Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pakistan: A Strategic Conundrum

Last week, I partly addressed America’s strategic incompetence with my post, “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War.” Another country we appear to have no strategy for is Pakistan. Presently, political leadership in Washington is consumed with a myopic debate over non-binding resolutions in Iraq while the failed “global war on terror” continues to burn. Pakistan illustrates America’s delicate position in this conflict, as the growing numbers of presidential candidates offer nothing but platitudes.

A historical overview of Pakistan is useful to provide context. Choudhary Rahmat Ali, a Cambridge student and Muslim nationalist invented the name “Pakistan.” He first published it on January 28, 1933 in the pamphlet Now or Never. Ali’s acronym was devised from the names of the "homelands" of Muslims in South Asia: P for Punjab, A for the Afghan areas of the region, K for Kashmir, S for Sindh and tan for Balochistan, thus forming “Pakstan.” An “I” was added to the English version resulting in Pakistan. Pakistan’s name also captured in the Persian language the notions of "pak", meaning "pure", and "stan", for "land" or "home", meaning, "Land of the Pure".

When the British granted independence to their dominions in India in mid-August 1947, Pakistan joined them as self-governing dominions of the British Commonwealth. Punjab and Bengal, two of the biggest provinces, remained divided between India and Pakistan. During this period, over two million people migrated across the new border and more than one hundred thousand died from ethnic conflict. Non-Muslims who lived in Pakistan were forced the leave the area, and facilitated communal violence among the populations of the newly founded nations. Their partition also resulted in tensions over Kashmir resulting in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947.

The First Kashmir War ended with Pakistan’s occupation of one-third of the state. They remained a Dominion in the Commonwealth of Nations until declaring independence in 1956. Their status as a republic didn’t last because of a coup d'etat by Ayub Khan (1958–69), who presided over a second war with India in 1965. His successor, Yahya Khan (1969–71) contended with the cyclone that caused 500,000 deaths in East Pakistan. Former Beatle George Harrison organized a benefit concert in Bangladesh at the time.

For the next thirty nears, conflict between the military and civilian rule persisted in Pakistan. When General Zia-ul-Haq became Pakistan’s third military president in 1977, he replaced his government’s secular policies with the Islamic Shariah legal code. As a result, Islamic influence in Pakistan’s society increased.

After General Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, Benazir Bhutto, was elected as the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. She alternated power for the next decade with Nawaz Sharif, as the country's political and economic situation became more turbulent. Pakistan deployed 5,000 troops to the 1991 Gulf War as part of a US led coalition to defend of Saudi Arabia. Military tensions in the Kargil conflict with India were followed by a Pakistani military coup d'état in 1999 in which General Pervez Musharraf assumed executive powers.

In 2001, Musharraf declared himself President after the forced resignation of Rafiq Tarar. After the 2002 parliamentary elections, Musharraf transferred executive powers to newly elected Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali. There have been two more prime ministers but Musharraf remains the country’s strongman and public face. He is a dictator.

With the growing rise of Islamic fundamentalism inside Pakistan, a relationship existed between them and the Taliban prior to 9/11. Shortly after 9/11, Secretary of State Collin Powell went to Pakistan and essentially made Musharraf an offer he couldn’t refuse: cooperate in the war on terror or lose power. Musharraf became an ally. It is an alliance that resembles a gymnast holding a hot bowel of soup while navigating a balance beam.

As 2006 wound down the Taliban were consolidating control of Northern Pakistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates left for Pakistan today to discuss the possibility of a new Taliban offensive this spring. As the New York Times reports,

“Pakistan, a close U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has faced charges that the Taliban militia stage attacks from Pakistan against Afghan government troops and NATO- and U.S.-led coalition troops.”
I have no doubt professionals inside our national security bureaucracy agonize about Pakistan and Gates trip partly reflects their concern. Is there a long-term strategy in place though or are we merely reacting tactically to events? Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is a hotbed for radical Islam. The Taliban has secured territory inside Pakistan to help carry out their operations. Furthermore, only an unpopular military dictatorship has managed to prevent religious extremists from ruling Pakistan.

Who is really in charge of Pakistan? Is the dictator Musharaf really in control or merely a nominal strongman? Obviously the Taliban are enjoying cooperation inside Pakistan’s intelligence and military. Is Musharaf talking from both sides of his mouth to survive or is he losing his grip on power?

What happens if Pakistan is taken over by religious extremists? How would India respond? India is a nation governed by nationalists that can make America’s neocons blush with embarrassment. Politicians such as John McCain have made critical comments about NATO's performance in Afghanistan recently, as you can read about by clicking here and here. Obviously, McCain prefers to inoculate the Bush Administration from blame instead of contemplating a long term strategy in the region.

