As Afghanistan shakes off the shackles of Enduring Freedom Pakistan too is beginning to feel its oats. It sees another opportunity to dominate a country it considers its backyard, and in the process perhaps play a greater role in the region. That it may be playing with fire does not seem to discourage the generals who are its real masters.

As the west prepares to quit Afghanistan permanently, Pakistan faces an existential crisis, loss of influence, attention and, most important of all, international financial assistance. The withdrawal of the International Security and Assistance Force (aka NATO troops) means a substantial loss of income for a great many groups. Entire fortunes have been built around the turmoil in Afghanistan, 35 years old and still going. It has seen an awful amount of cash spent on funding the resistance to the Soviet takeover of 1979-89 and the post-9/11 fighting.

The logistics networks that ferried weapons and supplies to the fighters and the post-9/11 war were massive logistical undertakings funnelling hundreds of billions in weapons, supplies and western troops. It cost the American taxpayer nearly $1 trillion (about ₹62 lakh crore). That is about half the size of the (official) Indian economy.

(There are other estimates as well, including one by Linda Bilme, a Harvard economist who puts it at $4 trillion-$6 trillion ( ₹240- ₹372 lakh crore). Her estimate includes “long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs” (Time, Feb 15). But this is not strictly relevant to the Pakistan story.) 

As long as the conflict in Afghanistan lasted, Pakistan had virtual carte blanche with the west. It could do no wrong because the US depended on Islamabad for almost everything from logistics to intelligence networks to contacts in the war against the Taliban. Despite strong suspicions of its bona fides, Pakistan was considered indispensable. As a result, it was free to do as it pleased. Then came the bombshell of Osama bin Laden, found hiding in a house near the training facility in Abbottabad for Pakistan’s officer corps. For years, Pakistan had loudly denied any knowledge of his whereabouts while he was holed up in one of the country’s most secure sites.

At one stroke the Osama affair destroyed all protestations of innocence and magnified suspicion of Pakistan’s intentions to toxic levels. It was proving more and more difficult to be indulgent towards an ally’s misdemeanours. Perfidy on such a scale cast doubt on everything it had to say about anything. The change of mood was probably academic as US President Barack Obama was determined to end the occupation of Afghanistan in any case, but the transition has been accompanied by a patent lack of goodwill. It’s a double whammy, the loss of cash from the rollback in addition to the climate of mistrust. The US and its partners in Operation Enduring Freedom feel, with good reason, they have been played most of the time by an ally whose agenda is directly contrary to their interests and is using their funds and influence to realise it.

But the worst part of the crisis is the feeling that Pakistan may no longer be necessary to the west’s plans for South Asia. Loss of friendship and loss of cash are serious matters for any government but loss of traction is far worse. Ever since then US secretary of state John Forster Dulles described Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment immoral (1956) Pakistan has been one of the most fervently aligned states. Its love affair with the United States was the subject of much irony and even hilarity, with the late Saadat Hassan Manto composing a plea to Uncle Sam for a sponge that would keep Muslims ritually clean after ablutions!

Washington sees better ties with India as an advantage in the context of its growing economic power and its own plans to contain Chinese influence. India too is nervous about China’s looming shadow. It’s a marriage of expediency, one that requires each side give a little.

It’s been a loyal ally on the whole, the post-9/11 treacheries notwithstanding, and is perhaps entitled to feel it is being cut loose because it is no longer needed. But that is the price for not keeping up with the times. Pakistan is hardly in a position to complain because the US did stick by it even in the dark days of 1971 after its massacre of innocents in Bangladesh. As a Cold War ally, Pakistan has got generous amounts of military and civilian aid, with the former being used in its attempts to take over Jammu & Kashmir, which it has always claimed as its territory. It failed each time but its long-running diplomatic campaign to have the state declared Pakistani territory has been underwritten, if somewhat unenthusiastically, by the US.

That is no longer true and the reason is simple; Washington sees better ties with India as an advantage in the context of its growing economic power and its own plans to contain Chinese influence. India too is nervous about China’s looming shadow and that worry is strong enough to make it overcome its distaste of formal alignments. It’s a marriage of expediency, one that requires each side give a little. Unfortunately for Pakistan, that means even the anodyne support on Kashmir is being scaled back. Kashmir is the epicentre of the quarrel with India. Two wars have been fought and lost, as well as a failed insurgency that took tens of thousands of lives yet the goal is nowhere in sight. Now an old and powerful friend has shifted ground to align with the enemy, on an issue that is almost a visceral necessity. No wonder the Pakistani leadership feels sore.    

