Right from the beginning of my adventure Pakistan always loomed as the trickiest country I would have to cross. While I was going to Afghanistan it was only to a small, relatively safe area. In Pakistan I would have to cross the whole country and pass through Baluchistan in particular. Before I left London it seemed like Pakistan was in the news every week for some act of terrorist or form of tribal conflict. As a result the news always caught my eye when it concerned Pakistan, and other incidents were often brought to my attention by concerned friends and family, that knew I where I was heading.
Still I was drawn too, and excited about visiting Pakistan in equal measure. The lure of going somewhere others are not, to somewhere people tell me I shouldn’t go, is always something I find hard to resist. It’s enough to arouse my adventurous spirit to say, ‘hell no, I’m going to go check it out for myself’. I’ve been to many places that most people bypass and I’ve always found the reality on the ground significantly different to how it is presented in the news.
That said I was well aware that there could be problems getting into (getting my visa wasn’t straightforward) and crossing Pakistan. I would be stuck on the wrong side of Asia, with no land route options available in the time I had to get back to London (based on the fact I didn’t want to retrace my steps), if something went wrong. In the end there were a number of highs and lows I experienced during the month I spent in Pakistan and I was able make a number of observations.
Politics / Pakistan Government
Politics plays a part of everyday life Pakistan. Everybody has a view and they are generally happy to express it. In recent times Musharraf (pre-2007) was a popular leader. He was better than current government according to many, but he made mistakes handling various sensitive situations that ultimately cost him the next election. He was seen as an honest man who could have got Pakistan back on track. Honest men are thin on the ground in Pakistan apparently. The problem was he came from a military rule into democracy. He didn’t have the party background and structure of support when it came to an election. The Bhutto and Sharif families rule the political scene in Pakistan. Like India, many of the powerful families that were in place at partition still wield a huge amount of power today.
Corruption and poor governance play their part in Pakistan. Most Pakistani’s just accept it as the way the system works. It makes me wonder how much the Pakistan government contributes to their own problems. And how many are actually ‘in bed’ with the so-called ‘bad elements’ in the region. At both borders I entered and exited there was no search of my vehicle and no questions asked. While I appreciated the ease and speed at which I was able to cross, I couldn’t help wondering how easy it must be to move illegal items backwards and forwards across Pakistan’s borders.
Politics though can be a very short term game in Pakistan and it effects all public bodies. I had tea and a chat with the assistant deputy commissioner in Dalbandin. He had a job where he was appointed based on being the best candidate but keeping everybody happy is the balancing act required to maintain the position. It’s a short term job if you annoy the wrong people. Looking at the honours board for his role the turnover was quick. Many lasting barely three months.
Pakistan is rich in minerals (gold, iron, copper, and gas to name a few), it has massive hydro power potential, the Punjab is the breadbasket for the country and tourism is popular. So why do they struggle to keep the electricity on? Why are there fuel shortages all the time? Why is the standard of living low for so many, while the gap between the rich and the poor grows. I think it’s a combination of many things. Corruption at all levels, security concerns, the wealth being shared between so few and the poor levels of education in many parts of the country. Pakistan was once a leading country in the region. Progressive and stable. The last forty years have destabilised the economy so much it is just limping along at the moment.
Sunni Islam is the major religious force in Pakistan. They consider themselves to be more peaceful than the Shiites (something the Shiites think is the other way round). However there is always a simmering air of confrontation between the two, especially on religious holidays such as Muharram. Islamic hardline governance from the late 1970’s to late 1980’s has put in place some tough laws. One thing I do not like about Islamic culture is the inability (or with great difficulty) to change or repeal old laws and rules. Once they are in place nobody is prepared to speak out to change the law, even if the rule is outdated. Hence everybody just bends or ignores the rule. As a result, if Pakistanis can find a way, they will bend the rules. ie police checks are often relaxed, and boozing is common.
Having seen first hand the effects of the US foreign policy in Pakistan I’ve been forced to reconsider my stance. If people are terrorists, should they be caught, yes, and even killed, maybe. But what are the side effects of the dangerous game the US plays. The US killing by drone strike of Mashud that destroyed the potential peace talks highlights the situation. How much of this is a political game. If the government didn’t think the Taliban were serious, it would be very easy for them to turn a blind eye unofficially to the U.S drone strikes while condemning them publicly. But does the US have a right to wage war on Pakistani soil? I tried to put myself in the Pakistani people’s shoes, by imagining how I would feel if the US was using drones to kill terrorists in New Zealand without official approval. I wouldn’t be very happy at all.
