Pakistan US relations: the straw that broke the camel’s back?

It behoves both the United States and Pakistan to reappraise the situation, take stock and course correct. World peace, or at the least regional peace, may depend on it.

US relations with Pakistan have reached a nadir. War talk is doing the rounds and the statement by Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that the country would stand by Pakistan in the eventuality of war between the United States and Pakistan certainly adds to the cocktail. (The Karzai statement, however rich as it is, given that contemporary Afghanistan is essentially a western protectorate, in the scheme of things is of no real  or strategic import. It may be understood as a statement of pique and an attempt to rile the United States with which Karzai has had strained relations).

The issue that has brought things to this bitter pass was the alleged link between Pakistan’s state within a state spy network, the ISI and the Haqqani network. The US has alleged that the network was used by the ISI to obscure its real centre of gravity - that is, the ISI itself - and was causing mischief in Afghanistan. The United States naturally wants to break the links between the network and the ISI. US insistence on this, seen as pressure by Pakistani’s, has created a rallying point in Pakistan. The disparate power centres in Pakistan have apparently coalesced together in a show of unity. 

This reactive posture demonstrates, among other things, that the fissiparous tendencies in Pakistan can be attenuated by an outside threat. It is either the threat of ‘Hindu’ India or as the latest saga demonstrates the threat from the United States that accords this degree of ephemeral unity to the beleaguered country. While historically, the threat of the ‘Other’ or the outsider has been a factor in uniting nations or communities, self assured nations and nations buttressed by self confident nationalism have moved on and used their energies towards salubrious ends. Alas, as this saga reminds us, the same does not hold true for Pakistan. Its negative nationalism underpinned by the attempts to accord unity to it by taking recourse to essentialism, that is, its Islamic identity have both been a bane to itself and to the world at large. 

Instead of taking an anti-American stance and posturing, the powers that be in Pakistan should have recourse to introspection and course correction - something that is of course implied in the US pressure. Specifically, this would mean rendering the Pakistani state normal. That is to say, make the Pakistani state correspond to the vision of its founder: a secular, democratic Muslim country at peace with itself and the world. This vision implies that the deep links between the Army, the intelligence agencies and the state be broken and a new Pakistan forged out of the ashes, so to speak. 

The quasi-praetorian state that has emerged from the links complemented by weak nationalism or kinship networks and the state used as an instrument of patronage, vividly demonstrated by Anatol Lieven in his book, ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’, has been the bane of Pakistan and has stood as a structural obstacle to Pakistan’s path to modernity. The nature of this state is deep and entrenched and has distorted the nature of Pakistan’s state society relations. But it is by no means impossible to dismantle. It would, however, take political will and sagacious and farsighted leadership to realize this goal. 

While attempts at top down modernity have clearly and manifestly failed in Pakistan and even the rest of the Islamic world, it is by no means a stretch to believe that an admixture of top down modernity and its bottom up rendition may lead to a salubrious and vibrant Pakistan. This would entail a new relationship between the state and society in an idiom that aligns the two. 

Aligning state society relations in Pakistan would not necessarily mean Islamization of the state. Pakistani Islam, correctly analyzed by Lieven, is not monolithic and conflicting agenda’s beset the Islamists. Most of the time, they work at cross purposes and they have no coherent programme for the country. As such, the fear or at times, the bogey, of the Pakistani state falling victim to Islamists is a non-starter. This alignment may sate the wishes of multiple constituents and stakeholders in Pakistan and help sublimate their energies towards more constructive ends.

This challenge acquires particular salience and poignancy at a time when the desire and wish for freedom and justice are permeating the Islamic world. The international community needs to understand that democracy in the Islamic world may not correspond to the classic version of liberal democracy in the west. It may mutate and morph into a form that is Islamic - with God and the Prophet at the centre of the Muslim consciousness - but with the state and the Church equidistant with each other.

The same could hold for Pakistan. Pakistan, given the nature of its formation and conceptual dynamic, will never become a liberal democratic secular country. Its democratic path will be colored by Islam and in the final scheme of things, this may not be a bad outcome. While Pakistan is not the centre of gravity of Islam, it however remains an important member of the Islamic world, and its evolution is likely to have some impact in the Islamic world. This is an important point that the US policy makers should bear in mind. While it is all well and good to insist on the linkages between the ISI and the Taliban, this is in the final analysis a minor phenomenon as compared to the larger point or dynamic made here. 

It is in the interest of both the US and Pakistan to help Pakistan evolve into a mature, self confident nation at ease with itself and the world. The time for irritants, notwithstanding their strategic import and their linkages with the US exit from Afghanistan, is not now. It behoves both the United States and Pakistan to reappraise the situation, take stock and course correct. World peace, or at the least regional peace, may depend on it.

About the author

Wajahat Qazi, a political analyst from Kashmir with an MSc in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, is particularly interested in politics and religion, political economy, culture and identity.