***

P

akistan’s main problem is that the world around it changed while it stood still and even reversed course in some ways. Its indispensable adversary, India, woke from its stupor and became an economic power and then a nuclear power. Pakistan followed on the second within weeks of Pokhran II in 1998 with a nuclear test on May 28 1998, but economically it remains mired in the Screwdriver Age. More importantly, the Cold War ended, removing the ideological barrier to bonding with India. It’s one of the ironies of life that the two largest democracies have long been wary of each other but cohabited comfortably with dictatorships for large parts of their lives.                 

The two countries are worlds apart on almost everything, including Kashmir. Pakistan has a civilian elected government but it is not clear if it sets the agenda on anything, especially national security. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems eager for normal relations and repeatedly professes his interest in peace and trade, but even today hasn’t been able to ensure most favoured nation status for India which confirmed that status for its neighbour in 1996.

The MFN regime is a way of making trade easier. All it means is that the recipient of this treatment will have the same advantages as the “most favoured nation” with which the country granting such treatment has trade relations. It’s an innocuous facility, even mandated by the World Trade Organisation, but Nawaz Sharif cannot take a decision. It’s the men in khaki who have the last word. It is against this backdrop that possibilities of peace with Pakistan should be measured.

Trade and self-interest are the bedrock of international relations but with Pakistan that seems unlikely if not impossible because even MFN is connected with its existential angst. “At a recent conference organised by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Pakistan’s High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, argued that growing bilateral trade has hardened India’s stance on the issue of Kashmir” (Huma Sattar, The Diplomat, Feb 14).

So the powers that be seem perfectly happy to cut their nose to spite their face. Trade is a two-way street and both countries will profit but Pakistan will probably be the bigger gainer. The Islamabad calculus, however, is of a different order. In this universe, self-interest is about self-denial rather than mutual benefit. It helps that the power brokers are insulated from the mundane realities the average Pakistani navigates every day.

The military is not only the most powerful institution but also the most prosperous. And if its (official) business ventures are treated as being part of a single group it may well be the country’s biggest enterprise. Ayesha Siddiqa has catalogued that story in exhaustive detail in her Military Inc. It is profitable to be a soldier in Pakistan, unlike India, where life after demobilisation can be hard and ex-servicemen get little traction in civilian life. Pakistan’s non-military elite too form a distinct tier, like the rich in every other country. They don’t have the power but they do have everything else.

There’s a third power centre, of which no one speaks, but everyone is familiar with it. That is the Islamist militants—now called terrorists by Nawaz Sharif after the Peshawar school massacre—of various allegiances, some aimed against Afghanistan, some focused on Kashmir and many of them also dedicated to taking over the government. Over the decades since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan dozens of the mujahideen groups found secure lodging in Pakistan. Apart from fighting the Russians many were involved in the heroin trade (Afghanistan was once one of Asia’s largest producers), whose viciously competitive territorial wars turned Karachi into a shooting gallery in the 1990s.    

In many ways the militants are the most influential part of the power triad. They have stepped in wherever the state is absent—education, health care, emergency relief in natural calamities, even local security and justice. Together they control thousands of madrasas and mosques, indoctrinating children with their special brand of literal, by-the-book Islam stressing, perhaps, the more uncompromising portions. The services that they provide are crucial to their acceptance. They are both much needed and appreciated.

During the Kashmir earthquake of October 2005 (official toll 75,000 dead) it was organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa that provided the bulk of relief to hundreds of remote villages cut off by the disaster, bringing food, medical help, temporary shelter and warm clothing against the approaching winter. The same was true of the floods of 2010 (over 2,000 dead, two crore affected) when an indifferent or incompetent state left poor villagers to fend for themselves. Even emergency food deliveries were few and far between. As a result, people admire the commitment of these outfits and look to them for guidance.

The other side of this story is the average citizen’s distrust of the state, bordering on hatred. No one expects the military to help in their daily lives so that leaves the militants ahead by a mile. They have a local presence that is more far-reaching than that of any government agency. As the only stable centre in a world that is falling apart around them, people see the Islamists as their true stewards. They are natural recruits to the cause, an important source of the lashkar who have wreaked so much violence in the subcontinent.

Naturally enough, the militants have little time for the administration which they see as not only corrupt and uncaring but also largely powerless. Their true patron is the military, also their progenitor, and now almost inextricably part of the Islamist nexus. There are two parts to this story, the mujahideen and the Islamists. The former are Afghan resistance fighters whose major concern is their own country. The latter are the hard line Islamists who under military tutelage were the advance guard of Pakistan’s death-of-a-thousand-cuts planned for Jammu & Kashmir.

