Pakistan’s Continuing Dilemma

In May of this year, when Osama Bin Laden was revealed to have been living in the tranquility of a suburb in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy, it again brought to the surface underlying tensions between the Pakistani and American governments. The relationship between the militaries of the two countries is an old one, and the mutual suspicion is not new either. The latest process of close cooperation started, if we recall, when US and NATO forces moved to confront the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. In this they faced an enemy that had its political roots in the 1980s, when Pakistan’s then-dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, had provided tactical and strategic support to train the mujahideen during the US-financed resistance to Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan.

When in October of 2001 I was asked to write an essay for the SSRC on the post–September 11 crisis and the looming war in Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by another military man, Pervez Musharraf, who for the next six years would be the United States’ main ally in the region. My essay predicted that Musharraf would have a hard time pushing the new US-backed Afghan policy, with the madrasa-trained forces that were nurtured by Zia (with US support) already resisting Musharraf’s allegiance to the US cause with sharp and violent protests. I argued that the situation could get worse as on-the-run Taliban and Arab-Afghans crossed into Pakistan and blended in with the support base they already had there. The serious question for me was how future Pakistani governments would deal with this process on top of existing Islamist extremism.

Indeed there has been volatility in the US-Pakistan relationship since the days following 9/11, when Musharraf acceded to US demands to provide logistical support to the US military and to share up-to-date intelligence on Bin Laden and his followers. The Pakistani state has sometimes pushed back, creating a national furor about sovereign rights (after receiving billions in aid from the United States), and at other times has aggressively pursued US aims in the region, sharing vital information and delivering high-value assets.

Bin Laden’s death is the latest episode in this back-and-forth relationship. In a post-Osama era, the pressure is already mounting on Pakistan to come clean, this time about its covert relationship with jihadi organizations and what it did or did not know about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The United States has asked for a range of guarantees and concessions from the Pakistani government and has sought to “redirect” Pakistan’s focus toward US security interests. Yet, as Bin Laden’s death brought a certain kind of closure for many in the United States, in Pakistan it opened unhealed wounds around the US role in the region and its implications for Pakistan’s own stability and future prosperity. These are important discussions (at least for Pakistanis) that cannot be trivialized with a language of geo-security, strategic interests, and rogue nations.

The recent upheaval and debate about Bin Laden’s death while “hiding in plain sight” tend to also obscure the long history of US interest in the region and that of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. Soon after its creation in 1947, Pakistan became enmeshed in Cold War politics. British and US intelligence agencies worked closely with the upper echelons of the Pakistani state to curtail the “communist threat.” Archival materials indicate that these efforts were at times directed by a secret committee in the ministry of interior that was set up at the behest of the British Embassy. One task of the committee was to employ Islamic arguments through the media to counter the anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan political stance of the communists. Interestingly enough, even in those early days, there was suspicion on the part of the British and Americans about whether Pakistani functionaries could get the work done and get rid of the “red menace” that was seen to be plaguing the country and the region.

In the 1950s, Pakistan’s political and military leadership entered the country in US-sponsored anti-communist treaties, such as SEATO and CENTO. The high point of the relationship in this period came in the late 1950s, when US surveillance planes flew over the Soviet Union and along the Chinese border from the Badaber air station near Peshawar (and also from Lahore), with tactical support provided by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). This was the airbase from which Gary Powers would fly his U-2 reconnaissance plane in 1960, only to be shot down over Soviet airspace. It is highly likely that PAF pilots themselves were involved in these covert actions to acquire surveillance data for the US government until the mid-1960s, while General Ayub Khan, the military dictator, was in power.

For such services, the United States hailed Ayub Khan as a champion of the free world and Pakistan as a bulwark against communist expansionism in Asia. Ayub Khan was given a reception like no other when he visited the United States in July 1961. President Kennedy flattered the general with a state dinner and an address to Congress, and Vice President Johnson took him to his Texas ranch. Of course, there were also promises of military and economic aid. Yet, this evolving “special relationship” depended on Pakistan supporting the US understanding of its security concerns in the region while paying little attention to Pakistan’s own regional apprehensions. Even Ayub Khan eventually understood the ambiguity of this relationship, choosing as the title of his memoir Friends, Not Masters.

Since then, the relationship has gone through many twists and turns, from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s (the height of cooperation) to the ups and downs of recent years. In the post–Cold War decades, the focus, however, has shifted from an emphasis on the surveillance of left-wing activists and suspected communists to the surveillance of Islamists and suspected jihadists. It is clear that the United States and the Pakistani military have retained a long relationship, sometimes of mistrust but mostly of mutual benefit. Rather than see the present moment as a “crisis,” we should perhaps consider it as the unfolding of another act in this now long, drawn-out play, in which over the years many in Pakistani and US ruling circles have been willing performers.

