Pakistan: The Ticking Bomb
By François Schlosser
Nouvel Observateur FR
Thursday 19 February 2004
Prey to Islamists and weapon of mass destruction merchants...
Unfinished state, frustrated nation: the key to Pakistan's behavior on the international scene is not to be found in the throes of some religious quest, but in an obsessional fear of India.
Something does not quite hang together in Pakistan's global image. It appears in the guise of a threatening country, always on the edge of implosion, incapable of democracy, hating the West, protecting the worst terrorists, overrun by hordes of screaming bearded Islamists, governed by an ultra-nationalist military caste, equipped with nuclear weapons, ready to sell the latest atomic bomb designs or intercontinental missiles to anybody who wants them. According to American diplomacy's current officialese, this country ought to be at the top of the list of "gangster states." So, what do we see? George Bush showers General Pervez Musharraf, author of the most recent military coup d’etat in Islamabad, with praises. He receives him as a "friend of America" at Camp David, and presented him as a "visionary" last June. In the same breath, he offers him 3 billion dollars of aid money, over half of which is for the army.
The brutal revelation- at least for the public masses- of the enormity of the nuclear technology trafficking in which Pakistani military and researchers had been indulging for years could have cooled the White House ardor. The opposite occurred. The precipitate confession of atomic scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, which exonerated the country's civilian and military leadership of all responsibility, and the pardon Pervez Musharraf bestowed immediately thereafter looked like a farce to the whole world... except in Washington. George Bush rushed to bless this theatrical production. His advisor, Condoleezza Rice, climbed the battlements to assert that Musharraf was "America's best ally." And, as in every instance when the Bush administration needs his support to make the public swallow some big lie, Secretary of State Colin Powell did his duty by declaring: "Now that the biggest proliferator is out of the way, we don't have to worry about Dr. Qadeer Khan and his network any more."
Even the UN's very cautious General Secretary of the Kofi Annan, went so far as to say that he found that all "surprising." It is difficult, in fact, to understand how America, right in the middle of a battle that it considers historic against global terrorism as well as against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction should maintain the most obviously proliferating country, which, on top of that, is the country that seems to maintain the most troubling connections with Islamist and international terrorism, as a privileged ally.
Now, neither the "Pakistani Islamism" that captures so many imaginations today, nor the country's privileged relations with America, nor the attraction political power and nuclear weaponry exert over its military are new. Pakistan was born a Muslim state and it's the only country in the world to found its national identity more or less exclusively on religion. Ever since its birth at the conclusion of the bloody partition of 1947, Pakistan lives in fear of India, its powerful neighbor. All its foreign policy, its strategic choices and alliances-in particular with America- have been dictated by this national obsession. This constitutes the key to the permanent domination the military exercise over the Islamabad political scene. And competition with India explains Pakistan's big Islamist maneuvers, whether in Afghanistan or in Kashmir. In the minds of Pakistani strategists, these enterprises do not relate to any religious project. They're the result of (generally disastrous) attempts by successive Islamabad governments to manipulate Muslim fervor, including its most extreme manifestations, and they are all part of an anti-Indian strategy.
Ever since it tore itself off from the Indian giant, Pakistan has struggled to exist. And the dissymmetry between the emerging power of over a billion Indians and the plugged up horizon for 160 million Pakistanis is today more obvious than ever. The prevailing sentiment in India at the time of partition was that Pakistan could not survive, that it was a phony country, an impossible nation, an entity destined to disappear, or, in any case, to return to the Indian fold one day or another. After more than a half-century and three lost wars against India, Pakistanis are still not persuaded that the Indians have accepted their existence. In spite of the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, Islamabad strategists still live in the profound trauma generated by the "second partition", when East Bengal, an integral part of Pakistan, seceded, supported by the Indian army, to become Bangladesh.
