Will Pakistan Pull Back From the Brink?

Charting a better future for Pakistan

Brahma Chellaney

(c) 2007 South African Institute of International Affair, Johannesburg

The central issue that will determine regional peace and security in southern Asia is not so much the state of the India-Pakistan relationship as what will be Pakistan’s future. Will Pakistan emerge as a stable, moderate, Muslim state? Or will it sink deeper into militarism, extremism and fundamentalism?

How the Pakistani state evolves in the coming years will have an important bearing not just on regional security but also on international security. Appellations that Pakistan has earned in recent years, such as “Problemistan”, “Terroristan” and “Al Qaidastan”, have underlined its threat potential to international security. From South Africa to Europe, and from India to the United States, Pakistan’s future has become an important issue for one’s own security.  

Many states face serious internal challenges or conflicts. As the main sanctuary of Al Qaeda today, Pakistan, however, is in a class of its own. Even if the world ignores the civil conflict in Sri Lanka, for example, there are no implications for international security. But Pakistan you cannot ignore.

Ominously, Pakistan has emerged as a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism. As Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf himself acknowledged on July 21, 2005, in an address to the nation after the London subway bombings, “Wherever these extremist or terrorist incidents occur in the world, a direct or indirect connection is established with this country”. The United States may have roped in Islamabad, at the point of gun, as an ally in its war on terror but, as U.S. National Security Adviser Steven Hadley has said, Pakistan is also the “site where the war is being carried about”.

Thus, the larger world has an important stake in Pakistan’s future — in ensuring that it emerges as a moderate, de-radicalized, stable state. And because the world has such an important stake, it also has the responsibility to contribute to the stabilization and moderation of Pakistan. This is a responsibility of the international community as much as it is of the Pakistani people.

The theme of this session is fitting. South Africa has a role, and ought to play that role. Closer cooperation with Islamabad will give South Africa the space and influence to positively influence Pakistan’s decisions and actions. I have always believed that the path to positively influencing a nation lies through cooperation, not sanctions.  

A second point to note is that a military dictatorship that is part of the problem internally and regionally cannot be part of the solution.

If democracy is good for the peoples of South Africa, India and the United States, it is also good for the people of Pakistan. That is why the short-sighted, politically expedient U.S. policy of propping up a one-man junta in Pakistan is so counterproductive. It has made a difficult situation worse, internally and regionally.

General Musharraf oils his dictatorship with American aid, as did the previous Pakistani dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who spurred on the rise of the forces of jihad.

Pakistan’s problems have aggravated under military rule. Military rule has not contributed to the stability of Pakistan, or to keeping corruption under check, or to controlling the forces of jihad. In fact, the reverse is true.  

For example, the 2006 Failed States Index of The Fund for Peace, Washington, ranks Pakistan as the 9th most dysfunctional state in the world, even ahead of North Korea. No state with a well-developed civil society has ever become or faced the danger of becoming dysfunctional.

As the latest survey of Transparency International reveals, two-thirds of Pakistanis polled regard the present military regime as the most corrupt the nation has had since experiments with democracy began in 1988 following the previous military dictator’s death in a mysterious plane crash. In Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, Pakistan has slipped from the 87th position in 1999, when Musharraf grabbed power, to the 142nd rank out of the 163 listed countries. Pakistan is now identified as among the most corrupt states in Asia, along with Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar).

Even Pakistani writers are beginning to acknowledge that at the taproot of Pakistan’s problems lies military rule. For example, columnist Ayaz Amir, writing in the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper on November 3, 2006, had this to say: “Extremism is not just a problem in the tribal areas. Strange notions of jihad and strategic depth lurk in the mindset of the army command and the intelligence services. Rooting out these notions requires not the spurious nostrums of moderation at which Gen Musharraf has become so skilful but a move towards a genuine democracy in which the army’s sole function should be to look after national defence and confine itself strictly to its role under the Constitution. Military rule has been the mother of extremism in Pakistan”. He went on to urge that, “We must return to being a normal country…”

The scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates not so much from the mullahs as from whiskey-drinking generals who reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban. Yet by passing the blame for their disastrous jihad policy to their mullah puppets, General Musharraf and his fellow generals have made many outsiders believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers. 

