Volume 4 ● Number 2 ● Spring 2002—The Impact of 11 September
Mistake, Farce or Calamity? Pakistan and Its Tryst with History
Musharraf’s speech marks an important reversal in Pakistan’s political history, a history replete with changing allegiances among the ruling elite. Yet, for a military man who came to power through a coup (as most do) and who was essentially committed to the Pakistani military’s involvement in Talibanised Afghanistan and to its incursions into Indian-held Kashmir, this was indeed a major policy change. While the rest of the world focused on his personality and praised him for the brave decision that surmounted grave threats and domestic pressures—a decision that some say will bring Pakistan back into the fold of civilised nations—Pakistanis themselves knew that they may have been witnessing nothing more than another performance in the country’s ongoing political theatre, directed and produced by the military’s General Headquarters Central.
The Analogy with 1971
The Pakistani military leadership needs to rehabilitate itself, just as it needed to work its way out from another major crisis of legitimacy, in 1971. Marx’s often-repeated quip that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce—is apposite in this case. After embroiling the country in a brutal civil war, in December 1971 the Pakistani army surrendered to the Indian forces in East Pakistan/Bangladesh.1 As a result of its defeat and the subsequent division of the country, the Pakistani military, after thirteen years of governance, finally handed over power to a civilian administration. The memory of that national turmoil has led the present military ruler of Pakistan, Musharraf, to draw an analogy between the events of 1971 and the current crisis in the region. Just as it was thirty years ago, the Pakistani military has again been exposed for its failed policies and its adventures in neighbouring states. The liberation of Kabul may not be the end of misery for the long-suffering Afghan population. Yet the genuine rejoicing in most parts of Afghanistan and the sense of freedom that the Afghan people feel should remove all doubt that in the Taliban, the Pakistani state and specifically its military supported an undemocratic, obscurantist and oppressive regime. This policy would have continued with disastrous after-effects for the people of the region but for the tragedies in the United States on 11 September.
The year 1971 was crucial for Pakistan. The disgraced military handed over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who became the president and the first civilian martial law administrator of Pakistan. Perhaps the post–11 September political crisis reminded Musharraf of the 1971 turmoil because of the potential scenario in which Benazir Bhutto would follow in her father’s footsteps to lead Pakistan again.2 Musharraf may have thought this scenario could be realised if the United States and Europe remained jittery about the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads falling into the hands of Islamist forces in the region (the Western powers were suspicious of the strong ties of Pakistan’s security agencies to radical Islamist groups). If Bhutto continued to play her cards well, she could become a consensus choice for the West. Moreover, her unqualified support for the Pakistani military’s post–11 September policies was a clear signal to assure some in the military itself that she was not a threat to its political authority, social influence and budgetary demands. She could, like her father before her, who re-established and reaffirmed the military’s authority, become the civilian face that maintains the status quo in Pakistani politics and saves the military from the latest imbroglio it has created for itself. But learning his lesson from the events of thirty years ago, Musharraf, through his reversal, has personally as well as institutionally out-manoeuvred (at least for the time being) Benazir Bhutto’s attempts to regain power. His credentials have become solidified in the international arena, where he is now considered trustworthy, as evidenced by his being invited to the White House.
Musharraf’s analogy to the 1971 crisis is imperfect in some respects, given certain important differences between then and now. In 1971, the threat to the state structure was primarily from the left. Lengthy military rule, with deep links to industrial and feudal interests, had led to a popular mobilisation that demanded democratic reform, economic redistribution, social justice and rights for ethnic minorities. Today, in contrast, after a period of military rule, the threat to the governing junta is from Pakistan’s more militant Islamist forces. Ironically, these forces are to a large extent the product of a longer legacy of military rule in Pakistan.
The Afghan Connection
General Musharraf’s transformation can be traced directly to the evening of 14 September 2001, when he met with his cabinet and national security team in a marathon session lasting until the early hours. The task was to decide whether the Pakistani government would accede to the demands made by the United States in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Pakistan was reportedly asked to provide logistical support to the US military along with the use of Pakistani airspace, if the need arose, and to share up-to-date intelligence on suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan.
