Is Pakistan on the brink? This question agitates the mind of her citizens. It haunts all those who have sacrificed much since 1947, first in the creation of the nation and then in its defense. The signs of failure are multifold. Dysfunctional political institutions, fickle judiciary, rampant corruption and compromised bureaucracy are indicators that the nation is sliding towards social unrest. The people are largely not cognizant that a population-explosion, ignorance, intolerance and religious-bigotry are detrimental to their well-being.
Are we really over the edge? While hope is a healthy response in many difficult situations, self-deception is fatal. Let us, therefore, choose the sure touchstone of history as our guide to perceive the course that the country has adopted. This article will study the ‘Time of Troubles’ of Mughal, Roman and Abbasid empires; three political entities whose history is well documented, and draw parallels between the last phases of their journey and our own current predicament.
After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the weaknesses in the imperial structure of the Mughal empire became evident. Bloody wars of successions (Irvine, Later Mughals), palace intrigues (most notoriously by the Syed Brothers) and ruined economy led to an ineffective emperor being held hostage in the hands of the most powerful court faction. Sensing no imperial controls, the Subedars became exerted independence in their provinces.
The first power to take advantage of Mughal weakness was Nader Shah, who, after a wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of the Delhi, walked away from the city with the accumulated wealth and jewels of two hundred years, and also took some of the fairest girls of the city; both princesses and the commoners. He was followed by Abdali, whose yearly raids into Punjab and Central India caused widespread social and political turmoil. This gave courage to the Marathas and the Rohillas, who alternated being the masters of Delhi. The British, the only organised power in India at that critical juncture, got emboldened. Within 50 years of the death of Aurangzeb, they had taken control of the eastern part of the Subcontinent and in another 50 years, of the entire Indian landmass, except the trans Sutlej area. In another 50 years, they had occupied Punjab, Kashmir and tribal areas of the northwest and southwest.
Comparing the above history with the situation of Pakistan, it is evident that the last effective government in the country was during the first six years of Musharraf’s rule. The lawyers’ movement now seems to have plunged the country into an instability that is similar to post-Aurangzeb Mughal era because it took power away from the executive and eroded the state’s authority. Lawyers have frequently used their muscle power to exert their superior political status over every other institution. Doctors also learnt that their voice is heard only when they cause inconvenience. Teachers, para-medical staff, government servants, etc. have all got their demands met through threat of violence. In Swat, from October 2007 to July 2009, the Taliban, reminiscent of Nader Shah in Delhi, looted properties, hanged opponents and abducted girls.
A student of history would have forecast that, as in the given cases of Roman and Abbasid history, these forced changes of government would lead to a period of civil war. Indeed, Pakistan went through a civil war when the Pakistani Taliban, assisted by their Central Asian and Afghan partners, had complete control of the erstwhile Tribal Areas and the valley of Swat, with unchecked intrusion into the population centres of the entire country
As in Delhi in the aftermath of Nader Shah, political and religious parties in Pakistan have learnt that the state’s writ is weak. Long marches towards our Delhi, i.e Islamabad, have become frequent. Barelvis under Khadim Rizvi, Shias due to Hazara killings, Deobandis under JUI, and all major political parties including PPP, PML-N and PTI can all walk into the capital, paralyse the length and breadth of the country, kill law enforcement personnel, burn, destroy and ransack, and walk away unscathed. State institutions are completely helpless to avert any of these groups. The establishment used to enjoy widespread esteem amongst the masses, especially in Punjab and KP, and exercise firm control in the vital matters of security and foreign affairs. That prestige has largely eroded with their getting blamed publicly for the intractable political mess that has engulfed us. The political leadership have proved to be unequal to grappling with the intricate issues facing the country.
