Pakistan at 60: A Most Uncertain Ally
A 31-gun salute boomed at daybreak in Islamabad last Tuesday to mark Pakistan’s 60th anniversary of independence from British rule—or, to be precise, its birth as a Muslim state that resulted from the bloody partition of India in 1947. That event was accompanied by the largest mass migration in history, as over ten million people crossed the new borders fleeing for their lives; up to a million never made it.
“Pakistan has come a long way since Independence,” President Pervez Musharraf said in a message to the nation’s 165 million people. In a sense he is right, of course: All countries in the world have “come a long way” over the past six decades, for better or worse. South Korea and Southern Rhodesia of 1947 are equally unrecognizable today. But in comparison to its perennial rival India, Pakistan is lagging behind. It is politically less stable, institutionally less democratic, and economically less prosperous. More importantly, it is ideologically far less attuned to Western values and modes of thought than it was at the time of its birth.
The notion of “Pakistan”—“the Land of the Pure”—as the homeland and state for the Muslims of India was based on the two-nation concept of the Muslim League, founded at Dhaka in 1906. In 1916 a souave British-educated lawyer, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, became its leader. He only joined the League in 1913, having started his political career as an Indian nationalist and an advocate of Hindu-Muslim Unity. Between the wars, however, he became apprehensive that in an independent India the Muslim identity would be threatened in a secular state based on the British model of parliamentary democracy, as envisaged by the Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru. By 1940 the demand for the creation of Pakistan had been formally endorsed by the Muslim League.
Seven years later, with the hasty departure of the British, Pakistan came into being as the first modern state to be established on openly Islamic principles. As V.S. Naipaul wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Partition,
Muslim insecurity led to the call for the creation of Pakistan. It went at the same time with an idea of old glory, of the invaders sweeping down from the northwest and looting the temples of Hindustan and imposing faith on the infidel. The fantasy still lives: and for the Muslim converts of the subcontinent it is the start of their neurosis, because in this fantasy the convert forgets who or what he is and becomes the violator.
While defined by religion (even though many of its citizens had not, until then, defined themselves that way), Pakistan theoretically could have developed either as a democracy with equal rights for all, or as an Islamic state with Islamic law. But as Bronwen Maddox noted in the Times last week, the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah after only one year of independence was “a fatal blow to the first vision; Islamist rhetoric was a tempting tool for his successors.”
Unlike India, Pakistan has never been a functional democracy. Since inception it has allowed discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities—after all, only the “Pure,” i.e. Muslims, are its true citizens—and it surreptitiously aids and abets Islamic terrorists in Kashmir and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Suicide attacks in London on July 7 2005, masterminded by a young British-born Pakistani, and that country’s long list of proven or suspected links with numerous other terrorist attacks in recent years, finally focused attention on the ambivalent role of Pakistan and its leader, General Pervez Musharraf, in the war on terrorism.
It would be inconceivable for a de-Nazified, post-1945 Germany to be a bona fide member of the family of nations, yet at the same time to tolerate the existence of a nationwide network of Hitler Jugend camps and schools preaching National Socialism. And yet General Musharraf’s government has consistently backtracked on its promise to control the Islamic schools that are grooming new generations of terrorists. Pakistan thus remains the epicenter of global jihad, a breeding ground for the new echelons of “martyrs.” It is an enormous Islamist campus in which thousands of madrassas prepare over one million students for the rigors of jihad. When pressed, Musharraf announces the closure of some of the schools where “the eggs of the snake of terrorism are incubated,” only to let them re-open later. It can hardly be otherwise in a country founded on the pillars of Islamic orthodoxy.
After 9-11 Musharraf allowed America to use Pakistani air bases and air space, winning praise from Mr. Bush and obtaining an improvement in U.S-Pakistani relations that had deteriorated since the end of the Cold War. On his own admission, however, he did so under duress. In a senastional CBS interview last year, Musharraf said that the Bush administration threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” after the September 11 attacks if the country did not cooperate with America’s war in Afghanistan. He said the threat was delivered by the assistant secretary of state, Richard Armitage, in conversations with Pakistan’s intelligence director. “One has to think and take actions in the interests of the nation, and that’s what I did,” he told CBS—hardly the grounds for a solid and enduring alliance.
While Musharraf”s cooperation, such as it was, proved somewhat helpful in the initial military campaign in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Army’s subsequent deliberate failure to block Al-Qaeda’s escape routes ensured that all the big fish have safely slipped away. To this day the Pakistani military are loath to risk alienating their erstwhile Taliban clients and allies, and the remote border areas remain a safe haven for the insurgents. Most of the militants arrested in late 2001 were released without charge only months later, among them the heads of groups listed as terrorist organisations by Britain and the US.
Not only Taliban but most other Islamic extremist and terrorist movements all over the world were born out of ideas conceived in the battlefields of Afghanistan and subsequently matured and spread from Pakistan’s political, military, and religious establishment. These movements enjoyed the support of the Pakistani military-intelligence structures, and most notably its powerful Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI), a leading promoter of state-sponsored terrorism. It grew rich and mighty, thanks to the U.S. role in helping Islamic fundamentalists fight the Soviets in the 1980sa. The ethos of the Pakistani military may be better understood from the preface to “The Qur’anic Concept of War” by Brigadier S.K. Malik: “The defiance of God’s authority by one who is His slave exposes that slave to the risk of being held guilty of treason.” It is therefore necessary to fight unbelief “in order to save the rest of humanity.”
