The problem of Pakistan

20 Apr

The following article is by a regular contributor to the blog, Chaste. The article is a comprehensive analytic exploration of the extent of problem that we face in Pakistan, and a considered exploration of the possible alternatives.

I will first sketch the history of and the situation in Pakistan, and then suggest a range of options. Throughout the piece, I will use “Jihadist groups” as an umbrella term for groups including the Kashmiri terrorists, LET, UJC, AQ, Taliban, and the like. My apologies to those who see Jihad as an internal spiritual struggle; I cannot think of a more efficient term.

In 1965, Old Pakistan tried unsuccessfully to annex the part of Kashmir that fell to India during the spoils of independence / partition. Six years later, in 1971, an East Pakistan (Bengali) based party won national elections. Because the party was East Pakistan based, the West Pakistan dominated military refused to recognize the election results, and launched a coup. What followed was an incredibly bloody suppression of a Bengali insurgency. The West Pakistani military action caused the killing of about 1.5 million people in a space of nine months; that would average out at five thousand killings every day during the whole of those nine months. These are controversial numbers, difficult to verify, so I have halved the numbers claimed by Bangladesh. Ten million Bengalis became refugees in India. India started to support the insurgency, and Pakistan declared war on India at the end of 1971. With the help of Bengali insurgents, India forced a surrender of Pakistani forces in the area, and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.

In nearly forty years of independence, Bangladesh has coexisted peacefully with both Pakistan and India, viewing neither as a threat or even a rival. It should be noted here Bangladesh’s population is roughly equal to that of Pakistan, and is about 90% Muslim. On the other hand, West Pakistan took ownership of the identity of Old Pakistan – viewing India as a rival and a threat, and itself as the lands of the Muslims of the subcontinent. It did this despite having just lost about half of its population to Bangladesh, and being reduced to a nation of Punjabis, Sindhis, and a host of peoples in the mountainous Northwest of the subcontinent. West Pakistan chose to overlook its slaughter of up to three million Bangladeshis (West Pakistan would point out in its defense that it murdered and raped a disproportionately high number of Hindus). Instead, West Pakistan held India fully responsible for the breakup of Old Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. West Pakistan (henceforth Pakistan) forged a new Pakistani national psyche, which dramatically reinforced India as Pakistan’s existential nemesis. Pakistan forthwith embarked on its project to acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons project was easily accelerated in the 80s because the West was happy to look the other way. In exchange, Pakistan channeled Western money to Jihadist forces, among others, in order to overthrow the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. The channeling of vast moneys through the ISI made it much more powerful, even as it was radicalized both by its common cause with Jihadist forces, and by the Islamization under General Zia.

The end of the 80s saw Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the successful conclusion of anti-Soviet action in Afghanistan by the alliance of the West, the Jihadist forces among others, and Pakistan’s ISI. The former gave Pakistan carte blanche to pursue any military action against India short of a frontal assault; the latter placed at Pakistan’s disposal, a considerable Jihadist force and the bureaucratic / political structure (ISI) to manage these forces. Pakistan decided to capitalize on the sense of grievance in the Muslim majority state of Kashmir over two instances of opportunistic behavior by the Congress party earlier in the 80s (the Congress had behaved similarly in most other Indian states). Accordingly, it set up extensive terrorist training camps in Pakistani Kashmir, and unleashed a violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Indian Kashmir. One of the first actions of this insurgency was to carry out an ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir valley. This insurgency has continued since, claiming on average three thousand lives every year. Pakistan’s usual rationalization for supporting this partially Jihadi insurgency is that it helps defend Pakistan by keeping a large part of the Indian army tied down in Kashmir. This reasoning is patently absurd: India could retain territorial control over Kashmir during any hostilities with a fraction of the army it currently needs to maintain law and order. Besides, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent should forestall any hostile intentions India may ever have had. Meanwhile, among the various groups that Pakistan supported to a greater or lesser extent, the Taliban not only consolidated its hold over most of a fractious Afghanistan, but also became a reliable ally of Pakistan until 9/11 shook things up a little.

