National Security

Does the NRA Want to Turn America Into Afghanistan?

Because that's where we're headed.

I have been in a handful of drunken altercations in my life. Thankfully, I've lived to regret them all. That did not have to be the case, nor was my safe emergence from youthful stupidity a foregone conclusion. Maybe my luck had something to do with growing up listening to Johnny Cash. Standing against the tide of a culture glorifying violence, Cash followed stories of impulsive violence to their inglorious conclusions. In "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," an insecure young man drinking while armed meets a tragic end. I'd like to think that having that song in the back of my mind kept me out of mortal trouble, but of course most of my luck stemmed from growing up in a society where, for the most part, we've all agreed to leave our guns at home.

That agreement has been challenged consistently by the leaders of the National Rifle Association. Their call for more guns in more public spaces in the aftermath of Newtown may have come as a surprise to some, but is in keeping with the organization's outlook over the last 30 years. I know, because I grew up around guns and NRA publications. I own a pistol, and would likely own several more guns if I did not have access to my father's sizable arsenal -- there are only so many weapons a man can use at once. And for years, American Rifleman, the NRA's flagship publication, could be found lying around the house. Like a great many gun owners, however, my father and I parted ways with the NRA over their shrill insistence on guns for everyone, everywhere.

The NRA's maximalist position on guns is theoretically about freedom, but following its lead would result in less freedom, not more, and mark a step backward for the civil society that we Americans have labored so hard to build. The NRA fantasy that true safety only derives from an openly armed population is not only indulgent, it ignores both human nature and history. It is a philosophy that offers false comfort to frightened individuals and would do nothing for our collective safety.

The world is full of societies where individuals arm themselves for safety, and the instability of such countries should serve as an object lesson of what happens when our mutual trust and our willingness to engage in conversation, unarmed, is driven away by fear of both our government and our fellow citizens. Such places are invariably not more polite, as NRA leaders would have it, but much more explosive. Just look at Afghanistan, where I and thousands of other Americans have confronted the realities of a population armed and on edge.

Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, which emphasizes vengeance and honor, can be confusing for Westerners, and its outcomes can seem downright incoherent. An attempted murder can be reconciled with the sacrifice of a goat while a couple that elopes may be sentenced to years in prison, or simply killed. These outcomes have nothing to do with justice as we commonly understand it, but are part of a necessary dance among armed factions, each seeking stability in a desperate environment. Honor and vengeance represent both sides of the coin of insecurity, and Pashtunwali is most easily understood not as a cultural code but as realpolitik for places where the threat of violence is ever-present and people cannot rely on their government to provide stability. In such an environment, there is little room for individual freedom and justice. There is only the survival of the family and tribe. Everyone is armed. Everyone is defensive. And society is congealed into those elements that can best ensure stability. Eventually loyalty trumps justice, and survival trumps all.

Therefore our greatest challenge in getting Afghanistan to move beyond its violent past has been in building the kind of credible local and national institutions that can offer an alternative to brute force as the way to resolve disputes. That some Americans have so little faith in our own institutions that they would willingly retreat to the brutality of this kind of frontier justice is a travesty.

Yet in the view of men like Wayne LaPierre, threats to freedom abound, and the only answer is the threat of violence. They believe that every agreement to mitigate violence is a direct threat to independence, and one that ultimately leads to subjugation. Such a view suggests that we are incapable of creating a secure society that also allows for individual freedom and limits the powers of a central government. Not only is this view both paranoid and self-limiting, it also ignores the core strength of American society. Our police and courts are not perfect but we understand that collective efforts to ensure the peace will, in the long run, always be more effective than one man with a gun.

It is a mark of all we have accomplished in our two-and-a-half-century history that we do not settle our disagreements with weapons, nor do we avoid voicing those disagreements for fear of getting shot. Calls for more citizens to regularly carry guns should be viewed with great skepticism by both NRA members and gun-control advocates alike. We need to remember that we are not a state on the brink of failure. The overwhelming majority of us are not in mortal danger and we do not need to be packing heat to protect our honor. A greater public role for private guns would not add to our freedom; it would detract from it.

There are steps we can and should take to limit the potential for future events like Newtown, but we should scorn the paranoia that sees solutions in even more weapons in more public spaces. America armed would not be a place of genteel men in cowboy hats keeping everyone calm, but a nation even more on edge. Encouraging an armed populace cedes the ideas of justice and deliberation that we have worked so hard to build to a brittle strength -- one that sees mortal insult in a traffic slight and where arguments are more often than not met with physical challenges.

We can respect the right of Americans to own weapons while agreeing that they should be left largely out of public life. I don't agree with banning guns, but I categorically reject calls to embrace them more openly as a way to avoid violence. The young Taliban in the news may appear tough but are in fact men in perpetual insecurity, living only a fantasy of purity and strength. Their embrace of armed conflict and intimidation is a sign of the weakness of their ideas and their inability to constructively engage their fellow Afghans. There is a reason we left that model behind, and I am looking forward to leaving it behind myself. I am eager to return to America and to the freedom that comes with leaving my guns at home.



Coup Season

Is Pakistan's meddlesome military up to its old tricks?

With the future of Pakistan's prime minister, president, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice up in the air this year, there was little doubt that 2013 would be rife with intrigue in Islamabad. The country, after all, has witnessed three military coups in its 65-year history. And Pakistan has yet to see a transition of power between two successive democratically elected governments.

