Pakistan is a country that seems sometimes to be on the verge of collapse — a scenario that frightens the United States, Europe, India, Russia, China and the countries of the Middle East. All fear that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of Taleban militants.
Pakistan’s political and religious problems are rather like a Russian doll. You open one doll and there is another inside and so it goes on until the smallest doll is revealed six dolls later. Moreover, in Pakistan each doll has its complications and contradictions. Sometimes this makes the country’s policies hard to read. Self-interest is usually the aim of every state. Yet Pakistan seems to be continuously shooting itself in the foot.
Under the hammer of the US, the then president Pervez Musharaff, the military and political chief of Pakistan, agreed to support the Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Pakistan was pushed to the front line in the battle to destroy Al Qaeda holed up in Afghanistan. Musharaff had few doubts that this was the right thing to do both morally and in the interests of his country.
But where Pakistan and the US and Europe diverged was in Musharaff’s attitude towards the Taleban. He couldn’t see that the US decision to go to war against Afghanistan’s Taleban was likely to be successful or was necessary. Moreover, Pakistan’s principal military interest is in confronting India. To that end most of Pakistan’s military forces are deployed close to the border with India.
It was this viewpoint that has led to bad blood between Washington and Islamabad. The Americans have never been able to accept it and have failed to comprehend why Pakistan has nurtured and armed Taleban forces. To them it is a betrayal. To Pakistan it is a long standing national interest. If the Taleban were defeated Afghanistan would turn in India’s direction and Pakistan would be effectively encircled. If Musharaff had not acted the way he did it could well have led to him being deposed by his own military and if today the civilian government ended that policy it would result in a military coup.
Yet one of the great contradictions — indeed one of the big questions in Pakistani politics — is why did pro-Taleban terrorists try to assassinate Musharaff twice in 2003? The ISI lost control of the militant groups it assiduously worked with. The only reason that makes any sense to me is that the militants feared the negotiations that Musharaff was earnestly carrying out with India — to devise a peace plan that would finally lay to rest the long time conflict over the Indian state of Kashmir. The conflict has led to three wars and over many years a guerrilla insurgency backed by Pakistan military’s intelligence service, the ISI.
Musharaff as commander of Pakistan’s military was the only person who could lead the country to bite the bullet on this issue. He made compromises with India that all had considered impossible. The Indians, led by pro-peace Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reciprocated in the negotiations. A peace deal truly seemed in the offering. But at the last step Singh faltered, stymied by the lack of support from India’s military, intelligence services and, to some degree, the foreign ministry where the idea that India is so big and powerful that it doesn’t need to compromise holds sway. Without them visibly behind him public opinion would not have tolerated Singh’s concessions. Indeed his life could have been threatened by Hindu militants. The US which should have pushed India as hard as it could was amazingly insouciant. President George W. Bush was disinterested and switched off on the issue. If the US had used its muscle and succeeded and a peace had been signed Pakistan would not be in the mess it is today and the Taleban would not have received the support they have from Pakistan.
The US and the rest of the West in 2001 and ever since have never read Pakistan right. To them the machinations of the ISI in supporting the Taleban have always seemed an unfathomable betrayal and one that had to be rectified by heavy political pressure. They have never succeeded. The US, however, did manage to push the military to wage war against the Pakistani Taleban based in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas in the north — many of the fighters had come from Kashmir where they had been frustrated by Musharaff’s Indian diplomacy. It was from this base that the militants have turned to bombing in Pakistani cities. Amazingly the ISI still give succour to the Taleban, convinced they have to until there is a settlement in Afghanistan that meets Pakistan’s interests.
Pakistan is a confused and violent place. Its military and government are often schizophrenic. Where this will lead no one knows. But we should be prepared for the worst.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator
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