Pakistan: a state adrift

A review of the 10 years since the September 11, 2001, attacks for a country that has weathered more crises than most.

The last 10 years have been something less than kind to Pakistan.

Since it was famously told that it either stood with the United States in its “War on Terror” or faced being bombed “back to the Stone Age” in 2001, it has lost 35,000 citizens to “terror”-related attacks and violence, with 3,500 of those being security forces and military personnel who were either targeted by militant groups or were killed during military operations. To put that second number in context, it is 30 per cent higher than NATO military casualties in the war in Afghanistan in the same period.

It has endured countless attacks against both civilian targets (including mosques) and state personnel and infrastructure, peace deals with militant groups in its largely ungoverned tribal areas (invariably followed by the breakdown of said deals), the storming of a radical seminary in the capital by the army (the Lal Masjid episode of 2007), the emergence of a Pakistani-target centric militant network (the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), al-Qaeda’s designation of it as its primary enemy worldwide,  the imposition of Sharia law in Swat, and a subsequent military operation in the valley (as well as similar operations in South Waziristan (multiple times), Orakzai, Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram and Swat itself on an earlier occasion; elsewhere, the government used armed tribal “lashkars” to fight extremist groups). It has seen the killing of arguably the country’s most nationally popular leader in a suicide-bombing-and-shooting attack at a political rally, more bombings against civilians, the assassinations of a provincial governor and a federal minister for opposing a controversial blasphemy law, the killing of a major Baloch separatist leader in a state military operation, an expanded US drone strike campaign since 2009 (killing an estimated at least 2,309 people, of whom at least 392 were civilians, and the killing of the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, on the doorstep of the country’s military academy in a covert strike by US special forces.

Economically, its Gross Domestic Product has grown by 22.5 per cent (in real terms) to $174.8bn, with an accompanying rise in consumer inflation from 3.7 per cent to 13.7 per cent for the country’s now 174 million citizens. It has had two major International Monetary Fund bailouts, seen annual economic growth of around seven per cent give way to economic stagnation due to an over-dependence on credit and foreign direct investment in the growth bubble, and a massive influx of US military and civilian aid, culminating in the Kerry Lugar Bill, under which Pakistan is to receive $7.5bn over five years in civilian-only aid.

Politically, the country has seen two parliamentary elections on either side of seven years of military rule, an unprecedented liberation of media freedoms, a popular mass movement for the reinstatement of its Supreme Court Chief Justice and the overthrow of said military ruler, the killing of the largest national party’s leader and the subsequent ascendance of her widely unpopular husband to the country’s presidency,  a continuing movement for secession in the country’s largest province (by area) and bitter political conflict, sometimes resulting in bouts of violence claiming hundreds of lives, as most recently seen in Karachi.

And all of this is before one gets to the natural disasters: two major earthquakes, a tropical cyclone and major flooding which, put together, killed more than 75,000 people (96 per cent of those in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake) and affected more than 20 million (the vast majority after the devastating floods in 2010).

The country lurches, then, from crisis to catastrophe and back again, stopping briefly at moments of opportunity.

Crises of duplicity

The armchair debate in Pakistan is often focused on how the country’s support for the US-led “War on Terror” has led Pakistan into this delicate balance – realistically, however, when then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell told then-Pakistani President and General Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan was either an ally or a target, there was no real choice involved.

“I don’t think Pakistan had a choice. In that climate, I don’t think Pakistan could declare neutrality, and I don’t think that anybody would have considered neutrality as credible for Pakistan,” Dr Rasul Baksh Raees, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and columnist, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think that Pakistan could really get through the crisis [if it had said no] … Today, although it is wounded, it is still alive.”

Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defence analyst, agrees, pointing out that at the time, only Pakistan’s Islamist political parties (the most prominent of whom, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, have historically fared poorly in national elections) publicly opposed Pakistani co-operation with the United States.
“Mainstream political parties were not opposed to the decision,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is only at a later stage that this confusion about what Pakistan should do increased [amongst the political leadership]”.

“What 9/11 did was that it made the military, through General Musharraf, come out of alignment with the mullahs [clerics] and the militants” [GALLO/GETTY]

As the years progressed, however, and the war in Afghanistan continued well beyond initial expectations, the Pakistani position, as articulated by Musharraf, of co-operating at the wrong end of a gun began to change, as did citizens’ perceptions.

“The roots of the violence [in Pakistan] can be traced back to the pre-9/11 period. What happened after 9/11 was that the different militant Islamic groups gradually turned against the Pakistani state and they increased their mutual coordination, all aimed at the Pakistani state,” Rizvi says.

The Pakistani state, and society at large, meanwhile “could not really make up their mind about how they should deal with all kinds of militant Islamic groups, including the Taliban”, he continues. Raees argues that the result has been a country that is “socially and psychologically fractured”, where citizens feel a sense of “anxiety and insecurity” at the lack of clear answers regarding their lives.

“What was lost in [the US support for Musharraf] was democracy and democratisation. Because Musharraf always said that Pakistan was fighting America’s war … it gave the Pakistanis the very real belief that they were a rental army, and you see that anger. It really enabled Pakistanis to conclude that the war that they were fighting against the Taliban was not their war,” argues Carol Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and an expert on the region.

The ambivalence comes in no small part from the fact that the Pakistani state has historically fostered groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba to further its foreign policy objectives in the region (mainly with regards to the dispute over Kashmir with India). While its compact with the United States may have exacerbated the rate of the problem, however, there was always going to be a moment for Pakistan when the suicide bombers came home to roost.