The reality is that without the military’s vice-like grip on power being broken and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency being cut to size, there can be no real, sustained movement in Pakistan toward democracy, or against terrorism, or to stop the illicit flow of narcotics. Narco-terrorism is a phenomenon largely of the military’s creation that dates back to the Afghan war of the 1980s, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used the ISI as a conduit for funnelling arms to the anti-Soviet guerrillas.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba and several other terrorist groups have enjoyed long-standing ties with the Pakistani military, especially with the ISI, which reared them as part of both its covert war in Indian Kashmir and its rearing of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The ubiquitous ISI has an octopus-like reach within Pakistan and is seen as a state within a state. According to the report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission in the United States, the ISI "was in bed with Osama bin Laden”.  

As for stability on the subcontinent, the only occasions when India and Pakistan have come close to peace have been during the brief periods of democratic rule in Islamabad.

In the absence of participatory processes, military rule has helped engender a pressure cooker-type syndrome in Pakistani society. And regionally, such rule has had negative fallout. Because the military has a vested interest in keeping up regional tensions in order to protect its monopoly on power and its special privileges and prerogatives in society, military rule hasn’t helped build stable relations with India. Since Musharraf came to power, Pakistan and India have come twice close to war.  

Like the 2002 referendum on Musharraf’s self-declared presidency, the 2007 election will be primarily aimed at legitimizing this General’s rule. The 2002 referendum was designed to give him a five-year presidential term. The 2007 election will be aimed at further extending his presidency, with the difference that, unlike the referendum, an election has to have more than one candidate. As former ISI Director-General Asad Durrani candidly told a gathering at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on October 18, 2006, the Pakistan Army has had over the years to rig polls to perpetuate its hold on power.

A key lesson from the rise of international terrorism is that acts of terror spring from religious and political extremism nurtured by autocratic systems and the suppression of democratic voices. Export-oriented jihad structures do not flourish in democratic societies. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism.   

Helping drain the terrorism-breeding swamps in Pakistan will not be easy task, given the way the culture of jihad is now deeply woven into the national fabric of Pakistan. For instance, some of the thousands of Pakistani madrassas are not just seats of medieval theology but also schools imparting training in arms. What has made this radicalization so difficult to reverse is that it claims the imprimatur of religion.

Yet, the only possible counter to this trend is the development of a robust civil society that can act as a check on deleterious undercurrents. A well-developed civil society, however, can only emerge on the back of sustained democracy.  

Democratization of Pakistan will cause short-term pain, but bring enduring, long-term benefits. Participatory processes, by empowering the masses and allowing issues to be sorted out at the ballot box, will help establish a safety valve in society — a necessary element in initiating the process of de-radicalization.

Pakistan cannot put off for forever its evolution towards a democratic polity. Like Pakistan, South Korea from the beginning was troubled by militarism, which did not allow democracy to take roots. Yet, in a relatively short period, South Korea has made the transition from military rule to democracy, and is building a vibrant civil society. Pakistan can do likewise.  

There is a role for South Africa to play here, in presenting its own evolution as a true democracy since 1994 and how Pakistan can draw the right lessons from that experience. South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa never to have had a coup d’état. In fact, South Africa has shown through its own experiences that democracy is a powerful moderating force in society, blunting the rough edges and marginalizing the hard-line constituencies.

A third point, which flows from the earlier points, is that Pakistan needs to get away from its self-injurious fixation on Kashmir in order to be able to chart a better future for itself. That is necessary for its own good, for the process of nation-building, and for rapidly modernizing its economy.  

Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its fixation on Kashmir, with its Kashmir policy saddling the state with a huge burden that it can neither continue to bear nor easily discard. After all, the Kashmir issue has helped define Pakistan’s identity and served as the glue to keep its fractious society together. Moreover, the issue is central to the agendas of the military and the Islamists. Thanks to those agendas, the whole region has been made to pay a heavy price.

