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Ahmed Rashid: Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate

Protests against US in Pakistan
Many Pakistanis blame others for the country's problems

Guest columnist Ahmed Rashid reports on how the real problems facing Pakistan are being sidelined by a surge of conspiracy theories.

Switch on any of the dozens of satellite news channels now available in Pakistan.

You will be bombarded with talk show hosts who are mostly obsessed with demonising the elected government, trying to convince viewers of global conspiracies against Pakistan led by India and the United States or insisting that the recent campaign of suicide bomb blasts around the country is being orchestrated by foreigners rather than local militants.

Viewers may well ask where is the passionate debate about the real issues that people face - the crumbling economy, joblessness, the rising cost of living, crime and the lack of investment in health and education or settling the long-running insurgency in Balochistan province.


The principal obsession is when and how President Asif Ali Zardari will be replaced or sacked

The answer is nowhere.

One notable channel which also owns newspapers has taken it upon itself to topple the elected government.

Another insists that it will never air anything that is sympathetic to India, while all of them bring on pundits - often retired hardline diplomats, bureaucrats or retired Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers who sport Taliban-style beards and give viewers loud, angry crash courses in anti-Westernism and anti-Indianism, thereby reinforcing views already held by many.

Collapse of confidence

Pakistan is going through a multi-dimensional series of crises and a collapse of public confidence in the state.

Suicide bombers strike almost daily and the economic meltdown just seems to get worse.

But this is rarely apparent in the media, bar a handful of liberal commentators who try and give a more balanced and intellectual understanding by pulling all the problems together.

A poor neighbourhood in Pakistan
The media debate 'misses real Pakistani life'

The explosion in TV channels in Urdu, English and regional languages has brought to the fore large numbers of largely untrained, semi-educated and unworldly TV talk show hosts and journalists who deem it necessary to win viewership at a time of an acute advertising crunch, by being more outrageous and sensational than the next channel.

On any given issue the public barely learns anything new nor is it presented with all sides of the argument.

Every talk show host seems to have his own agenda and his guests reflect that agenda rather than offer alternative policies.

Recently, one senior retired army officer claimed that Hakimullah Mehsud - the leader of the Pakistani Taliban which is fighting the army in South Waziristan and has killed hundreds in daily suicide bombings in the past five weeks - had been whisked to safety in a US helicopter to the American-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

In other words the Pakistani Taliban are American stooges, even as the same pundits admit that US-fired drone missiles are targeting the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan.

These are just the kind of blatantly contradictory and nut-case conspiracy theories that get enormous traction on TV channels and in the media - especially when voiced by such senior former officials.

The explosion in civil society and pro-democracy movements that brought the former military regime of President Pervez Musharraf to its knees over two years has become divided, dissipated and confused about its aims and intentions.

A Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan
Troops and militants are fighting in South Waziristan

Even when such activists do appear on TV, their voices are drowned out by the conspiracy theorists who insist that every one of Pakistan's ills are there because of interference by the US, India, Israel and Afghanistan.

The army has not helped by constantly insisting that the vicious Pakistani Taliban campaign to topple the state and install an Islamic emirate is not a local campaign waged by dozens of extremist groups, some of whom were trained by the military in the 1990s, but the result of foreign conspiracies.

Economic crisis

Such statements by the military hardly do justice to the hundreds of young soldiers who are laying down their lives to fight the Taliban extremists.

Nor has the elected government of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) tried to alter the balance, as it is mired in ineffective governance and widespread corruption while failing to tackle the economic recession, that is admittedly partly beyond its control.

Moreover the PPP has no talking pundits, sympathetic talk show hosts or a half decent media management campaign to refute the lies and innuendo that much of the media is now spewing out.

At present, the principal obsession is when and how President Asif Ali Zardari will be replaced or sacked, although there is no apparent constitutional course available to get rid of him except for a military coup, which is unlikely.

The campaign waged by some politicians and parts of the media - with underlying pressure from the army - is all about trying to build public opinion to make Mr Zardari's tenure untenable.

Victim of a suicide attack in Pakistan
Pakistan is caught in a spiral of violence

Nobody discusses the failure of the education system that is now turning out hundreds of suicide bombers, rather than doctors and engineers.

Or the collapsing and corrupt national health system that forces the poorest to seek expensive private medical treatment, or the explosion in crime or suicides by failed farmers and workers who have lost their jobs.

Pakistan cannot tackle its real problems unless the country's leaders - military and civilian - first admit that much of the present crisis is a result of long-standing mistakes, the lack of democracy, the failure to strengthen civic institutions and the lack of investment in public services like education, even as there continues to be a massive investment in nuclear weapons and the military.