“What 9/11 did was that it made the military, through General Musharraf, come out of alignment with the mullahs [clerics] and the militants,” explains Fair. “And [in response to that], some of the militants, like Jaish-e-Muhammad, said ‘Screw you’.”

Missed opportunities

“[The post-9/11 scene] was an opportunity for Pakistan to really change its foreign policy away from supporting militancy. […] Initially, the world community would have supported Pakistan if it saw this as a way of abandoning its proxy wars and groups,” she argues. “Pakistan kind of squandered that opportunity to reverse its decades old dangerous foreign policy and of course this Pakistani Taliban phenomenon: well, there would be no Pakistani Taliban if there were no militants that Pakistan had supported over a number of years. And Pakistanis have paid a heavy price for this [in lives]. […]

“I don’t think 9/11 was pivotal about the identity questions [that Pakistanis face] … those questions were already there. The fact is that well before 9/11 you had groups slaughtering members of the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities.”

Today, while the Pakistani government has repeatedly said that it “owns” the war against extremists on its soil, it continues to differentiate between targets, based on its understanding of the strategic calculus at play.

“The Pakistani position is really riddled with hypocrisy and duplicity,” says Fair, when speaking of tacit Pakistani support for groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (or its more peaceable front, the Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa) or the Haqqani network, which is fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan out of bases in North Waziristan, but refrains from attacking Pakistani targets. She quickly adds, however, that the same could be said of the US position, given how it has treated a country which was “pulling their weight more than other ally” in the early years of the war.

“If you analyse this issue, you run deep into a cultural, intellectual and social crisis and the crisis borders on duplicity and a total lack of integrity: you don’t want to say it is your war, although it is. And you don’t want to say that you are an American ally, but you are”

Dr Rasul Baksh Raees

“The problem was that as Pakistan became more important in the ‘War on Terror’, it became increasingly difficult to make Pakistan abide by promises that were made [regarding support for proxy groups],” she says.

“If you socially analyse this issue, you run deep into a cultural, intellectual and social crisis and the crisis borders on duplicity and a total lack of integrity: you don’t want to say it is your war, although it is. And you don’t want to say that you are an American ally, but you are,” rails Raees.

Pakistan refuses to confront the Haqqani network and other Afghan Taliban leaders based on strategic calculations regarding their likelihood to figure in any post-war Afghanistan as a counterweight to the perception of a Northern Alliance-based government that is dominated by Indian influence, most analysts agree.

That still leaves its support for groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, historically used by the state against India. Rizvi argues that such groups have by now “established strong roots in Pakistani society because of the tolerance shown by the Pakistani security forces. By now, a strict action against LeT or Jamaat ud Dawa or Jaish-e-Muhammad would mean fighting a war in the cities, which the Pakistan army would avoid. In other words, the military has lost the option of controlling them because of its own policies in the past”.

He points to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (both anti-Shia groups) as examples of groups that the state has no explicit use for externally, but which can nevertheless not be controlled domestically.

Rizvi says that going forward, Pakistan will likely continue to tolerate certain militant groups so that they can maintain influence with them, even if the Afghan Taliban would not necessarily be “directly amenable to Pakistani influence. They may listen to them, but they are not likely to act on their advice, because from their perspective Pakistan has betrayed them [by co-operating with the United States post-2001]”.

Nevertheless, Pakistan does possess leverage over several Afghan groups, and over the Afghan economy in particular through its control of land trade routes into the country from the Arabian Sea, and Rizvi feels that Pakistan will operate those levers in order to ensure that it does not face unfriendly neighbours on both its eastern and western borders.

“I think that Pakistan has this mythical idea that when [the US withdraws], life will return to status quo. It’s not going to happen. The whole region is going to be engulfed in further militancy and violence. Only part of it can be attributed to the US,” says Fair, adding that the US has “put in a lot of structures that will make civil war [in Afghanistan] more likely”, such as a police based on “local militias”. She adds that Pakistan may have a particularly difficult time with the Afghan Taliban after the withdrawal, given that most of its commanders are now young men who grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan.

“These are kids who have become mid-level commanders who hate Pakistan and hate the ISI [Pakistan’s main intelligence agency].”

‘Wounded, but still alive’ 

On the political front, meanwhile, wrangling continues between the democratic government and an activist judiciary, empowered by the mass movement to bring its chief justice back to the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the PPP-led coalition government, faced with crises on both the economic and security fronts, continues to totter, but not topple. Perhaps the only reason this government may well see out its term until 2013 (making it the only democratically elected and led government in Pakistan to do so in the country’s 64 year history) is that no one else really wants to take the reins faced with such dire circumstances.

Ultimately, Pakistan’s problems remain more deep-rooted than simply those of circumstance – or, in this case, a particular circumstance, which killed more than 3,000 people in cities on the other side of the globe. With space of political discourse ever narrowing, the challenges Pakistan faces are both existential and pragmatic: it needs to answer questions of identity whilst simultaneously paying its bills, feeding 174 million citizens and, in a both real and metaphorical sense, holding itself together.

A foreign policy that appears to be based on running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, however, indicates that when it comes to the international community, and particularly its immediate neighbours, it will likely continue to muddle through on the knife edge of stability.

Or, put in a local idiom: Pakistan is the dhobi ka kutta: na ghar ka, na ghat ka. It is the washerman’s dog, belonging neither inside his home nor in his workplace. It sits, a state at war with both itself and silently with those around it, licking its wounds.

Source: Al Jazeera


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