By now Pakistan’s decades-long involvement in Afghanistan is known by most who follow the news. It is seldom recalled, however, that in the late 1970s another general, Zia ul Haq, then ruler of Pakistan, convened a meeting similar to Musharraf’s. At the time, the military junta was asked to play a crucial role in support of the US-financed resistance to Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan. That decision was undoubtedly easier for the dictator Zia ul Haq and his advisers than the one faced by Musharraf. Zia had been in power for two years, and his religious–conservative regime was already unpopular both at home and abroad. Supporting the United States would grant his government badly needed legitimacy on the world stage. Zia also anticipated a US aid package to help Pakistan address its perpetual social and economic problems.
However, Zia was a master tactician. He did not immediately agree to the terms of support offered by the Carter administration, rejecting the initial offer as “mere peanuts”. It was not until the early Reagan years that the Pakistani government finally accepted the first instalments of the nearly $3 billion that flowed into the region in the 1980s. To the sceptical Pakistani population, the military regime portrayed its intervention in Afghan affairs as humanitarian and political assistance to fellow Muslims. But the junta’s decision to play ball with the United States was taken also for strategic reasons.
Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan had been strained owing to boundary disputes and the feared spillage of ethnic Pashtun nationalism across the common border. Afghan rulers disputed the nineteenth-century division of Pashtun‑dominated areas by the British colonial authorities. The Durand Line, the boundary between colonial India and Afghanistan, was inherited by Pakistan as its own border with the neighbouring state. Successive Afghan governments were supportive of nationalist Pashtun movements that called for regional autonomy or independence from Pakistan. These struggles were a source of anxiety to the centralising Pakistani state. With openly hostile India on their eastern flank, Pakistani military strategists had regarded their not-so-friendly western neighbour with suspicion. Tensions were aggravated by the 1978 communist-led coup in Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion of 1979. The US-backed resistance to the pro-Soviet Afghan regime guaranteed, at least in the minds of Pakistani military leaders, a somewhat concrete resolution of their Afghan problem.
The Impact on Pakistan
The autumn 2001 campaign in Afghanistan is fresh in our minds, but the mass displacement of the Afghan population, the destruction of their homes and the loss of 1.5 million Afghan lives during their two-decade-long civil war had by September 2001 vanished from the consciousness of Western news media. Nor did many outside Pakistan remember the Afghan war’s impact on Pakistani civil, cultural and political life. The Pakistani military used part of the international aid that poured into Pakistan during the Afghan war in the 1980s to strengthen its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI. The ISI was the principal liaison between US intelligence agencies and the various factions of the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation, known as the mujahideen. It created a range of shell, covert and legitimate companies that were used as fronts for the war effort in Afghanistan. Unknown to the Pakistani public, these companies became the major conduits for supplying arms to the “freedom fighters”.
The ISI also assumed a lead role in suppressing democratic dissent within Pakistan. To date, even after Musharraf’s supposed move against hardliners and Islamist elements in the army (exemplified by the forced retirement in October 2001 of General Mahmud Ahmed, director‑general of the ISI), there are no constitutional checks and balances on its operations. Its ranks remain filled with highly motivated, ultra-nationalist and religiously zealous officers who are concerned with safeguarding what they consider to be the boundaries—geographic and ideological—of the Pakistani state.
Another important result of the US economic and development aid in the 1980s, combined with assistance from Saudi Arabia, was the implementation of Zia’s plans for the Islamisation of Pakistan. Development funds were used to establish and maintain deeni madaris (Islamic religious schools) in different parts of Pakistan. Zia and his junta considered the students and graduates of these schools to be the foot soldiers who would support the dictator as he pressed ahead with his agenda to build an Islamic polity and a theocratic state.
