In the summer of 2010, two revelations, of unequal importance and magnitude, illuminated the American-Pakistani relationship and its complications: a public opinion survey released by the Pew Research Center, on July 29, that delved into the attitudes of the Pakistani public on a wide range of issues (their opinion of the United States, their view of the war next door in Afghanistan, their attitude toward extremist groups, their outlook on the prospects of their country). The bigger story was the unprecedented document-dump by Wikileaks of 92,000 reports and documents on the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan spanning two administrations, from January 2004 through December 2009. The role of Pakistan, and its powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (the isi), was in the eye of that storm.
The Pew survey first: There was something of a surprise in the findings. Some 2,000 adults, disproportionately urban, were polled. The needle had not moved; Pakistani opinion had not been swayed by the change in Washington from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. America’s overall image, the survey found out, remained quite negative in Pakistan. Along with Turks and Egyptians, the Pakistanis gave the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In all three big and important Muslim countries, only seventeen percent had a favorable view of the United States. Six in ten Pakistanis described the U.S. as an enemy, and only eleven percent described the U.S. as a partner. Against prior expectations, only eight percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in President Obama and in his ability to do the right thing in world affairs; this was his lowest rating among the 22 nations. There was little support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan; nearly two-thirds of those surveyed wanted U.S. and nato troops out of Afghanistan. A mere 25 percent of Pakistanis thought that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be bad for Pakistan itself. Such is the material, and sentiments, within Pakistan that the Americans, and Pakistan’s leaders, have to work with. Substantial American resources and aid have been committed to Pakistan, but 48 percent of those surveyed thought the U.S. gave little or no assistance. The anti-Americanism ran deep here, and was instinctive and unexamined.
The Wikileaks documents, released on July 25 to the New York Times, the Guardian, and to the German magazine Der Spiegel, unusual in their detail and sheer volume, depicted an American war in Afghanistan far grimmer than official Washington admitted, and a Taliban insurgency growing larger, better coordinated, and more deadly each year. Some $300 billion had been committed to the war, and still the prospects for success looked quite discouraging. The war archive was not flattering of Pakistan’s intelligence services. The documents suggested that Pakistan, though a presumed ally of the United States and a recipient of substantial aid, allowed operatives of the powerful isi to meet directly with the Taliban and to organize networks of militant groups that targeted American soldiers and Afghan officials alike.
Pakistan, in this archive, is both an enemy and an ally of American power, with its security services engaged in a deadly double game. A blind eye was being turned to the presence of the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal area, and Pakistan was keeping its options open for a post-American Afghanistan. Determined enemies of the United States — the Haqqani network, the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura — had steady contact, the documents asserted, with Pakistani intelligence. All through the archive’s diaries and the memoranda there runs a deep suspicion of Pakistan’s intentions.
Needless to say, the revelations about Pakistan trumped all other findings of the archive. They surely received the lion’s share of the attention that greeted this big disclosure. Pakistan’s leaders were quick to protest that the documents did not “reflect the current realities on the ground,” for the Pakistani government had committed massive resources to the war, and had paid dearly for its effort in the fight against terrorism. The Americans had placed a great deal of trust in army chief Ashfaq Kayani (they had pushed for and helped secure for him an unprecedented three-year extension of his appointment), but the man had been head of isi from 2004 to 2007, three of the years covered by these reports. The revelations had power because they fed off, and confirmed, the American sense that South Asia and Pakistan were impenetrable domains, that American policy makers do not know that terrain with any intimacy. Pakistani forces were doing battle against terrorist sanctuaries in South Waziristan and targeting terrorist cells in North Waziristan. The Pakistani authorities had accepted the American drone attacks in the tribal areas, and little of that was acknowledged. These findings were more tedious than the hype that attended their release. True, they had compromised and endangered Afghans helping the United States, but the reports, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee, were in the main about “tactical military operations.” No “sensitive intelligence sources and methods” had been compromised by this disclosure, Secretary Gates observed. Still, the archive was seen to have “outed” Pakistan and the methods of its intelligence services. The disclosure spoke to a long history of Pakistani-American cooperation — and mutual distrust. And it spoke to a country that, too often, seems divided against itself.
