Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Cut-out cardboard hearts, stars and a slogan that cheerfully declares “The Earth Laughs In Flowers” adorn the classrooms of the Ummat Public School in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Soon they will finish their exams and expect to go to college. Only these young women will stay at home. A killer is on the loose in Quetta, and their parents are terrified.
Amina, 15, raises a hand.
“I wanted to go to the best college; my dad says ‘It’s not important.’ In our family everybody is frightened,” she said, as pupils in white headscarfs nodded glum-faced assent.
When the British decided to define the outer limits of their Indian empire, they fudged the question. After two disastrous wars in Afghanistan, they sent the Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, to Kabul in 1893 to agree the limits of British and Afghan influence. The result was the Durand Line which Pakistan considers today as its border and Afghanistan refuses to recognise. Then, rather than extend the rule of the Raj out to the Durand Line, the British baulked at pacifying the tribes in what is now Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Instead, they used the still-extant Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901 to keep them at bay, if necessary through collective punishment. The Pashtun tribes living on either side of the Durand Line continued to move back and forth, resenting outside interference and rejecting an arbitrary division of their lands by a foreign power.
The situation remains as nebulous to this day. Pakistan, like the British Raj before it, wants a secure western frontier and has been ready to back Islamist militants in Afghanistan to obtain it. Indeed, its emphasis on Islam has been used as a means of countering ethnic Pashtun nationalism, lest the Pashtun lay claim to a Pashtunistan covering both sides of the Durand Line. Meanwhile, remembering the days when Peshawar was a fabled Afghan city, some Afghans hanker after a Greater Afghanistan, incorporating the lands of all Pashtun (or Afghan) tribes as far as the Indus river. (Historically, the identification of Afghanistan with the Pashtun was such that the words “Afghan” and “Pashtun” were treated as synonyms.) And even those Afghans who recognise how unrealistic it would be to claim a sizeable chunk of modern-day Pakistan retain a proprietary sense over the Pashtun living on the other side of the Durand Line. Meanwhile the Pashtun themselves resent their arbitrary separation between two countries, which has reduced their capacity to exercise political power.
Not too long ago, if you were travelling from India to Pakistan, you couldn’t help but notice how well the modern airports, the six-lane motorway linking Islamabad to Lahore, and the well-planned tree-lined capital city compared to the sprawling chaos of New Delhi. Indeed that motorway was South Asia’s first, long before India started to build its expressways, and in some ways Pakistan, which was a more open economy than India’s Licence Raj system and grew faster for decades until the 1990s, looked more like the developed Islamic states on its west than the poor cousins of South Asia.
But the tables have turned and the one-time economic star of the region is slipping behind its neighbours as it struggles with militant Islam, a near breakdown in ties with its greatest benefactor, the United States, and a civilian leadership that is struggling to hold its own under the boot of the powerful military while an assertive judiciary snaps at its heels.
In a poignant tale published last month by Chashm, a new website set up to promote alternative discourse in Pakistan, the narrator describes what happened when the Taliban came to the village of Saidano, the site of a popular shrine in Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
First the Taliban imposed sharia; they banned all activity at the shrine and intimidated those in the political administration into quitting their jobs. The people organised themselves into a lashkar, or militia, to fight them. “In return, the Taliban pummelled the armed resistance and the people back into submission. Any attempt at resistance led to dissenters’ immediate silencing, including by slaughter.” Having decreed that visiting shrines was un-Islamic, the Taliban said they would demolish it. “With that note, the shrine of Bawal Haq Saheb was reduced to rubble by the Taliban. The people of Saidano were enraged at this heinous act of the Taliban, but no one could say anything…they were all scared.”