But today, Kashmir, a reject of the 1947 partition, has become the focus of Pakistani rancor and feelings of injustice. The population majority of this former principality of British India is Muslim, and a part of the territory remains under New Delhi's domination. India's intransigence over Kashmir questions reinforces Islamabad's deep conviction that the Indians have not really accepted partition. The refusal to cede sovereignty over this Muslim territory is perceived by the Pakistani military as a supplementary proof of the denial of Pakistan's very existence. Islamabad has lost the two Himalayan wars it started to grab the province back from India. In 1999, American pressure on Pakistan prevented a war at the last minute that the majority of experts expected to be nuclear. That result did not dissuade the Pakistani military from continuing to send the most militant Islamic extremists, who had already proven their mettle in Afghanistan, over to the Indian side of Kashmir.
For fifty years, the unequal alliance between Pakistan and the United States has never resulted from an ideological choice. It was always a function of the Indo-Pakistani conflict and answered the Pakistani military's fear of isolation, felt with regard to their big neighbor. If, during the whole of the Cold War, Pakistan adhered to American and Anti-Soviet agreements- SEATO (South-East Asian Treaty organization) and the Baghdad Pact- it's only because India was on the other side. Even today, Indian pilots fly Russian MIG-27s and Pakistanis, American F-16s.
But Pakistanis rather quickly understood that they only constituted a pawn in America's Asian strategy and that the eclipsing friendship Washington displayed toward them was essentially self-interested. The opposite is equally true. Momentarily become America's indispensable ally at the time of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan took advantage of the situation to obtain massive military and financial aid for several years. The army, by then in power in Islamabad, thought the hour had come to realize an old dream: Pakistan's acquisition of "strategic depth" against India, thanks to American help and control of Afghanistan.
The fatal error of the Pakistani leadership, in which they have been supported almost to the end by their American allies, was to choose jihad and the most extreme Islamism to realize this project. That's how they introduced the wolf into the sheepfold. Thousands of Islamic militants from all over the world were encouraged to participate in holy war against the Soviet "miscreants". In 1989, after the retreat of Russian troops, Islamabad hoped to finally install a docile, but religious regime, dependant on Pakistan, in Kabul. This hope was quickly betrayed, as civil war replaced the Soviet occupation. Undiscouraged, the Pakistani military, now having gotten the hang of jihad and the way Islamist networks operate, offered a second sitting: from 1994 on, they sent in Taliban troops, some straight from Koranic schools in Pakistan, to attack Afghanistan. In 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul. The Pakistani military participated directly in certain battles and continued to support the new Islamist regime in its battle against the last pocket of resistants, the Northern Alliance. The strangest thing is that America, far from discouraging this enterprise that ended up handing the whole country over to a medieval theocracy, never stopped supporting Pakistani initiatives. They both dreamed of a strong power in Kabul that would return stability to the region and ultimately, some years after the fall of the Soviet Union, allow access to the central Asian republics' hydrocarbon resources.
Once again, Pakistan must become disillusioned. Far from heeling to their protectors, the new Islamist masters of Kabul began to threaten the interior stability of Pakistan itself, where their influence was growing, particularly in the border regions and tribal territories. People began to talk about the "Talibanization" of Pakistan, where heads of Islamist groups flaunt themselves and continuously gain in popularity, especially when the military, in the hope of warding them off, send them to make jihad in Kashmir even more often than usual.
Washington didn't think about changing its rifle arm, until after the 1998 attacks in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, attributed to Osama Bin Laden's militants, who were being protected by Kabul. American cruise missiles that struck terrorist training camps in Afghanistan crossed Pakistani air space without the least authorization. And when Islamabad exploded its nuclear bombs that same year as proof of parity with India which had just exploded its own, heavy economic sanctions hit Pakistan. The country was totally drained. In 1999, a new military putsch brought General Musharraf to power. He was not the last among the military to impose an aggressive cast to his country's foreign affairs' policy over the years. For Washington, which had always preferred to deal with military rather than civilian government in Pakistan, the change was not very important, even if Musharraf continued to maintain relatively fraternal relations with the Taliban and its diverse excrescences.
It was only after the September 11 attacks that America called an end to the party. Once it was decided in Washington, the destruction of the Taliban regime demanded Pakistan's active cooperation. Up against the wall, General Musharraf bowed before the American diktat, even going so far as to participate- naturally with moderation- in the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists. But just when many expected a rapid collapse of the Pakistani regime under the pressure of Islamist masses outraged by this sacrilegious policy, Musharraf cleverly negotiated a reversal of alliances, buying out tribal heads, calming Islamist leaders jealous of their influence on Koranic schools, and banning a few groups among the most extremist to mollify American critics.