For common Pakistanis, this history of involvement in covert wars—and especially in the conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, instigated by an unelected military dictator—has meant the manipulation of the political process without regard to popular sentiment. This has, at least in the last three decades, become manifest in the cynical deployment of Islamist forces by certain sections of the Pakistani military, at times against internal opposition and sometimes for the purposes of cross-border incursions into neighboring countries. These very forces have now become a major threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Hence today, Pakistan remains politically unstable, rife with growing religious and sectarian violence. Further, sixty-four years after its independence and forty years after the creation of Bangladesh, the state has not been able to resolve the question of how to integrate its many cultures and diverse linguistic groups. Thus, in addition to the spate of suicide bombings and the entrenchment of the Taliban and other radical groups in areas bordering Afghanistan, the ongoing nationalist insurgency in Baluchistan reminds us of major tears in Pakistan’s social fabric.

These rips were very much in evidence soon after Benazir Bhutto’s tragic death in late December 2007, at the end of Musharraf’s rule. As much as, in the last several years, Pakistan has been represented as a place where increasingly belligerent Islamist radicals are pitched against the state and civil society, the rioting and looting in Karachi, the commercial heart of the country, and the adjoining Sindh province in the aftermath of Bhutto’s murder made clear other deep fractures in Pakistani social life. Private universities, schools, factories, government buildings, banks, gas stations, and “posh” food outlets were attacked—clearly symbols of institutions “where the poor cannot afford to study; businesses where they cannot get jobs; government offices where they have to pay bribes and where they are insulted and abused”1—and both the city and the province were left littered with burned-out cars, trucks, and trailers. It is obvious that the destruction was a way in which people showed their anger and sorrow at the sudden death of a leader. But the extent of the damage to private and public property demonstrates that in addition to the outpouring of grief, this reaction was indicative of rising poverty, high levels of unemployment, and the increasing sense of deprivation that has taken root in the populace after eight years of military rule.

Yet in a post-Musharraf era, this precariousness in Pakistan’s social life continues as the current economic model is based on a reliance on foreign capital and loans from international financial institutions rather than on internal productivity and growth. The country is suffering from an increase in urban unemployment, a rise in inflationary pressures (specifically high food prices), a lack of growth in the industrial sector, and an anemic private-investment rate. All this is bound to create further social conflict. Within this broad and complex scenario, the international community and the United States should understand that Pakistan and the region it is part of cannot be “tamed” merely through the machinations of a security-centric vision. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location, along with its nuclear capability, should make the international community think seriously about its future. Only a socially and economically stable Pakistan can be a guarantor of future peace in the greater Southwest Asia region. The focus should be on Pakistan’s national integration, its socioeconomic development, and the strengthening of democratic norms.

The 2008 election results show that, when given a chance, the Pakistani people choose their own representatives. The political task is to deepen the democratic impulse that is present in Pakistan’s populace, represented at times in the multiplicity of its media outlets, the maturity of its civil-society groups, the dynamism of its grassroots organizations, and the activism of political actors of all persuasions. In Pakistan itself, all who desire to continue this nascent experiment in democracy need to come to an agreement that differences of opinion should not be resolved by subjecting the “other” to violent acts, whether the killing of a liberal politician by a religiously motivated actor (as in the case of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer), the annihilation of internal enemies by the military (including the United States’ indiscriminate use of drone attacks in Pakistan’s northwest), or for that matter, the armed response to nationalist sentiments, as has occurred in Baluchistan.

However, the dilemma remains that despite Pakistan’s return to civilian and democratic rule, the religious right, although not electorally strong, controls the streets and has the power to silence its opponents through legal and illegal means. This occurs while a popularly elected government (with a parliament consisting primarily of nonreligious parties) continues to accede to the wishes of those who speak the loudest (whether the military, regional/ethnic parties, or religious ones) and who can coerce it through political manipulation of parliamentary procedure or the extra-parliamentary creation of social turmoil. If this “legal civil war” and uncertainty continues, there can be at least two future scenarios. One is a state of siege in which the military suspends all civil law in times of perceived threats to the nation or, more insidiously, suspends individual liberties and constitutional guarantees by civilian decree; the other is the possibility of a populist and authoritarian regime—and most dangerous, these tendencies can potentially come together.

The challenges faced by Pakistan’s democratic and civilian groups are multifold. The issues of national integrity, the reduction of violence, and the creation of a governing consensus among different provinces and ethnic groups remain paramount. Yet in Pakistan (and perhaps in other parts of the world), the mere restoration of democratic forms of governance is not enough. There has to be much deeper sensitivity to the problem of poverty and economic deprivation for democratic interventions to be meaningful. For it to provide a future of hope, democratic struggle in the twenty-first century should be not only against tyranny but against misery and injustice.2


Kamran Asdar Ali is associate professor of anthropology and director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

  1. See Arif Hasan, “The Vulnerability of Karachi” (briefing, International Institute for Environment and Development, January 1, 2008), http://pubs.iied.org/G02211.html http://www.gpia.info/node/192.
  2. Arjun Appadurai, “Hope and Democracy,” Public Culture 19, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 29–34.