Whatever the outcome of President Obama’s deliberations, two things are certain. One, the war in Afghanistan will continue, in whatever altered shape or form. Two, it will still be the wrong war, against the wrong enemy, and in the wrong place. The danger that the United States and the West face in that region is not from a Taliban victory in Afghanistan but from an Islamist takeover of Pakistan. And every day that the war in Afghanistan continues brings that takeover one day closer.
In Washington and other capitals this danger was seen as coming from the Pakistani Taliban, and there is much relief that they were defeated by the Pakistan army in Swat and are now being taken on in South Waziristan. This is evidence of the ignorance (and, possibly, even deliberate disinformation) that prevails regarding the situation in this area and the players involved. There was never any danger of these Taliban (essentially religious Islamists) taking over Pakistan, but that peril does arise from the political Islamists in that country. However, while everyone seems to have a fairly good idea of who the religious Islamists are, most people are either unaware of the political variety or unable to recognize them.
Political Islamists can be thought of as Islamic nationalists or ultra-nationalists. Instead of a nation-state providing the basis for their feelings, their emotions are focussed on Islam (as an idealized ‘state’, rooted in the glory days of its storied past) and on the ‘nation’ of the worldwide Muslim community, the ummah (which is perceived as under threat and attack). Ancient tales of the Crusades, recent memories of colonialism, current wounds such as Palestine, all these give an anti-West edge to Islamism. In some Muslim countries this ‘Islamic nationalism’ competes with ordinary nationalism, in others they tend to meld. Pakistan is one of those rare cases in which no other nationalism exists to challenge or modify the Islamic one.
Pakistan was created as an embodiment of political Islam ‒ the concept given physical shape as a country. This reality was bloodily driven home in the horrific trauma of its birth, when millions of Muslims were killed or driven from their homes because of their faith (as, conversely, were Sikhs and Hindus). This threat to its nascent existence was repeated (at least in the national consciousness) in the three wars that it has fought with India, in one of which half the country was “lost”. Thus, during Pakistan’s short 60-year existence, what developed in the place of nationalism was ‘anti-Indianism’, which is now linked to the original Islamism of its birth. As is usually the case in most countries, this nationalist fervour is most pronounced within the military and right wing groups (while many in the intelligentsia have outgrown it).
Pakistan (actually, the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”) is a country of about 180 million people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a modern, all-volunteer military of about one million active-duty personnel, the sixth largest in the world. It possesses a stock of nuclear weapons and a range of missiles that can deliver them. Even so, this large and powerful country is one of the most fragile states in the world.
Its economy is in dire straits; outside assistance alone prevents the country from going bankrupt. There is a vast disparity in affluence and standard of living between a small upper class and the rest of the population. Ordinary people face great hardship in their daily lives because of the high costs of basic essentials, rampant inflation, power and water shortages, and a deficit of law and order. Governance is mostly dysfunctional; corruption is massive and all pervasive; the bureaucracy is paralysed due to constant political meddling. The political system is in disarray with state institutions and functionaries at loggerheads, while politicians line their own pockets and undermine each other. In addition to these systemic problems the country has to deal with two insurgencies (in its northern and southern tribal areas) plus terrorist attacks occurring frequently in its cities. Making things worse, underlying all this are the ticking time bombs of rapid population growth, a shrinking food supply base, a high proportion of young men with no prospect of gainful work, and increasing urbanization, mostly in the form of huge slums in and around cities.
The current situation is further aggravated by a critical disconnect between the government and the vast majority of the people, especially as regards the United States. The government of President Zardari depends on the US for financial and other aid and is willing to align its policies fully with the US’s requirements, especially in support of the war in Afghanistan. The military also seeks assistance in funding and equipment from the US, and has gone along with US needs to a certain extent. However, the bulk of the people have a very different attitude towards the US ‒ as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently experienced for herself.
Ordinary Pakistanis blame the US for most of the problems their country is facing. Many of these (the rise of fundamentalism, the flood of weapons and drugs, large numbers of Afghans settling in the country, the corruption in the military) are believed to have started when Pakistan was used by the US in its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That war won, the US abandoned Pakistan (and also Afghanistan), and later subjected it to punitive sanctions and embargoes, thereby accelerating the country’s economic decline. Then came the Bush-Cheney “war on terror”, and Pakistanis saw their government and military bullied and bribed into joining up. The operations the military was pushed into carrying out in the tribal areas created a serious security problem through the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, who not only fought the army in the border areas but also carried out terrorist bombings and attacks in cities inside the country.
