May 15, 2009
Official Washington sounded the alarm — Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 176 million people, might collapse at any moment and become a dangerous failed state. The reports reverberating through the media do indeed sound dire: After took up positions within 60 miles of nation’s capital, Islamabad (map), the Pakistani military struck back. The conflict has created a major humanitarian crisis as an estimated 1.3 million people are reported to have fled from the fighting.
In a May fourth WASHINGTON POST column, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist wrote:
Pakistanis are beset by a galloping Taliban insurgency in the north that is based not just among Pashtuns, as in Afghanistan, but that has extensive links to al-Qaeda and jihadist groups in Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. That means the Taliban offensive in northern Pakistan has the potential to become a nationwide movement within a few months.
The situation is more complicated than that, say historian Juan Cole and journalist Shahan Mufti on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. And while both agree that the insurgency in the north is a serious problem Pakistan must address, neither believes Pakistan is in immediate danger of becoming a failed state.
Mufti, who recently returned from Pakistan, argues that there are “huge stumbling blocks” to the Pakistani Taliban becoming a nationwide movement, noting that Washington and the American press seem far more concerned about the survival of Pakistan than Pakistanis:
Pakistanis, a lot of them, still see the Taliban as a fringe movement, which they are. The numbers say that. And a fringe movement which is able to wreak a lot of havoc. […] But this threat of the state failing — I think Pakistanis, especially, say that this talk of Pakistan being a failed state, ‘We’ve heard that. That’s been around for 50 years, 60 years.’ And nobody in that country takes that too seriously.
Supreme Court Protests
What’s been lost in the alarm, Cole and Mufti argue, are the recent successes by Pakistan’s growing movement for law and order. In March, protests and marches erupted across Pakistan calling for the reinstatement of a system of checks and balances in the government. The democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, initially embraced heavy-handed tactics to supress the protests. But, in the face of growing unrest, the government conceded the opposition’s main demand, the reinstatement of the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
It was a great moment for Pakistan’s democracy, Cole says, “For the longest time, for decades, the problem with Pakistan […] is that the army keeps disrupting the power balance. And here the Pakistani people delivered a moment where, for the first time, they were able to check the power.”
India and Kashmir
Pakistan, Mufti explains, “shares the border with China, India, Iran, Afghanistan and then has a 700-mile Arabian sea coastline. That’s quite a cast of characters to be caught in the middle of.” Add the United States’ interest in the region — and their billions of dollars of funding for the Pakistani military — and it begins to explain what Mufti calls Pakistan’s “schizophrenic” domestic and international policies. But one nation looms largest in the minds of Pakistan’s strategic planners — India. The animosity between the two nations began in 1947, when Britain partitioned its former colony into two independent states, Pakistan (which then included what is now Bangladesh) and India. The partition inspired a vast population movement and rioting, resulting in an estimated half-million deaths and one million people being left homeless.
From the very beginning, both India and Pakistan laid claim to Kashmir, a collection of provinces in the Himalayas between the two countries. In 1947, Pakistan supported a muslim insurgency in the then-independent principality. Kashmir’s ruler asked India for military assistance and in return agreed to the accession of the state to India — a deal Pakistan holds India acquired by force.
Thus began the first of three wars between the nations, and a bitter rivalry that has played out in 60 years of scattered fighting in Kashmir, a nuclear arms race and a regional power struggle currently manifested in Afghanistan.
Links to the Taliban and Afghanistan
Shahan Mufti explains on THE JOURNAL that Pakistan’s military has long relied on Islamic radicals as proxies to engage India in Kashmir. The same holds true, he continues, for Afghanistan: “For the Pakistani security establishment […] the Taliban, and the situation in Afghanistan, is about India.” Pakistan, Mufti explains, sees Afghanistan as part of a chess board, and during the reign of the Taliban, Pakistan exerted a lot of influence there. But, President Karzai’s government has strong ties to India, Pakistan’s adversary: “So this whole scenario, in the last seven, eight years, has really made Pakistan even more paranoid than it usually is in that region.”
The Pakistani security establishment has been hesitant to turn against the Islamic radicals they traditionally view as allies in their conflict with India.
Juan Cole explains to Bill Moyers that the United States no longer wants to tolerate this relationship:
Washington is alarmed at the spread of the Taliban in the northwest frontier province because it has implications for the security of southern Afghanistan, and therefore for US troops and NATO troops in Afghanistan. And so, from their point of view, this is a big crisis. They don’t want more safe havens for the Taliban in Afghanistan who are killing US troops. And they were upset with the Pakistani elite for not taking this problem more seriously. And, I think, sort of saying that Pakistan is unstable, or it’s about to fall, or the nukes are in danger, all of this sort of thing, is a signal to Islamabad that you had better get serious about this, because it matters to us. So this is Washington strong arming Pakistan.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He blogs about the Middle East, history and religion at INFORMED COMMENT. He has written numerous books, including SACRED SPACE AND THE HOLY WAR and NAPOLEON’S EGYPT. His most recent book is ENGAGING THE MUSLIM WORLD. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Shahan Mufti covers Pakistan for GLOBALPOST. He has been a correspondent for the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR in Pakistan since 2007 and his work also has appeared in the BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE, THE NATION, COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW and other publications. He also has reported for CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBS, BBC, NPR and other television and radio channels. Born to Pakistani parents in a small town in Ohio, he has made his home in many places between New Delhi and New Mexico. He served as a Fulbright scholar to India and has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in International Political Economy from Middlebury College, VT.
Published May 15, 2009.
Guest photos by Robin Holland