The past two decades in Pakistan have been characterized by an unstable political equilibrium. There are three important political factions: The Bhutto party with its base in Sindh, the Sharif party with its base in Punjab, and the military with its base in a combination of raw power, and popular dissatisfaction with the extreme corruption in the other two political factions. Neither the Bhutto nor the Sharif faction has compromised on their core interest of corruption: neither party has indicated an interest in good governance as a means of staying in power. The military, though more interested in good governance than the others, has not compromised on its core interest of absolute power – has not accepted any power sharing as a means of co-opting ambitious civilians. All three factions share the national consensus about supporting the violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Kashmir. All three have a similar approach to the Taliban, namely, that they are a core ally of Pakistan who must be protected even as Pakistan needs to guard itself against some of their excesses. All three also approve of groups, which carry out bombings of movie houses, markets, commuter trains, and the like in major Indian cities every few months. The most “spectacular” of these were the attacks on various targets in Bombay including the Taj Mahal hotel and the Victoria Terminus railway station.

For those inclined to deem this a rather harsh assessment of Pakistani political players, consider the following sample of responses (largely from moderate parties or moderate military figures at a time when Pakistan had great external pressures and incentives to act moderately:

  • General Musharraf cut deals with the Jihadi forces by ceding parts of FATA to them and allowed other Jihadi groups like LET full freedom to operate in Pakistan; all this despite the fact that these groups supposedly tried to assassinate Musharraf himself on at least three different occasions.
  • When Ms. Bhutto was assassinated by Jihadi groups, her party directed blame at elements in the government allied to those groups rather than at the groups themselves. Part of this was because it was more expedient to blame the government (governing party) during an election campaign. But part of it is also because of the reluctance to openly criticize Jihadi groups. This latter construction is reinforced as Ms. Bhutto’s widower recently concluded a deal with the Taliban in which the government ceded the Swat valley to the Taliban. The Taliban has promptly taken control of the lucrative emerald mining operations in the area.
  • For several weeks after the Indian government released the names and addresses of the Bombay attackers, the Pakistani government refused to admit that any of the attackers was Pakistani. Indeed, Mr. Sharif was raked over the coals when, within a couple of weeks, he acknowledged that the captured attacker at least was Pakistani. Along similar lines, in the wake of the recent attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, a Pakistani minister promptly blamed the Indian government for carrying out the attacks. The MO of the Pakistani political establishment is always the same: while they vehemently condemn terrorist attacks (thereby giving the appearance of sanity), they rarely attribute it to any group (other than the Indian government). This lack of attribution preempts any obligation to publicly condemn the Jihadi groups.
  • When faced with Jihadi groups induced instability: increased suicide bombings in Pakistan including in Punjab, the tenseness surrounding the attacks on Bombay, the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, the ceding of Swat to the Taliban after a vicious campaign including wide spread school burnings, and the like crises, the Bhutto faction responded not by trying to undermine the Jihadi groups, but rather by trying to undermine the Sharif faction. Accordingly, they have packed the courts with partisans, and recently both Mr. Sharif, and his brother (the governor of Punjab), were disqualified from running for office. The Bhutto faction backed down only after massive street protests threatened its own hold on power.

The foregoing represents what we can expect from the Pakistani political establishment under any modification of business as usual. The reason for this is simple if rather uncomfortable, namely, that the central and defining element of what it means to be Pakistani is a hatred of India. This is not to suggest that every single Pakistani Muslim hates India (only an overwhelming majority do), or that it is a consuming passion (most have more immediate and concrete matters to preoccupy them). Rather, the view that India is Pakistan’s existential nemesis is assumed to be a self-evident truth. This has made hatred of India the preeminent national value. Establishing extreme anti-Indian bona fides has become a surefire shortcut to legitimation for any group whatever. Any Jihadi group knows that it only has to establish its anti-Indian bona fides (by fighting in Kashmir, bombing Indian civilians, or in any other way) to have carte blanche to do anything in Pakistan (including killing Pakistanis). As long as the extreme anti-Indian sentiment and the legitimation shortcut exists, and it will under any business as usual scenario, Pakistani Jihadi groups will be ineradicable.

But is the current unstable equilibrium satisfactory for the primary stakeholders? I will focus only on Pakistan, America, and India (Afghanistan is powerless to effect any change, so I will ignore it). All three stakeholders have grounds for dissatisfaction. Pakistanis are dealing with a deteriorating and unstable equilibrium. Extremists have struck in the heart of Punjab, the Pakistani army is often engaged on the front at the frontier, and Pakistan has become the centre of much unpleasant international attention. America has sunk a lot of money and prestige in its Afghanistan operation, and would dearly like to proclaim it a success. There is also a significant if quite minor security angle to the American operation. India has become more integrated into the global economy. Spectacular attacks like those on international hotels in Bombay are likely to jeopardize India’s status as a business and investment destination much more than the mundane attacks on commuter trains and movie houses.

