Pakistan: the hard reality

Pakistan is too often portrayed in flawed and reductive ways that flatten its complexity and offer misleading guidance to policy-makers. This makes it all the more important to acknowledge some difficult truths about the country, says Anatol Lieven.
Anatol Lieven
21 June 2011

If there is one phrase which defines many aspects of Pakistan, it is “Janus-faced”. So apt do I find it, and so often did I use it in the draft of my book Pakistan: A Hard Country (Penguin/Public Affairs, 2011), that the editor went through the manuscript excising it.

Where politics are concerned, the notion suggests that many of the features of Pakistan’s state and government which are responsible for holding Islamist extremism in check are at the same time responsible for holding back Pakistan’s social, economic and political development.

This is most obviously true of the Pakistan army. The institution is essential to keeping the country together, but through its proportionally huge budget drains money that might otherwise have gone to development; and through its repeated interventions in government acts as a brake on what might otherwise have been greater progress towards democracy.

The operative word here, however, is “might”. For even leaving aside the military, there are colossal obstacles in Pakistan both to the creation a truly representative democracy and to economic and social progress. These obstacles are bound up both with the deep conservatism of most of the population, and with the entrenched power of local kinship groups and the landowning and urban bosses who lead them.

A fundamental political fact about Pakistan is that the state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong. Anyone or any group with the slightest power in society uses it (amongst other things) to plunder the state for patronage and favours, and to turn to their advantage the workings of the law and the bureaucracy. As a result, Pakistan has by far the lowest rates of revenue-collection (under 10% of GDP) in south Asia. This, far more than the military, is responsible for the state’s inability to invest in education, infrastructure and essential services; and what money is directed to these ends is far too often stolen by the elites.

The proceeds of much of this corruption, however, are then redistributed to the kinfolk and followers of the political bosses in order to ensure their continued support. The fruits of patronage, albeit meagre, extend quite far down into Pakistani society. So while Pakistan’s kinship- and patronage-based political system is terrible for economic development, it is crucial to giving the Pakistani system resilience in the face of revolutionary threats.

The military culture

The degree of support for extremist and terrorist groups is scattered throughout Pakistani society, but mass support for Islamist rebellion against the Pakistani state is present only in parts of the Pathan (Pashtu) areas - in other words, less than 5% of the population. That is not remotely enough to revolutionise Pakistan as a whole. The precedent of British rule over the region, when there were repeated revolts in the Pathan areas without these causing serious fears of contagion elsewhere in the Indian empire, offers caution here.

Moreover, any Pakistani national revolution would have to gain not just mass but majority support in Pakistan’s two great urban centres, Lahore and Karachi; the wider conditions of Punjab and Sindh at present make this impossible for the foreseeable future - though not necessarily forever, especially if ecological crisis leads huge numbers of starving peasants to flock to the cities.

There is a clear division in Pakistani attitudes here. When terrorist groups attack India, or western forces in Afghanistan, their actions enjoy a degree of instinctive, gut sympathy from a majority of Pakistanis - not because of Islamist extremism, but because of Muslim nationalism and bitter hostility to the United States’s role in the Muslim world in general and Pakistan’s region in particular. But activity in support of a civil war and revolution in Pakistan itself, the sort that seeks to turn Pakistan into a revolutionary Islamic state, is a very different matter. That would mean Pakistanis killing Pakistanis on a large scale, and by and large they don’t want to; some may well would be glad of the opportunity to kill some set of immediate rivals, but that’s the extent of their internecine ambition.

It is important in this respect not to be misled by the spread of terrorism in Pakistan in 2009-11. In many ways, terrorism by the Pakistani Taliban - admittedly intense and on occasion spectacular at times - is a sign not of strength but of weakness. If you want to overthrow and capture a state, you need one of three things (or some combination of them): a mass movement on city streets that seizes institutions, a guerrilla movement in the countryside that seizes territory, or a revolt of the junior ranks of the military. No movement relying chiefly on terrorism has ever overthrown a state. The Pakistani Taliban looked truly menacing when it took over most of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2009, followed by the districts of Swat and Buner. When it blows up everyday people in bazaars and mosques, it merely looks foul.

Pakistan is thus probably still far from the situation of Iran in the late 1970s or Russia in 1917. Apart from anything else, the army is a united and disciplined institution, and as long as that remains the case, it will be strong enough to defeat open revolt - as it proved by defeating the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan in 2009. Where military coups have occurred in Pakistan, they have always been carried out by the army as a whole, on the orders of its chief-of-staff and commanding generals - never by junior officers (a contrast with Africa and elsewhere). The reasons for this are rooted deeply in the military culture and in the material advantages that the army enjoys in Pakistani society.

Beyond the worst-case

The only thing that can destroy this discipline and unity is if enough Pakistani soldiers are faced with moral and emotional pressures powerful enough to crack their discipline. The pressures would indeed have to be extreme: in fact, soldiers would have to be put in a position where their duty to defend Pakistan and their conscience and honour as Muslims clashed directly with their obedience to their commanders.

As far as I can see, the only thing that could bring that about as far as the army as a whole is concerned (rather than just some of its Pathan elements) is if the United States were to invade part of Pakistan, and the army command failed to give orders to resist this. Already, the perceived subservience of the Pakistani state to Washington’s demands has caused severe problems of morale in the armed forces.

I have been told by Pakistani soldiers of all ranks that if the country faced open incursions on the ground by US troops, parts of the Pakistani army would mutiny in order to fight the invaders. An army that splintered and became radicalised would be a fertile condition for  Islamist upheaval, making the collapse of the state indeed all too likely; but even then, the result would be rebellions leading to civil war, rather (as in Iran) a national revolution that succeeded in taking over the whole country.

This argument carries the implication that however great the provocation the US feels from Pakistan’s perceived non-cooperation or worse (in, for example, the pursuit of Osama bin Laden), Washington must not contribute to the destruction of Pakistan. This is irrespective of the fact that the US campaign against the Afghan Taliban will receive no more than very qualified help from the Pakistani army, the Pakistani state, or the great majority of Pakistani citizens - since Pakistanis of every rank and class see the Afghan Taliban in a quite different light from al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban.

This may seem hard on Afghanistan and its efforts to avoid being consumed by the war. But the reality is that Pakistan has greater strategic importance: in terms of sheer size (almost 200 million people), a large army, nuclear weapons, and - most important of all in terms of the terrorist threat to the west - large diasporas in Britain and Canada, which remain very closely linked to their communities of origin in Pakistan. In light of all this, it would be a fool’s bargain to risk Pakistan’s survival for the sake of a victory in Afghanistan that is probably (and as news of formal talks with the Afghan Taliban is confirmed) in any case an illusion.

Instead, in my view and that of an increasing number of experts - including within the Barack Obama administration, if not yet the Pentagon - it would be better to try to treat Pakistan as an asset rather than a problem, and use Pakistan’s links with the Afghan Taliban to try to broker a peace settlement with Mullah Omar and the other top leaders based in Pakistan. This is not what anyone would have wished after 2001, but it is a little better than seeing Pakistan and Afghanistan collapse into chaos and face even greater tragedy.

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