Pakistani from Pariah State to Partner

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Tariq Amin

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a day makes.  Pakistan before September 11 was treated as a pariah state and General Pervaiz Musharraf was shunned by Western heads of state for seizing power in a military coup. Since that day there has been a sea change in the treatment of Pakistan and its military President by the United States and its European allies.

Musharraf has been eagerly sought by Western heads of state, and he has even been given an audience by George W. Bush. Pakistan has been welcomed back into the international (read Western) community’s fold, and now promises are being made by the United States to chart a new course of cooperation with this erstwhile client state.

Whether this change marks a new patron-client relationship, or a new Bush doctrine, remains to be seen. As it has shown itself, this new doctrine is about reasserting America’s global hegemony and simultaneously a declaration of resolve to move unilaterally to advance U.S. strategic national/corporate interests and, if need be, in a violent and forceful manner against militant Islamists.

Bush’s first unilateral action was to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord on climate control.  The second was the declaration of war on Afghanistan without even considering non-militaristic options to deal with events of September 11.

Bush’s latest action, however, came with an imminent threat—”either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”—which ensured that all the present coalition “partners,” including the UN, would quickly fall in line.

What the next unilateral move of Bush will be or where this doctrine will take the rest of the world, only time will tell. For now, it can be said that the geo-strategic location of Pakistan makes it, if not the linchpin, an important piece of the current “anti-terrorism” puzzle that the Americans have assembled.

A Colonial And Cold War Legacy

Coincidentally, some fifty years ago, Pakistan was one of the first few allies that the United States had enlisted as part of its Cold War strategy.  At the time, Pakistan’s ruling classes were jockeying for power to gain significant control of the new state apparatus.

Pakistan was carved out of colonial India and came into existence in 1947.  It was the result of religious divisions that actually surfaced during the last 100 years of colonial rule—especially after the British, by enunciating difference on the basis of religion, created ongoing tensions and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in colonial India.

Ever since the 12th century, pre-colonial Northern India was dominated by the so-called “Muslim rulers,” while Sindh, the South-West part of undivided India, was under Arab control since the 9th century.

Prior to the rule of Muslim dynastic groups, there were Hindu dynastic rulers in ancient India, and some like Asoka, whose empire extended to Kashmir and Afghanistan in the North, who turned to Buddhism.

Historically, religion had a way of mediating social life in pre-colonial India and some religious conversions—from Hinduism to Buddhism and Islam as well as reconversions—did take place during the rule of various dynastic realms.  But when the dust of conquest had settled different religious groups, by and large, were able to co-exist relatively peaceably.

All this, however, changed when the British began to formulate the idea of majority and minority communities on the basis of religion.  They followed this move by implementing separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims.

From then on, religious difference became a central instrument of colonial policy and created the divide between the two groups in colonial India.  This resulted in the rise of Hindu nationalism, which was later rivaled by the demand of North Indian Muslims for separation.

These developments led to the cementing of divisions between Hindus and Muslims.  As a consequence of violent conflicts that ensued between the groups since the 1930s, the British made the decision to partition India.

The Kashmir Dilemma

In August 1947, Muslim majority areas that were contiguous with the new Muslim state became part of Pakistan, and the rest of the territories remained part of India.  The Partition was less than a dignified event, with some two million people on both sides of the new borders being killed in sectarian clashes as the British hurriedly dismantled the colonial state.

Kashmir, which has had a Muslim majority, was ruled by a Hindu Dogra ruler since 1846.  He was actually installed by the British to foil Sikh control of Punjab and the northern regions.

At the time of Partition, since Kashmir was contiguous with both India and Pakistan, the British stressed that the ruler of Kashmir would have to decide whether the princely state would cede to India or Pakistan.

The British knew quite well that the ruler of Kashmir would opt to be part of India, which would violate the principle of majoritarianism that they had established, yet this option was adopted by the departing colonial administration.  The predictable happened and Kashmir ceded to India—a decision that has remained unacceptable to Pakistan.

The issue of Kashmir and India’s relatively greater military strength prompted the emerging Pakistani elite to align the country with America’s strategic interests.  This decision was also in response to India’s alignment with the former Soviet Union.

Dubious Rewards

Unlike the pressure that Musharraf must have faced in being forced to accede to current U.S. demands, Pakistani rulers in the 1950s were not really coerced to become American surrogates.  However, the Pakistanis were to later learn at their own peril, as this piece will demonstrate, that American “friendship” comes at a very heavy price.

Even from the perspective of the Pakistani ruling classes, they don’t seem to have derived much tangible benefit by aligning with the Americans.