A third legacy of the Afghan war was the unprecedented infiltration of drugs and weapons into Pakistani society. Profits from drug and weapons trafficking partly helped to finance the covert war in Afghanistan, while also funnelling enormous wealth to a section of the upper echelons of Pakistan’s military and bureaucratic elite.
The triumph of the Afghan resistance forces in 1992, when they unseated the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah and captured Kabul, did not result in what Pakistan’s military had always desired: a stable Afghanistan following the dictates of Islamabad. With the Cold War already a fading memory, the United States and other Western countries virtually abandoned the victorious mujahideen, making only vague promises of development aid to rebuild the war-ravaged country. In subsequent years, infighting among the new Afghan leadership—and its growing independence of the ISI—led Pakistan to intensify its involvement in Afghanistan’s affairs. The Taliban, a radical faction of madrassa students under the guidance of Mullah Mohammad Omar of Kandahar, was bankrolled on its path to victory in Afghanistan in 1995–6 by the Pakistani military. From the perspective of the generals in Islamabad, the Taliban’s loyalty to and dependence on them guaranteed a safer and less volatile western border. In addition, Pakistan was interested in secure routes to the landlocked Central Asian states. A stable, Taliban-led Afghanistan would contribute to a larger geopolitical strategy wherein Pakistan, the United States and international petroleum companies envisioned multiple pipelines transporting oil and natural gas from resource-rich Central Asian countries to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea. But the strongly independent and unpredictable nature of the Taliban, and the continuing civil war in northern Afghanistan, dampened the initial excitement these schemes had generated.
The Pashtun Factor
It should be noted that Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan and its support for the Taliban were regionally unpopular. Iran strongly opposed the Pashtun-dominated Sunni Taliban and blamed them for the systematic killing of the Hazara Shi’ite minority in Afghanistan. Similarly, other Central Asian states backed the Northern Alliance, which was composed primarily of non-Pashtun ethnicities. India, too, played a role and gave diplomatic and monetary sustenance to non-Taliban forces against the Pakistan-supported regime. Pakistan’s intelligence services, even prior to the advent of the Taliban, historically gave assistance to Pashtun Afghan groups and had continuously sabotaged the multi-ethnic Afghan government that came into power after Najibullah’s communist regime fell in 1992. All through the 1980s, Pakistan supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (one of the most brutal and undemocratic of mujahideen commanders), whose radical Islamist party Hezbi Islami received more than sixty per cent of the aid that went to the mujahideen through Pakistani channels.3
Pakistan’s support for Pashtun groups may partly be a result of geography, since Pashtun-populated areas in southern Afghanistan are contiguous with the Pakistani border. This proximity has historically shaped the region and resulted in cross border kin and group ties. Where earlier solidarities were at times exploited by Pashtun nationalist forces, the Pakistani security agencies, charged with running a covert war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, were successful in turning these ethnic bonds into ones of Islamic resistance. How Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, the area bordering Afghanistan and having a majority Pashtun population, went from being a hub of nationalist and leftist politics to one that is now identified with radical Islamic movements is still an unwritten and under-analysed part of Pakistani history.4 The change clearly reflects how in the last two decades the use of Islamic symbols and political discourse has helped the Pakistani state successfully to defuse a progressive, nationalistic and at times separatist movement within its borders, and to assert its influence over Afghan national politics that threatened its control over this region.
Musharraf inherited a Pakistan in which the ghost of Zia ul Haq, more than a decade after his death in an aeroplane explosion, lingered on. Even after an interim experiment in democratic politics, Zia’s legacy permeated Pakistani cultural life, which shifted to embrace orthodox Islamic values under the growing influence of Islamist political factions. One of the most important components of this legacy is the madrassa system of education. In a state that has forsaken responsibility for providing educational and employment opportunities to its people, the madrassa system became an avenue for a large percentage of the rural and urban poor to seek social advancement. Many madaris (Urdu plural of madrassa), linked to a more orthodox Wahhabi tradition of Islam, had a militant edge to their training and became recruiting grounds for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Taliban themselves were a product of such madaris.
