Pakistan As Playground: Some More Notes

Quite coincidentally, after I wrote a post yesterday on the prospective state of American engagement with Pakistan over the next few years, I ran into the online issue of a magazine coming out of India that has a round-up of opinions of the geopolitical future of Pakistan.

There are nine op-ed articles in this round-up, intended to be written as thought experiments, looking ahead and wondering what Pakistan will look like eleven years from now. The selection seems pretty diverse, if rag-tag, from commentators in India to an extract from a 2004 book by Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute. Unfortunately, all the energies poured into the collation of these pieces doesn’t provide us with much fruitful insight — we get a general consensus on the cast of characters who are throwing their weight around on this stage, and a bunch of wishful thinking about how they will behave.

The articles pretty much support my conception of what the main issues in Pakistan are: the radicalization of the army, the need for outside intervention of some kind, the importance to the larger problem of stability in the region of resolving the power vacuum in Pakistan, and the perennial weakness of its civilian governments.

You could entirely skip the articles and take it from me that all they do is inform you that the main actors in the regions are:

  1. The military, with essentially two factions within them: the one that’s “Talibanized” or “jihadized” and the one that’s not.
  2. The jihadists themselves.
  3. Feudal landlords and other power brokers, with essentially regional affiliations that in some sense represent another binary divide in Pakistan: those who are Punjabi and those who are not.
  4. The international community, notably the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The worst of the mistakes in this characterization is in the overly simplified view of the Pakistani military (which is also reflected in the (slightly less) simplified view of the regional power dichotomy.) The military has long been a breeding ground for a whole host of ideologies and power grab movements, similar to the structural history of the Communist Party in China. It would be hubris to try and predict the direction the military will go in over the next decade, because it isn’t clear which of its factions will achieve dominance over the others.

While the military might definitely be largely united in their animosity towards any meaningful reconciliation with India, there is no reason to believe that a force with a strong history of internal discipline and martial traditions will tolerate the emergence of a “non-state” band of tribal warlords. While the Pakistani army might be reluctant to appear to the larger populace as being controlled by American interests, they will certainly not stay their hand if they have to prevent civil unrest. This was certainly their desire during the 1971 war with India over Bangladesh — to prevent the disintegration of the country.

The most, perhaps only, really thoughtful article, though, comes from Rohit Pradhan and Harsh Gupta, who surprisingly seem, unlike the other contributors to this collection, to have no other pedigree than being journalists of some sort. They see that secessionist movements cannot threaten the overall strength of the Pakistani nation-state, partly because of the overwhelming power of the army and the need for external states to keep Pakistan intact, each for their own ends.

India too is a player who needs Pakistan to remain unfragmented in some way or the other. In his article, R Vaidyanathan claims that India will simply watch from the sidelines as its Western neighbor disintegrates but that hardly does justice to India’s historical attitude to its neighbors. India fought actively to hasten the disintegration of the first versoin of Pakistan, formed in 1947; it also attempted to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts. A damaged Pakistan, which might result in jihadi armies gaining access to sophisticated weaponry, is not a scenario India would like to imagine. It will do what it can to find an ally within Pakistan who will at least prevent the greater of two devils from taking control of the reins.

In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central problem: that it has no recognizable statesman who has the power and legitimacy to lead its people through the mess it is in right now. This person will have to be someone who will have credibility with the middle class and bourgeois elite who participate in Pakistan’s nascent civil society, who will be able to politically assuage the religiously more radical elements of its society, and at the same time, will be able to fend off its army’s constant needling and attempts to preserve and extend its own power. The reason General Musharraf met with such fervent approval from large sections of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, back in 1998, even though he’d done nothing short of suspending all democratic institutions, was because he’d seemed back then to be precisely this kind of Messiah. Perhaps he might still return; at any rate, Zardari and Sharif are clearly not the answer, even if one were to completely ignore their history of political corruption and venality.

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One Response to “Pakistan As Playground: Some More Notes”

  1. No Principal On The Playground: NY Magazine Worries About Pakistan’s Intractable Anarchy « Cliche Niche Says:

    […] a previous post, I wrote: “In one way or the other, every one realizes or refers to the Pakistan’s central […]

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