PAKISTAN: State faces crisis of purpose

We are posting this interesting analysis published as part of the Oxford Analytica Briefs (Wednesday, October 1 2008). Readers may not agree with some of the points but the piece makes a good albeit sobering reading. (Raza Rumi ed.)

SUBJECT: Scenarios for the future of Pakistan.
SIGNIFICANCE: Recent geopolitical developments have undermined the traditional rationale of the state, promoting deepening internal discord. To survive, Pakistan will need to re-cast itself and find a new place in the international order. Yet the three most likely ways forward are each fraught with difficulties.
ANALYSIS: Most of the domestic and geopolitical forces that have held Pakistan together since its hasty creation in 1947 have been weakening rapidly.

As such, the country is at an historic crossroads. Its future in recognisable form will be in serious doubt unless it can find alternative sources of cohesion.
Refugee state. Pakistan was founded at the time of the Partition of India as a homeland for South Asian Muslims fearful that an independent India would represent a Hindu tyranny. It consisted of a series of territories belonging to different ethnic groups — Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi, Bengali, Pashtun, Kashmiri — with little in common and many old animosities. Some, especially the Pashtuns and Baluchis, expressed severe reservations about joining the new state. Rapidly, the supposed guests within Pakistan — Mohajir refugees from India — began to turn themselves into the dominant group. Often drawn from elite backgrounds, they quickly took over the bureaucracy, imposing their own tongue (Urdu) as the official language.

Hardly surprisingly, Pakistan has had a restless political history ever since, punctuated by ethnic and sectarian strains and by recurrent military coups. It took eleven years to write the first constitution and another twelve to implement it, whereupon one part of the state — East Pakistan — broke away to form independent Bangladesh.

Making a nation. Nonetheless, a number of forces have served to draw Pakistan together into self-conscious nationhood. The most obvious has been Islam, which represents a common bond tying its peoples together. From the 1950s, Pakistan sought to associate itself with other Muslim nations — helping to found the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and, at one point, even proposing an Islamic ‘Common Market’. The nation represented itself as providing the link between South Asia and the Muslim world.

A second means of consolidation came from the rise of Punjab province to political dominance over the rest of the country. In part, this was achieved through sheer size and wealth. Punjab possesses over 60% of the total population and much of its richest land. More importantly, it arose from the emergence of the military in the late 1950s as Pakistan’s principal institution of state — where, from colonial days, military recruitment was a Punjabi preserve. After General Ayub Khan’s military coup in 1958, the army and Punjab placed themselves at the core of the Pakistan nation.

This was made possible by the continuing importance of a third source of cohesion — opposition to India. The condition of near-civil war which had attended Partition never really died down. India and Pakistan faced each other in long-term confrontation, marked by three ‘hot’ wars and a persistent tradition of proxy war in which each supported internal insurrections inside the other. Pakistan posed itself as India’s ‘other’, constantly on military alert and seeking ‘parity’ in its treatment by the international community. This logic also directed foreign policy.

Conscious of its own weakness in relation to India, Pakistan as early as the 1950s began to seek external support by pursuing a close alliance with the United States. When, from the 1960s, India gravitated towards the Soviet Union, India-Pakistan hostility was cemented into the structures of the Cold War — for a time, moving it to the frontline. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan became the base for US-supported guerrilla resistance, while India supplied much of the civil administration in the Soviet-held zones.

Breaking a nation. However, several developments have in recent years been undermining these sources of cohesion:

Islam role. Pakistan’s Muslim population, although predominantly Sunni, is drawn from a variety of sectarian traditions. The country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was well aware of the implications of such diversity and resisted attempts to convert Pakistan into a confessional state. He favoured plural religious and secular legal traditions, whereby Pakistan would simply be a state where Muslims were free to follow their own religious conscience.

Economic and political pressures from the 1970s made this position difficult to sustain. The rise of the Gulf oil economies offered an impoverished Pakistan the opportunity to tap great wealth, but only if it accepted a more fundamentalist brand of Islam. First, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-77) and then military dictator General Zia ul-Haq (1977-87) sought to ‘Islamise’ the state, the latter especially encouraging madrassas (Islamic schools) to meet previously neglected educational and charitable needs.