Amin M. Lakhani, a Pakistani-American writer, summed it up in the following words in an article, “Nineteen ‘Kashmirs’ and Counting”, published on September 16, 2002, in the Wall Street Journal: “Pakistan’s singular obsession with Kashmir, subordinating it to all other priorities, has been self-defeating. Domestically, it has thwarted Pakistan’s economic, social and political development. Internationally, this single-minded agenda has diminished the country’s stature and smeared its reputation. Even its spiritual development has been warped by the proliferation, popularization and increase in relative power — post-Partition — of religious groups that represent an intolerant, militant and gender-biased interpretation of Islam. In one word, Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir has been suicidal, albeit of a time-delayed variety. More importantly, the obsession with Kashmir has prevented the acknowledgement, and hence resolution, of innumerable domestic problems, each more critical and bigger than Kashmir. At a minimum, there are 19 Kashmir-sized problems in Pakistan”.    

Islamabad still asserts its claim over the Indian-administered, Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley on the basis of religion although there are more Muslims in India now than in the homeland that was created for subcontinental Muslims — Pakistan. The loss of the raison d’être of its very creation has only spurred Pakistan to adopt a more hard-line approach on Kashmir.

Changing the territorial status quo in Kashmir may be dear to the Pakistani military, but preserving the status quo is equally dear to most Indian Muslims opposed to another partition based on religion. India’s future as a secular, united state is very much linked to averting another partition of the country on the basis of religion. As a melting pot of different cultures that is home to all religions (it is home to among the oldest Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in the world), India celebrates unity in diversity. South Africa, as “The Rainbow Nation” that cherishes its multicultural diversity, will understand that. It will recognize the danger that another partition of India on the basis of religion could unravel the Indian rainbow.  

In a recent commentary posted on the Stimson Center’s website, American analyst Michael Krepon has said: “Every terrorist attack that now occurs … clarifies that the ‘core issue’ on the subcontinent has become terrorism, not Kashmir.  And because of Pakistan’s choice of a Kashmir policy that relies so heavily on proxy violence to leverage India, Islamabad has lost the presumption of innocence whenever horrific acts of well-coordinated terror are directed against India”.

The ugly fact is that Pakistan is the main sanctuary of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and openly hosts terror groups waging campaigns against India. Consequently there is a presumption of guilt on Pakistan’s part when major acts of terror occur in India, as they have from New Delhi to Bangalore, and from Benares to Mumbai, just since October 2005.  

Indeed, every major terrorist act against India only helps to underscore the vulnerability of the Indo-Pakistan normalization process. The process faces the real prospect that acts of terror every now and then can negate the modest progress that has been made in building better Indo-Pakistan relations. A major new impulse in bilateral relations is difficult to sustain as long as terrorist attacks continue unabated. Yet, there can be no two views about the need to create stable equilibrium in Indo-Pakistan relations.

There is always room for a constructive third-party role for South Africa in this part of the world. Of course, any facilitator has to appreciate the limits of third-party role, lest it burn its hands.  

When an issue is irresolvable, which is the case with Kashmir, then efforts ought to be directed at managing the dispute. The insistence that a Kashmir “solution” be worked out actually makes things more difficult. If the issue were managed well, then it will sort out, one way or the other, in the future.

It needs to be remembered that in the competition between status quoist India and irredentist Pakistan, Kashmir serves merely as the symbol, not the cause, of the subcontinental hostilities, which are rooted in complex factors, including history, religion and the politics of revenge. As Musharraf himself acknowledged in 1999, Pakistan’s low-intensity conflict with India would continue even if a solution to Kashmir were magically found. Since 1990, Pakistan-aided jihadists have ethnically cleansed much of Indian Kashmir of its Hindu minority, with several hundreds of thousands of those ousted continue to live in refugee camps in other parts of India. This ranks as one of the most successful ethnic-cleansing campaigns in modern world history.   

Underscoring the complexity of the issue, one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir is under China’s occupation. This includes the areas seized from India by China and the small slice of its own Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to Beijing in 1963 without offering even an explanation till date for the transfer.