But the key relationship remains between America and Pakistan. If Pakistan slides off the abyss we’ll have a far bigger mess on our hands than Iraq, Lebanon, Iran or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afghanistan’s war against the Taliban, already undermined because of America’s occupation in Iraq would collapse. India might well opt to occupy Pakistan, resulting in a war on the sub-continent. Such a conflict would have a ripple effect in China and Iran. Hopefully, we have anticipated this contingency and nurtured contacts inside Pakistan in case the current regime is toppled.


Pakistan is a paradox and a mirror image of Iran. They already have nuclear weapons and Iran doesn’t, regardless of the Bush Administration’s propaganda to suggest otherwise. Iran’s population is increasingly pro-American while their president enjoys making provocative anti-American and anti-Israeli speeches. More democracy in Iran would be to America’s benefit while in Pakistan it would likely result in a hostile and dangerous regime. The status quo inside Pakistan undermines America’s ability to prevent the Taliban from completely re-taking Afghanistan, but any change will likely make the situation worse.

Congress prefers debating symbolic resolutions with no tangible impact to end America’s military occupation in Iraq. The Senate was paralyzed last week by their inability to even hold a debate about in effect, doing nothing. This week the House of Representatives will have their debate about doing nothing. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is consumed with avoiding official defeat in Iraq on their watch and maneuvering to war against Iran. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is attempting rhetorical jujitsu about her record on Iraq and Republican frontrunner John McCain is off the deep end.

Is there anyone contemplating or formulating a strategy about the Pakistan conundrum five years down the road? Is there a combination of economic and diplomatic initiatives, that could help stabilize the country as an ally? Is it worth attempting to mediate or broker a peace agreement between Pakistan and India? Will Congress help formulate a strategy or merely criticize NATO for not providing more troops in Afghanistan and deliberate over non-binding resolutions in Iraq?

Why would any country of NATO deploy more troops given America’s diminished geopolitical position? Why should our allies have any confidence in America’s leadership in Afghanistan or skill in keeping Pakistan from blowing up?

Is anyone in power or running for president contemplating how we can replace the global war on terror with a more sustainable containment strategy instead? The place to start is by tackling the strategic conundrum of Pakistan. They are the finger in the dike.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cooperativeresearch.org has an extensive collection of mainstream articles from around the globe concerning Pakistan, the ISI and the CIA that you might find interesting. Look under the 9/11 timeline.

omar said...

Regarding partition...

In fact, it is estimated that about 15 million people migrated in the biggest mass migration in history. also it was far more than 100,000 deaths...estimated to be up 900,000...

upinVermont said...

Yes, the question always seems to be: Well, what will America do now?

What about Europe? What about France and Germany? They have a whole lot more to lose than we do.

There is nothing we can do vis-a-vis Pakistan except to dance with Musharraf. There is obviously a strong secular strain, within the military it seems, or he wouldn't be in power. I'm guessing that if Musharraf were to die or be assassinated tomorrow, there would be a power struggle but that the secular forces in the military would, once again, win out. Ironically, the one thing that might hurt this secularist strain is too close an association with the west.

I just can't see, in any pragmatic sense, negotiating with Islamists. Their methods are fascistic, authoritarian, totalitarian and theocratic.

America, quite simply, is going to have to let other countries step in and do their part. If other countries are unwilling to, then what can we do?

We can drastically reduce our dependence on oil. That is probably the best strategy for dealing with the middle east -- the one thing uninspired hacks like Cheney can't get through their thick skulls.

(I know you and I disagree on Cheney. I don't find him to be a very smart man, though he has fooled everyone else. He possesses a breathtakingly unimaginative mind. I don't see him as being a whole lot more capable, intellectually, than Bush...)

Get us off of oil. Fast. That should be our number one goal. Improve our diplomatic ties with Europe.

Gary said...

Excellent topic and you make very good points. The Pakistan situation has been on my mind alot in the past five years.

I do know that Bush Sr. and James Baker have made several trips to Pakistan since 9-11-2001. As anonymous posted, there are still unanswered questions in the public arena concerning our history, covertly, with the ISI, the Mujihadeen connections, OBL, and the CIA et al. I think you have touched the tip of an ice berg here. I bet there is much classified concerning our relationship as a nation with Pakistan. I expect to hear much more of this in coming years. Keep digging ... as will I.

I just found your blog today thru Kos. I will return here in the future.

Thank you.