Pakistan: A Hard Country

Middle East Policy

The question once again: Is Pakistan a “failed state?” Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College in London, is among the latest authors to try an answer. His book Pakistan: A Hard Country is a broad and detailed survey of the security, economic, social, political and ecological challenges facing Pakistan. But he argues that a greater threat to Pakistan’s security is posed by the United States and India.

India has been Pakistan’s archenemy, with which it has fought three wars, two of them over the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmir, for short). Muslim Pakistan, including what is now Bangladesh, was carved out of British India in 1947 on the principle — agreed to by its Hindu and Muslim leaders and the departing British — that the subcontinent’s Muslim-majority territories should become an independent state. The rest of British India would be an independent Hindu-majority state. Pakistanis believe that India, which occupies two-thirds of Muslim-majority Kashmir, is violating the foundational principles of the partition of the subcontinent.

Lieven analyzes, extensively, Pakistan’s serious economic crises, never-ending ethnic and sectarian strife, and growing water shortages. He considers the last to be potentially the gravest threat to Pakistan’s survival. His best insights involve the question of Pakistan’s stability, especially whether terrorism is going to undo the problem-ridden state.

The author examines four kinds of terrorism roiling Pakistan. First, the Pakistani Taliban and allied groups are crossing over into Afghanistan and fighting the U.S. and NATO forces there. Second, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa wage campaigns of violence in India to vent their rage at the occupation of Kashmir, and most Pakistanis approve of their action. Third, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, which belong to the majority Sunni Muslim sect, are striking Shia Muslim targets in Pakistan. Finally, the Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad and other militant groups are also attacking Pakistan’s military forces and civilian institutions; they have branded the Pakistani military and civilian government America’s “slaves” for joining the U.S. “war on terror” against militant Muslim groups in Pakistan.

Embarrassed by this kind of criticism — which is widespread among the Pakistani public — the Pakistani government and army brass, as well as the United States, are arguing that Pakistani military forces are actually defending Pakistan against these militants. They cite militant attacks on Pakistani installations. Americans add that these assaults, together with economic and other problems, threaten to make Pakistan a “failed state.”

The author agrees that militant violence has been a major part of the bloody mayhem Pakistan is going through in the anti-terror campaign. “By February 2010,” he points out, “according to official figures, 7,598 civilians had died in Pakistan as a result of terrorist attacks, Taliban executions, military action or drone attacks. It is worth noting that this figure is two and a half times the number of Americans killed on 9/11” (p. 474).

But Pakistanis view America as the source of the whole phenomenon of terrorism and social turmoil in their country. The Taliban didn’t begin to organize and al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Pakistan before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. “Before 9/11,” Lieven quotes a Pakistani activist as saying, “there was no terrorism in Pakistan. Once America has left Afghanistan, our society will sort itself out” (p. 155).

In reality, despite their violence, the anti-American and anti-Indian militant groups enjoy wide support among military ranks and the public. And the Pakistan army, the author says, “has been forced into alliance with the US, which a majority of Pakistani society — including soldiers’ own families — detest” (p. 175).

Most Pakistanis have been anti-American because of U.S. support for Israel, perceived hostility to Islam and the invasions of Iraq and, especially, neighboring Afghanistan. As Afghanistan provides Pakistan its “strategic depth” against India, Pakistanis are always leery about foreign hegemony over Afghanistan. Also, Pakistan is the home of twice as many Pashtun as live in Afghanistan, from which they are fighting to expel NATO forces.

Many Pakistanis recall the massive American aid and arms supplies to Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle to roll back the Soviet occupation, and they “see Afghan Taliban as engaged in a legitimate war of resistance against [the U.S. and NATO] occupation, analogous to the Mujahidin war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s” (p. 8).

The Taliban’s violence against Pakistani military and other institutions is, however, resented by many Pakistanis. Educated Pakistanis become outraged when they see the Taliban forcing their puritanical Islamic religious and moral code on Pakistanis, meting out brutal punishment to villagers for violations of that code. Yet, most Pakistanis don’t consider them or their violence a threat to the stability of the state.

The author argues that terrorists cannot destabilize the Pakistani state “unless the US indirectly gives them a helping hand” (p. 128). By indirect U.S. action, he apparently means U.S. drone attacks on militant targets and other American anti-terror operations within Pakistan. He quotes a 2009 cable from then-U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson to the State Department, warning that U.S. drone and other attacks on Pakistani targets “risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governing crisis in Pakistan” (pp. 478-79).

