Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Pakistan Conundrum
The answer to whether Pakistan is our friend is “It depends.”
That’s an apt description of U.S.-Pakistani relations over the years, but one thing is sure, Pakistan believes it is surrounded by enemies in general and fears India in particular. With a mindset like that, friendship is not a priority, but survival—even if it just means muddling through another day—most surely is.
I have read several books about Pakistan in order to understand this odd nation that was peeled off from India in 1947 when the British left. Divided between eastern and western sections, even Bangladesh, formerly East Bengal, separated from its western cousin, declaring its independence in 1971. In the ensuing civil war, a million died and ten million fled to India.
In “The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad” by John R. Schmidt, a former State Department diplomat for three decades, reflects on his years in Islamabad in the years leading up to 9/11. He is a sharp observer of Pakistan and provides a lively history while unraveling the complexities of its various tribal groups, who the Taliban were and are, and how Al Qaeda established itself there.
To understand Pakistan is to understand how very different it is from America. It is a feudal society from top to bottom and it came about because its founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Bombay lawyer, envisioned a nation separate from India because he feared that Muslims would become a political underclass in a unified India dominated by Hindus.
Fully one-third of India’s Muslim population numbering 35 million people remained behind in India. In Pakistan, it took until 1956 to come up with a constitution, a decade after independence.
A feudal society relies on patronage to function. Thus, whoever holds power at any level in Pakistan is focused on looking out for his own patronage network and not for the general welfare of the nation.
As Schmidt explains, “It requires little imagination to see where such policies lead. They lead to the poorhouse. Nations whose economics are uncompetitive in the global marketplace yet dependent on imported fuel and other vital commodities, and whose governments pay out more than they take in, are bound to be chronically broke.” As a result, a third of the Pakistani federal budget is consumed by servicing its international debt.
Typical of the Muslim outlook, if you are not a Muslim you are simply the enemy. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or any other faith. The problem is exacerbated because of the divisions within Islam, primarily Sunni and Shiite, have little love for one another.
Based on its fear and loathing for India, Pakistan’s various leaders concluded they needed to be a nuclear power as a deterrent. That makes Pakistan a major concern for everyone around them, the world in general, and the U.S. in particular. “If jihadists succeed in seizing power in Islamabad,” notes Schmidt, “they will inherit an arsenal that today numbers approximately one hundred nuclear warheads.”
Pinioned between India on the south and Afghanistan to the north, Pakistan’s leaders, as often as not its army generals who seized control, have only their grievances and themselves to blame for troubles with India and the rise of the Taliban who threaten the government. This explains in part why its military has always been the most stable factor throughout its relatively brief history. Based on merit, it is also represents the best leaders the nation can produce.
Even so, the decision to use proxy jihadist fighters to influence who controlled Afghanistan turned out to be a very bad one. Schmidt believes that “Pakistan seems ill-equipped to deal with this rapidly metastasizing radical Islamic threat.” Can there be a more ironic fate for a nation founded to provide a home to Muslims? The threat the Islamic radicals represent is particularly painful in a nation, the majority of whose population, are more tolerant and moderate followers of Sufi Islam.
The U.S. was none too happy to discover that Pakistan had become a nuclear power. When 9/11 occurred, its leaders were told that their cooperation was required to facilitate the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was told to break off relations with the Taliban and close its borders to Al Qaeda.
This explains why Pakistan has cooperated with the U.S. in the capture of top Al Qaeda leaders such Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but professed to be ignorant of the fact that Osama bin Laden was living in Abbotabad, a short drive from Islamabad. Indeed, for the Pakistanis, the news came as a shock and his assassination a cause for much chagrin.
In a similar fashion, the attack on Mumbai, India, by a radical Islamic group ended promising peace talks with India over Kashmir and left Pakistan’s international reputation in tatters.
As is the case in one Muslim nation after another, the central problem to their governance and international relations is radical Islam. Some nations like Indonesia have cracked down on it. Others like Yemen have been over-run by it.
Radical Islam, unless addressed by Muslims will remain a threat. It explains why U.S. troops will likely migrate in and out of Middle Eastern nations for years to come, shooting as many jihadists as possible, taking casualties, angering the local population, and confounding the public at home trying to understand why we’re there.
© Alan Caruba, 2011