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There are few places in the world where the truth is so shrouded in mystery that lies become publicly accepted truths, and the truth brushed aside as a lie; where there are no known knowns, or even known unknowns — but simply, unknown unknowns. Pakistan is such a place. So disconnected with reality — or is reality that’s so disjointed — are the manufactured narratives of the establishment (read, the Pakistani Army) that no one, not even the people in charge, seems to know what’s going on. Were the attackers who besieged the naval base recently jihadis, American/Indian spies, defected Pakistani soldiers? Who knows.

Cyril Almeida writes:

A combination of denial and exaggeration, that self-constructed narrative — subtly and not-so-subtly foisted off on the public via the media and other channels of manipulation — acts as a buffer against any meaningful inspection of the army’s track record.

The propagators of this dizzying confusion continue unabated, taking their charade to comedic heights.

On June 9, the satirical magazine, The Onion, had a funny story pointedly mocking Pakistan’s double-dealing with the US. It begins:

ISLAMABAD—Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency restated Thursday its commitment to the fight against terrorism, pledging full cooperation with U.S. forces during the upcoming strike on an al-Qaeda safe house on June 12 at 5:23 a.m. near the small town of Razmani in the remote tribal region of North Waziristan.

There’s a picture of a Pakistani official pointing out exactly where the Americans will hit, in addition to the exact time. The piece quotes the ISI Chief saying that “Pakistan stands shoulder to shoulder with our American allies in hunting down those who threaten our national security”, while in the same piece the head of the intelligence agency tips off militants:

“I know if I were a member of al-Qaeda, I’d want to cover my tracks very carefully,” Pasha said. “Because any evidence that hasn’t been carted away through the back alley near the market will be turned over to U.S. special forces, who will arrive approximately one hour later and will have full access to the site.”

“And what I definitely wouldn’t do is try to escape to one of the other safe houses in town, since the Americans already have them under surveillance, and have been watching them for quite some time,” he added.

Now that’s funny.

But imagine my surprise when I read this in the Washington Post:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Twice in recent weeks, the United States provided Pakistan with the specific locations of insurgent bomb-making factories, only to see the militants learn their cover had been blown and vacate the sites before military action could be taken, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.

U.S. officials say they do not know how the operation was compromised. But they are concerned that either the information was inadvertently leaked inside Pakistan or insurgents were warned directly by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI.

So there it is. Reality imitates satire in Pakistan. Hah?

“When you send people who have the wrong tools into those situations … they don’t (know) anything else really to do other than use force.” This aptly describes what unfolded at the Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Park in Karachi yesterday, when a Pakistani Ranger – a paramilitary soldier – fired upon an accused thief as he pleaded for his life. As a video of the incident shows, 25-year-old Sarfaraz Shah used no force as a Ranger pointed his rifle towards him. Shah seemed to be pleading, and placed his hand on the rifle in a non-threatening manner. But the Ranger, seemingly threatened, fired and killed him. Four other Rangers stood by and watched, and by some accounts, encouraged the Ranger to shoot.

Yet, the blame for this manslaughter in broad daylight cannot exclusively fall on the Ranger and his companions. The quote above belongs isn’t related to this incident. It’s from an article about an altercation in Montreal, Canada on Tuesday that left a homeless man, who the police were trying to arrest, and an innocent bystander dead. And even though the two tragedies were literally worlds apart, the lesson is the same: when law enforcers do not have the proper training to deal with certain situations, the results are deadly.

Quite obviously lacking proper training, the other Rangers simply stood aside as Shah pleaded. They should have rushed to overpower and arrest him instead of behaving as casual onlookers. That would’ve been the common sense approach for any set of police officers with a modicum of training. It is apparent that the Rangers were not properly trained in dealing with unarmed suspects; that, or they acted with malice towards a civilian. The bigger issue, however, is the presence of a paramilitary force in a park that families frequent.

The Pakistan Rangers have been given extensive policing powers in the past decade to quell the law and order situation in the metropolis of Karachi. In January 2010, their mandate to detain and arrest suspects was extended to allow them to tackle the increasing incidence of targeted killings. They are on the frontlines against terrorists and the violent gangs, for which they have paid dearly and courageously for their lives.

But they are not a policing force. They simply had no place patrolling a civilian park, which should reasonably fall under the mandate of the Sindh Police, not paramilitary forces. It is amply clear from the numerous reports of “encounters” – where suspects and bystander alike are killed – that Rangers lack the training and tact required for community policing.

For far too long, the Sindh government has outsourced its policing responsibilities to the Rangers in its search for quick and easy solutions to the dearth of well trained provincial police officers. The consequence of that shortsightedness is the slaughter of young Sarfaraz Shah and many, many other undocumented encounters. Should the government’s policing strategy continue and should it eschew a community-centred, civilian response to policing, the ultimate victim will be the (already precarious) faith in the state’s institutions.