During the first decade of the alliance (1954-1964), the country’s rapid industrial growth (starting at a peak of 24% and leveling to 6% annual growth rate in the mid-1960s) was largely a result of Ayub Khan’s selective import substitution strategy and his extremely oppressive anti-labor policies.

The high growth rates of this period resulted in only broadening the availability of consumer non-durables at the cost of not establishing a basic capital goods sector.

At the same time, the feudal elite remained unscathed despite Ayub Khan’s purported land reforms.  The same could not be said for the people of Pakistan, who remained impoverished while the country became a veritable laboratory for Modernization theorists.

In the field of economics, W.W. Rostow, with his stage theory of economic growth, was busy forecasting Pakistan’s rapid economic growth and claiming that the economy was on the verge of “take-off.” Similarly, on the political front, American theorists had blessed the military rule of General Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and had made all kinds of rationalizations about why democratic rule would not be possible within a largely illiterate populace.

In the 1950s, the United States had seized the initiative by locking the Pakistani elite into treaties which were to actually serve its containment policy against the so-called “Soviet menace.” In a space of five years (1954-1959), Washington had entered into as many defence pacts and treaties.

The first of these was the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement (1954) which besides establishing a close military, political and economic alliance with the Americans also allowed them military bases in Northern Pakistan to spy on the former Soviet Union.

Then there were regional pacts: Baghdad Pact (1955), Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which included Great Britain, Turkey and Iraq, and the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO, 1956) when Pakistan was not even part of South East Asia.

Resentment and Crisis

Because of these pacts and Pakistan’s proximity to the former USSR and China, the country saw a large U.S. presence and its meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs.  In the late 1960s, it was widely believed that the Americans were supporting ultra right-wing Islamist parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, in a bid to weaken left-wing anti-American forces in the country.

Resentment in Pakistan grew against American presence and interference.  As a result, anti-American protests became widespread and US Information Service (USIS) centers became favorite targets of protesters.  With these protests as a backdrop and the start of the Vietnam War, American presence in Pakistan started to dissipate.

The consequence of American meddling and eleven years of military rule produced serious internal convulsions, which brought to the fore the grave problems faced by Pakistani society: subversion of the democratic process, the denial of provincial autonomy to sub-national groups, the growing gap in income and wealth, rising bureaucratic ineptness and corruption, and the intense oppression of workers by industrialists—some of whom were said to even have private prisons in their factories.

The collective toll of this misrule was the 1971 separation of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.  However, the aftermath of this tumult also ensured that for the first time a popularly elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would be swept to power.

Bhutto’s stint in power (1973-1977) was a bundle of contradictions.  He rose to prominence as a populist, took on the military, played a pivotal role in bringing Muslim states under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and introduced fairly progressive labor legislation.

But he also stifled dissent with a heavy hand, overlooked massive corruption of his own ministers, and nationalized key industries, banks and insurance companies without any clear policy of how these sectors would contribute to economic development after nationalization.

New Stage of Intervention

The Americans did not trust Bhutto, possibly because of his efforts to organize the Muslim states outside the American orbit.  With the overthrow (and murder) of Bhutto by General Zia ul-Haq, and the coming to power of pro-Soviet military rulers in Afghanistan who had similarly removed King Zahir Shah, the United States began to again take interest in the region.

This time round, the primary U.S. aim was to garner support of Pakistan’s military for the recruitment and training of Afghan Mujahideen to fight America’s proxy war with the Soviet Union—naturally, with American arms. Thus Pakistan not only became a conduit for American arms to Afghani groups opposed to Soviet occupation, but its military actually fought alongside the Mujahideen.

This second period of American meddling, starting in the late 1970s, dovetailed with another eleven long years of martial rule. This military rule of General Zia was a watershed for Pakistan’s social and political development.  It also marked the return of American hegemony over Pakistan and the region.

When Zia came to power in 1977, the military in Pakistan was thoroughly discredited.  With the arrest and subsequent execution of Bhutto by the military, General Zia had almost no popular support.  As a way to mask this reality and stay in power, Zia had to rely on right-wing Islamist parties while he went through the masquerade of implementing his notions of “Islamization” of Pakistani society.

Since Zia’s actions did not contradict American support of Islamist groups in Afghanistan, the United States didn’t seem to have a problem with his policies.

Historically, the far right religious parties had been on the margins of political power despite their intrusive street presence.  To overcome this marginality and to legitimize military rule, Zia brought the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami into power.

This move gave Zia and these parties a carte blanche that enabled them to “Islamize” the criminal code, implement their version of Islamic banking laws, and to confine women within the four walls of the home, which became known euphemistically as “chador aur char diwari.”

