The Tragedy of Pakistan

Pakistan’s politics is nothing if not murky. Over the last few weeks rumours have been spreading that the army sees the American war of words over Iran’s atomic ambitions as a preamble to the elimination of Pakistan’s own nuclear assets. Apparently terrified at this possibility, the military is moving warheads around the country and through large cities like Karachi in open trucks to prevent radar surveillance. This level of fear, of course, has only become possible because the army is said to distrust Pakistan’s civilian government, which is suspected of wanting to prevent another coup by selling its own military secrets to the Americans and thus gaining their support. Wary of trying to remove the government in the way it has done so many times in the past, the military is in the meantime supposed to be trying to discredit it by supporting a populist movement, led by the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, that is critical of the government’s oppressive and corrupt policies.

For its part the civilian government is understood to desire the humbling of Pakistan’s powerful army not only in order to assume power in its own right, but also because it wishes to repair relations with India and link its faltering economy to that of its much more successful neighbour’s. Pakistan’s recent granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India is certainly a move in this direction, but rumours of a larger deal persist, one that would apparently hand over Afghanistan to the Indians as part of their sphere of influence, while at the same time taking advantage of the army’s removal from power to root out the terrorist outfits that threaten her neighbour. We know that India has large financial and infrastructural investments in the country. It plans to build a railway from Afghanistan down to Iran’s Persian Gulf coast, one designed to bypass Pakistan and shift the natural resources its burgeoning economy needs through Iran and thence by sea to Gujarat for distribution across the country.

Interesting about this scenario is that it entirely ignores the disputed region of Kashmir, which supposedly constitutes the most serious bone of contention between the two countries. It is likely that Kashmir has by now become a purely symbolic issue. It has been dwarfed by the geopolitics of the post-Cold War period, and supplanted by Afghanistan as effectively the new Indo-Pakistani border, to say nothing of the frontier that India must hold against Chinese economic and political influence in the region. And indeed while the periodic protests and violence in India’s share of Kashmir might be secessionist, they can no longer be seen as pro-Pakistan in character. Indian Muslims in general seem to have realized that Pakistan’s actions have always imperilled rather than protected them. Pakistan, in other words, has ceased to provide a model for Muslim politics or life to anybody outside the country, some disgruntled migrants and militants apart.  

Now all these geopolitical visions might have remained in the realm of speculation and fantasy, if Pakistan’s ambassador the US, Hussain Haqqani, had not been recalled recently and forced to resign following allegations that he had approached Admiral Mike Mullen with a plan to prevent another military takeover of the country. This entailed the ambassador casting doubts upon the reliability of his own army in prosecuting the War on Terror, and offering more assistance to the US on behalf of the civilian government. However accurate this now infamous memo, which was published in the Financial Times by a Pakistani-American businessman who has served the two governments as a go-between, it seems to have brought the tension between Pakistan’s military and civilian rulers to a head. In the process it suddenly recast the former as the true defenders of Pakistani nationalism and sovereignty.

The two factions of Pakistan’s ruling elite have, of course, played this game of musical chairs over several decades, with first one and then the other described as being more subservient to American interests. In fact it is a game that originated in colonial times, when rival political organizations such as the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League vied for British favour in attempts to discredit one another. Reflecting upon this situation, Gandhi had suggested at the time that it was the very presence of a third party in Indian politics, especially one claiming neutrality and disinterest, which resulted in such factional squabbles. What was needed, thought the Mahatma, was a direct relationship between these factions, even if it were to be a violent one, since the third party only prevented them from taking responsibility for their actions. A civil war, maintained Gandhi, was thus more likely to produce a national consensus than all the third party’s efforts to maintain law and order.

In a way, then, it is US efforts at peacemaking that pose the greatest threat to Pakistan’s political integrity by preventing that country’s various factions from dealing directly with one another—to say nothing of a genuine Indo-Pakistani engagement. This has been the case from the very beginning, when the new state allowed itself to become the staging ground for Cold War conflicts in order to secure international support against its never-ending war with India. What will the army do, incensed by US drone attacks and infringements of Pakistan’s sovereignty by unilateral raids like those that eliminated Osama bin Laden in May, or “accidentally” killed some 24 Pakistani soldiers towards the end of November? Is it possible that it will finally break with the Americans and create a truly national politics? Or will the success of the civilian government in reining in the military finally usher in an era of peace and security for the region? Neither of these futures is likely so long as Pakistan’s politics remains internationalised.

Paradoxical though it may seem, we should perhaps follow Gandhi in thinking that war, and not some uneasy peace determined by a third party, holds a greater potential for Pakistan’s national integrity and even salvation. Will it be a civil war that forces the country’s various factions to engage one another directly, a war with India that finally clarifies the disputes among these neighbours as it has done in the past, or if not a hopeless war against the US then at least its expulsion from Pakistan? None of these options seem possible given the region’s nuclearized geopolitics. And so Pakistan’s tragedy is not that it might descend at any moment into war, but rather that it is unable to wage such a war any longer. All that is possible is internecine and cross-border violence that never assumes either the character or aims of a war. For compared to this sort of violence, Pakistan’s wars with India (though not its civil war of 1971) have been exemplary in their restrained and lawful conduct, as well as in their positive political results as far as bilateral relations were concerned. If Pakistan does collapse into anarchy, it will be due to her failure to wage war, an incapacity made possible not by US military intervention so much as its insistence on stability, nation-building and law and order as a third party representing the international community.    


Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, and the author of two books, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Hurst, 2005), and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (Hurst, 2009).