At the same time, Musharraf quietly installed his dictatorship and modified the Constitution to place the country under the enduring guidance of the military, whose voice would remain decisive even under a civilian government. His war alongside the Americans didn't keep him from integrating the new Islamist and anti-American party, the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal), composed of six different Islamist movements which took 50 seats out of 272, into the last assembly, elected in October 2002. Even though the principal leader of this party does not deny himself the opportunity to call Musharraf the "Americans' marionette", that has not prevented him from approving the extension of Musharraf's mandate to 2007.
Under these conditions, it's obviously necessary to ask exactly what Pakistan's "Islamic power" and "Muslim identity" is. For Christophe Jaffrelot, one of the top French specialists in the Indo-Pakistani conflict, "Pakistan is first of all an ideological concept: it's the Muslims of the South Indian continent's state."** It defines itself as Muslim to underline the difference with India. But that does not in itself imply that the state should be Islamic in the religious sense of the term. The founding fathers wanted a modern national state, linked to Parliamentarianism and constitutional democracy, like British India. It was only after the 1970s under the populist Prime Minister Ali Bhutto, that politicians and the military began to cajole the clergy, for reasons of internal politics. Ali Bhutto flirted with the idea of Islamic socialism. He's the one who had the term "Islamic Pakistan" inserted into the 1973 Constitution. It was a purely rhetorical step. His successor, Zia-ul-Haq, had Bhutto hung, but followed his demagogic policy toward the clergy by introducing elements of sharia into the penal code and by favoring Koranic schools.
However, this Islamization did not respond to any particularly strong pressure from the popular masses. Moreover, it remained very moderate and numerous protections were put in place to limit the practical application of sharia. At successive elections right up to 2002, the frankly Islamic parties altogether received fewer than 10% of votes. The big traditional parties that demand democracy are the ones that dominate the assemblies. In Pakistan, as in other Muslim countries, one part of the population's resort to religious fundamentalism has been fed above all by growing misery and the increasing income gap between Westernized urban classes and the 50 to 60 million Pakistanis who live below the poverty threshold. The conflict with India is a pretext for the absolute priority given to the military budget, which absorbs most of the nation's internal resources and part of its foreign aid, a fact that has constantly blocked the country's development. The dispossessed public schools have allowed an exponential development of Koranic madrassahs.
Islamism's progress in the population and the multiplication of armed activist groups since the outset of the Afghan adventures have not, however, fundamentally transformed Pakistan. When it became necessary to change sides and war against the Taliban alongside the Americans, the army allowed itself to be purged of its elements closest to the Islamists without any great resistance, at least at the top. Everything's happened as if the Pakistanis, Islamists or not, had understood that they needed to bend to the "superior interests" which the military, eyeing India, claim to continue to guard. This tacit consensus is only contested- loudly, it is true- by groups which remain very much in the minority. For the Pakistani population does not seem ripe for the big jump to pure hard Islamism, and the military and political class is now too busy cleaning up the mess left by the failure of twenty years' policies centered on Afghanistan. Everyone has understood that the disappearance of the Taliban regime is also the evaporation of Islamabad's Afghan dream. Those who have taken power in Kabul are not Pakistan's friends, but the enemies it fought, the Northern Alliance, supported by Russia and India.
Musharraf now needs all his cunning to move between American demands and the pressures exerted by the Islamist fringe of the Pakistani electorate, in particular along the north-west border provinces. As long as Washington still needs him to get rid of terrorists in Afghanistan, he retains some margin for maneuver, as American leniency in the nuclear proliferation affair demonstrates. Already, however, Islamabad's greatest fear is to see America, which must confront the rise of the Chinese giant, conclude a strategic alliance with India, a scenario which would fall into the logic of things. Pakistan's destiny then would seem to be summed up as that of an eternal client state shunted from one protector to another.
Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.
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