The madaris also intensified sectarian rivalries in Pakistani society. Saudi Arabian–funded madaris, for example, professed an anti-Iran and anti-Shi’ite ideology, and their graduates have been responsible for widespread violence against Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority. Iran, meanwhile, has aided Shi’ite militancy by providing resources to Shi’ites in Pakistan.5 In a sense, Pakistan in the 1990s became a space where, along with its own violent ethnic rivalries, the Saudis and the Iranians engaged in a turf war on Pakistani soil and at the expense of Pakistani lives. One consequence of such involvements is that Pakistan remains politically unstable, rife with growing ethnic and sectarian violence. This violence, although a challenge to the authority of the Pakistani state and military, has also been cynically deployed by the state against internal opposition. The government has used some of the Islamist groups for external purposes as well, for example, in its covert war in Kashmir.
The Other War: Kashmir
The 1971 roots of the present crisis in Pakistan spread to the east and west of the country. In that year, India gave support and sustenance to the Bengali liberation struggle in East Pakistan. For the ruling Pakistani military junta, India’s aid to the Bengali freedom fighters was seen as abetting Bengali “terrorists”. Yet the then reigning international opinion, influenced by the wave of anti-colonial struggles, was clearly in favour of Bengali self-determination. India, therefore, never faced censure in the court of world opinion; instead, it was congratulated by many as the liberator of the Bengali people.
In December 2001, three decades to the month after Bangladesh won its freedom, Pakistan and India were again at the brink of war. This time it was over the right to national self-determination and independence from India demanded by the Muslim population of Kashmir. The thirty-year cold peace between the neighbours has been punctuated by low intensity warfare along their lengthy common border and is maintained by the supposed deterrence afforded by their nuclear potential. Within this context—perhaps as a way of overcoming its memory of earlier defeat, and in a clear reversal of 1971 roles—Pakistan has since the late 1980s ideologically, logistically and militarily supported an armed struggle in Indian Kashmir. This undeclared war, which is nominally about supporting the rights of the Kashmiri Muslim population, also serves strategically to tie down a large contingent of the Indian defence forces, while simultaneously causing a drain on the Indian exchequer. India has responded to this provocation with massive force and brutality, as did Pakistan in East Pakistan in 1971. It has spurned dialogue with the legitimate representatives of the Kashmiri independence movement and has obstructed any third party involvement in mediating the process. In doing so, it has further fuelled the conflict and been guilty of human rights abuses against the civilian population, including torture, rape, summary execution and the disappearance of innocent Kashmiris.6
These measures have intensified the response of armed Kashmiri resistance groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad which, sustained and aided by the Pakistani military, took centre stage within the struggle. These groups, violently or otherwise, also forced out those Kashmiri political formations that were more inclined towards non-violent struggle, civil disobedience and political dialogue. India’s militaristic intrusion and Pakistan’s support of armed struggle have left the Kashmiri people caught between two belligerent states that are engaged in a proxy war, at a tremendous cost to the people of the region.
Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir came at a moment when international opinion was shifting on the issue of aid to violent insurgencies, even those perceived as struggles for national liberation. During the 1990s, national boundaries became more porous to international trade and global finance, yet more restrictive of cross border aid from individual states to wars of national liberation or to political insurgencies. The stabilisation of Central America under the Arias plan had led to the end of conflict in that region and became a harbinger of an international consensus against such aid.7 The Pakistani military may have a deep memory of humiliation, but it has seldom possessed the flexibility to understand changing international trends.
The Junta’s Errors
As suggested above, Pakistan’s major external policy initiatives in the last two decades, under the directions of the military, have consisted of two elements: nurturing a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan to guarantee strategic depth on its western border, and encouraging armed resistance against India in Kashmir. Both interlinked policies also guaranteed the preservation of the military’s high demands on the national budget and provided the ideological justification for the growth and consolidation of its role in Pakistan’s social and political life. Yet these policies expose the political miscalculations of the Pakistani state. The military may feel betrayed by world censure of its policies in the region, but it has continuously misread the diplomatic tolerance of its regionally isolated stance on these issues as acceptance.