They have spread their wings since, in the army, the higher echelons of Inter-Services Intelligence, reaching even Punjab which had been largely free of their influence until relatively recently. The last election saw the secular Pakistan Peoples Party reduced to a cipher in Punjab, largely because of militant muscle, overt and hidden. Nawaz Sharif is beholden to them and they don’t let him forget it.

The Islamist influence in the military has even the senior echelons worried. They have reason, as the murder of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer shows. He was shot dead by a member of his own bodyguard who was lionised as a hero by the public at large. The governor’s crime was his defence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against the Quran and his opposition to the law itself.

As for ISI, it’s hard to say that the tail is wagging the dog because its agenda for Kashmir is very different from the old nationalist narrative. Now it’s a Muslim Kashmir, which the separatist groups also endorse and, for Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Sayeed, an Islamic India. That the two are virtual impossibilities in the present circumstances is irrelevant. As a rallying cry it’s hard to beat and it satisfies the patron. It has a resonance beyond this, a call to religious duty that is hard to calculate but it reinforces the image of the militants as men dedicated to god’s will.

Pakistan’s Islamist militants have felt the army’s jackboot more than once. And each time they recovered lost emotional ground. They know time is on their side and their constituency is growing.

It’s also a call to violence, and there is no shortage of it anywhere in Pakistan. The agenda is religious and the target anyone seen as an opponent, the language uncompromising.

The Peshawar army school massacre of December 16, 2014 (death toll 145) by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is just the worst of recent outrages as smaller incidents rarely make the world news. Sectarian killings are becoming more and more common, with the latest being the January 30 suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Sind that left 61 people dead. Right now it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say Pakistan is a state under siege by its own, and the establishment seems clueless about the next step.

The Peshawar outrage provided a rare moment of consensus as political parties (except for Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf which runs the provincial government), the army and civil society condemned it. The army has finally declared war on the TTP and other groups pitted against the government but some have been spared, notably Hafiz Sayeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa. He has never raised his voice against the army but if there is a threat to his personal cause, the liberation of Kashmir or the India jihad, there is no guarantee he will keep quiet. It is an extremely influential voice, one the government will find difficult to ignore.

Pakistan’s Islamist militants have felt the army’s jackboot more than once. This is the fourth or fifth edition. All previous attempts ran out of steam and ended in agreements that were swiftly breached. There is no reason to believe that this one will succeed.

And each time they recovered lost emotional ground. This could simply turn into a process of Islamist creep that will eventually overwhelm the state. They know time is on their side and their constituency is growing. There’s no doubt that they can influence elections, either directly by violence or indirectly by persuasion and indoctrination. In this situation a calm head and a plan are indispensable. Neither the military nor the civilian administration seems to have one.

Although Operation Zarb-e-Azb is still at full steam it must run aground some time. The military cannot hope to kill every man opposed to it. That is the devil of an insurgency and what is happening in Pakistan is unlike Indian insurgencies. Those are confined to peripheral territories or to Kashmir and don’t threaten the heart. Punjab was the exception but that insurgency is long over. Outfits like TTP on the other hand threaten the heartland and, accompanied by turmoil in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies and the revolt in Baluchistan, have made the country virtually ungovernable. It is not possible to provide a timeline for a descent into chaos but the situation can’t go on forever.

***

T

he cheerleaders of “aman ki asha” and similar initiatives must be applauded for their well-meaning efforts but there is something surreal about their optimism. It is possible that everyone wants peace but it is impossible to dismiss the obstacles on the road. The optimists counsel patience but endless patience is no virtue and the problems seem to have no solution. First, there is the question of Kashmir, which stands athwart every approach. The glacial pace of MFN negotiations is an indicator, as stated earlier. Almost every initiative for normal ties is refracted through that lens.

There is no better example of crass stupidity masquerading as wisdom, but strategic depth gives Islamabad the excuse to continue meddling in Kabul and maintain the fiction of unrelenting Indian hostility.

Then there is the massive troop deployment on the eastern border when the real danger comes from within or from the west, Afghanistan. No one with half a brain would contemplate, let alone plan, an attack on a nuclear power with second strike capability (which Pakistan claims). But its military planners swear by the doctrine of “strategic depth”. It involves a retreat in force into Afghanistan in case Indian troops sweep through Punjab and occupy it. In that event, they can still have a substantial force to fight and evict the enemy from their territory. That explains both Pakistan’s anxiety to retain leverage in its unruly neighbour and its worries about Indian influence growing in Afghanistan.