A long history
In the alliances of the Cold War, India, though a democracy, had cast its fate with the Soviet Union; Pakistan, though a military dictatorship for a good deal of that time, was an ally of the United States. It was an odd alliance. The Pakistani intellectual and political class was forever convinced that the American patrons were not sufficiently supportive or solicitous of Pakistan, that they withheld from Pakistan sufficient funds and advanced fighter jets, that they sought to diminish Pakistan and reduce it to abject dependence. The standoff with India was an existential challenge to Pakistan, and the United States could never grant Pakistan the support that could balance India’s demographic weight and India’s power. The wars that Pakistan fought against India — the fight that erupted over Kashmir in October 1947, then the two wars in 1965 and 1971 — were, from Pakistan’s vantage point, hopeless endeavors. The Americans could help, but only at the margins. In the biggest of these wars, the fight in 1971 that severed East Pakistan and gave birth to Bangladesh, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did their best to spare the Pakistani regime a greater defeat still. Pakistan was providing the channel for the “opening” to China, and the American president and his national security advisor felt that a debt was owed Pakistan. The military ruler Yahya Khan had stumbled into a conflict beyond his abilities. As Kissinger reconstructs it in his account of those years, when he “tactfully” queried Yahya and his colleagues about India’s advantage in numbers and equipment, they answered “with bravado about the historic superiority of Moslem fighters.” The anomaly that was Pakistan, two vastly different realms, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, was not destined to last. But Yahya and his foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had thrown caution to the wind. No outside power could spare Pakistan its inevitable dismemberment. The Bengalis had been treated abominably by the Punjabi-based security forces, and India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, seized her chance: She would accept nothing less than the independence of Bangladesh and the unequivocal defeat of the Pakistanis. Some 90,000 military and civilian personnel in East Pakistan surrendered and were taken prisoner. The integrity of West Pakistan itself seemed to be under threat. In the American view of things, U.S. power had helped cushion the Pakistani defeat. Washington had accepted the inevitability of East Pakistan’s secession, and had sought to protect the integrity of West Pakistan. This was not a verdict that Pakistan’s leaders could embrace. To the political and military class, their country had been betrayed and abandoned by its American patrons.
This military alliance would always rest uneasily on mutual distrust. The Pakistanis needed America and resented that dependence. Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who seized power in 1977 and was to send the flamboyant Bhutto to the gallows, took American treasure and rode the relationship with the United States for the full decade he was in power. But he, too, gave voice to that distrust of America and its fidelity and staying power. In a knowing formulation, he once described the alliance with America as something akin to sitting on the bank of a great river where the soil is lush and rich. But every four to eight years, he said, the river changes course, and the unsuspecting ally would find himself on scorched, barren earth. He was wise to see it that way. The American bond with Pakistan was strictly military; America hovered over the Pakistani landscape, but remained uninterested in the political culture of Pakistan.
Zia-ul-Haq, a shrewd autocrat, had struck an alliance with the United States when the Soviet Union, in the last battle of the Cold war, swept into Afghanistan. His mix of military despotism and conservative Islam was perfect for the era. The Islam of the mujahedeen was an antidote to communism, and Zia could provide security in the frontline state that Pakistan had become. For that pivotal decade (1979–89), Pakistan was awash with money and weapons. If the political and military class had wanted a role for Pakistan in the game of nations, they now had one, and a privileged one at that.
But Pakistan would pay a heavy cultural and political price for its role in that big war. The jihad in Afghanistan changed Pakistan. “We lived in the Kalashnikov culture,” a Karachi-born writer, Kamila Shamsie wrote of her childhood in the 1980s.