I was fortunate enough to spend the past month shadowing one of Pakistan’s leading constitutional lawyers (For privacy’s sake, I will omit his name). A talented jurist, he would roll into court with reams of case law, a thick folder – containing the petition, affidavits, counter-affidavits, rejoinders, what have you – and an excellent memory. He would dazzle some judges and piss off others with his often novel theories about why such and such law was ultra vires or unconstitutional. As I sat there in the hot and stuffy court rooms of the High Court, I noticed that the majority of his cases and those of other prominent lawyers were about taxes. The clients had been taxed too much, or the clients simply didn’t want to pay some taxes, so they went to lawyers to figure out ways to avoid paying them. Given the poor drafting, implementation and execution of laws, it goes without saying that the lawyers didn’t have too much trouble striking down seemingly valid taxes.

What’s happening in the courts is just the tip of the iceberg. These are some of the bigger players in the Pakistani economy, and they can’t easily escape the scrutiny of the Federal Board of Revenue, the national tax collector. They, at the least, are seeking a legal way of avoiding taxes. While there are about three million registered taxpayers in Pakistan, only about two million – about 1.1 percent of the entire population – file tax returns. That number excludes the fact that most of those taxpayers do not declare significant parts of their income by way of complex legal maneuvering, tax code loopholes, or simple misrepresentation. If a tax investigator starts asking questions, a bribe can usually make him look the other way.

Nobody anywhere likes paying taxes. There’s a saying, attributed to American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, that encapsulates this universal antipathy: Nothing is certain but death and taxes. But in Pakistan, the former is almost always assured and the latter is rarely certain.

The scope of the Pakistani tax problem has recently amplified, as the country experiences historically high inflation (14.5%, according to official figures. The true figure is perhaps a few percentage points higher). Pakistan relies on foreign aid for a large chunk of its budget at a time when it’s struggling to reassert its sovereignty and to forge an independent foreign policy. And as long as it continues to rely on American aid to prop up its institutions, the Pakistani government cannot reasonably assert any sovereignty. This has lead members of the Pakistani media to demand the political leadership to increase the tax base. Almost daily now, a news talkshow host will decry the the woeful neglect of the taxation system. The problem, however, isn’t a lack of a well developed taxation bureaucracy. Pakistan’s FBR is descended from the British Empire’s Indian Civil Service’s efficient structure, and today is a modern, functioning organization. The problem, as Emma Duncan identified in her book Breaking the Curfew, published in 1989, is that Pakistanis simply don’t want to pay taxes. She noted that a study of the country’s tax system found no shortcomings in the bureaucracy’s management or its structure. So then we’re left to ask: why don’t Pakistanis want to pay taxes?

During a major tax case involving billions of rupees and hundreds of businesses in the province of Sindh, the judge interrupted the businesses’ lawyers as they presented their initial oral arguments. He went on a tirade about how prominent lawyers come into his court room everyday to challenge the validity of tax laws. He then pointed out the stark contrast between Pakistan and India’s tax revenue to GDP ratio. India’s is a modest 18%, but Pakistan’s lags at an inadequate 9%, he said. The two countries inherited the same tax bureaucracy structure, and yet the difference is significant.

Mosharraf Zaidi, of The News, has authored an insightful op-ed, offering an explanation for the high rate of tax avoidance in Pakistan. He argues that the disconnect stems from the lack of a social contract:

Pakistan is a state and society operating without a modern social contract. The state exists and persists without a linear fiscal relationship with the people. In plain English, the state is unaccountable to the people of Pakistan because the people of Pakistan do not pay taxes. The state doesn’t “owe” the people any services, or answers, and the people don’t feel that they owe the state any money.

It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum. Pakistanis do not pay taxes because the state is not accountable. And the state does not feel accountable to the citizenry because they do not foot its bill. There is no social contract to bind the two. It’s a compelling argument, and anecdotally, it’s constantly affirmed when you ask Pakistanis why they don’t pay taxes. The common response invokes corruption: if we pay, then it goes to the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, so why bother. But I’m not entirely convinced that corruption alone is the problem. Take, for example, India, a state that’s equally corrupt. Yet, India manages to recuperate almost twice the percentage of tax in relation to GDP.

Above, I mapped out the tax revenue to GDP ratio figures (courtesy: Heritage Foundation) of about 167 countries against Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. I found a Pearson correlation coefficient of around 0.497, indicating a positive correlation between tax revenue to GDP and corruption. This reflects a medium strength of association. Of course, this test should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t, for instance, account for the real figure we should be measuring: the tax gap, that is, the estimated difference between the tax owed and the tax paid per jurisdiction. Tax revenue to GDP is but a rough measure of the tax gap; it assumes that there is a general positive relationship between tax owed and tax paid, and that this gap is universal. And it isn’t. But what this graph does show us is that there is some relation between the perceived corruption in a country and its citizens’ willingness to pay tax.

And this supports Mosharraf’s original contention. The social contract is not just about corruption, however. It creates that abstract link of faith between the government and its citizens that if the citizens pay taxes, then the government will deliver. I concur that Pakistanis lack that abstract faith in government. Despite the roaring popular nationalism that floods airwaves and television screens, Pakistanis, like anyone group of people, ultimately vote with their wallets. And this aversion to paying taxes is about more than corruption. It’s reflective of a state in taters and a people with no confidence their leaders. We are then to conclude with a twist on an old adage: without taxation, there can be no representation.