A country at war

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto we revisit our October special on Pakistan in whi

Pakistan is about to descend even deeper into violence and chaos, as the front-line state in the war on terror prepares for an all-out offensive on the jihadi militants entrenched in Waziristan, the country's lawless northern province. In what amounts to total war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Musharraf is planning to bring the whole region under military control. This is a high-risk strategy, as the consequences of failure could be devastating for Pakistan. They could even lead to the break-up of the country.

Behind the headlines, the state's contradictions and tensions are being tested to the limit. The arrival of Benazir Bhutto, supposed to help marshal the forces of moderation and reform, has increased political instability. Supporters of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who plans a second attempt to return from exile to Pakistan in the first week of November, are preparing a mass campaign against Musharraf that could lead to political gridlock. And the president himself has given a general amnesty to corrupt politicians - an act seen as handing a tabula rasa to plunderers and murderers.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on the basis of a "power-sharing deal" brokered by Washington and vaunted in the international media as a po sitive move towards democracy. But it is little more than a conjunction of self-interests. Mush arraf describes the proposed arrangement as a "troika", involving the president, the prime min ister and the army chief of staff. The powers of the president, including being able to sack the prime minister at will, are to remain untouched for the next five-year term. Any premier would thus have little real power and would be forced to do the bidding of the other two members of the troika. A pliant prime minister with selected political parties on board means Musharraf remains in charge. The status quo is preserved.

In return for joining the arrangement, Bhutto's two main demands are met: her Swiss bank accounts have been unfrozen and she gets to keep her skyscraper in Dubai and properties in England and the US; and the rule against her serving a third term as prime minister is waived.

Musharraf's plans for the immediate future have two components. First, now that Bhutto has returned, he is determined to hold elections before mid-January. They will be "managed", just as he managed the 2002 elections, by "seat adjustment" - this time to the advantage of her party. He expects Bhutto to deliver her "blind" followers from Sind and Punjab, largely poor peasants at the mercy of feudal landlords. The intelligence agencies and the army will do the rest and ensure the desired results.

However, after the bloodbath in Karachi at Bhutto's return on 19 October, it is difficult to see how in the current atmosphere elections can be held. "Political rallies will be open to both militant attacks and sabotage by rogue intelligence elements," says Rashed Rahman, managing editor of the Post, the Lahore daily. "With intel ligence apparatus as prime candidate for the attack, all previous assumptions of Bhutto riding back to power are scuppered."

Fear of suicide bombings will be a potent inhibition to voters from venturing into the polling booths. And given that large parts of the northern provinces are virtually no-go areas, it will be next to impossible to hold elections in that region. "A limited voter turnout at around 20 per cent will hardly constitute a credible election," says Rahman - no matter how the elections are "managed".

Second, a fully fledged assault on Waziristan is due within days. "This has now become inevi table," a high-ranking military officer told the NS. "We are taking daily casualties. If we don't take the militants on with our full might, the morale of the army will sink even further." Unlike previous operations, which target ed specific militant bases or tried to block guer rilla movement between Pakistan and Afghan is tan, "the aim now is to pacify the entire province".

Forces would be deployed in all major cities, such as Mir Ali, Angor Ada and Magaroti, with the aim of establishing permanent army bases manned by thousands of military and paramilitary troops. The entire region will come under Pakistani military control, administered under the direct command of the newly appointed vice-chief of the army staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani. (When and if Musharraf removes his uniform, General Kiani will take over as chief of the army staff.) "We estimate the all-out assault will destroy the centralised command structure of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, making their operations sporadic and largely ineffective," says the military officer.

Language of liberation

However, given the Pakistani army's poor record in Waziristan, this seems rather optimistic. The militants will almost certainly stand and fight to the bloody end. Pakistan has already lost more than a thousand soldiers; 300 more are being held hostage. The Pashtun fighters, including the Pakistani Taliban, know the region well. They are used to guerrilla warfare and see death in battle as a great honour and a direct route to paradise. Most of the local population supports them. The chances of the Pakistani army "pacifying" the region are therefore slim.

At issue is more than terrorism. The fiercely proud and independent Pashtun people see the American and British forces in neighbouring Afghanistan as invaders. Pakistani troops marching into Waziristan will also be seen as a foreign invasion. A civil war will turn into a war of "national liberation". Many tribal leaders are already speaking the language of liberating themselves from the "Pakistani administration". The end result could be a new wave of suicide attacks and acts of sabotage throughout Pakistan.

Musharraf began putting his strategy in place two weeks ago. He secured the passage of the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO), as it is called, on 5 October. This dropped all corruption charges against politicians from "all parties". "We decided to wind up those cases that were pending for the past 15 years," Musharraf said, claiming that it would bring to an end the politics of vendetta and victimisation in the country. The NRO cleared the way for Bhutto's return and wiped out the last remaining charges against her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released on bail in 2004 after spending eight years in prison. The next day, Musharraf had himself re-elected as president for another term by the current hand-selected parliament.

But the amnesty granted in the NRO does not include Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Muslim League, Pakistan's second-largest party. A conservative, staunchly anti-American politician, Sharif believes democracy and military dictators do not go together. He commands huge support among both the middle classes and religious groups and is more likely to win a fair election than Bhutto. Sharif, deposed in a bloodless coup in 1999, is determined to engineer Musharraf's downfall. On his first attempt to return to Pakistan on 10 September, he was arrested at Kar achi Airport and given two choices: prison, or return to exile in Saudi Arabia. The cases against Sharif are still pending before the Supreme Court. Yet, despite Musharraf's efforts, the courts have refused to issue new arrest warrants against him. If Sharif succeeds in returning, the Bhutto/Mush arraf deal will be in serious trouble.

"The chances of that alliance holding are also slim," says Rahman. To begin with, the two despise each other. The Pakistan People's Party is not so much a party as a feudal institution that Bhutto runs as her fiefdom. But even she may find it difficult to suppress dissent in the senior ranks. Many PPP stalwarts believe that the power-sharing pact with Musharraf is damaging the party's reputation and electoral chances. A number of Bhutto family members have openly stated their criticisms. The poet and newspaper columnist Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's niece, holds her aunt responsible for the deaths in Karachi because of her insistence on "political theatre".

Her ratings in opinion polls conducted after the NRO have fallen sharply. Some senior PPP members hoped she would give a new lease of life to the party by behaving like a senior states woman and allowing younger politicians to lead. But not many are willing to defend an indefensible deal. There is thus a real chance that the PPP may split, as it did at the previous elections. And if Bhutto fails to deliver at these elections, even after seat manipulations, Musharraf will drop her as easily as he has abandoned other parties.

So far, Musharraf has had it all his way. His only remaining obstacle is a case currently at the Supreme Court over whether he can continue as president in uniform. It is not much of an obstacle, however, as everything is now in place for him to retain his power even if he has to dispense with his military position.

The power-sharing arrangement was conceived as a ploy to paper over the gaping cracks in the country. After Karachi, it looks more like another contributory factor in a more turbulent and dangerous era for Pakistan. The intelligence services, elements of which may be responsible for the attack on Bhutto's motorcade, are out of control. Suicide bombings have become an integral part of the militants' strategy in Waziristan, both to undermine the political process and to demoralise the army. Whether one player, or even power-sharing players, ultimately subservient to Washington can retain control of this explosive situation is a moot point.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood