Post Taliban Pakistan: A Tentative Recipe for Change

NOTE: This article was originally written on September 17, 2001. It has been modified to incorporate the changing events of the past weeks.

In December of 1971 the Pakistani army surrendered to the Indian Forces in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. As a result of its defeat and failed policies, the Pakistani military finally handed over power to a civilian administration after thirteen years of governance. Drawing on the memory of that national turmoil, the present military ruler of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, has drawn an analogy between the events in 1971 and the present crisis in the region. Although his intentions may have been different, the analogy is correct on at least one count. Thirty years to the date, the Pakistani military has been again exposed for its failed policies and for its adventures in neighboring states. The fall of Kabul may not be the end of misery for the long suffering Afghani 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 was supporting 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 US cities on September 11.

Pakistani press reports indicate that on the evening of September 14, 2001, General Musharraf 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 Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pakistan was reportedly asked to provide logistical support to the U.S. 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.

In the late 1970s, another Pakistani general, Zia ul Haq, must have convened a similar meeting. Then, the military junta was asked to play a crucial role in support of the U.S.-financed resistance to Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan. That decision undoubtedly was easier for the dictator Zia ul Haq and his advisers. The general had been in power for two years, and his religiously conservative regime was already unpopular at home and abroad. Supporting the United States would grant his government badly needed legitimacy on the world stage. Zia also anticipated a U.S. aid package to help Pakistan address its perpetual social and economic problems. To the skeptical 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 also was taken for strategic reasons.

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan had been strained due to boundary disputes and the feared spillage of ethnic Pashtun nationalism across the border. With openly hostile India on their eastern flank, Pakistani military strategists had regarded their not-so-friendly western neighbor with anxiety. This was aggravated by the communist-led coup in Afghanistan in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. The U.S.-backed resistance to the pro-Soviet Afghan regime guaranteed, at least in the minds of the Pakistani military leaders, a somewhat concrete resolution of their Afghan problem.

The mass displacement of the Afghan population, the destruction of their homes and the loss of 1.5 million Afghan lives during the long civil war has largely vanished from the consciousness of Western news media. Nor do 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 to strengthen its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, which was the principal liaison between U.S. intelligence agencies and the varied factions of the Afghan resistance known as the mujahedeen. The ISI also assumed a lead role in suppressing democratic dissent within Pakistan. To date, there are no constitutional checks and balances on its operations. Its leadership consists of highly motivated and in most cases religiously zealous officers who are concerned with safeguarding what they consider to be the boundaries – geographic and ideological – of the Pakistani state.

On the political level, the U.S. economic and development aid helped Zia consolidate his plan for the Islamization of Pakistan. Development funds were used to establish and maintain madrassas – Islamic religious schools – in different parts of Pakistan. Zia and his junta considered the students and graduates of these schools the foot soldiers who would support the dictator as he pressed ahead with his agenda to build an Islamic polity and a theocratic state. Another legacy of the Afghan war was the unprecedented infiltration of drugs and weapons into Pakistani society. Profits from drug and weapons trafficking helped finance the covert war in Afghanistan, while funneling enormous wealth to a section of the Pakistani military brass. But the triumph of the Afghan resistance forces in 1992 didn’t 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 mujahedeen, 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 from 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 Mohammed Omar of Kandahar, was bankrolled by the Pakistani military on its path to victory in Afghanistan in 1995-96. 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 mineral-rich Central Asian countries to Pakistani ports on the Persian Gulf. But the strongly independent and unpredictable nature of the Taliban, and the continuing civil war in northern Afghanistan, have in the past few years dampened the initial excitement these schemes had generated.

More than a decade after his death in an airplane explosion, Zia ul Haq’s ghost lingers on, as Pakistani cultural life shifts toward embracing orthodox Islamic values. In a state that has forsaken its task of providing systematic educational and employment opportunities to its people, the madrassa system has remained an avenue for a large percentage of the rural and urban poor who seek social and cultural advancement. Many who have trained in the madrassas have emerged as highly organized and violent power brokers who can destabilize any regime that manages to take power. The Pakistani state and military have cynically deployed these forces against internal opposition, and recruited them for the state’s covert war in Kashmir. One consequence of such involvement is that, a decade after Zia’s death, Pakistan remains politically unstable, rife with growing ethnic and sectarian violence.

The differences between the late 1970s and Sept. 2001 far outweigh the similarities. Like Zia, Musharraf had been in power for two years, and he was also unpopular domestically and internationally. But Musharraf’s military junta has had a more difficult time pushing its new U.S. backed Afghan policy. The madrassa-trained forces that were nurtured by Zia have resisted Musharraf’s allegiance to the US cause with sharp and violent protests. This situation may get worse as many from among the on-the-run Taliban and Arab-Afghans cross into Pakistan. These forces shall blend in with the support base they already have in the country. How present and future Pakistani governments deal with this process in addition to the already existent Islamist extremism is a serious question. The Pakistani state’s regionally unpopular policy on Afghanistan, based on narrow strategic gains, may yet haunt Pakistan for years to come.

Unfortunately, successive Pakistani civilian governments in the last decade have neglected the issues of democratic governance, economic distribution and social needs. This along with their rampant corruption has eroded people’s faith in civilian rule. Within this context, the military has further 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 by successive military and civilian governments in the past two decades. In this period, Pakistan’s major external policy initiatives have been reduced to two elements; nurturing a Pakistan friendly regime in Afghanistan and encouraging an armed resistance against India in Kashmir. Both policies, interlinked as they are, have very little support from even the Muslim states in the region and internationally they have been public relations embarrassments. The military, aided by ISI, has not allowed major intervention by the country’s previous civilian governments or its trained diplomatic corps in these two crucial areas. The peculiar impasse that Pakistan is faced with today is, therefore, entirely the military’s responsibility.

By accepting the U.S. demands in exchange for fresh promises of international largesse, the Pakistani military has, for the time being, saved its own skin from the wrath of a U.S.-led coalition. But in the process, the regime yet again appears willing to plunge Pakistan into an uncharted future, with no regard for such stability as remains in Pakistani social life. The promise of U.S. aid in exchange for strategic support anyway 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 didn’t provide much-needed development assistance in the early 1990s. And, during the 1980s when billion of dollars did pour into Pakistan, their impact on development was minimal, since a large percentage of the money was used by the military government to purchase military hardware and support mujahedeen groups. Accusations of corruption and pilferage were also plenty. Given the past performance of Pakistan’s ruling elite, the Pakistani public might rightly be skeptical about any meaningful impact on their lives from the promised aid.

Pakistan is at a difficult crossroads. Yet like all crises, this moment needs to be seized to rethink a range of options. The opportunity should be availed to put forward sincere and workable solutions for Pakistan’s political and social problems. Otherwise Pakistani society 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 elite have offered in the last five decades of its existence. As a first step it should be made clear by the international community that the present support to the military regime is not a green signal for it to perpetuate its rule indefinitely. International pressure, using economic aid as a weapon, should be increased on the present junta to hold free and fair elections on the basis of adult franchise. It should be persuaded to revoke all Zia era amendments to the constitution, including laws that uphold separate electorates, those that discriminate against religious minorities and those that suppress rights of women. All political parties irrespective of their affiliation and ideology should be allowed to participate in the elections. Yet all provincial, federal and prime ministers since 1985 should be disbarred from the election process for at least another ten years. This would guarantee a general cleansing of the political landscape from corrupt politicians (who have used their access to power as a conduit to accumulate immense amounts of wealth) and perhaps restore some faith in the political process. The elections should be held under the auspices of the United Nations, which has by now gained considerable experience in monitoring elections internationally. The U.N. has, in the last decade, intervened in states that have already witnessed protracted civil war or social strife. Pakistan may be an experiment in avoiding such a calamity before it occurs.

Once the new representatives are elected then the real task of creating a social vision for the future begins. This will not be easy. Starting from decreasing regional political tensions – Afghanistan’s future should be decided entirely by the Afghans themselves and a political solution should be found on Kashmir – so that the overblown military budget can be curtailed, there will also need to be an elimination of corruption from within the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies. Another extremely important agenda should be to bring the ISI within the fold of army regulatory codes and also its budget, recruitment, training and policies under civilian review. The supremacy of civilian control over all aspects of military, domestic and international policy is the hallmark of any sovereign democracy. These are difficult and near impossible propositions given Pakistan’s recent history and I make them with much hesitancy as mere suggestions for a future path. But it needs to be emphasized that if the social and political framework within the country does not change, we may witness the dissolution of Pakistan as we have seen earlier in Somalia and other places. The geo-strategic location of Pakistan along with its nuclear capability should also make the international community think seriously before such a future unfolds. The primary task remains that of national integration and social development. Pakistanis will need international support and encouragement, yet mostly selfless leadership from within to attain their dream of living in a pluralistic society with dignity, with economic prosperity and with social justice for all.