Pakistan hasn’t help themselves though. They played with fired in wanting to control Afghanistan. The security services (ISI) supported the Taliban which now has many militant arms operating on the Pakistan / Afghan borders. They have helped to create the current situation. Once again somebody that has tried to influence and control Afghanistan has had their fingers burnt playing with fire. And now with so many Afghan refugees, the borders with Afghanistan are difficult, if not impossible to police at present. And it’s easy to forget that Kashmir on the border with India still causes a distraction as well. It’s hard to say when things will improve. China appears to be a friendly neighbour at least. Their designs on Pakistan’s sea border is a great incentive for investment in Pakistan.
Security / Safety
Baluchistan is very tribal and security is high in the region, especially for foreigners. Security up the Karakoram Highway was in place for section of the journey as well. However I couldn’t help feeling it was little light hearted and comical at times. More of a babysitting service. However, if the point is to act as a deterrent, it seems to be working from the perspective of the foreigners. That doesn’t address the issue for the local people though, as the many terrible events of the last year in Pakistan show. Large scale religious and political events are treated as high security risks due to the opportunities and greater number of targets they provide. Terrorism and tribal warfare are an everyday threat in Pakistan. But is this any different than many other countries around the world. Perhaps not. It is just that Pakistan in so high profile you hear about every occurrence.
NGO’s / Aid Programs
I was fortunate enough to meet with people from a couple of great organisations, doing great work in Pakistan. Whether it was the drug rehabilitation program being successfully run by Tariq’s NGO or the children’s Lettucebeekids support network by Sarah’s NGO, it was good to see these in operation trying to make a difference. Many of Pakistan’s best and brightest, that have studied overseas are still prepared to return home to help make it a better place. The national pride of the Pakistani people is a strong force to be reckoned with.
The one thing I love the most about the Islamic culture is the generosity towards all guests. The guest is paramount. It is simply amazing. The treatment giving to me all across the country was a highlight of the trip. Whether it be lunch, dinner, food or drinks, I often wasn’t allowed to pay for things as a guest and I was always given preferential treatment. And officially they bend the rules all the time so I was actually offered alcoholic drinks in many of the places I visited too.
What more can I say, the people were fantastically friendly and welcoming. All the people I met loved hosting visitors and were always happy to help me out. Many even took on themselves to be responsible for my safe movements throughout the country. Across the country the people were always waving and smiling as I crossed their paths. They have a saying that you ‘Arrive as a guest, leave as family’. I certainly felt that way.
These Pakistanis are also a passionate bunch. They speak there thoughts strongly (especially if they are educated and in an controlling position). I didn’t get the opportunity to speak in depth with lower socio-economic groups. These groups however work hard, are very friendly, seem happy, but are ultimately employees that are doing a job. Even if they do work for the same employer for many years and are often considered part of the family.
Karakoram Highway was simply amazing. The Khunjerab Pass, the Catherdral of Cones at Passu, Attabad Lake, and Karakoram mountain range were spectacular. It is easy to see why this region is so popular with tourists, trekkers, and mountain climbers. The Bolan Pass on the way to Quetta was pretty, however you tend to be distracted from observing the beauty due to the security issues. Looking around Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore was interesting and a great way to spend a few days. The rest of the country unfortunately, was difficult to see many of the sights due to my time constraints and the security issues.
Is Pakistan a dangerous place? Yes, probably only Afghanistan is worse in Central Asia region. There is a high visibility of security forces, though they are pretty friendly and not in your face serious most of the time. Terrorism and security are issues that will plague the country for a long time yet. Unfortunately it is always the local people that suffer the worst. I experienced the impact on the tourism industry first hand in the Hunza valley, as a result of the terrorist attack on Nanga Parbat in June this year.
What will 2014, and the withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan bring? Will the region it get better or worse? Many think it will get worse before things settle down. Pakistan is inextricably linked to Afghanistan’s future and I think Pakistan is in danger of becoming one with Afghanistan, if it is not careful.
Settling their differences with India over Kashmir would help but it’s unlikely in the near future. Like India, Pakistan still relies on many of the structures and institutions left by the British. Maybe it’s time to develop a few more of their own? and to make peace with the Indians?
Ultimately the perceived threat, real or fictional helps to create the impression Pakistan isn’t a place to visit. Well I disagree. I was glad I made the effort to visit for myself and the people repaid that effort with great kindness and care. I hope to go back again one day.
If you would like to learn more about my time in Pakistan here are my other posts.