It was in such spirit that the officers of the ISI were steeped when the CIA subcontracted to the ISI the arming of the the mujaheddin. It was hedging its bets during the 2001 Afghan war: the U.S. intelligence admitted to having no idea “which side of the street they’re playing on,” an opinion unwittingly echoed by former ISI chief Hamid Gul— later to become a vociferous defender of the defeated Taliban—who freely admitted that “it is unnatural to expect the ISI to act against what it knows are Pakistan’s best interests and be as motivated as it was before.”
Iran may be dominating the headlines, but the future of Pakistan’s nuclear program should be of even greater concern to the United States. On May 28, 1998, when Pakistan detonated a string of nuclear devices and became the first Islamic country to join the nuclear club, the jubilant masses poured to the streets of Pakistan to cheer the news, shouting Allah Akbar! They carried models of the Hatf—Pakistan’s nuclear missile—marked “Islamic bomb.” In Friday prayers, mullahs stressed that the tests are a “triumph for Islam.”
The question vexing the U.S. intelligence community for the past decade is not so much whether there will be a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, but what will happen if some of Pakistan’s assets fall into the wrong hands. As far back as 2001 elite U.S. and Israeli units were reportedly being trained to “take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to make sure that the warheads do not fall into the hands of renegades” if Pervez Musharraf is toppled.
Pakistan is also a major violator of the ban on nuclear proliferation, thanks to the work of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program. In 2003 Dr. Khan stunned the world when he admitted on television to leaking nuclear weapons secrets to—among others—North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Widely considered a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing the country’s nuclear arsenal, Khan made his “confession” after a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf. He claimed that he had acted “without authorization” from Gen. Musharraf’s government, promised not to do so again, and asked for forgiveneess. The proceedings could be reminiscent of Moscow, 1936, except that Khan’s life and liberty were not in any danger. His de facto invincibility became obvious when the government immediately decided to grant him “clemency,” while repeating Khan’s assertion that his was an “unauthorized” network.
The suspicion that Pakistan was engaged in illicit proliferation is as old as its nuclear program, but the U.S. appeasement seems to be on automatic pilot. Soon after 9-11 BBC Television’s Newsnight reported that the Bush administration had thwarted an investigation of Khan and his associates. Former CIA operatives told the BBC they could not investigate the development and intended proliferation of “Islamic bombs” by Pakistan because funding for it appeared to originate in Saudi Arabia. The Bush Administration’s decision followed from the twin policy of not alienating Saudi Arabia and courting the support of the authorities in Islamabad for the military action in Afghanistan.
Khan’s direct or indirect contacts may have included Islamic terrorist groups, or organizations or persons connected with them. What technological blueprints, materials, or hardware may have exchanged hands is still unknown. Such concern is justified in view of Khan’s open support for Muslim solidarity. He was eager to defy the West and pierce “clouds of the so-called secrecy,” as he once put it, and felt that giving nuclear technology to a Muslim country was not a crime.
The sentiment is shared by Pakistan’s ruling elite, which is unsurprising in the first modern state to be established on openly Islamic principles. It still suffers from many defects derived from its origins. This social structure predicated upon the supposed superiority of Islamic imperialism (ashraf) suggests that Islam is the cause, or at least a major aggravating feature in the array of Pakistan’s problems. For as long as the country’s Islamic character is explicitly upheld by Musharraf and his successors, Pakistan cannot evolve into a democracy or an efficient economy without undermining the religious rationale for its very existence.
Always on the verge of bankruptcy, Pakistan has been for most of its 55 years of existence under military dictatorships. None of its leaders has ever left power voluntarily. Some were executed on trumped-up charges, notably the democratically elected Prime Minister Bhutto. His executioner, the ultra-pious Islamist General Zia ul-Haq, was the military dictator of Pakistan from 1977 until 1988. He had strong links with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Shari’a was reintroduced after a bogus referendum, but Zia was enlightened enough to allow doctors to be present so that the whipping of transgressors stopped short of death. Smelling salts were often administered if the victim lost consciousness before receiving his allotted number of lashes. Nevertheless, Zia had maintained Pakistan’s special relationship with the United States. Despite human rights abuses, Pakistan was a “front-line state” helping to fight a jihad against Communism. He received over $500 million a year in economic and military aid from the U.S.A., plus whatever did not reach the mujaheddin forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. Under-Secretary of State James Buckley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that elections “were not in the security interests of Pakistan.”
Benazir Bhutto promised a new dawn for Pakistan in the 1980s, but in the end had to make compromises with the religious groups. She may have thought that they would accept the legitimacy of her credentials in spite of her sex, but she was wrong. Her career is not a demonstration that women may succeed in Islam, but, quite the contrary, that they are unwelcome at the top. The civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was overthrown on October 12, 1999, by General Musharraf—who is now a self-anointed president. That was the first military coup in a major country since the end of the Cold War, and the first ever in a country with nuclear weapons.
Eight years later the Bush administration is still struggling to find a way to keep Musharraf in power amid a deepening . Washington is currently said to be quietly prodding him to share authority with his longtime rival Benazir Bhutto as a way of broadening his base. He appears to have lost so much domestic support in recent months that U.S. officials view a deal with Benazir Bhutto that would result in her becoming prime minister once again as his best chance of remaining president.
If Musharraf fails in that endeavor, however, it will not be the end of the world. It has always been wrong to assume either that Musharraf was turning into a Pakistani Kemal Ataturk, or that Pakistan itself is a reliable American partner. If and when he goes at least this country will be forced to consider the problem of Pakistan with clarity and sobriety that have been lacking over the past 60 years.