Nostalgia may have prettified and worked its will on the Karachi of that time, but doubtless Zia and the war that came to Pakistan’s doorstep changed the political culture of the land. In his own right, Zia’s predecessor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an aristocrat with an American education, had attempted to claim for himself the mantle of political Islam, but his effort fizzled. It was easy to see through Bhutto’s pretense; he was a thoroughly irreligious man. It was different with Zia. Perhaps it was the Islamic wind now playing nearby upon Iran; perhaps it was the heavier, more despotic touch of Zia — but people were scared into the faith. To be sure, there was Saudi money and Wahhabi preachers competing with the older, less-exacting practices and ideas of Islam. But this received idea does not do justice to Pakistan itself, to the kind of Islam — more belligerent, more literalist — that was spawned in the 1980s.
In their nostalgia for a more tolerant country, in the standard lament for the secular Pakistan of the founders, Pakistanis do not pay sufficient attention to the radicalism inherent in the very idea of an Islamic state. True, Jinnah had been a secularist and had pushed for the creation of Pakistan because the Muslims had fallen behind the Hindus in the crucial decades prior to partition. For him, doubtless the “moth eaten” Pakistan he had secured was a solace for what had befallen him — his thwarted ambitions in the face of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu leaders of the Congress Party. The pillars of Jinnah’s life were British law and Indian nationalism, and both gave way. India could not be his, so he fell back on the “two nation” theory — the different destinies of “Hindustan” and Pakistan. Islam did not tug at him, but the very calling of an Islamic state would be there for those who felt its pull or others keen to exploit it. South Asian Islam had its own radicalism, Abu Ala Mawdudi ( 1903–1979), a child of Indian Islam and an influential voice in the tumult of the new Pakistani state, must be reckoned one of the three most influential purveyors of political Islam — his peers are Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. It wasn’t Saudi wealth and American guns that gave power to political Islam. Those were marginal to the struggle within Pakistan itself, to the kind of furies — and needs — that were altering the place of the faith in practically all Islamic lands. Ascetic rigor, the needs of the newly urbanized, the literalism of the half-educated, the pressure and the panic of the young assaulting the verities of the elders — all these were “weaponizing” the faith, and Pakistan, the quintessential state of Islam, would have to contend with the new stridency. The bureaucracy and the army and the judiciary, strongholds of the middle classes, the bearers of the country’s secularism, would hold back the tide. Those institutions themselves were not immune to the appeals of political Islam, but they drew a line when one was needed. The center did not crack; the radicalism was kept in check. Pakistan had a way of stepping back from the brink.
That last battle of the Cold War over, the United States was on its way out of the subcontinent. By then, Zia had perished (in 1988, in an airplane crash that remains the stuff of speculation). In 1989–90, the U.S. terminated military training to the Pakistani army, as clear a measure as any of America’s retreat from Pakistani affairs. Pakistan would know a decade of political drift, a time of intense rivalry between the Pakistan People’s Party under Benazir Bhutto, who picked up her father’s fallen standard with her power base in Sindh, and Nawaz Sharif, with his base in the Punjab. All this played out to American indifference. As the journalist Steve Coll put it in his book, Ghost Wars, “After a decade of intensive U.S.-Pakistan cooperation, the United States had decided, in effect, to soon afterward, file for divorce.” Meanwhile, to Pakistan’s distress, there began, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, a new era in U.S.-India relations. Economic liberalization was remaking India. A huge market beckoned American business interests, and there was the bond of two big democracies. President Clinton was not a warrior, and strategic matters did not interest him in the way they pulled at his predecessors. He had no particular knowledge of Pakistan and scant interest in it. The appeal of India was natural to a man who believed in commerce and who adhered to the notion that war had become a thing of the past. The Clinton outlook was the outlook of the World Economic Forum in Davos. India, with its high-tech and information industries, was making inroads into that world, and Pakistan was not.