Yet it may be more than arguable that the unstable equilibrium is preferable to the unknown consequences of any action that would disrupt business as usual. It cannot hurt to remind ourselves of the different responses of India and America to comparable attacks. India has largely taken them in its stride without making a big fuss. As a consequence, it has continued to maintain an 8% growth rate even as several hundred people are killed every year in bombings, and a few thousand in Kashmir every year (the latter are primarily Kashmiris unsympathetic to the Indian cause). A severe disruption of the status quo could have the highest cost for India since it shares a long and at places an unmanageable border with a nuclear Pakistan (think dirty bombs), not to mention that its important cities are within range of Pakistani missiles.. Gaurav has suggested that India can reduce the adverse effects of spectacular attacks on India’s international image as an investment destination by a few careful media regulations. Starving western (and probably Indian) media of video feeds would turn these from “spectacular” attacks to mundane deaths and killings worth only perfunctory coverage.

America has already paid the price for disturbing a stable if unpalatable equilibrium in Iraq. Indeed the primary victory of the 9/11 attackers was in knocking America off balance psychologically. What should have been no more than a $200 billion loss has turned into a multitrillion loss (the worth of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks was only about $20 billion assuming the rather generous $6 million per life used by the government in its usual cost benefit analysis). America could settle for maintaining a nominal, internationally recognized client regime in Kabul. America could check Jihadi forces by retaining the right to bomb targets of interest all over Afghanistan. Under such an arrangement, even if the Taliban held parts of the country (nonhostile warlords would hold most of the rest), they would not be much more of a threat to American security than they are now. In the alternative, America could actually try to win hearts and minds by helping the people of the area. No one in the region save the Jihadi forces regard America as an existential nemesis: indeed, America has been a friend of several Afghan groups in the past and present, and has been Pakistan’s most loyal ally for decades. Unfortunately, this is not a practical solution since America will need to spend significant money in helping the region’s peoples. The American people and foreign establishment have shown themselves far more willing to spend $100 billion on killing and occupying a people and their lands (it is called “supporting the troops”) than spend $1 billion on helping those people.

Pakistan has little to lose from the unstable equilibrium. It can revel in its national identity as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims by nurturing extreme Islamic groups, and by continuing to be a thorn in India’s side by supporting a partially Jihadi insurgency in Kashmir, and terrorist attacks by Jihadi groups in India. Pakistan will not need to acknowledge its role in the slaughter of millions in Bangladesh, fulfill its duties as a nuclear armed nation, or face the consequences of exporting terrorism to other countries.

But what if the unstable equilibrium ceases to be an equilibrium, and becomes a slippery slope where the Jihadi forces have a real shot at getting power in Islamabad? Though still very improbable, this scenario is not as outlandish as it was even a couple of years ago. If Pakistan were not nuclear armed, the world might have allowed the struggle between fundamentalist and moderate groups to play itself out over the customary few decades. However, its nuclear status ensures that the world will not leave Pakistan alone if there is a threat of a fundamentalist takeover. Such is the price to be paid for becoming a significant power! With this in view, I will discuss some of the measures that can be taken by outside players (America and the international community) to forestall this outcome. It should be understood that these measures should be considered only when the equilibrium is seriously threatened, or if there is a very high chance of the measure succeeding. The equilibrium persists because Islamic fundamentalists have never garnered significant support in the key provinces of Punjab and Sindh, which contain close to 80% of Pakistan’s population. It will not be seriously threatened unless extremist parties gain significant support in Punjab. Currently, they hold around 1% of the seats in Punjab, and received just over 2% of the nationwide vote. However, we must remember that the government of NWFP surrendered Swat to the Taliban despite the extremists winning just over 10% of the seats and votes in NWFP. Thus, “significant” support which should trigger the softer option means anything approaching a double digit share o the vote, and “substantial” support which should trigger the hard line option means a vote share well short of the 29% that gave the PMLN a near majority in the Punjab.

The softer option is to exert extreme economic pressure on Pakistan to achieve definite outcomes. The economic conditions must include generous aid on the one hand, and extreme sanctions including extreme trade sanctions and denial of practical access to international financial institutions on the other. The outcome sought should amount to no less than a revamping of Pakistan’s identity. This would include among others: taking strong action against all terrorist groups, surrendering all listed government officials to an international court to face charges of supporting terrorism (the names of a few ISI officials submitted by America to the UN can be the starting point for such a list), a settlement of all outstanding issues with India by a date certain (de facto acceptance of the status quo), and a revamping of the education system to exclude not only extreme Islamism, but also extreme anti-Indian sentiment. Pakistan has a recent record of changing the course of governments through popular pressure. A sufficiently tight squeeze on all sectors of society couple with generous incentives and an effective public campaign could well deliver even such a radical shakeup. These would doubtless be seen by Pakistan as humiliating conditions, and an assault on its national identity. But one must also remember that the right to support and orchestrate terrorist attacks in India has been seen by Pakistan as a nonnegotiable part of its national identity. A very mild version of this option is seen in the Obama administration making significant aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan stopping its support of groups, which carry out terrorist attacks in India. Even this version, which only asks Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups (as distinct from taking action against them), has become quite controversial.

