In the first few days of this year, Pakistan’s coalition government was thrust into crisis after losing a coalition partner, and then a top politician–Punjab Governor Salman Taseer–was assassinated. A leading expert on the country, Stephen P. Cohen, says these incidents are symptoms of the profound problems tugging the country apart. “The fundamentals of the state are either failing or questionable, and this applies to both the idea of Pakistan, the ideology of the state, the purpose of the state, and also to the coherence of the state itself,” Cohen says. “I wouldn’t predict a comprehensive failure soon, but clearly that’s the direction in which Pakistan is moving.” On a recent trip, he was struck by the growing sense of insecurity in Pakistan, even within the military, and the growing importance of China.
What’s the situation in Pakistan these days, given a key partner’s withdrawal from the coalition government, and the assassination of a leading member of the ruling coalition, who opposed the blasphemy law which has support among the country’s Muslim population?
These are symptoms of a deeper problem in Pakistan. There is not going to be any good news from Pakistan for some time, if ever, because the fundamentals of the state are either failing or questionable. This applies to both the idea of Pakistan, the ideology of the state, the purpose of the state, and also to the coherence of the state itself. Pakistan has lost a lot of its “stateness,” that is the qualities that make a modern government function effectively. So there’s failure in Pakistan on all counts. I wouldn’t predict a comprehensive failure soon but clearly that’s the direction in which Pakistan is moving.
Given Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and its strategic location between Afghanistan and India, for the United States this is a looming crisis, isn’t it.
All U.S. policies toward Pakistan are bad, and some are perhaps worse than others. We don’t know whether levelling with Pakistan is going to improve things or make it worse. Ideally, we would own a time machine in which we could roll back history and reverse a lot of decisions we made in the past. Hopefully, we won’t make any more fundamentally wrong decisions in the future, but that may not prevent Pakistan from going further down the road to disintegration. Someone in the State Department was quoted in a WikiLeaks document [as saying] that if it weren’t for nuclear weapons, Pakistan would be the Congo. I would compare it to Nigeria without oil. It wouldn’t be a serious state. But the nuclear weapons and the country’s organised terrorist machinery do make it quite serious.
If it is anybody’s problem in the future, it is going to be China’s problem. I just spent several weeks in Pakistan. One thing I discovered was the country insecurity in a way I had never seen it, even in military cantonments. The other was that China’s influence in Pakistan was much greater and deeper than I had imagined it to be. In a sense that’s India’s problem, but in the long run, it will be China’s problem.
Describe China’s influence.
China is Pakistan’s major military supplier. Of course, they supplied military technology and probably put Pakistanis in touch with the North Koreans for missile technology. The Chinese have one concern in Pakistan and that is the training of Chinese militants and extremists inside of Pakistan. The Chinese have no problem with the Tiananmen Square-type of crowd control. When the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) was blown up in Islamabad in 2007, it came after some 10 Chinese were kidnapped and the Chinese complained publicly. The Pakistanis had ignored our protests about the Mosque for many years. But they moved quickly when the Chinese protested, killing many women and children in the process. That was one of the turning points in President Pervez Musharraf’s career, because that turned many militants against him. Before that time, he had either ignored or supported them, but after Lal Masjid, they became his enemy.
How important are the militants or terrorists? Can they control the state?
Militants–whether you call them anti-American, anti-liberal, or anti-secular–seem to have a veto over politics in Pakistan, but they can’t govern the state. The parties control the elections but they can prevent others from governing, and they may prevent the military from governing as well.
Some people have been hoping for a military coup, but you don’t think that will happen?
We have to do what we can do and prepare for the failure of Pakistan, which could happen in four or five or six years.
I don’t think the military wants to be in that position now. I don’t think the military chief Ashfaq Kayani has such a game plan. He is as smart and calculating as President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq [military president from 1977 until his assassination in 1988] was. He is quite different from Musharraf–not an Islamist himself, but he has certainly supported them in the past. I know the Pakistan military cannot govern Pakistan. They’ve tried it three times in the past and each time failed. This time they would have to deal with more active militants. The liberal forces are in retreat, and I don’t see the army supporting the liberal forces in Pakistan.
Talk about the anti-American feeling. How did it develop into such a strong national sentiment?
Historically, the Pakistani elite have created a narrative of U.S.-Pakistan relations which always shows the United States letting Pakistan down. A turning point was the Iranian revolution of 1979, [which] showed a lot of Pakistanis that standing up to the Americans, embarrassing the Americans, humiliating the Americans felt good. Whether they were Sunnis or Shiites in Pakistan, it felt good. It all goes back to everyone in Pakistan concerned about American policy toward Israel and the Middle East. They seem to care more about Israel and Palestine than they do about themselves. The irony of Pakistan is that their major foreign policy obsessions are ones that they can’t do anything about, including Israel and Palestine. When the U.S. and NATO forces moved into Iraq and Afghanistan, that was seen as a direct threat to Pakistan. They feared that the Islamist states were being knocked off one after another, beginning with Iraq, and going on to Afghanistan, and winding up with Pakistan. Most of that is imagined, but many Pakistanis believe it is true.
We’ve had a breakup of the coalition government, which happens all the time around the world, but why was so much gloom and doom expressed in Pakistan?
It’s the incapacity of the Pakistani state to educate its own people in a modern fashion; it’s the failure of the Pakistani economy to grow at all. If this was an American analogy, you would say Pakistan is a house under water. Except for its territory, which is strategically important, there is not much in Pakistan that is of benefit to anyone. They failed to take advantage of globalization. They use terrorism as an aspect of globalization, which is the negative side of globalization. Go down the list of factors, they are almost all negative. There is not one that is positive. They need outsiders for economic help. The conflict with India drains most of their budget. They can’t resolve foreign policy differences with India. They have quarrels with us over Afghanistan, although they are probably right that we don’t understand the Afghanis either. The question in my mind is whether these are irreversible so that Pakistan can become a normal state.
Militants–whether you call them anti-American, anti-liberal, or anti-secular–seem to have a veto over politics in Pakistan, but they can’t govern the state.
What do you think?
Hope is not a policy, but despair is not a policy either. We have to do what we can do and prepare for the failure of Pakistan, which could happen in four or five or six years.
Talk about the terrorists.
There has been an accommodation with the government. Terrorist attacks are down. There seems to be an agreement by the security forces to accommodate the terrorist groups. I don’t see the government regaining its position in the frontiers. The Pakistani Taliban is a designated enemy, but the army cannot move against them. The army is worried about its integrity itself.
Discuss Taseer’s assassination.
He was like Sherry Rehman, a close associate of Benazir Bhutto. Rehman had introduced a private member’s bill to repeal the blasphemy law, and [Taseer] backed her, and that apparently led to his guard killing him. The blasphemy law makes the medieval Catholic Church look liberal. Anyone who stands up and criticises the law has his life in danger. Rehman is prominently mentioned in press coverage. I don’t think she will back down. She is a lady of strong principles, like Benazir.
Is the fear of India genuine?
It is genuine, because it goes back to the identity of Pakistan. They can’t figure out how to reconcile their strategic necessity of accommodation with India. Of course, India takes a hard line on a lot of issues, not just Kashmir. India has allowed China to acquire Pakistan as a strategic asset. It is now a trilateral game between the Chinese and Indians with the Pakistanis on the Chinese side.
This article originally appeared at Council on Foreign Relations.
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