The last phases of Abbasid and Roman empires reflect a picture similar to that of Mughal history, and provide clue to our current disarray. After a century of stable rule, the Caliphate entered a difficult period now known as the ‘Anarchy of Samarra’ during which the Turkish-dominated military of the empire deposed and murdered five caliphs, namely al-Muta’wakkil (d. 861), al-Muntasir (d. 862), al-Mustaʿīn (d. 866), al-Mu’tazz (d. 869) and al-Muhtadi (d. 870). This period of anarchy was followed by the fourteen-year long Zanj Rebellion (869-883) in the southern region of Mesopotamia that led the Caliphate on the path of slow decline and breakup. The Anarchy and the Rebellion crippled the Abbasids with the provinces becoming independent and the Caliph himself relegated to being a mere figurehead at the mercy of powerful court factions. The Roman Empire went through a similar period of anarchy in the Year of Five Emperors (193) in which five claimants (Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimius Severus) assumed the title of Emperor in different parts of the empire. During the year, three emperors, Commodus (d. 192), Pertinax (d. 193) and Marcus Didius (d. 193) were executed by the Praetorian Guard before Severus assumed power in April 193. Interestingly, Didius had purchased the title by being the highest bidder for the privilege of being the emperor but in only two months, lost the crown along with his head. Severus ruled for nearly eighteen years but only by appeasing the military and executing opposing senators; about 30 of them. The empire never recovered its glory and went down a painful path of slow death and disintegration.
Juxtaposing Pakistan’s history to that of the Roman or Abbasid empires, for strictly a narrow comparison, it is evident that the eleven-year rule from 1977 to 1988 by General Zia was followed by a decade between 1988 and 1999 when seven governments, four elected and thee interim, were installed and removed by palace intrigues, military intervention, forced jumping of parties, purchase of loyalties, blackmailing and arm-twisting. This charade was followed by the eighth government, that of military usurpation. This was our era of ‘Year of Five Emperors’ and ‘Anarchy of Samarra’, as the similarities in the chain of events clearly indicate. A student of history would have forecast that, as in the given cases of Roman and Abbasid history, these forced changes of government would lead to a period of civil war. Indeed, Pakistan went through a civil war when the Pakistani Taliban, assisted by their Central Asian and Afghan partners, had complete control of the erstwhile Tribal Areas and the valley of Swat, with unchecked intrusion into the population centres of the entire country.
Though the insurgency has been reversed at a great national sacrifice, the threat has not been eliminated. The situation of Baluchistan and Waziristan remain far from satisfactory. The outlook for near future remains uncertain. The nation is still divided, as the Romans and the Abbasids were divided. Tragically, as in the three quoted ancient empires, there is no sagacious leadership that can take the nation out of this quagmire.
The Roman Praetorian Guards were established for the noble cause of protecting the life of the emperor and his family and to be his spymasters. However, in time, they became corrupt, greedy and opportunistic and held the emperor as their hostage (Peter Preskar). They assassinated 13 emperors. The donativum they received on coronation of a new emperor became an incentive to kill the current occupant of the throne. In the 34th volume of his history, Tabari lists a similar tale of greed and horror relating to the Turkish war-machine of the empire, that, too, was established as the loyal personal army of the Caliph. M. Gordon has written about the political and financial authority gained by the Turkish officers of Samarra. The similarities with Pakistan are clear where civilian governments too have indulged in appeasement but, as history elucidates, these are failed tactics.
An inflated role of the military in imperial affairs in the historical cases cited above was instrumental in the dissolution of these empires. Relating this aspect to Pakistan, it is observed that the security establishment plays a crucial role in the making and breaking of a government. It is very obvious now that the premier institution responsible for foreign intelligence has taken over the role of the Praetorian Guards and the Abbasid Turkish warriors. It is an unfortunate fact that in our 75 years of national history, no elected prime minister has ever completed his or her tenure. Their premature termination has been the result of their ‘eyes and ears’ surreptitiously managing their ouster. It is amusing that the military leaders enjoy far longer tenures than the sanctioned three years, but they manage to cut down the term of their political bosses.
If the three strong empires discussed here fell to these shenanigans, there is no chance that our weak nation can survive this adventurism. Even revolutionary France was humbled by Bonapartism.
The prognosis for the nation, therefore, is not cheerful. The country suffered one calamity in 1971 and broke up. It came precipitously close to another tragedy when the Pakistani Taliban held sway over a large part of Pakistan. The slide to anarchy has still not been arrested.
Sadly, the answer to question of our being on the brink is distressing and frightful to contemplate.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com