The Sole Struggle

From Daily Times

By William Milam

The question remains whether the PPP-PMLN solidarity on this can hold beyond the army’s campaign in Swat. There is much more territory to regain and hold. Remember, one of the principal tenets of counter-insurgency military strategy is to take and hold territory

A couple of weeks ago while I was in the United Kingdom to promote my recently-published book, I found myself facing an audience at one of England’s ancient and most prestigious universities. The questions were intelligent and well-informed. One very bright student challenged my assertion (better explained in the book than in my presentation, perhaps) that one of Pakistan’s fundamental problems is that it has not yet, 62 years after its creation, settled on a national identity.

My contention is that two mutually exclusive competing visions of the Pakistani state/nation are still vying for dominance. The one we in the West know best is that of the state’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who outlined on August 11, 1947, a vision of a secular, tolerant, progressive state/nation.

The one we know less well, but which may even predate at least the articulation of Jinnah’s liberal version, is the much more restrictive vision of an Islamic state which had been the objective of the Islamists and Islamist Parties who were part of the Pakistan Movement even before Partition. Possibly because Jinnah died so soon after Pakistan’s creation, the identity of the state/nation was never agreed and remains up for grabs to this day.

Bits and pieces of Jinnah’s vision have been, for sixty years, consistently traded away for political gain by both civilian and military leaders of the country in what I call “Faustian Bargains”. I have written in this column several times about these deals, including that the “Swat peace deal” was simply the latest version. It has been many years, I suspect, since the secular aspect of Jinnah’s vision was a remotely possible element of a Pakistani national identity. Some, perhaps even that British student, may think the fight is over and the Islamist vision has won.

The current violent military struggle against Islamist extremists in Swat, and perhaps beyond, is probably only indirectly related to the question of Pakistan’s unsettled national identity. It is not clear that, even if Jinnah’s vision had been adopted and had guided the state’s civilian and military political leaders from the beginning, there would be no such struggle in Pakistan given the history of the last thirty years — the creation and arming of the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan, and the jihadists in Kashmir (unless one argues that leaders guided by Jinnah’s vision would not have followed such policies).

The Taliban and their allies appear to have a strategic aim of carving out a sanctuary in Pakistan, to make it easier and safer to plan and launch operations in the region and against the West rather than any overall political strategy relating to Pakistan’s national identity. That the Taliban who overreached in Swat and Buner represent such an extreme and repugnant version of the Islamic state is, perhaps, a major reason that public opinion seems to have swung to favour military action to push them back and eliminate their threat to the state.

The view put forward by the British student was that the real problem of Pakistan’s national identity is that the country is a patchwork of different and often competing nationalities, ethnic and language groups, and cultures. Very little has been done to try to incorporate these disparate elements into a national framework, and there remains great tension among them, and between them and the central government. This view is, of course, fully consistent with Pakistani history, as well as current reality; we need only refer to the long-running insurgency in Balochistan as evidence. And there is plenty more if we need it.

There is much to argue for this view. Certainly most historians have pointed out that this heterogeneity is a critical problem that has inhibited building a Pakistani nation. “Nationalities in search of a nation” is one of the first headlines in the book I was talking about. In fact, provincial, ethnic, or language identifications seem increasingly to be elements of disunity in Pakistan. There are, of course, religious differences among nationalities, ethnic and linguistic groups that figure in this disunity, but there are equally — perhaps even greater — elements of provincial, ethnic, and linguistic pride and prerogative involved. These may be exacerbated by economic and social disparities.

But the question of national unity is not necessarily the same as the question of national identity. Bangladesh, with a common language and homogeneous culture, the hallmarks national unity, also has no commonly agreed national identity — although it did not start that way as did Pakistan.

The two versions are, in fact the basis of the two major political parties — the BNP version, a geographic and religious identity, was invented by the first military government to counteract the original Awami League primordial version based on the common language and culture. In reality, these two versions have come much closer together over the past twenty years.

It seems clear to me that the struggle over Pakistan’s national identity fundamentally involves religion. After all, Pakistan was created as a religious sanctuary, and the kind of sanctuary it would be is at the core of the identity problem. That must be why Jinnah, perhaps a little late, endeavoured to set Pakistan on a secular course at the beginning. He may also have been trying to make up for his earlier ambiguity on the nature of the Pakistani state he was creating during the period when he was seeking to hold the Muslim League together for the 1946 election.

When I think back on my days in Pakistan, and beyond the sheer pleasure of the many great friendships I made (many of which I still maintain from afar), the words that ring loudest in my memory are those of a senior Pakistani diplomat who I admired but did not get to know well enough. In what I suspect was an unguarded moment, he said to me once, Pakistan is in a desperate “struggle for its soul”. Almost ten years later, I have heard similar words from others, but, until the last few days, almost never from political or military leaders.

Now, the government and the army have taken up the fight against the Taliban in Swat with intensity and, as far as I can tell, intelligence. The question in my mind is whether they suddenly believe that this really is a struggle for Pakistan’s soul. If so, what led them to change their minds from just a few months ago when they were willing to try one more Faustian Bargain at the expense of the people of Swat?

And what about the rest of the political class? The news out of the all-parties conference was not reassuring. An indirect backing of the government’s policy, we are told. In order to get consensus, all reference to the Taliban and to the military operation in Swat was removed. On the other hand, the PMLN appears to back the PPP government, at least for now, and that is good. Reading further, I find that if there had been a vote in the Assembly on a resolution backing the operation, it would have won by a large majority.

The question remains whether the PPP-PMLN solidarity on this can hold beyond the army’s campaign in Swat. There is much more territory to regain and hold. Remember, one of the principal tenets of counter-insurgency military strategy is to take and hold territory. It took the US Army quite a while to re-learn that in Iraq, having forgotten it once it left Vietnam almost forty years ago.

The Pakistan army certainly has the manpower to undertake that strategy; but does it have the will, and the public backing? And will it have such backing as well as the will to reduce its forces along the eastern border in order to hold the state’s reacquired territory? Or will Pakistan have to go through all this once again in six months or so?

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

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