Pakistan is in a free fall. And India should be worried


Sushant SareenSushant Sareen

Under siege The Mehran naval base during the terror attack
Photo: AFP

FOR A people who consider themselves as the true legatees of the Mughal empire, the recent spate of violence in Pakistan should have come as an eye-opener. Be it the “siege” of the Mehran naval base in Karachi by extremists of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or the bus blast in northwest Pakistan that claimed the lives of 80 paramilitary cadets, the country has of late, become the favourite killing field of fundamentalist jihadists, who blame the government for the killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The only apt historical parallel to describe the state of Pakistan today is the atrophying Mughal empire after the death of Aurangzeb. Just as Aurangzeb sought to cement the empire by using fundamentalist Islam, but ended up spawning a million mutinies, which sapped the vitality of the realm and ultimately destroyed the empire, so too in the case of Pakistan, which promoted a virulent version of Islam to fuse the nation but which is now threatening to devour the Pakistani state from within.

During the last days of the Mughal empire, court intrigues to become emperor or wazir or a noble were the order of the day, and this despite the fact that the empire, or what was left of it, was surviving on the sufferance of either adventurers or emerging powers like the Marathas and the Afghans. Just as the last Mughals used to depend on external intervention to secure their positions in the court, Pakistani leaders today are more than willing to invite intervention by outside powers — USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, China — for gaining or retaining political power. Even when hostile armies were on the borders and the very survival of the throne and empire was at stake, the later Mughals made no effort to forge unity to confront the invaders and marauders. Instead, all energy was focused on getting one up on rivals. No one was willing to give any quarter to his rivals, or desist from brinkmanship, or even put one’s own self-interest on the back-burner until the peril of invasion was tackled and the authority of the empire re-established. So it is in today’s Pakistan.

There is a very serious danger of the state falling under the influence of the Taliban. Large swathes of territory are not under the control of the state. Even the so-called safe areas are extremely vulnerable and have frequently come under attack. The law enforcement agencies, when not trying to protect themselves from being attacked by the forces of jihad, are busy in either protecting the privileged or indulging in rapine and loot. Hardly anyone, including the Pakistan army, really wants to confront the Taliban. Instead of forging a strategy to effectively combat the onslaught, the military top brass is concentrating more on protecting its privileges and its properties and hobbling, if not ensnaring, civilian governments to snuff out any possible challenge to their political dominance. And this in spite of the fact that a couple of thousand soldiers have already lost their lives in the full-blown Islamist insurgency and terrorism that has been wreaking havoc in the country.

There is a total disconnect between the problems facing Pakistan and the solutions offered

Even as the conflagration in the Pashtun belt is flaring out of control, the province of Balochistan is spiralling out of the state’s reach. Baloch nationalism has taken a violent form and targeted killings of security force officials and pro-government people, ambushes of military convoys, blowing up of economic infrastructure (gas pipelines, electricity pylons, telephone exchanges, railway tracks, etc) has become the order of the day. The government’s brutal crackdown against political activists associated with the Baloch nationalist movement has only added to the overflowing reservoir of alienation among the ordinary Baloch. If anything, today the political face of Baloch nationalism (who only demanded autonomy within Pakistan) has receded into the background and the extremists (who wish to carve out an independent Balochistan) are calling the shots.

Danger ground The state is clueless about how to tackle the Pakistan Taliban
Photo: Reuters

WITH BOTH Balochistan and the Pashtun areas in flames, the Pakistani state has all but lost control over more than half of its territory. The situation in the remaining part is hardly anything to write home about. Sindh is seething with resentment and anti-Punjab feelings. Karachi, which is in the throes of an ethnic civil war in which hundreds of people have been killed in politically-motivated target killings, is a powder keg waiting to explode. In Punjab, the southern part has already fallen under the influence of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’. Important cities in central and north Punjab like Faisalabad, Chakwal and Gujranwala, to name a just a few, have a strong presence of Islamic terror groups.

While Sindh seethes with anti- Punjab feelings, southern Punjab has the ‘Punjabi Taliban’

The economy meanwhile is in a tailspin and shows no sign of coming out of the ICU. For now, the drip of foreign assistance is keeping it alive. But even the aid infusion won’t be enough unless the ‘white cells’ (or if you will, the good guys) start the fight back to bring it back to health. Unfortunately, the white cell count is so precariously low that the disease of Islamism is consuming the body politic and with it the economy at an alarmingly fast rate.

Intolerance A bus blast claimed 80 lives in NW Pakistan. Moderate voices like Salman Taseer are being silenced
Photo: AFP

Under these circumstances, it would normally be expected that the people who have the most to lose from the deteriorating situation — the educated and elite classes, the military-bureaucratic establishment, judiciary and civil society, the political class, traders and industrialists — would put their heads together to forge some sort of a consensus on how to combat the dangers that confront their own interests. But nothing of the sort is happening. Instead those who have the most to lose are busy trading blame as to who and what is responsible for the abysmal state of affairs. What is worse, there is both a denial of the seriousness of the problems facing the country as well as an indifference as though what is happening is someone else’s problem.

