Events in Pakistan have captured the attention of the United States and India quite intensely. Coverage of Pakistan in American media is at an unprecedented level following the declaration of emergency and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Discussion of Pakistan in Washington has reached new heights; presidential candidates have made a flurry of suggestions and comparisons. India has watched more quietly, but its media and political class have also followed events quite attentively. And yet, much of what has been said about Pakistan is unrealistic, even delusional.

In Pakistan, there are three main forces at play: the army, the jihadis, and civil society—including political parties, lawyers, retired judges, and NGOs. None can be further disempowered without a massive joint effort of the other two. There is too much mistrust and difference of deeply rooted intentions among the three factions for such cooperation to take place. This leaves the army with a lock on power. Although the army and jihadis are demographically miniscule compared to civil society writ large, they contend as equals in the actual political system of Pakistan. The killing of Benazir Bhutto changes very little.

What has changed in Pakistan in recent years is the collapse of the Muslim nationalist identity built up by the poet Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the first military dictator, Ayub Khan. The underlying idea of Muslim nationalism was that the main danger facing Pakistanis was a cooperative embrace of Hindus, which would lead to Hindu cultural dominance and the loss of a distinctively Muslim culture. The best way to prevent this was believed to be by maintaining a hostile relationship with India, with the army as the vanguard of Pakistani Muslimness. The conflict was its own reward. This identity was accepted widely, and carried to its logical conclusion, which was the army’s political dominance, the development of nuclear weapons, and a jihadi cadre. These developments allowed for the golden age of the 1990s, when the army and middle class were able to bleed India at low cost to themselves with obedient jihadis. The trouble started when the jihadis began to think for themselves.

The new triadic power structure means that the army is no longer the vanguard of Muslimness, and the middle class now fears something other than Hinduization. Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto understood the contradictions of Muslim nationalism by 1997. Musharraf pushed them aside; therefore the pathology could be realized more fully. But no solution has been presented.

What remains missing is any new idea shared among power centers regarding where Pakistan came from, where it is going, and which social classes and institutions will lead it there. Such a consensus is necessary for a modern state to function.

Democracy is not an option in Pakistan at present. The civilian movement is far from adequately mobilized to suppress the jihadis and the army simultaneously. Class and ethnic divisions within the country are stark, and no credible ideological consensus is on the horizon. The frequent calls for democracy and rule of law are not sufficient for their fulfillment.

India has followed a course of inaction and silence in relation to Pakistan. There are two reasons.

First, there is not much it can do or say and gain. Second, with the collapse of Muslim nationalism, anti-India rhetoric and action from Pakistan has sunk to a fraction of its level before 2003. Even jihadis have little to say about India these days. The future could be much better, or much worse. But if it is the latter, it will not be worse for India alone. The jihadi-takeover scenario is extremely dangerous for India, the United States, and many others. Therefore, it is realistic to expect broad cooperation to avert it, if necessary.

America’s options in Pakistan are also quite limited. Musharraf did go along with the American plan to make Benazir Bhutto his junior partner. But the jihadis, with inside help, blocked that option. The U.S. does not have an option of sending its troops into Pakistani soil for anything more than brief forays. The demographic scale of Pakistan would require more troops than the U.S. even has available. The most catastrophic scenario for the United States is still not imminent. The most likely jihadi-takeover sequence would involve major actions by pro-jihadi elements within the military. Such actions to date have been far smaller in scope than would be required for a takeover. Until now, there is no indication that even the smallest army units have been subverted, only collections of individual soldiers from different units. Paramilitary units have surrendered to lightly armed jihadis in the northwest, but not regular army units. Further deterioration in the structure and cohesion of the army would precede any jihadi takeover.

Although Pakistan has the potential for great impact on India and the United States, both nations must live within their limits and let nature take its course there. India is accustomed to being in that position, but the U.S. is not. The hopeful scenario for Pakistan, India, and America is that more Pakistanis recognize the dead end of extreme anti-Hindu sentiment. It is precisely the Indic cultural heritage of Pakistan that provides it with a bulwark against the nihilism of the jihadis. The ideological rejection of a large part of their own heritage has left Pakistanis with an unbalanced culture. Pakistanis must restore what they have destroyed over the last six decades.

Fortified by a new awareness of itself, Pakistani society could fight that battle.

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.

 

Share this: