The Pakistan Puzzle

I am writing from Karachi, with a hangover. The Pakistani elites, I can report, are still partying, though they may be partying on the slopes of a volcano. But, like the writer Tariq Ali, I do not believe that the volcano is as close to eruption as many excitable Western and even Pakistani commentators predict. This is a surprisingly tough and resilient state and society.

The spread of Taliban control remains restricted to only some of the Pashtun areas of the country. Those Taliban regions account for less than 5 percent of Pakistan's total population, and unlike the rest of the country, they have old traditions of religiously inspired revolt. Elsewhere, the real threat is not active, mass support for the Taliban but rather bitter opposition to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the whole U.S. "war on terror." Both the elites and general public see the Afghan Taliban as fighting a legitimate jihad against the United States. The Pakistani Taliban, as their allies and defenders, therefore receive a measure of sympathy even from people who would never accept Taliban rule over Pakistan as a whole -- unless, God forbid, the United States were to invade Pakistan.

In his latest book, Ali -- an old Pakistani Trotskyist long settled in Britain -- recalls that in 1983 he published a book called Can Pakistan Survive? but neglects to mention that he answered his own question in its subtitle, The Death of a State. That was 26 years ago -- quite a long deathbed scene by any standard.

Ali's earlier book was written barely a decade after Pakistan's military defeats in 1971 at the hands of India and of the secessionist movement in East Pakistan, which resulted in the establishment of an independent Bangladesh. The loss of Bangladesh traumatized the generation of Pakistanis to which Ali belongs, and it had an even deeper effect on their parents, who had founded the new state in 1947 as a homeland and refuge for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.

Yet the secession of Bangladesh seems largely irrelevant to Pakistan as it exists today. Compared to the original Pakistan -- its two halves separated by a thousand miles of hostile India -- West Pakistan is far more of a natural unity in every way, with a degree of common history and ethnic intertwining stretching back long before British rule. In its present shape, Pakistan has already survived considerably longer without Bangladesh (38 years) than the original Pakistan managed (24 years).

Indeed, part of the problem in Pakistan today (at least as seen from Washington, and to some degree in reality) arises from exactly the opposite of one of the key circumstances that led to the tragedy of 1971. In united Pakistan before that date, East Bengalis were severely underrepresented in the bureaucracy and hardly represented at all in the army. This pattern reflected the deep racial contempt of the "martial races" that made up the Pakistani Army for the darker, smaller, and supposedly cowardly and Hindu-influenced Bengalis. That racism stoked Bengali resentment and rebellion, and in 1971, it led to the appalling savagery with which the Pakistani army attempted to crush East Bengal's moves for independence.

Today, in some of the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, the state and army are faced with a new rebellion, aimed not at breaking up Pakistan (though that conceivably might be the indirect result) but at revolutionizing the country in the name of the Taliban's version of Islam and drawing Pakistan as a whole into the jihad against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and possibly beyond. These areas have effectively become joined to the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan in one Taliban insurgency with two faces. Each one contains numerous different elements, and the Pakistani Taliban is a much looser alliance than that of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they share the same ideology and the same ultimate set of goals.

The Pakistani Army's failure to conduct a harsh military crackdown against the Taliban has drawn furious criticism from Washington and much of the Western media. This failure has been attributed -- by Ali, among others -- to the machinations of the Pakistani military and intelligence services, which have longstanding ties to the militant groups and still hope to use the Afghan Taliban to destroy what they see as an Indian client state in Afghanistan.

There is, however, another factor that Ali touches on in his latest book, and that brings out the contrast with the Bangladesh crisis. Unlike the east Bengalis, Pashtuns are heavily overrepresented in the Pakistani army and have their fair share of representation in the senior bureaucracy. The Punjabis who dominate those institutions do not look upon the Pashtuns, as they did the Bengalis, with contempt. The Punjabi attitude toward the Pashtuns might best be described as a sort of wary respect heavily tinged with fear.

