When crisis is the identity

What started as an identity crisis has culminated with Pakistan’s only identity being a jihadist crisis

As we inch closer to the end of combat operations in 2013 by the United States troops in Afghanistan followed by their withdrawal in 2014, anxiety within Afghanistan and the region is palpable. As the US and its allies rush for the exit, the Afghans and the regional powers are scrambling to make sense of not just what the post 2014 era would look like but also what exactly went wrong in the region, over the last decade.

One thing that no one is willing to say out loud is that a modest-sized regional power has all but outmaneuvered and outwitted an international military and diplomatic coalition in Afghanistan. Pakistan appears set to have stared down the US in Afghanistan and that too on the US dime for the most part. Apparently the Pakistani policy of coming to the negotiating table with a nuclear suicide vest strapped on has paid off. No one in the US, the region, or the world for that matter has been willing to call this nuclear bluff. The twin gimmicks of using foreign money and domestic jihadists to pursue its foreign, and domestic policies have been perfected by Pakistan since its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah sought to milk the US and also let the jihadist irregulars loose in Kashmir.

Margaret Bourke-White notes in Halfway to freedom: A report on the New India:
“(Mr. Jinnah said) America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. Pakistan is the pivot of the world, as we are placed— he revolved his long forefinger in bony circles— the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.” He leaned toward me, dropping his voice to a confidential note. ”Russia,” confided Mr. Jinnah “is not very far away”…“America is now awakened,” he said with a satisfied smile. Since the US was now bolstering up Greece and Turkey, she should be more interested in pouring money and arms into Pakistan.”


 The nascent Pakistan, which was to eventually evolve into a full-blown rentier state based on its founder’s formula, faced not just a fiscal crisis but that of a national identity too. Two geographical wings with highly diverse ethnic and linguistic populations with strong centrifugal tendencies/ movements in three out of the then five federating units created a sense of panic. Like the USSR, this multi-ethnic state and its junta desperately needed the cement that would not just hold the various nationalities in the two wings together but also legitimise and consolidate the newly ascendant military’s controlling position. While the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had a working ideology that was to become the supra-ethnic gel, the Pakistani brass was in search of one.

During the movement for Pakistan, the Shia and Barelvi Sunni Islamic clergy had been co-opted by the All India Muslim League, culminating in the 1946 entry, en mass, of Pirs and Mashaikh into its fold. In the post-independence period, the Pakistani state also started to enlist as its client the Deobandi and neo-Deobandi Islamic puritan outfits like Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI) and the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), respectively. A conscious decision to make Pakistan an Islamic ‘ideological’ state as against a pluralist nation-state championed by politicians like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (Political Stability and Democracy in Pakistan) had been made within the formative years, only to be codified later by the military ruler General Ayub Khan (Pakistan Perspective). The supra-ethnic Pakistani identity was to be Islamic in ideology, militarily oriented against India and the economic model being a quasi-market economy literally financed by the US aid.

The early enrollment of the fundamentalist clergy provided the praetorian state with a robust tool to agitate against the liberal media and politicians. The newspapers were first censored and when that failed, the leftist publishing group Progressive Papers Limited (PPL) was taken over at gunpoint. Censorship was applied from the top and from the street via the clergy-orchestrated agitation. The anti-Ahmadi agitation of the 1950s was to serve as the template for the establishment-commissioned mass hysteria, that was repeated as need against political opponents like ZA Bhutto or as the scarecrow against the US and NATO. While the relationship was symbiotic, it was the state and then especially the army that commissioned Islam and the clergy, not the other way round. The permissiveness of the Deobandi and later Salafist (in case of Lashkar-e-Taiba) thought in allowing individuals, not just the state, to wage violent jihad was one reason Pakistani state chose them over other Islamic sects for use across both its borders. Long before al-Qaeda came along it was the Pakistani security establishment which was launching individual transnational jihadists first into India and then into Afghanistan. In a way, the queen bee of the world jihadism was Rawalpindi not Riyadh.

The main question is, how could Pakistan do this for so long? More importantly, will it mend its ways? The answer to the first part is complex and involves the geopolitical jackpots that Pakistan hit with the Soviet incursion to Afghanistan, the 9/11, the top brass’ “shrewd recklessness” and the simple fact that the world let it get away with it. Almost like a parent, who on occasion ignores or worse, finances an offspring’s drug habit, the world has let Pakistan remain hooked on its jihadism and at times even paid for it. The answer to the second part lies in specifically addressing this issue.  If the Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan through the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hizb-e-Islami (Hikmatyar) and the continued domestic patronage of terrorist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and LeT aka Jamat-ud-Dawah (JuD) is anything to go by, Pakistan is not about to check itself into a rehab program. In fact, the SSP and JuD are Pakistani state’s replacement for the JUI and JI respectively, which had become too decadent and lazy to be ‘revolutionary’.

What started as an identity crisis has culminated with Pakistan’s only identity being a jihadist crisis.  Whether the international community confronts and/or convinces it to enter a rehab program or continues to reward the bad behavior remains to be seen.

Photo: Matthew Good