Today, many Pakistani observers, including human rights activist Asma Jahangir, suspect a surreptitious putsch is afoot, aided by the judiciary and a mysterious cleric-politician, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who suddenly returned to Pakistan last month from Canada. The Sufi cleric has now led three large anti-government rallies, buttressed by expensive television advertising and a professional social media campaign.

The goal, these observers claim, is the implementation of what's known in Pakistan as the Bangladesh model -- a reference to that country's army and Supreme Court-backed, technocrat  government, which governed from 2007 to 2009 and was tasked with correcting the mess caused by the two dominant political parties. In Pakistan's case, those two parties would be President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Qadri has only heightened this suspicion by calling for the inclusion of both the army and the judiciary in selecting a caretaker government to oversee the elections expected this spring. There has been no visible public demand for including these actors in the process. And it has no justification in the Pakistani constitution, which only requires general elections to take place under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government chosen by the government and opposition, or by the federal election commission.

On Jan. 15, Qadri's plan appeared to be taking shape when Pakistani television channels broke from live coverage of his rally to report the breaking news of the Supreme Court's apparent order for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's arrest. It seemed perfectly choreographed: Qadri's followers erupted in celebration, and the cleric asked them to perform the namaz-e shukrana, or prayer of gratitude. For a moment, Qadri appeared to be another Khomeini -- returning from the West with an effortless victory over the ancien régime.

Alas, for Qadri -- who seems to be inspired by the late Iranian leader's "cleansing" of the Pahlavi system -- it was too good to be true. The Supreme Court's order turned out to be not nearly so bold: It was simply a notification that gives the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a federal anti-corruption body, the ability to arrest the prime minister, who is accused of receiving kickbacks from companies involved in rental power projects, if necessary, in relation to the ongoing investigation. While the Supreme Court could push the NAB chief in that direction, the bureau could also employ delaying tactics. The government, in any case, has the ability to survive with or without the current prime minister till its tenure ends in mid-March. 

The implementation of the "Bangladesh model" also faces another hurdle: It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would ally with the army or any other non-democratic forces. Though it has legitimized military interventions in the past, the court has demonstrated its vigilance since 2007 in guarding its autonomy, and shown hostility to both civilian and military authoritarianism. This, after all, is a court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was deposed twice in 2007 for challenging military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

That's not to say there isn't good reason for the antsiness pervading Islamabad today. Pakistan is scheduled to have an unprecedented series of consecutive leadership transitions this year: General elections are supposed to take place in April or May, as the current government's tenure is ending. In September, Zardari's term concludes. In November, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is scheduled for retirement. And in December, the era of Chaudhry, the most powerful Supreme Court chief justice in Pakistan's history, will finish upon his retirement. 

Given the uncertainty that lies ahead, the military might be behind Qadri. The military might also be using Qadri to prevent a second term for the PPP or a return to power for Sharif, a center-right politician who clashed with three army chiefs during the 1990s. The military might even have given up on Pakistan's five-year democratic experiment as the country's economic health and security erode. Qadri, in some ways, is the perfect front man for the military: He rails against the political class, calls for strong anti-corruption measures and economic reform, and has presented himself as a "moderate Muslim" to the West, issuing a well-publicized fatwa against terrorism.

But there is no smoking gun linking Qadri to the military, which has disavowed any connection to him. The credibility of the military's distancing itself from Qadri should not be reflexively dismissed. Qadri could have simply used his massive devotional following and worldwide educational network to fill a void and audition as the savior of the military and Pakistan's anti-politics middle class.

If Qadri is indeed on a military-backed mission to force the postponement of the elections and pave the way for a caretaker government, he is likely to fail. Pakistani politicians, though known for their petty squabbling, will align against any effort to delay elections and suspend civilian rule. It's true that in the past, many civilian political parties have supported military rulers -- but today, there is a broad consensus in favor of democracy. Other power brokers, including much of the private media and civil society groups that played a key role in Musharraf's downfall, will also resist efforts to derail the country's democratic experiment. Pakistan's military, burdened with multiple counterinsurgencies, cannot afford such a backlash.

The military does, however, have a constitutional way to indirectly reduce the risks of civilian encroachments on its prerogatives. Both Qadri and Imran Khan, the ex-cricket star now head of the third way Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, call for empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan and strengthening its moral authority to disqualify candidates on constitutional grounds, including financial impropriety. If candidates from the PPP and PML-N are disproportionally affected, then Khan's PTI could perform better in the upcoming polls, and potentially balance out the PML-N in a hung parliament. In recent years, the PML-N has been Pakistan's strongest advocate for civilian control over the military. If it attains a parliamentary majority on its own, it will have the necessary political space to assert its authority over the military. But if it is dependent on coalition partners to form a government -- and in particular, partners that are somewhat friendly with the military -- then Sharif's political capital over the military would reduced.

During the course of his tenure, Kayani has repeatedly expressed his support for the democratic process -- though it would be wrong to say that he has been apolitical. Yes, it is possible that his support for civilian rule has dwindled: The word democracy was conspicuously absent from his Independence Day speech last August, though it has commonly appeared in his other major public addresses, including his Martyr's Day speech in May. But it would be out of character for Kayani, a deeply cautious man, to make such an indelicate push against democracy.

There might be elements in the military whose inhibitions about a coup have eased. But Pakistan is not yet hurtling over a cliff: The resolve of Pakistan's pro-democracy coalition -- its major political parties, judges, civil society groups, and television channels -- remains strong.