Significantly, the author also mentions the possibility of Pakistan’s being destabilized by direct U.S. invasion, maybe in collaboration with India. He does not explain how and why America might invade Pakistan, but warns of its dire consequences. No conceivable gains “could compensate for the vastly increased threats to the region and the world that would stem from Pakistan’s collapse, and for the disasters that would result for Pakistan’s own peoples” (p. 478).

On the question of a possible U.S. invasion of Pakistan, Lieven echoes the fears of many Pakistanis, which some of them shared with me during research trips through Pakistan. A retired army colonel, whom I interviewed on condition of anonymity, said that “the hue and cry [in the United States] about terrorists stealing our so-called Islamic bomb” has been a “ruse to take out our nuclear weapons and facilities.” He recalled that, in the mid-1980s, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the government of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to join Israel in an operation to dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program. He feared that if Mossad now revived its scheme, “it may have a partner” in New Delhi.

Muhammad Sirajul Islam, a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) activist and resident of Karachi, voiced the same concern, adding that the United States and Israel have never reconciled with “what they call our Islamic bomb.”

The roots of Pakistan’s belligerency and warfare with India lie in the dichotomy of self-image between Muslims and Hindus on the subcontinent. In undivided British India, Hindus were three-fourths of the population, Muslims making up most of the other fourth. Hindus in general resented Muslims’ separate cultural niche and their demand for constitutional safeguards for their political representation and economic interests. Without such safeguards, Muslims argued, “the brute majority” of Hindus in a majoritarian democracy would relegate them to permanent subordination. The Hindu leadership did not agree to Muslim demands, and Muslims forced the partition of the country to create a Muslim state, Pakistan. Most Hindus were furious at the partition, and some continue to nurture their hostility to the Muslim state.

Since partition, India has assumed a hegemonic posture on the subcontinent, to which Pakistanis are not reconciled. This historic Muslim-Hindu animus has been at the root of Pakistani-Indian hostility.

I am more optimistic than the author about Pakistan’s future and its relations with the United States and India. I see Washington beginning to realize that its goal of eliminating Muslim anti-American militancy through military means is a pipe dream. Already, that realization has led to the Obama administration’s decision to begin pulling out American troops from Afghanistan, without being able to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the Taliban, which President Obama had vowed to do. The administration also has all but given up on getting the Pakistani army to root out Taliban and al-Qaeda groups within its borders. In frustration, Washington has suspended a third of its annual aid package ($800 million) to Pakistan. I believe the United States is likely to better appreciate Pakistan’s strategic importance once it no longer has boots on the ground in Afghanistan and anti-American militancy continues to percolate in South Asia.

The belligerency between Pakistan and India has already begun to abate. For one thing, Pakistan’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent has made a large-scale Indian invasion of Pakistan almost inconceivable. Second, the unrelenting secession movement in Indian-held Kashmir and India’s cool relations with Muslim Bangladesh, which it helped create, would make New Delhi extremely wary of a cataclysmic military campaign against the hornet’s nest of Muslim Pakistan. In Kashmir, India has tried every trick to suppress the 22-year Muslim uprising and will have to come to terms with the Kashmiris’ aspiration for some kind of self-determination.

Third, my research has revealed that the memories of wars and the partition of the subcontinent, which have bred much of the India-Pakistan hostility, are fading among both Pakistanis and Indians. The generations that were most traumatized by those hostilities have mostly departed from the political scene. The lingering tensions between the two states are now fueled by the Hindu nationalist movement in India and the army and some militant Muslim groups in Pakistan. The new generations of Pakistanis and Indians are more interested in peace and business between the two countries.

Thus, while official bilateral trade between Pakistan and India amounts to only about 1 percent of their respective global trade, Pakistani towns and bazaars, especially near the Pakistan-India border, are flooded with Indian goods. Indians’ interest in Pakistani music and literature, and the popularity of Indian movies and music in Pakistan, among other things, signal an inexorable trend toward normalization of relations.

During five millennia of their recorded history, the peoples of the subcontinent have alternated between periods of hostility and relative harmony. While the boundaries between their states are likely to endure, the dark period of their mutual hostility, spawned by the 1947 partition, appears to be yielding gradually to a new era of relative political and economic harmony.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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