There is no better example of crass stupidity masquerading as wisdom, but it is hard to believe that of them. Strategic depth gives Islamabad the excuse to continue meddling in Kabul’s murky waters and maintain the fiction of unrelenting Indian hostility, a necessary condition for its dominance of the political space. If the civilians were free to make their own arrangements with India there might be no barbed wire stretching hundreds of miles across the common frontier. It is possible (though not likely) even the various prevarications and posturings on Kashmir would be so much hot air.

The trouble with a peace negotiated by diplomacy is that it makes the military irrelevant to any discourse on the future. It should be noted here that the Indian military has no role in Pakistan initiatives other than the presumably background briefings. All decisions are taken by the government. Nawaz Sharif and his ministers can only dream of that.

The problem goes deeper than that. As the Mumbai carnage of November 26, 2008 shows, non-state actors are employed to keep the pot simmering and maintain innocence. On 26/11, Pakistan was undone only by the carelessness of the planners who used Skype to
communicate with the attackers, making it possible to trace the conversations. But India’s demands to extradite suspects have been blandly stonewalled for more than seven years. That situation will no doubt continue, as will talks on other sensitive measures for normalisation.

 ***

T

he real danger, however, is neither the obduracy of the generals nor the powerlessness of government. It is the feeling that the state is visibly fraying at the edges and that this process is gaining momentum. The extremists, within government and the military, and without, seem stronger by the day. Liberal Pakistani commentators exude a sense of despair about the direction of events.

“The Nawaz Sharif government says madrasas are sacrosanct and will not be investigated, but a growing body of facts in the media says madrasas are involved in terrorism through the training of killers and “excommunication” (takfir) of the Shia community. Most madrasas have gone on record—they may deny it—in calling the Shia kafir. Their fatwas have been used as handbills prior to Shia massacres” (Khaled Ahmed, The Indian Express, Feb 14).

In the same article he adds:

“Nobody ever thought madrasas… would become powerful enough to challenge the state itself. In 2015, they have become the most powerful civil society element capable of challenging the state to self-correction. The ideology of Pakistan has finally wrenched the ‘monopoly of violence’ from the state and established the clergy as the arbiter of state behaviour. Lawyers, military personnel, doctors, teachers serving in the state sector, journalists and the unemployed, supplement the power of the seminarian boys, who form the frontline against the state without knowing it.”

This is a recipe for chaos if the writer is correct. If religious zealots come to hold the real power in Pakistan that means all bets are off. Volatility would be an understatement of the state of affairs. It is complicated by the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state and is capable of unleashing awesome destructive power. At the same time it is an economic basket case, existing on western handouts which it believes it is owed on account of its services in defeating the Soviet Union.

An ageing, less confident west wary of the Islamist resurgence is more likely to bet on India. It is time the generals recognised that.

The last is true enough because the Afghan fiasco was largely responsible for the Soviet demise, but its old allies are also looking at the history of double-dealing on both the Taliban and the sheltering of Osama bin Laden. They see a supporter that has committed treachery many times over. It cost lives and billions of dollars besides causing untold suffering all around. Its increasingly bellicose religiosity is trumpeted not by the state but ostensibly non-state actors who are virtually part of the deep establishment. It is no wonder that the west is sheering off Pakistan.

Against that India, with all its problems, seems to be a model of propriety. It is also a rising economic power and has the potential to be one of the arbiters of the future. For all its endemic corruptions it is a vibrant democracy, and stability and continuity seem to be built into its institutions. It’s far from an ideal situation but a betting man would have no hesitation on which one to choose. The least India promises is stable continuity and it may provide more. It could even mature into one of the economic locomotives of the post-industrial age. The most Pakistan promises is more of the same but it could get worse.

An ageing, less confident west wary of the Islamist resurgence is more likely to bet on India. That is the source of much heartburn in Islamabad but it is time the generals recognised that if the visit of President Obama is the start of a strategic shift it has only itself to blame. The west’s disenchantment is not so much inspired by anti-Islamic sentiment as the pragmatic recognition of a waking economic giant that could also be a vital cog in the effort to contain Chinese influence across the globe.

When General Zia-ul-Haq decided to usher in “Nizam-e-Mustafa” he was sowing the wind. His successors are reaping the whirlwind, with the added complication that pragmatism could go completely under in the battle for the Pakistani soul. No amount of American dollars can guarantee this; only the establishment though the struggle could be long, painful and blood-soaked. If it fails Pakistan may face the ultimate irony of being rescued by the enemy it has tried for so long to destroy.