It was against that background that both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in the spring of 1998. Pakistan’s deed got more play than did India’s. Both countries were censured, but the economic sanctions imposed on Pakistan had more bite to them and more impact. Oddly, the disparity of power between India and Pakistan made Pakistan’s challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation regime seem more audacious. For the Americans (and others), it was the better part of wisdom for Pakistan to turn its attention away from its eastern border, and to focus on its burdens at home. The question of Kashmir had no traction in the global diplomatic agenda. So powerful was India, so entrenched was its position, that Pakistan’s attempts to draw attention to its Kashmir claims seemed like blatant adventurism.
In 1999, Pakistan would see yet again the familiar alternation between civilian and military governments. Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf seized power and sent the civilian politicians packing. His pretext was the familiar one of chaos at home, and his promise was the restoration of order. Musharraf was something of a “modernist”; he spent seven formative years of his boyhood in Turkey, his father having been posted to the Pakistani embassy in Ankara. His idol was the legendary Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. And his fidelity to Jinnah was of great importance to him. He recalls sitting on a wall along the road of Jinnah’s funeral cortege, a young boy weeping over the death of the great man. In the scheme of Pakistani culture, he was a determined secularist, but if anything, this military seizure of power would deepen the American estrangement from Pakistan. In this period, when the ideology of globalization reigned supreme, there was little patience for men in uniform in far-off places. It was telling that the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States in the elections of 2000, George W. Bush, could not name the Pakistani ruler. He knew he was a general, and that was the extent of his knowledge of Pakistan.
All this changed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Terror hit American soil, and the time of American indifference to the squabbles and ideologies of South Asia came to a sudden end. The United States would have to return to the geography it quit a dozen years earlier. A band of jihadists, Arabs sheltered by the hospitality of the Taliban, had overturned the American security doctrine and brought to a close that infatuation with globalization and commerce. The witch’s brew in the Hindu Kush was now more important than the complacency of the Davos crowd.
It is now familiar political lore that the Americans soon delivered a stark warning to Pakistan: a role in the war on terror, partnership with the United States, or American enmity. As General Pervez Musharraf tells it in his memoirs, In the Line of Fire, the choice for Pakistan was presented by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage during a meeting with Pakistan’s director general of the isi. Pakistan had to decide whether it was with America or with the terrorists. Were Pakistan to choose the terrorists, it “should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age.” For Musharraf, this would be an easy call. He made the same decision that Zia-ul-Haq did two decades earlier, and with the same eagerness. History had come calling, and the military ruler seized his chance. He knew that the sanctions on Pakistan would be of no consequence now. He knew that there would be substantial American aid for his regime and weapons for the armed forces, and a close working relationship with the United States. Musharraf used that American threat to justify the choice he made: an alliance with the United States in the interest of “the well-being of my people and the best interest of my country — Pakistan always comes first.” There were Islamists and religious reactionaries who opposed an alliance with the Americans, and they would take to the streets to challenge him. But Musharraf rode out the storm. He reasoned that an American war was unfolding next door in Afghanistan whether he willed it or not. The interest of Pakistan’s most powerful constituency — the military — was at stake, and Musharraf decided that the support of the military would see him through.
President George W. Bush, the man who didn’t know Musharraf’s name, would now become Musharraf’s political patron. No one in Washington bothered with the route that Musharraf took to supreme power. He was a “strongman” and he could deliver. Democracy in Pakistan would have to take a backseat to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to the deadly Arab jihadists who straddled the old Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush simultaneously fought, and ignored, the military campaign in Afghanistan; his passion, and his judgment, took him to the Arab world, and to the war in Iraq. Still, American power, as in the anti-Soviet jihad, had to shore up the Pakistani state. (This historical background is superbly illuminated by the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his 2008 book Descent into Chaos.)
Obama and Pakistan
Barack obama made a different call on this “Afpak” theater of war. Afghanistan was, to him, during his campaign for the presidency, the “good war of necessity,” where Iraq had been a catastrophic war of choice. In the way of presidential campaigns, Obama exuded worldliness about South Asia. He would begin with the conflict over Kashmir, he proclaimed, and he would win the “under-resourced” war in Afghanistan. The matter of Kashmir was soon forgotten. There was no taste for a drawn-out quarrel with India. Obama took his time, practically his first year in office, before he announced a strategy for Afghanistan. There was ambivalence in what he proclaimed: His “surge” of 30,000 more troops was at once the announcement of an exit strategy. America would begin its withdrawal eighteen months hence, in the summer of 2011. This was an uncertain trumpet; the new American leader’s priorities were at home, within America itself. The deepening commitment to Afghanistan led the new administration into a deeper entanglement with the affairs of Pakistan.