Against this background, it is easier to talk about than identify a solution to the Kashmir dispute. What solution can there be when it is not possible to undo the division of Kashmir into three parts, with India holding 45%, Pakistan 35% and China 20%? Any compromise has to be shaped within existing realities. Yet it is the commitment to redrawing borders that is the cause of conflict, terrorism and jihad on the subcontinent. A Balkanized India offers the military-dominated Pakistan the only escape from its economic problems stemming from an unsustainably high level of defense spending. The Pakistani military persists with the illusion that if it continues its “war of a thousand cuts”, a bleeding India will let go its sovereignty over the Kashmir Valley.  

A fourth, and important, point is that regional peace and security can only be built on the building blocks of economic and energy cooperation.

While we are discussing in this seminar prospects for growth in bilateral trade and investment between South Africa and Pakistan, the irony is that Islamabad refuses to normalize economic relations with India. How many know that there isn’t even normal trade between Pakistan and India? Before discussing growth in trade with South Africa, shouldn’t Pakistan be looking at establishing normal trade and investment with India?  

Asia has the world’s fastest-growing economies, fastest-rising military expenditures and the most dangerous hotspots. Asia is coming together economically, but not politically.

Yet the good news is that politics does not trump economics in most cases in Asia. Despite the revival of Sino-Japanese historical rivalry, China remains Japan’s largest trading partner. Although China is still pursuing plans for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, Taiwan remains the single largest investor in mainland China. And despite the underlying strategic dissonance between China and India, China is India’s fastest-growing trading partner, and set to emerge as India’s largest trading partner in five years.  

The bad news is that Pakistan remains the odd state out, refusing to establish even normal trade with India. As a result, India is looking eastwards. After establishing free-trade zones with Sri Lanka and Nepal, India has brought into force a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Thailand and an FTA-like comprehensive accord with Singapore. It has now agreed to conclude an FTA with the whole ASEAN as well as with Japan.

By establishing normal trade with India, Pakistan will be doing a favour not to India but to itself. As shown repeatedly in different parts of the world, the European Union and NAFTA included, smaller economies tend to benefit more from bilateral and regional economic openness. In southern Asia, Sri Lanka has nearly tripled its exports to India since bringing an FTA into force in 2000.  

Islamabad, however, has declined to reciprocate India’s action years ago in granting MFN status to Pakistan. It is even declining to grant India the obligatory trade access to the Pakistani market under the South Asia Free-Trade Area (SAFTA) accord.

Since the MFN became the norm under the rules of the World Trade Organization, the world has changed radically. Now the normal standard in good inter-state relations is not even MFA. Rather it is an FTA plus a strategic partnership. But southern Asia, or least a part of it, is still stuck in the past.  

Pakistan and India need to build a stake in maintaining a peaceful diplomatic environment. Such a stake can be built through economic and energy interdependency, which can help significantly improve regional geopolitics and security and create more regional prosperity.

Despite America’s attempt to inject its own regional pipeline politics, there is tremendous potential to build a regional energy grid in southern Asia involving a matrix of pipelines from Burma, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Iran. However, bad economics plus bad politics cannot yield energy cooperation and partnership. A regional energy network has to emerge on the building blocks of greater economic cooperation.  

The states of southern Asia face daunting internal challenges, such as high levels of corruption, environmental and other man-made problems, and wide social and economic disparities. These problems, unless addressed, will act as a drag on regional stability. The increasingly complex regional challenge can be dealt with only by establishing stable political relationships that put the accent on mutually beneficial cooperation.

Interstate cooperation can facilitate the building of regional stability. That makes it more important for regional actors to pursue policies that break free from history and are pragmatic, growth-oriented and forward-looking. An inability to resolve all the disputes and problems should not hold up cooperation on issues that can be addressed. In fact, the catalyzing power of economic and energy cooperation needs to be employed to overcome political obstacles. Only by managing the “bads” (including long-standing disputes and illicit drug, terror and money flows) can states hope to reap the “goods” (including creating prosperity and stability through trade, investment and energy cooperation).

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