pakistanis are increasingly contemptuous of the conventional.

The institutions and instruments that are supposed to serve these young Pakistanis are dramatic failures. These failures are not exclusively a product of the ill will or corruption of the Pakistani elites, but of a set of much more complex social and political processes in which many non-elites are equal and sometimes even more robust participants than the elite themselves. The state itself for example, though widely seen as captured wholly by the elite, is actually a manifestation of a more complicated set of navigators and course setters; some are undoubtedly what we may call elite, but others are much less so.

The university sector at large, and manifest in the goings-on at the Higher Education Commission (HEC), is a classic example of a set of public institutions that have utterly failed to solve the very real problem of the disengaged, underserved and abandoned young Pakistani. The reason the HEC is such a great example is because its most recent incarnation is about as long as the life of the post September 11 Afghanistan conflict.

The HEC is a heavily fortified public institution. Its autonomy and leadership were sealed with the kiss of old school, conventional wisdom: legal binds that would make it hard for any wannabe-dictator to treat the organisation with the contempt so many elected and unelected leaders tend to exercise in governance. Since its formation in 2002, instead of shaping a future for Pakistani children, the HEC shaped lifelong jobs for mediocre careerists throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan’s university landscape. The culmination of this mediocrity-first culture was the firing of the HEC chairman in March this year, through a series of presidential ordinances – illegal ordinances that are currently being challenged in court (including by me).

The debate that many Pakistani commentators want to have is whether Dr Tariq Banuri is better than Dr Atta ur Rehman – essentially the exact same debate that had informed the very formation of the HEC, a process that lasted from 1999 to 2002, when a series of Musharraf-era reforms converted the old University Grants Commission, into the HEC. But this debate mimics exactly the wider failure of Pakistan’s ‘systemniks’, myself included. As a systemnik, I assume that the constitution, a love for knowledge (especially science), and a thirst for a higher GDP are all given. Anyone that disagrees is, broadly, ‘Taliban’.

Because the starting point of the systemniks’ engagement is already so wrong, every conversation we end up having is essentially a distraction from a more profound and urgent calling. Examine the debate on women’s rights (Aurat March versus a rightwing journalist/commentator – not freedom versus absence of freedom), the debate on corruption (Sharif versus Khan – not public good versus public waste), the debate on the EVMs (election fraudsters versus election puritans – not representation versus elite capture), the debate on the SNC (Raja Dahir versus Mohammad bin Qasim – not learning outcomes versus the absence of numeracy). In each debate, systemniks believe they are engaging in, and fighting to the death, a war of virtue, against an enemy that cannot be reasoned with. But in fact, the debate is amongst various shades of systemniks – with the differences being in shades of opinion.

In all these debates, the voices and interests of the young women and men that are simply switching off this ‘system’ grid and switching onto a non-system grid are being entirely ignored. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan is a victory of imagination. Systemniks, from Ashraf Ghani, to the Pakistani elite, to the American military, all believed a fairy tale that we wove ourselves about the inherent resilience of ‘the system’.

The non-system grid has fired back – and won. The sharks can smell blood now. Systemniks should introspect and examine the virtues of what we stand for, and why reform seems to be so difficult and out of reach.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.