The South Asian landscape had not been transformed by Obama’s election — this the new president was to find out. He had bet on his popularity in the Islamic world. He and his devotees took it as an article of faith that anti-Americanism in Pakistan and other Islamic lands had been triggered by George W. Bush; but Obama was to encounter the same hostility and suspicion as his predecessor. A civilian government replaced the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, and Benazir Bhutto’s widower and her political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, prevailed in the national elections of 2008 (Bhutto herself was assassinated in December 2007). Gone was the Musharraf who had offended American liberals. But Pakistan still presented policy riddles and challenges that would test the new custodians of American power. Pakistan was essential to prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, but it pursued its own strategy and gave every indication that it was preparing for the day the United States walked away from Afghanistan. There was no easy way of ridding Pakistan of its perennial national anxieties. For Pakistan’s armed forces, Afghanistan was the “strategic depth” needed to balance India. America was at war with the Afghan Taliban, but a Pakistani bureaucratic and military elite worried about the inroads India had made into the old Northern Alliance — the Tajiks, the Uzbeks — and saw the Taliban, and their Pashtun base as Pakistan’s natural allies in the scramble sure to follow America’s withdrawal. There was little new, little surprising, in those Wikileak revelations. Musharraf had hedged his bets, winked at the jihad in Kashmir, and let the isi pursue its double game in Afghanistan. His civilian successors followed in his footsteps.
Grant the Pakistanis their right to their worries: They (and even America’s presumed ally in Kabul, Hamid Karzai) could read the temper of President Obama and his view of the Afghan war. There was something in President Obama that called up Lyndon Johnson’s attitude toward the war that wrecked his presidency. “It was a bitch of a war,” Lyndon Johnson said of Vietnam. “I just don’t think it is worth fighting for, and I don’t think that we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess. The people in the country don’t know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less.” There was nothing that suggested that Obama would stay with the war that he had dubbed a war of necessity; he was not able to sell the war to his political base. Three-fifths of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives voted for an amendment that would have required the president to present a plan for the “safe, orderly, and expeditious redeployment” of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Obama was prosecuting the Afghan war mainly with support from Republican members of Congress. In Islamabad and Kabul, no less than in Mullah Omar’s hideout in Quetta, the American mood and the ways of President Obama could be read with reasonable confidence. In the East, there is a sophisticated scent for the intentions and the staying power of strangers. If the “surge” was a prelude for an American withdrawal, the Pakistanis were sure to stay close to the Afghan Taliban.
The new American military push would, by necessity, test Pakistan’s commitment to this struggle. The U.S. military avidly courted Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani and the approach appeared to pay dividends. In 2009, Pakistani forces launched a campaign of their own against the militants in the insurgent stronghold of South Waziristan. (Kayani was, in the American view, the best of a bad lot. If Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars is to be believed, even Kayani’s closest American interlocutor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, never fully trusted his Pakistani counterpart.) For Pakistan’s leaders this was a big, risky commitment. The wider population was never convinced that the war against the militants was a war for Pakistan itself. The U.S. military acknowledged the commitment that Pakistan had made, but more still would be asked. American patience was wearing thin, and the result was an escalation in American military operations inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions. The drone attacks (a program run by the Central Intelligence Agency) were intensified in 2010, and the U.S. military was now conducting strikes against sanctuaries within Pakistan itself. The Pakistanis had been unwilling to take on the militants in North Waziristan; that tribal agency was a hothouse of insurgents, a stronghold of the Haqqani network, Tehrik-e-Taliban fighters, with bands of Arab and Uzbek jihadists. Pakistan’s reluctance to venture there had been the signal for a more aggressive American policy. An incident on the Afghan-Pakistan border on September 30 put on cruel display the hazards of this American-Pakistani relationship. American helicopters flew into Pakistani airspace to inspect what seemed to be a militant hideout. The helicopters struck what turned out to be a Pakistani military post. Three Pakistani soldiers, border guards, were killed in this incident. Pakistan’s response was swift. Islamabad closed a major supply line for nato troops in Afghanistan (80 percent of nato supplies go through Pakistan), and militants torched fuel trucks waiting at the border crossing. There was talk that the Americans would now look elsewhere — to Russia — for a supply route through the Central Asian republics. The Pakistan supply route was eventually reopened, and American and nato officials accepted responsibility for the incident, but it was a sure bet that this situation would not be the last of its kind. American forces were taking the war to the sanctuaries inside Pakistan, and an unstated doctrine of hot pursuit was bound to stir up Pakistani resentments.
No prescription has been found for the repair of America’s relations with Pakistan. Since 2001, some $18 billion in American aid has been granted Pakistan, and an additional five-year commitment totaling $7.5 billion would go toward improving Pakistan’s infrastructure and enhancing its economic performance. American aid was forthcoming in the summer of 2010 when the monsoon rains overwhelmed the Indus River water system. Two thousand people were killed, twenty million people were displaced, countless bridges, roads, and farms were swept away. The United States provided <<span class="smallcaps">$450 million in aid, but so toxic was the Pakistani political landscape that the welfare agencies distributing the aid would not stamp the supplies with the logo of the usaid. There are enmities (pathologies they are, in reality) that vast aid cannot heal. A country with a high and exalted sense of its mission and origins falls short of its own expectations, civilian rulers alternate in power with military dictators, the intellectual class is marginalized by both the military officers and the feudal landlords and is left with a bitter sense of its own marginality. Anti-Americanism becomes a convenient alibi and a safety valve for accumulated resentments. There is little that American goodwill could do in the face of this.
On the margins, it is argued that the United States Congress could help by slashing protective tariffs on textiles and apparel products, which are Pakistan’s biggest export to the United States. President George W. Bush pushed for a change in the existing terms of trade, and President Obama did the same. They were both rebuffed. Protectionism has carried the day, even though a more generous policy would both aid the Pakistani private sector and lower prices for American consumers. This protectionism has long been an irritant to Pakistani-American relations. In Pakistan, the argument has been repeatedly made that U.S. assistance is skewed in favor of the military. Textiles and apparel account for 60 percent of Pakistan’s total exports and 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs. A change in American policy here will not drain the swamps of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, nor will it convince America’s countless critics that they had erred in their judgment of the United States. But there is wisdom in it nonetheless. The cluster of Islamic sentiments that trouble U.S. relations with Turkey and Egypt and Jordan, as well as other Islamic lands, operate with greater force in Pakistan, if only because Pakistan is a theater of an American war of long duration. In the best of worlds, Pakistanis would turn to their own national endeavors. They would expect less of the United States, and they would project fewer of their frustrations and conspiracy theories onto the United States. They would claim responsibility for their homeland and its performance.
This was an unpleasant truth that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave voice to, in late September 2010, when she warned that outside donors would be less forthcoming in their aid to Pakistan if that country’s dominant classes continued to evade shouldering their tax burden. A country that collects a paltry of 9 percent of its gdp in taxes is a country destined to remain dependent on foreign handouts. This has been Pakistan’s way, and it has bred in Pakistan the familiar mix of dependence and resentment.