Pakistan's crisis must first be acknowledged by officialdom and the media before solutions can be found.

The alternative is a continuation of the present paralysis where people are left confused, demoralised and angry.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of the best-selling book Taliban and, most recently, of Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.


Here is a selection of your comments:

Ahmed Rashid may be right in saying that conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan. I would however request him to explain a few observations. First, how do these Pakistani Taliban manage to deploy anti-aircraft and other heavy weapons and pay $40 per day to their soldiers if they have no external government or external secret agency support? Secondly, why are they targeting specific political parties while other right-wing and religious extremist parties hold rallies freely? Surely somebody is supporting them. Will Mr Rashid kindly comment?
Farrukh Chowdry, Adelaide, Australia

It's refreshing to know there are still intellectuals in modern Pakistan who know the truth and have the daring to speak it out loud. On the other hand, it's such a shame that Pakistanis have been fed a diet of lies that no wonder they are so puzzled and confused about whom to trust. I don't think that it would be any exaggeration to say that the Pakistani establishment has not only been inspired by Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, but also have managed to outdo him. Now we can say that "government could fool all the people all the time".
Anupam Gupta, Newcastle, UK

I find this article fascinating. But I will raise one point here. I have been a close observer of Indian news channels in the past and have seen similar accounts. My understanding is that Pakistan is now becoming a nation which has really started to think, and this has happened after the explosion of TV channels. Though I agree that some channels are playing a negative role from government point of view but in the end it does represent the views of Pakistani people. I see positive coming out of this complete mess. It has been a few years since Pakistani media got real freedom and they have a lot to learn. And they acknowledge this fact. Let's make this world a happy place for our generations to come.
Umar Butt, Lahore, Pakistan

Finally one article that narrates the problem with Pakistani people. Whenever I'm browsing through the channels on Sky and come across a Pakistani channel, I'm most certain to see a debate or discussion on Islam or a discussion on the American and Indian-sponsored Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani people clearly live in a state of denial. And the statements from their foreign secretary or ministers blaming US and India for the country's misfortune just add up to this sorry state of affairs. If ever there is a single clue to Indian government sponsoring Pakistani Taliban, the Indian government may be forced to resign the very next day. It's hard to imagine Pakistan was once a part of greater India. If anyone has to study the effects of democracy and secularism on a nation, look no further than 65 years of history of India and Pakistan. One started out as a confused republic with no clear demarcation between state and religion, the other with a stable, impartial constitution and the difference it made in 65 years is for all to see.
Harsha, London

The author seems quite ill informed and biased. His lack of intellectual honesty shows through in many of his comments, specially his reference to a "retired senior army officer" claiming that Hakimullah Mehsud has been whisked to safety by the Americans. This "officer" is none other than General Mirza Aslam Beg, the Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army from 1988 to 1992. He enjoys considerable prestige and is acknowledged to have reliable contacts in the army and elsewhere. His claim is that the US has been playing a double game against Pakistan which, I think, is apparent from the chain of events over the past few years and the mass of evidence unearthed by the Pakistan army this year.

That Pakistan is entitled to pursue policies that are in its own interests is a sentiment that is beyond the comprehension of people like Ahmed Rashid. The US is pursuing its own interests in Central Asia - what is good for it is not necessarily good for Pakistan. And vice versa. Of the key personalities in Pakistan who have a hand on the reins of power, only General Kayani seems to understand this. But his freedom of action appears to be limited.
Sakib Ahmad, UK

Good to see Ahmed Rashid finally extending his criticism from Pakistan army-only to highly immature Pakistani television media and leadership-deficient, non-serious, and incapable civil government. If the civil government shows strong leadership and capability, the Army will never dare to interfere.
Zafar, Sydney, Australia

He doesn't even have a clue on what he is talking about. For the first time in Pakistan's history, media is free and people have the right to make their own views about what is going on. Anyways, these are just my views and I am not surprised how he became the author of the best-seller book. I am also not surprised why you guys choose to publish this article.
Akram, NYC, USA

Ahmed Rashid is among a dwindling number of wise people in Pakistan whose voices are being drowned out by a rising, shrill cacophony of madness. The state of affairs in Pakistan reminds me of Picasso's Guernica - which is what all of Pakistan appears to have become. And, sadly, we know how long that particular internal strife took to play out. The world's first ostensibly modern Islamic state, carved out of India on the basis of religion, has become its most pathetic, held together tenuously only by a hatred of 'the other' that is systematically nurtured by the establishment, read the military. Pakistan's men in uniform are long embittered by their failure to achieve martial greatness despite their tribal self-image of invincibility - an image that they derive curiously not from Pakistani culture, but from Afghan warriors like the Ghoris and Ghaznavis, after whom they name Pakistan's spanking new missiles and other new weaponry built using a barter system with North Korea.