The Pashtun role in the army contributes to the central threat to Pakistan's existence today, which Ali emphasizes in his book, The Duel. This is not the direct Taliban threat. Rather, as Ali writes, to expect the Pakistani army to launch a massive military crackdown in the Pashtun areas, "and as a result kill thousands of its own people from regions where it recruits soldiers, is to push it in a suicidal direction. Even the toughest-minded command structure might find it difficult to maintain unity in these conditions." In fact, large numbers of Pashtun troops have already refused to fight the Taliban or have even surrendered to them -- just as Pashtun units of the British Indian army repeatedly did when faced with rebellions by their fellow tribesmen.

Ali adds that this danger applies even more strongly to U.S. ground incursions into Pakistan, which began in August 2008 but were abandoned in the face of dire warnings from the Pakistani military: "Were [military intervention] attempted directly by the United States, the Pakistan army would split, and hordes of junior officers would likely decamp to the mountains and resist." And if the army were to split, the disintegration of the country and the partial seizure of power by Islamists would become probable. This risk has been emphasized to me again and again by Pakistani officers of all ranks, and it is perhaps the only point on which they and Ali would agree.

On the other hand, I agree with most of what Ali writes in this intelligent and sensible book -- and I say this with pleasure and some surprise, since we have had our differences in the past. He is correct that the threat of a jihadi takeover is remote, given their very limited public support. Pakistan today is not Iran in 1978.

Above all, he is dead right on the single most important point, which I fear that the Obama administration has not fully recognized. The presence of U.S. troops in the region is part of the problem, not of any long-term solution. More than any other factor, the presence of American troops is radicalizing opinion in Pakistan -- especially among the Pashtuns -- and creating recruits for the Taliban in Pakistan. Given Pakistan's sheer size, this poses far greater long-term dangers to the West than would a return of the Taliban to power in limited parts of Afghanistan.

Ali is also correct that the states of the region have to be the key players in any long-term settlement of Afghanistan, or -- which I fear is much more likely -- an agreement to contain conflict there. Of course, creating such a local concert of powers will be hellishly difficult given the mutual suspicions and hatreds in the region, and Ali does not go into detail on how such a pact could be achieved or how the United States will be able to leave Afghanistan without plunging it into still deeper conflict. All the same, he is on the right track, and those who are still dreaming of turning Afghanistan into a successful modern state and an ally of the United States are most decidedly on the wrong track.

The chief flaw of this book, as far as its analysis of Pakistan is concerned, is indicated by the following passage, describing Ali's return to the city of Peshawar for the first time in 30 years: "To discuss the state of the NWFP (North West Frontier Province), I met with a group of local intellectuals, journalists and secular nationalist politicians." A Marxist like Ali might have been expected also to meet sections of the enormous majority of the population that do not belong to those categories. This would have taught him, as it taught me, that even people who vote for the "secular" parties (if they are really secular, which they are mostly not) often strongly sympathize with the Afghan Mujahedin as a force that is fighting the hated Americans in Afghanistan, may well prefer Sharia law to the despised Pakistani legal system, and may even sympathise with the Pakistani Mujahedin insofar as they help their Afghan "brothers."

In this failure, Ali suffers from the same problem as many of the Pakistani liberals on whom the West tends to rely for its analysis of Pakistan. Westerners generally fail to talk to ordinary Pakistanis, probably not only because this is a physically uncomfortable process but because they would then have to take account of widely and deeply held opinions that they would much rather not hear.

These opinions relate to religious belief; deep conservatism especially with regard to women; readiness to resort to violence in defense of personal and family "honor"; respect for the Sharia; sympathy for the Afghan jihad and the Pakistani Taliban insofar as they are allies of the Afghan jihad; absolute loyalty to kinship as opposed to law or the state; and implication, albeit at a lower level, in the same culture of patronage and corruption that dominates elite politics.

The absence of ordinary Pakistanis from Ali's book allows him to paint a naively sentimental picture of innocent masses oppressed by wicked military and political elites. Although there is an element of truth in that picture, many of Pakistan's problems stem from cultural factors that permeate society from top to bottom.