The more hard line option involves a redrawing of the regional map, and a dissolution of Pakistan. The redrawing would create ethnic nations in the area. Thus, Punjab, Sindh, and most of Baluchistan would become their own nations. Northeast Baluchistan, NWFP, and FATA would be joined with southern and eastern Afghanistan to form a Pashtunistan. The rest of Afghanistan would form its own nation, or choose to be absorbed into neighboring nations like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Iran, based on regional demographics. There would have to be a solution for the Pakistani regions of AK and FANA, which will not ally them with Punjab. The military action would need to be NATO based, and exclude India to avoid a nuclear incident. Naturally, this solution should be implemented only when the extremists gain substantial support in Punjab.

Though this is a high risk strategy, there are a couple of reasons why it is likely to deliver the best long term outcome for all the peoples involved. The two most prominent recent examples of failed states falling to Islamic extremists are Afghanistan and Somalia. Both were riven by ethnic or clan factions. Since the primary role of traditional governments is to reallocate resources, a factionalized nation is much more likely to be unstable due to competition among the factions for a larger share. Islamic governments hold out not only the prospect of religion as a unifying force amid the actions; they proclaim that their primary role is the establishment of an Islamic way of life. This is what made the Islamic fundamentalist regimes (the one in Somalia was not particularly intolerant) remarkably stable until they were overthrown by foreign invasions. Pakistan also has strong regional factions, which would find an Islamic fundamentalist regime attractive in difficult circumstances, and find self-determination attractive if it can be easily achieved. As mentioned before, Islamic fundamentalism has a greater draw for Pakistan, which sees itself as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims, and which sees largely Hindu India as its existential nemesis.

I have mentioned before how the visceral anti-Indian sentiment among Pakistani people gives any groups that attack India and Indians a shortcut to legitimation. This visceral anti-Indian sentiment is unlikely to survive a dissolution of Pakistan. The largest postdissolution nation would be Punjab with a population around 8% of the Indian population, and an area barely a quarter of the current Pakistan. The fiction that this nation comprises the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims would be even more difficult to maintain. Any credible rivalry with India will be equally unrealistic. The new nations would likely settle into a pattern of peaceful coexistence similar to Bangladesh. Like Bangladesh they will derive their national identity from internal cultural history rather than by positing an external nemesis. Western hopes about Pakistan have always rested on the hypothesis that the moderate peoples of the Punjab and Sindh can be leveraged to defeat the Jihadi forces in the frontier regions. However, given the virulent anti-Indian (and increasingly anti-American) sentiments, the Jihadi forces have found it much easier to manipulate the sentiments and resources of Punjab and Sindh. There is no chance that this situation will change organically in the next few decades. Dissolution of Pakistan will starve the Jihadi forces of the logistical, human and technological resources of Punjab and Sindh. They will therefore become much less dangerous, and their smaller inconsequential state will be easier to manage. The moderateness of the people of Punjab and Sindh, when freed from the polarizing influence of anti-Indian sentiment in a postdissolution situation, will likely create modern secular nations concerned with economic progress.

The three broad options I have laid out here: the status quo, the softer option of squeezing the Pakistani people to deliver an overhaul of their institutions and identity, and the hard-line option of the redrawing of the regional map are not necessarily preferable in a descending order. Indeed, the probable outcomes would make them preferable in an ascending order. It is primarily my risk-averseness and cost benefit analysis approach to civilian casualties that makes me rank them as I do. It is important to understand that if Pakistan starts sliding down a slippery slope, the mild half-hearted policies that have marked the international approach to Pakistan hitherto will be dangerously ineffective. The options I have outlined here are among the more credible approaches to avoid the serious consequences of a nuclear Pakistan turning into a failed state. Policy makers must have clear thresholds for deploying these options, based on the extent of support for extremists in Punjab. Until then we will continue to see the half-hearted pressure for superficial results, which will not address the need for the overhaul of the Pakistani institutions and identity that make it susceptible to Jihadist forces.