The public debate and discourse in Pakistan is so partisan, distorted and far removed from reality that there is now a total disconnect between the crises that confront Pakistan and the reasons and solutions that even ostensible sober and sensible people offer for them. It is almost as though the Pakistani intelligentsia has lost the ability to think things through. For instance, a standard formulation in Pakistan today is that the war being waged in the Pashtun tribal belt between the Pakistan army and the radical Islamists (read Taliban and al Qaeda) is a mercenary war, a war that Pakistan is waging not for itself but for America. Hence, the solution that is forwarded is equally nonsensical: the authorities should engage the Taliban in a dialogue or that the Pakistani army should simply walk out of the tribal areas. The logic is that if Pakistan does not act against the Islamic radicals, they too will not retaliate against the Pakistani army. In other words, “leave them alone and they will not bother us” is the solution! None of the proponents of this solution are able to even comprehend that unless the Taliban threat is eliminated, it will only spread like wildfire in the rest of the country, ultimately taking over the Pakistani state. They are also in denial about the intentions and objectives of the radical Islamists, which is to Talibanise Pakistan by imposing their version of puritanical Islam in the country.

The inability of the Pakistani people to distinguish friend from foe stems from a totally warped national mindset that revels in bizarre conspiracy theories and suffers from the paranoia of imagined enemies lurking everywhere out to destroy the country, or at the very least, deprive it of its ‘strategic assets’. In a sense, the term ‘strategic’ is probably the biggest bane of Pakistan. Take for instance, the famed ‘strategic assets’ aka nuclear weapons. Today, it is not the nukes that protect Pakistan but Pakistan that protects its nukes! Then there are the other ‘strategic assets’ aka ‘good Taliban’, which Pakistan wants to retain to gain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan to confront the ‘strategic enemy’ aka India. This makes it imperative for the Pakistani establishment to get into the mode of ‘strategic defiance’ of the US. That this sort of ‘strategic vision’ (purblindness, really) has pushed the country over the brink has of course, never really been part of the ‘strategic calculus’ of Pakistan’s real rulers — the Pakistan army.

PAKISTAN IS not so much a victim of terrorism as it is a victim of the stupendous success of the indoctrination programme that has replaced the innate pragmatism of the people. Islamism doubles up as nationalism and validates substantially, if not entirely, the concept of Islamofascism. It is this phenomenon that leads a newspaper owner, who is an ideal candidate for a lunatic asylum but in today’s Pakistan is a leading flagbearer of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’, to demand a nuclear strike on India because after a nuclear exchange Pakistan will be able to progress like Japan did after Hiroshima! It is this thinking that leads a top general under Pervez Musharraf, and a man who at one point was touted as a possible successor to Musharraf, to advocate firing “a nuclear warning shot in the Bay of Bengal, across India, demonstrating our circular range capacity” in order to send the message that “you don’t mess with a nuclear power and get away with it”. It is this thinking that makes a former information minister declare that “Pakistan has made nuclear weapons not to keep them in the cupboard but to use them against its enemies”. It is this mindset that makes the so-called ‘civil society’ — news anchors, lawyers, activists — defend the action of the assassin of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer. And it is precisely this mindset that prevents the Pakistan army (its ranks filled with the oxymoronic ‘moderate Taliban’) from ending its double-game in the war on terror.

Today, it is not the nukes that protect Pakistan but Pakistan that protects its nukes

This then is the terrible reality of Pakistan. Unfortunately, just as the Pakistanis are in denial, so too are the Indians, or at least the Indian establishment, about the ground reality in Pakistan. India’s Pakistan policy (if at all there is such a thing) is predicated on interactions with what is a fringe group of liberal, moderate, modern, and sensible Pakistanis who are excellent advocates of their country but whose words don’t count for anything in terms of setting their country’s policy or direction. This is a class that doesn’t number more than a couple of thousand.

Despite the tendency for many in India to take vicarious pleasure in Pakistan’s impending implosion, the fact is that Pakistan’s collapse will be an unmitigated disaster for India, not only because it is utterly unprepared to handle the cataclysmic fallout of a ‘failed’ Pakistan but also because no matter what preparations it makes, there is no way India can insulate itself completely from the great tumult that will result when a country of 180 million people either descends into chaos or goes belly-up on India’s border. Forget about the nukes, they are the least of India’s worries. The bigger danger is that the entire Partition arrangement that gave India relative peace for over 60 years will be blown to smithereens when millions of people start streaming into India either as refugees or as jihadists.

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, IDSA.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.