At the same time, Zia directed funds from public education into building of madrassas (religious schools), imposed his version of Shariat laws, publicly flogged those that had transgressed his strict moral code, and placed on the books the more heinous punishments of stoning and cutting off limbs.

In the process, eleven years of Zia ul-Haq’s rule became extremely disabling for Pakistanis in general, but specifically for women, the poor, religious minorities, sub-national struggles for provincial autonomy, progressive political activists, and enlightened intellectual or academic activity.

It is also in this period that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) came to wield immense power under Zia’s zealous army generals.

The Taliban Connection

It is uncanny that in sketching this period of Zia’s military rule, one could very well have been referring to the Taliban—who now appear to be the ultimate personification of Zia’s version of Islam.  Therefore, it should be no surprise that the madrassas established during the Zia era, and spread to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, became the inspiration for Taliban indoctrination.

Inside Pakistan, however, it should be said that despite Zia’s so-called “Islamization” the support for Islamist parties was insignificant.  In the four general elections since Zia’s demise, the right-wing Islamist parties have never received more than five to seven percent of seats in parliament.

That said, these parties nonetheless have caused immense havoc, pain and bloodshed in the country.  They still command a frightening street presence that is most unsettling for ordinary Pakistanis.

But there are other troubling aspects of Zia’s obscurantist rule, the effects of which confront Pakistani society even to this day. This has to do with rising religious sectarianism in Pakistan, and the expanding “Kalashnikov culture” which signifies the easy availability of firearms that originate from Afghanistan.

Such weapons end up being used increasingly to settle political, religious or drug-related scores.  And in the crossfire, the agents of Wahabbi Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia and representatives of Shi’ite Islam from Iran fan the flames of internecine sectarian conflicts.

What should not be lost in this brief historical analysis is that imperial U.S. interests have supremely guided its every move in the region.  The United States is currently involved in dictating what Musharraf and the Pakistani state should do to assist and supplant its war effort in Afghanistan.

Similarly, U.S. involvement was quite central during Zia’s pernicious rule, using the ultra-right Islamist parties as a bulwark for its fight against the spread of communism.  This continued an historic trend: In Pakistan, the United States courted Jamaat-e-Islami in the 1960s just as it did in Indonesia in the same period by supporting General Suharto and the Islamist groups in their massacre of Indonesian communists, who were the largest such formation outside the former Soviet Union and China.

Similarly, the United States had moved against Egyptian president Gamal Nasser, an Arab nationalist, by supporting pro-American military leaders in Egypt.

From Vacuum to Blowback

On the other hand, the former U.S. National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is on record urging the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the holy war against the Soviets in the name of Islam.

To further complicate matters, the hurried exit from the region by the Americans, once the Cold War was over, not only left a power vacuum in Afghanistan but helped the conflict to be internalized along ethnic lines.

Ordinary people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan were left to deal with the mess that Americans had left behind, namely: civil war, sectarian conflicts, intertribal feuds, the development of an arms culture, and the rise of petty-minded, militant, misogynist and morally bankrupt religious groups.

In the case of Afghanistan, the ascendancy and in-fighting between different Islamist groups enabled neighboring states, namely Iran and Pakistan, to engineer outcomes that served their strategic or national interests.

In the case of Pakistan, it was the notion of “strategic military depth”—meaning that a quiet Western front was needed in the context of its conflict with India over Kashmir.  But given the obscurantism of the Taliban and their tenuous support for Pakistan, it now appears that this strategic depth was actually the reflection of a shallow policy of Pakistan’s military and civilian rulers.

Given the history of American involvement in the region and in the Middle East, it is no surprise that many people are now speaking about the “blowback”from these ill-conceived U.S. interventions.  However, the big question in the present context of the violent American misadventure in Afghanistan is: What will be the fallout of America’s Afghan War?

It is almost certain that American actions will not reduce the level of violence or terror in the world, whether it is carried out by a nation-state, by Islamist groups or by the United States itself in supposedly fighting “evil.”

The thirty-four years of military occupation and the accompanying terror that Israel has unleashed on the Palestinians has now resulted in increasingly violent Palestinian retaliation.  So has this been the similar pattern of repression and explosion in Kashmir, Rwanda, Kosovo…

It appears that Bush is not interested in the lessons of history, as he seems intent on pursuing military solutions to root out militant Islam, which in large part has been sponsored by the Americans in the first place.  If this trajectory of American policy continues, the world will have to face another “blow back”—time from the new Bush doctrine.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)