Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)
The impending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has seen increased efforts being made by Russia and China to gain influence in the region. As a part of their strategy to secure its interests in Central Asia, Russia has been attempting to foster a relationship with Pakistan.
Although, the first visit by any Russian president to Pakistan seems to have been shelved for the time being, the upturn in Russia-Pakistan ties from next-to-nothing is one of the more remarkable shifts playing out in South Asia since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the relationship between India and Russia continues to remain strong, largely underpinned by enduring military sales to New Delhi. Beginning 2008, Zardari met Putin’s predecessor Dmitry Medvedev six times on the margins of regional and global conferences culminating in a state visit in May 2011.
Persecution can bring people together. It can also prise them apart.
In Pakistan, so many minorities are threatened by homicidal extremists that travelling the country can feel like hopping across an archipelago of communities under varying degrees of siege.
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.
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.”
Now she’s dead and he’s afraid he will be soon. So he told me his story one day in a lawyer’s office in Peshawar. In case they get him, at least someone will know what happened, he said.
One option is to start by expressing outrage over drones, regardless of what your piece is about. You can strengthen your case by wrapping drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) into a coherent narrative of U.S. militarism, seen at its worst in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, because as we know, it is impossible to have opposed the Iraq war and support drones – U.S. President Barack Obama being the most notable among the inconvenient exceptions.
It took author Gretchen Peters two years working with a team of researchers to compile a detailed report on the Haqqani network. Published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, it is a comprehensive study of the Haqqani’s business interests in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf, defining them as much as a criminal mafia as an Afghan militant group. It took me an hour to read it through. Yet when I tweeted a link to the report with the suggestion those with strong views on drones should read it – the Haqqanis’ base in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been the primary target of U.S. drone strikes – the answers came within minutes. “I assume u probably never met a minor or a woman who lost the head of the family in drone attack as ‘colateral dmg,” said the first response.
It is symptomatic of the debate on drones that it is so often reduced to this; the civilian casualty becomes a cipher for opposition to U.S. drone strikes, discussed in isolation from the men the missiles were intended to hit. In Pakistan, outrage is selective; someone killed by a U.S. drone strike is ascribed more value than someone killed by militants or by the Pakistan army, as though human life can be valued not according to the identity of the person who died, but by who pulled the trigger. The debate in the west is not much better; much of it is about what the ethics of drone strikes mean for the United States with little reference to people on the ground; the greatest anxiety is reserved for the use of drones against U.S. citizens abroad.
In between stories of torture and the Taliban, the young man sitting opposite me had covered how to stage a dirty protest, Spanish chat-up lines, and how toothpaste can help you escape from prison.
Pakistani Jan Sher Khan was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he was 16 years old and accused of being a suicide bomber. He said he was innocent, a runaway from home seeking work after his strict father beat him for having friends who drank and smoked. Either way, he was held for six years in Bagram, a top-security U.S. prison in Afghanistan. And he had plenty to say about it.