However, the result has fulfilled Jinnah’s direst prediction. The desire to ‘rule by Islam’ has raised the question ‘whose Islam?’ It has exacerbated sectarian conflicts between Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi and other heterodox groups. Even within Sunni-ism, it has set different madrassas against each other and opened up new lines of social tension. It has also helped move Islam into overt confrontation with other religious principles and with the West. From a source of strength, Islam has become Pakistan’s most divisive factor.

Punjab tradition. Equally, neither the army nor Punjab exerts the same authority that they once did. Zia attempted to Islamise not only the civil state, but also the military. He further conceived plans to turn the army into a more truly national institution by recruiting from outside Punjab. Yet while it still stands as Pakistan’s strongest institution, it now betrays signs of internal disaffection. The operational quasi-autonomy achieved by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — whether in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan or of liberationist/terrorist organisations in Indian-occupied Kashmir — makes it difficult to determine who actually controls policy coming out of military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Former President Pervez Musharraf certainly sought to restore authority to the central command, but problems of control have re-appeared since his loss of power, most notably in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul (see US/PAKISTAN: ISI reform is urgent but faces hurdles – August 28, 2008). While yesterday’s appointment of Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha as ISI director general cements Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s control over the military and intelligence apparatus, it remains to be seen whether this will increase the latter’s coherence, or restore lost public respect for it.

The weakening of the army’s authority has its counterpart in that of Punjab province. Pressures to federalise the constitution by devolving more power to outer provinces have created a platform for those provinces to ‘gang up’ on Punjab. The problem became clear in the last National Assembly when many development programmes — especially concerning the building of dams — were blocked by concerns that they would benefit principally Punjab.

Now, they are manifested in the structure of the newly elected government. Since Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) resigned from the cabinet, the national government led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has very limited representation in Punjab, whose own provincial government is in the hands of Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz. The region which was the core of the state of Pakistan now finds itself mainly filling the National Assembly’s opposition benches.

Indian ‘other’. Yet the most serious threat to Pakistan’s cohesion has come from beyond its borders. Pakistan was able to pose as India’s ‘other’ for so long, and to demand parity in international affairs, because India — which is eight times larger — made poor use of its economic potential and refused to engage fully in international affairs, preferring to stand ‘non-aligned’.

This position has changed dramatically over the last decade. India now possesses one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Since the ending of the Cold War, it has asserted itself as an independent nuclear power, fulfilling its potential as regional hegemon and engaging actively in the international community. Pakistan’s inability to compete has become increasingly obvious, and not least to its oldest ally. The United States has switched its favour to India, signing a US-India nuclear agreement which brings international recognition to India’s nuclear industry but not to that of Pakistan (see SOUTH ASIA: Nuclear deal augurs strategic realignment – September 17, 2008). Washington is clearly hoping that India will become its key strategic partner in the region, at the risk of leaving Pakistan out in the cold.

Insecurity state. This raises the question of how a security state is to survive when it cannot secure its country against its greatest enemy, and when its most important ally pursues policies that undermine its authority (see US/INDIA: Delhi benefits as nuclear regime suffers – September 8, 2008). As Pakistan responds to these deepening problems, three broad scenarios are possible:

Liberal democracy. Pakistan could come to accept a secondary status to India in South Asia and settle as a liberal democracy alongside India’s other smaller neighbours. Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, which has a history of opposition to the ‘traditional’ Pakistani state and now holds power under President Asif Ali Zardari, may have been seen to promise such possibilities.

However, any such transition will not be easy. To reduce national anxieties about India, it would be necessary for the international community (and especially the United States) to provide Pakistan with cast-iron security guarantees and press India to resolve sensitive issues, most importantly the fate of Kashmir. Despite its mediation role in India-Pakistan conflict, Washington has shown no inclination to go this far, which might in any event alienate its new Indian ally. So long as insecurity against India remains a key factor, the Pakistani military is unlikely to surrender its powers and attendant privileges without a struggle.

