Islamic Nationalism Is Behind Pakistan Crisis
Graham E. Fuller, a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, is currently an adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of The Future of Political Islam.
Washington -- Washington is now confronted with an essentially no-win situation in Pakistan. We are witnessing the culmination of many years of ad hoc American policies based on an abiding faith in the power of US military force coupled with ignorance of the strategic, cultural and psychological realities of the region. At heart is an incompatibility of American strategic interests with those of Pakistan, particularly as perceived by the country's strategic elite. Powerful popular forces of Pakistani and Islamic nationalism intensify this divide.
Washington wants what Pakistan will not deliver, or cannot deliver except to a modest degree. Bush wants to destroy al-Qaida in the Pak-Afghan region, a goal shared by Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But while al-Qaida lacks native roots in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is still considered an object of sympathy by huge numbers in Pakistan and beyond. Humbled Muslim societies everywhere see Bin Laden as one of the few figures in the Muslim world willing to stand up with honor and bravery to the American colossus and defy its imperial ambitions. That makes Bin Laden more popular than Bush or Musharraf, even if most of the population does not share Bin Laden's vision of violent global jihadi struggle.
But Washington's demands cut still closer to the Pakistani bone. Bush wants Pakistan to eliminate cross-border contact between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to deny Pakistan as a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban.
Musharraf and his generals will pay lip service to this goal, but they will not ultimately do it. The reasons are not complex. As distasteful a symbol of primitive Islamic practice as the Taliban have been, today they represent essentially the major vehicle for Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan, the single biggest ethnic group and much under-represented in the US-backed Karzai government. More important, there are twice as many ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan itself as there are in Afghanistan. The cross-border ties are inextricable: clan, family, history, culture, language, religion. This ethnic organism will not be sundered by the arbitrary and unpopular borders between the two countries. Pashtuns can, do and will casually ignore this artificial divide. Indeed, the Taliban as a political and ideological movement is growing more powerful within Pakistan itself.
Pakistan already has one powerful enemy on its eastern flank -- India. It cannot afford to have a hostile Afghanistan on its western side. Every Pakistani strategic thinker knows this. Yet under the Karzai government in Afghanistan, the enemies of Pakistan -- the anti-Pashtun Northern Alliance, and a strong Indian political and intelligence presence -- have grown strong. Pakistan's primary voice and influence inside Afghanistan comes mainly via the Taliban, supported behind the scenes by the Pakistani military on strategic grounds. Washington may rail at this, but it cannot change these facts on the ground.
Pakistan's government is meanwhile still heavily influenced by powerful feudal rural landholders with regressive social and economic policies. The country desperately needs agricultural and social reform. But reform will undercut the powerful feudalists, a key pillar of power.
Washington wants a compliant Pakistan that will dutifully play its assigned role in the US regional hegemonic vision. Washington will take it any way it can get it, with or without democracy. So US calls for democracy are now issued in panic and ring hollow after six years of support for the Musharraf dictatorship. Pakistani liberals condemn the US for supporting the Pakistani military dictatorship for so long in the name of an unpopular "war against terror" and perceive US confrontationalism as only serving to inflame the militant jihadists.
Nor can the crisis in Pakistan be viewed in isolation. It is of a piece with the war in Afghanistan and is inextricably linked as well to broader convulsions across the Middle East. Islamic "nationalism" is a growing force as activists push back against American "boots on the ground" -- a Pentagon term more revealing than the Pentagon realizes. It is the US military presence and strategy across the region that is seen to rob Muslims of their dignity and sovereignty, in what increasingly is understood as an American war against Islam -- bolstered in Washington by neo-con calls for a "World War IV against Islamofascism." US policies have helped forge a unity of vision across a Muslim world that under more normal circumstances would be far more focused on distinctive local concerns.
The military remains the single most important force in Pakistan. It will most likely ensure that the country does not fall apart. Yet it incorporates many who sympathize with the Islamist agenda and the need to protect the country against outside domination. As radical Islamist power grows across the country, the military will not likely confront it directly; it will seek to divert it, placate some of it, accommodate large elements into the system where possible. We may even witness some bloodshed as militants clash with the military. But the military knows these forces cannot basically be destroyed by force. Meanwhile, the center of gravity is shifting toward the many Islamists who have joined hands with a few liberals against Musharraf. Any new political accommodation will likely be far less congenial to Washington.
Today the US military presence is perhaps the single most inflammatory element in politics across the region. The American military response to this regional challenge only serves to exacerbate it. Sadly, Pakistan is now swift on the heels of Iraq and Afghanistan in heading toward increased civil strife and bitter anti-American emotions.
A "made in Washington" settlement in Afghanistan -- the heart of the problem -- is not going to work. It only generates increasing hostility as thousands more Lilliputians swarm the helpless Gulliver, drawing hostile Pakistani Islamists more deeply into the equation as well. In this sense bin Laden is winning. The region will only calm down following a withdrawal of US forces from its confrontation with "Islam" and the development of a regional approach to the Afghan issue -- one that acknowledges the deep interests of the main regional players who also seek stability in the region: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India. Yet this reality is anathema to the hegemonic global strategy of the Bush administration.
And so the arc of Islamic crisis continues to swell.