Farzana Shaikh's Making Sense of Pakistan also reflects a completely top-down approach. The book is more scholarly than Ali's, focusing chiefly on Pakistan's history and official ideologies, with later chapters devoted to current problems. It is intellectually acute, impressively researched, and strongly argued -- indeed, it is as good as any book can be while missing one of the most important points about its subject.

Shaikh traces in detail the intellectual debates in the Muslim community under British imperial rule, leading to the adoption of the vision of an independent Muslim state partitioned from the Hindu majority regions. She demonstrates convincingly that the Muslim League and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, intended Pakistan to be a homeland for India's Muslims but not an Islamic state, as later generations of Pakistani Islamists have argued.

Shaikh examines the different conceptions of India's Muslim population -- whether it was best thought of as a religious community within India, a separate Muslim nation in the Indian subcontinent, or a part of the wider Muslim ummah or world community. She brings out how these ideas reflected not only philosophical and political differences but the immense variety of forms of Islam in South Asia.

These differences produced some extremely paradoxical results when it came to the struggle for Pakistan and the new Pakistani state. Thus the religious parties based on the revivalist Deobandi school in India had opposed the movement for an independent Pakistan because they believed in maintaining Muslim influence within a united India, because they saw Muslims as part of the ummah and not a separate nation, and because they deeply distrusted the very secular Jinnah. But once Pakistan had been created, they became the most fervent proponents of an Islamic state. As Shaikh tells the story, these debates have continued to rage up to the present day in Pakistan, which gives her work considerable contemporary relevance. She writes:

It would seem self-evident that, as a Muslim homeland built in the name of Islam, Pakistan would be better equipped than most states to define the role of Islam in national politics. Yet the debate on the place of Islam in national life has raged on, muddied by the claims and counter-claims of its many protagonists.

In support of what seems to be a case for a nonreligious Pakistani state in a South Asian cultural community, Shaikh herself engages in a certain amount of historical muddying. Remarkably, she does not discuss the Khilafat (Caliphate) mass movement of Indian Muslims in the early 1920s. Although encouraged by Gandhi and the Congress because it was directed against British rule, this was a movement with religious roots in a conception of Indian Muslims as belonging first and foremost to the universal Muslim ummah.

As its name indicates, the Khilafat movement was sparked by the actions of the Western powers including Britain in destroying the Ottoman empire and, in the process, helping to destroy the leadership (Caliphate) that the Ottoman sultans had claimed over the ummah -- a symbolic leadership but one that symbolized the ummah itself. The Khilafat movement demonstrates the profound importance for many Indian Muslims of this sense of belonging to a Muslim universal community and also the extent to which they could be mobilized in the name of Islam.

This omission indicates a wider failing in Shaikh's work, as in that of many Pakistani liberals -- and one, incidentally, in which they resemble their Islamist intellectual opponents: the absence of the masses from her analysis. Hers is primarily an intellectual history, but it would have been good to have had some acknowledgement that people also make their own culture and are not simply subjects of the intellectual establishment, whether liberal or Islamist.

In attributing Pakistan's external behavior overwhelmingly to its internal conflicts over identity and desire to "validate the country's historical purpose," Shaikh also neglects the real concerns of Pakistan's security elites. It is true that much of their behavior has been profoundly misguided and even wicked. It seems to me, however, after seven years as a journalist in the former Soviet Union and seven years working on security issues at think tanks in Washington, that all paranoia is relative.

To judge by their behavior when faced with infinitely smaller threats, if U.S. national-security elites were in the geopolitical position of their Pakistani colleagues, they would spend much of their time gibbering under their beds, wrapped in pink blankets. The Pakistani blankets are green, but the motivation is not dissimilar, and has more to do with security than identity.

It is idle to think that Pakistan's Islamist threat can be greatly reduced by intellectuals winning an argument about state ideology. To eliminate establishment support for the Afghan Taliban, the establishment's security concerns will have to be addressed. To eliminate mass sympathy for both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, the United States will in the long run have to remove its detested presence from the region.

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