And that is where Pakistan's real problem lies: a fundamentalist military that is adept at buying time for itself using the currency of hatred. That toxic cache will run out some day, hopefully sooner rather than later. And that day Pakistan will be reborn among the comity of the world's great nations.
Tony Gill, Sydney, Australia

What does 60+ years of conspiracy theories give you? More conspiracy theories. If they hate the US they should also learn to hate the US dollar... and then they can debate in their TV shows - what kills more Pakistanis? The Taliban or hunger? I do believe, beggars cannot be choosers! Hope Pakistanis see a sunny day soon.
Evo, Australia

Dear Mr Ahmed Rashid, are you sure you are Pakistani?!!!?? Is any part of you Pakistani at all?!! When was the last time you even set foot in this country?!! You have absolutely no idea what is happening in this country, no wonder the Afghan strategy in Afghanistan is failing, you don't know the first thing about Pakistan. You are merely mouthing the kind of biased over-simplistic profound ignorance that Western channels regularly portray when it comes to Pakistan. Even a kid living here can see through your rubbish. This article is so nauseating and biased. Allow us - the Pakistani people that certainly doesn't include the likes of you - decide what is in our interests.
Zoh, Lahore, Pakistan

The description given by Mr Rashid of the state of media is true in a way. Media is nascent in the country where it suffers a fear for its new-found independence or freedom. Why we see only talk of Taliban and militancy on television shows is because many of the problems that the country faces today such as joblessness and lack of investment is largely due to terrorism and daily attacks in which people are being killed and businesses closed down.

But there is a growing realisation and acknowledgement in the leadership of the country that this problem can only be tackled if hearts and minds of people are won over and that can only be done by improving social indicators. And while media is semi-educated itself, according to Mr Rashid, so is a large majority of the people in the country, and to educate them is a task that media seems to have taken upon itself. Although time is short but give it a chance.
Waqas Rafique, Islamabad, Pakistan

Pure sensationalism! Yes, the situation on the ground is far from ideal, but it is nowhere near as desperate as the above article makes out. As a society we are still evolving and as yet in the early stages of the maturation curve where the leadership is concerned, still caught up in its old feudal habits of bad governance and conspicuous consumption. But, despite its best efforts, the middle class is gaining critical mass and its educated cadres are increasingly vocal in demanding level playing fields. In this equation the Taliban have entered as a loose canon that challenges the regressive status quo and hence have found favour with the public in the past. But the public has recognised them for what they are, a bunch of selfish savages, and they have lost its sympathy as it throws its weight behind the Pakistan army's military operation against the Taliban.
Adil Ahmad, Karachi, Pakistan

Its ironic that this is yet again another article which does not talk about any of the issues really faced by a Pakistani today. Like the media personalities he talks about, Ahmed Rashid himself fails to provide any substance for or against any of the arguments.
Aamir Dehlavi, Manalapan, NJ, USA

I have said many times before and I'll say it again - Pakistan's problems are not a recent development, they are a result of 60+ years of a lack of governance, rampant corruption, brutal land lords (feudalism) and an over-ambitious military! All these and more are coming home to roost! Basically, Pakistan needs to start from the scratch, establish a comprehensive education reforms covering ALL its citizens, ABOLISH FUEDAL LANDLORDS and contain the military within its responsibilities as a security apparatus. Get rid of the over-ambitious religious right! Oh! Also cross your fingers and pray like hell!
Intrepid, USA

Thanks to Ahmed Rashid for creating the picture which is almost actual. I want to add that media is trying to direct the country without a strong/literate base of analysts. It is not following any code of conduct which should be established as per our norms. It is criticising the system in a way not to teach the system but only pleasing the audience without any effective policy. As we see from here is that media in Pakistan is becoming a part of "Might is Right" like many other powers.
Deedar Hussain, Karachi & Pakistan

Thanks to Ahmed Rashid for writing a very timely and valuable piece. Pakistan needs to understand its own social, economic, and political crisis. The country needs to work towards building a civil society which respects democracy, secularism, and human rights, while respecting its own and its neighbour's cultural plurality.
Sohail Ansari, Wisconsin, USA



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