Even after its volte-face on the Taliban issue after 11 September, which laid bare the serious flaws of its previous policies, the Pakistani military continued to think it could intervene in Kashmir. However, the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament may drastically limit Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri separatists. India, with or without proof of official Pakistani involvement in this particular deed, pointed to the pattern of support that the Pakistani military had offered to armed groups which targeted civilians. Pakistan failed initially to understand the emerging atmosphere of zero tolerance towards any form of terrorist activity in the post–11 September expanding definition of the term. The Indian government, in contrast, taking its cue from the United States, pushed hard to win the international public relations war, if not the hearts and minds of Kashmiri Muslims.
India, perhaps compensating for its hurt pride over the Kargil incident,8 has threatened Pakistan with dire consequences for the attack on parliament. It is the return of 1971, this time in reverse. The neighbours, now armed with nuclear arsenals, remain involved in a game of dangerous brinkmanship. This is not simply a regional issue, but should be a matter of grave concern to the international community as well. Yet final responsibility for the outcome rests with the belligerents themselves. The two countries, with their immense social and economic problems, need to resolve the Kashmir issue via a meaningful dialogue that seriously takes into account the legitimate concerns of the Kashmiri Muslims.
Unfortunately, successive Pakistani civilian governments in the last decade have been unable to influence policy on Kashmir. That has been the purview of the military, which has periodically sabotaged any movement towards a negotiated settlement. Yet civilian governments have also neglected issues of democratic governance, economic distribution and social needs. This neglect, along with their rampant corruption, has eroded people’s faith in civilian rule. In this context, the military has portrayed itself as the stable social institution that can save Pakistan from its corrupt and inept civilian representatives. As mentioned above, the ISI and the military have been involved in all major domestic and international decisions made in the past two decades, even when nominally out of power. Hence, the peculiar impasse that Pakistan faces in a post–11 September world is entirely the military’s responsibility.
The Pakistani military understands this charge at a fundamental level. That is one reason why its institutional face, General Musharraf, condemned Islamist violence in his January speech. Musharraf’s move was also intended to reduce the international pressure on his government and to refurbish systematically the tarnished image of the military among Pakistanis themselves. The military remains the largest and most organised modern and technologically sophisticated political group in Pakistani society. As much as it nurtures its constituency by an immensely sophisticated use of the national media, it is also cognisant of the social, economic and political implications that its long-term policies have had for the country. It is aware that to continue to rule it needs to create a new consensus. It therefore seeks to recast the memory of the recent past as an aberration and is willing to play the liberal secular card to retain its hold on power. Instead of the Islamists, its new allies are the large majority of Pakistanis who had found themselves unwillingly trapped in a society which was turning towards more extreme forms of Islamic practice and polity.
The liberal intelligentsia has heaved a sigh of relief at this turn of events. Long the target of Islamist attacks, sometimes instigated by the state security apparatus itself, liberals are now circling their wagons around Musharraf, seeing him as the saviour who will release the country from the Islamists’ grip. In their unrestrained acclaim they perhaps forget the military’s capability of manipulating history. Musharraf is willing to hold elections to the national parliament, but he will remain in power as head of state for another five years (in early May 2002, he won a referendum that allowed him to retain himself as president). The military will not risk civilian scrutiny until it can guarantee the continuation of its own entrenched power in Pakistani society.