Also, those powers and privileges are not confined to the military alone. The traditional Pakistani state served to sustain ‘feudal’ relations of landownership and a highly inegalitarian social order. It is difficult to see such a social order surviving the onset of meaningful democracy, but the PPP is as much implicated in it as any other party. Indeed, its leadership is drawn from the Sindhi ‘feudal’ classes and has faced persistent questions about its fiscal probity. When in office, Bhutto may have come into conflict with certain elements of Pakistan’s state tradition, but she also strongly supported others, including the maintenance of the security regime. The transition to democracy, if it ever gets under way, would threaten virtually the entire political class, including that currently represented in the PPP.

China satellite. Alternatively, the military might seek to preserve its dominant position, and escape the squeeze which the India-US nexus is placing upon it, by tilting towards China. During the Cold War, Pakistan began to develop closer relations with China — as a rival of the Soviet Union and tacit ally of the United States — and these have strengthened latterly, not least under Musharraf. China has major investments in Pakistan, including the port of Gwadar facing the Strait of Hormuz, and is contracted to supply weaponry and nuclear power stations (see PAKISTAN: Gwadar port is failing to meet potential – April 25, 2008 and see PAKISTAN/CHINA: Beijing juggles South Asia ties – October 18, 2006). Zardari has even indicated that he is to ask Beijing to sign a nuclear agreement with Islamabad parallel to that between Washington and Delhi.

Yet cutting ties with the United States would have serious consequences, especially for Pakistan’s economy, which faces a major crisis. Musharraf’s hopes of reviving the economy proved optimistic. The Pakistan rupee has fallen by 25% against the dollar since January, inflation is running at 30% and both the current account and fiscal deficits have ballooned. China is not noted for generous financial support and, without the support of the (US-led) international community, Pakistan faces imminent bankruptcy.

Moreover, the Pakistan military would certainly not like to cut itself off from US largesse. A recent, leaked report from Washington indicates that at least two billion dollars in military aid cannot be accounted for, and that some of Pakistan’s generals show outward signs of having become dollar millionaires. In effect, Pakistan may simply seek to play Washington and Beijing off against each other rather than to move decisively towards the latter — but that could prove a dangerous game.

Hollow state. A third scenario, compatible with parts of the others, is for the state in Pakistan to become hollowed out into a shell, creating space for non-state actors increasingly to pursue their own activities, unhindered by central authority. The Taliban-inspired insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) now threatens to spill across Pakistan’s entire North-West Frontier Province, essaying an implicit Pashtun ethnic proto-state reaching deep into Afghanistan (see AFGHANISTAN: Insurgency operates at multiple levels – September 30, 2008 and see PAKISTAN: Counter-terror policy is in disarray – September 16, 2008). The Pakistan army is heavily embattled in the region but its chances of decisive military victory are questionable. Its own commanders have in the past shown preference for seeking political settlements with militants, effectively acknowledging the existence of no-go areas outside Islamabad’s writ.

Equally, the present triumph of the peripheral provinces against Punjab carries risks. While it may keep Baluchis temporarily at peace with the Pakistani state, their national inclinations are to join with their brethren across the Iranian border to constitute a Baluchi ethnic proto-state. Not long ago, Sindhi aspirations were to push towards union with India. Furthermore, the Mohajirs — who dominate the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad — created their own quasi-autonomous armed urban enclaves as recently as the mid-1990s.

Whither Pakistan? Having lost its traditional rationale in the defence of a Muslim homeland, it is not obvious where the state/nation of Pakistan is to find another. Defending (Western) secularism against Islamist militancy at the expense of its own citizens’ lives provides no answer. However, the emergence of a new national consensus is not easy to see and may, in the end, prove very difficult to reach.

CONCLUSION: India’s inexorable rise and the changing emphasis of US policy in the region leave the state of Pakistan struggling to find a new rationale, and international allies to support it. The process of constructing a new national consensus will certainly be long and painful.

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