Concerns about its nuclear weapons add to these suspicions. Existing as it does in a dangerous part of the world, Pakistan considers its nuclear capability the lynchpin of its security, and there is great sensitivity about any threat to it, especially within the military. The concern expressed by the US over the last few years regarding the “security” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has created a great deal of suspicion as to its real motives. Many, including within the military, believe that the US is deliberately trying to destabilize Pakistan so as to take over its nuclear weapons. Such suspicions, and the strained relations for many years prior to 2001, deeply colour Pakistani attitudes towards the USA. It is no surprise that, in a recent poll released by a US polling organization, all of two percent of Pakistanis thought the US had good relations with Pakistan.
Since the commencement of the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been seen by the US mainly through the prism of that war ‒ as a necessary auxiliary whose role was to clean out the Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in its tribal areas. Pakistan’s limited attempts at compliance did not meet US needs but did create an indigenous Taliban insurgency. After some initial hesitation the military cleared out these insurgents from Swat, and is now undertaking an operation to do the same in South Waziristan. The US is hoping that this will be the prelude to similar operations in the rest of the tribal belt. This is just wishful thinking, as discussed below. Similarly, the comfort the US derives from reports and poll numbers regarding public opinion turning decisively against the Taliban insurgents is misplaced. People in Pakistan are opposed to the Taliban who attack them or their country, but they do not support the US “war on terror”: the poll referred to above found that 80% of Pakistanis were against cooperating with the US in this war.
Whatever strategy President Obama approves for the war in Afghanistan, it is likely to include an increased focus on the Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan. The resulting pressure on the Pakistanis to take effective military action to clean out and occupy the tribal areas where they are located is likely to create a crisis in Pakistan. Since its creation, Pakistan’s defence policy has been based on the major threat to its security coming from India, and the military has been positioned accordingly. Cleaning out and occupying all the tribal areas would require the long-term redeployment of such large forces that it would result in the denuding of the defences of the eastern border with India, and would effectively change the defence policy of the country. While President Zardari would be happy to oblige the USA, it is quite unlikely that the military command will agree to this; nor will the people accept it.
Pakistani inaction will compel the US to intensify its own attacks in the tribal areas using drones and, possibly, Special Forces. Such attacks (already resented as a violation of the country’s sovereignty) will trigger further retaliation by the tribes through increased bombings and attacks in Pakistan’s cities (since they hold Pakistan responsible for such US attacks). In addition, the United States will apply pressure on Pakistan by reducing or stopping the aid it gives to the country and the military. The impact of these measures will further inflame anti-American and nationalistic sentiments, and the present government will either be forced to change its pro-American policies or it will itself be changed.
The succeeding set-up, squeezed by the US and the West, will become increasingly responsive to the Islamist (i.e., anti-Indian, Islamic nationalist) sentiment in the country. As the situation in the country deteriorates, a direct Islamist takeover (most likely through the military) will become a real possibility. It would probably happen in stages, with the generals first intervening to forestall action by more radical elements in the military, but ultimately being unable to stop the tide. (Should the generals succumb to US pressure to move large forces to clear and occupy the rest of the tribal belt, the danger of such action by mid-level Islamist officers will become a much earlier possibility).
That is the peril that the United States and the West face in the region: not a nebulous al-Qaeda establishing bases in Taliban areas in Afghanistan but a nuclear-armed Islamist state in Pakistan. And the longer the inconclusive war in Afghanistan drags on, the closer it gets. Considering the hoops the West has been willing to jump through to prevent such a scenario becoming possible in Iran in the future, the very real possibility of this occurring in Pakistan is what President Obama and his advisers should be worrying about.
The pity of it is that it’s all so unnecessary! It is possible to engineer a political resolution in Afghanistan that would give the Taliban their space in the country but exclude al-Qaeda. It is possible to shore up Pakistan, and those institutions and elements in it that would be a bulwark against the Islamists. With the war in Afghanistan ended, it would be possible for Pakistan to re-establish control over its tribal areas, and prevent al-Qaeda from using them as a base. And it would be possible for the United States to spend the billions and billions of dollars saved on its own people instead of on military preparations and wars against other peoples.
© F B Ali (2009)