By accepting the post–11 September US demands in exchange for fresh promises of international largesse, the Pakistani military has, for the time being, saved itself from the wrath of the US-led coalition. But in the process, the regime may have plunged Pakistan into an uncharted future, with no regard for such stability as remains in Pakistani society. The promise of US aid in exchange for strategic support, moreover, falls on deaf ears among most Pakistanis (and Afghans). They remember a series of broken Western promises, most recently when the United States and its allies failed to provide much-needed development assistance in the early 1990s. In addition, during the 1980s when billions of dollars did pour into Pakistan, the impact on development was minimal, since a large percentage of the money was used by the government to purchase military hardware and support mujahideen groups. Accusations of corruption and pilfering were also common. Given the past performance of Pakistan’s ruling elite, the Pakistani public might rightly be sceptical about any meaningful impact on their lives from the promised aid.
Pakistan is at a difficult crossroads. Yet like many such crises, this moment could be seized to rethink a range of options. The opportunity could be used to put forward workable solutions for Pakistan’s political and social problems. Otherwise Pakistan will continue to be riddled with social chaos and violent strife. The suffering population of this land of rivers, mystic poets and ancient history deserves far better than what its elites have offered in the last five decades of the country’s existence.
As a first step, the international community should make clear that the present support for the military regime is not a green light for it to perpetuate its rule indefinitely. International pressure, using economic aid as a tool, should be increased on the junta to hold free and fair elections. The junta should be persuaded to revoke all Zia-era amendments to the constitution, including laws that uphold separate electorates (in which Muslims and non-Muslims vote for separate candidates), that discriminate against religious minorities and that suppress the rights of women. All political parties, irrespective of their affiliation and ideology, should be allowed to participate in the elections. The elections could be held under the auspices of the United Nations, which has by now gained considerable experience in monitoring elections. The United Nations has, in the last decade, intervened in states that have already witnessed protracted civil war or social strife. Pakistan could be an experiment in avoiding such calamities before they occur.
Within the context of a democratically elected government a sincere reprioritising of national resources should be instituted. The military’s financial demands, which stand at almost thirty per cent of the annual budget, need to be curtailed in favour of vital social needs in primary and post-secondary education, healthcare, rural and urban infrastructure, job creation and the strengthening of the legal system.
The Pakistani liberal media is comparing Musharraf’s answer to the post–11 September crisis to a Kemalist transformation. While selectively remembering the modernising and secularising impulse of that process, such comparisons tend to forget that the Turkish experiment in nation building was fraught with draconian laws, centralised power, oppression of ethnic minorities and extreme brutality against the population by a police state. Those affected by such a process will continue to resist its imposition. It is absolutely crucial to understand that if the social and political framework within Pakistan does not fundamentally change, we may witness the dissolution of the country, as we have seen earlier in Somalia and elsewhere. The geostrategic location of Pakistan, along with its nuclear capability, should make the international community think seriously before such a future unfolds. The primary task should remain that of national integration, socio-economic development and the strengthening of democratic norms. Pakistanis will need international support and encouragement, but more importantly, selfless leadership from within to attain this goal.
2. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed by the military in 1977 and later executed. General Zia ul Haq ruled from 1977 to 1988, when Bhutto’s daughter Benazir was elected president. Her government collapsed amid charges of corruption in 1990, only for her to be returned to power from 1993 to 1996.
3. See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
4. Pakistan’s major peasant mobilisations and land takeovers, directed by underground communist groups, occurred in this province in the 1970s.
5. Shi’ism and Sunnism are the two main branches of Islam. Shi’ites predominate in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi sect of Sunnism makes up some 90 per cent of the population. In Pakistan, Shi’ites constitute 20 per cent of the population, Sunnis 77 per cent.
6. See Amnesty International reports on India, 1997–2000, and Human Rights Watch UK, India’s Secret Army in Kashmir 8, no. 4 (May 1996), available at [www.gharib.demon.co.uk/reports/hrwa.htm].
7. The Arias plan for ending the war in Nicaragua was approved by the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua in 1987. Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in that year.
8. In the summer of 1999, in an operation masterminded by General Musharraf himself, Pakistani-trained insurgents and army regulars caught the Indian security forces by surprise and occupied Indian-held territory in northern Kashmir around the town of Kargil.