It is a bottomless source of troubles in Pakistan that all (political) roads seem to lead to Kashmir. Shades of Palestine to the Arabs, this becomes the obsession that blinds, the cause that has no solution and yet can’t be written off and forgotten. It is in the name of Kashmir, and in the cause of its freedom, that jihadists operate in Pakistan. This is what gives purveyors of terror, militants like the men of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), their warrant and their claim on public life. It was Kashmir and its power over the public imagination that gave the officer corps their political primacy. Kashmir is to Pakistan the unfinished business of the partition of 1947. The Indian Union, and its preeminent leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted a majority Muslim state in the new India, and the choice fell on Kashmir. Three-fourths of Kashmir’s people were Muslims, and partition betrayed them. Nehru’s ancestors quit Kashmir two centuries before his birth, but he always spoke of Kashmir’s vale as his “family home.” This “romance” was lethal; the promise that the matter of accession to India or Pakistan would be determined by the Kashmiris themselves was not to be. For Nehru, the “romance” with Kashmir was a cover for a different kind of play. The determination to hold onto Kashmir was a way of undermining the state of Pakistan: “Kashmir is going to be a drain on our resources, but it is going to be a greater drain on Pakistan,” he was to write, in an unsentimental note in November of 1947. History would bear him out. This became a permanent Pakistani wound.
Now and then, diplomats and conflict resolution experts speak of this or that opportunity, the narrow miss, the solution for Kashmir that was within grasp. This should be seen as the wishful thinking it is. No “solution” for Kashmir is in the offing; like the matter of Palestine, this is not a problem to be solved but a condition to be endured. No leader in Islamabad, nor New Delhi, could make drastic concessions in Kashmir. That enchanted valley is the child of the fatal embrace between Pakistani and Indian nationalisms. In retrospect, Nehru may have erred: the drain on India of a vast military presence in Kashmir, a security force of 700,000, is no small matter. But nationalism has a way of living with the huge burden that often attends passionate historical claims. For Pakistan, the challenge is to find a way around the call of Kashmir. The claim need not be renounced, but the power of the call could be moderated, and the society could learn that the world does not grant competing nationalisms all they claim to be justly theirs.
On the face of it, Pakistan seems ungovernable. There is order in Lahore and Islamabad, but Karachi teeters on the edge of chaos. In the regions beyond, the authority of the state is challenged by banditry and tribal landlords and religious pretenders. There is nationalist unrest in Baluchistan, the country’s most neglected province, a huge, sprawling desert and coast that, with more than 40 percent of the country’s land mass, accounts for only 6 percent of its population. Among Baluchis the state is an alien edifice, an instrument of the Punjabis and the Pashtuns. The timeless problems — the destitution, the illiteracy, the terrifying harm inflicted on vulnerable women — elude the bureaucratic state and mock its modernist claims.
National societies can make their way through all sorts of minefields. Outsiders needn’t overdo the panic over Pakistan. For all the dysfunctions of its politics, this is a country with a sophisticated middle class, vibrant media, and a judiciary on guard as to its prerogatives. (The role of the army is double-edged: It keeps the realm together but it thwarts and overwhelms civilian political life.) And for all the sound and fury of the Islamists, Pakistanis have repeatedly cast their ballots for secular parties keen to keep religious radicalism at bay. In the national elections of 2008, the religious parties managed to get a paltry two percent of the vote. The mandate was given to secular parties that appealed to ideological preferences or to regional attachments. There was political knowingness at work. That crucial election was not fought over Kashmir or Afghanistan, or the place of Islam. The issues that mattered were transparency and the rule of law, the performance of the state, and the economic condition of the land. At times, it seems, the Pakistani ruling elite, in their bid for foreign assistance, have traded on the image of Pakistan as a country on the verge of collapse. But foreign assistance comes at a price: A nation of 170 million people that is always bidding for foreign handouts can never know the saving grace of normalcy and self-regard.
The faith made Pakistan, but the problems thrown up in the country’s way are not of the kind that faith can resolve. In an attempt to give order to the political universe of Pakistan, it is said that Pakistan is ruled by the “three As” — Allah, Army, America. But the Pakistanis should know by now that before long America will quit their land. Pakistanis will then be left with the burden of their own history, with what they make of their own country. Back and forth Pakistanis alternate between a belief in the special mission of their country and despair for its prospects.