By: Anatol Lieven
U.S. STRATEGY toward Pakistan is focused on trying to get Islamabad to give serious help to Washington’s campaign against the Afghan Taliban. There are two rather large problems with this approach. The first is that it is never going to happen. As U.S. diplomats in Pakistan themselves recognize (and as was made ever so clear by the WikiLeaks dispatches), both Pakistani strategic calculations and the feelings of the country’s population make it impossible for Islamabad to take such a step, except in return for U.S. help against India-which Washington also cannot deliver.
The second problem is that it gets America’s real priorities in the region back to front. The war in Afghanistan is a temporary U.S. interest, in which the chief concern is not the reality of victory or defeat as such (if only because neither can be clearly defined) but preserving some appearance of success in order to avoid the damage to American military prestige that would result from obvious failure. By contrast, preserving the Pakistani state and containing the terrorist threat to the West from Pakistan is a permanent vital interest not only of the U.S. military and political establishments but of every American citizen.
And while the prospects for any sort of real success in Afghanistan look gloomy indeed, if saving Pakistan is the real priority, then things do not look so desperate, despite all the bad news from that country. This is because while getting large numbers of Pakistanis to help America is virtually impossible, getting enough Pakistanis to preserve their existing state is much easier. To a great extent, this is for negative reasons: the elites, and indeed many of the masses, have an acute sense of the horrors that would result from the country’s collapse. However, a degree of positive loyalty is also present in one key institution and in one key province: namely the military and the Punjab.
If Pakistan is to be broken as a state, it will be on the streets of Lahore and other great Punjabi cities, not in the Pashtun mountains. By the same token, the greatest potential terrorist threat to the United States and its Western allies from the region stems not from the illiterate and isolated Pashtuns but from Islamist groups based in urban Punjab, with their far-higher levels of sophistication and their international links, above all to the Pakistani diaspora in the West.
OF COURSE, the United States and some of its allies are embroiled in a war in Afghanistan, from which they have to try to extract themselves without humiliation. Inevitably, this conflict creates priorities of its own. Indeed, if the war in Afghanistan is to be America’s priority, then present U.S. concentration on the Pashtun areas of Pakistan is logical, since they are adjacent to Afghanistan, and it is there that the Taliban have their bases and from there that they draw much of their support (it is worth remembering that a majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and that cross-border ties have always been very close).
Nonetheless, it is essential that the makers of U.S. strategy also keep in mind the vital long-term interests of the United States and the safety of its citizens, interests which will remain long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan. I have been struck, both in the United States and in Britain, by the tendency of officers and officials to speak and write as if protecting the lives of troops from Taliban attack is the first duty of the U.S. and British states. In fact, it is the duty of soldiers to risk their lives to protect the civilian populations of their countries, and the only valid reason why the U.S. and British militaries are in Afghanistan at all is to protect their fellow citizens from terrorism. If that equation is reversed, and the needs of the war in Afghanistan are actually worsening the terrorist threat to the U.S. and British homelands, then our campaign there becomes not just strategically but morally ludicrous.
This statement is not intended as a standard attack either on the overweening power of the American armed forces or on the country’s “militarism.” Paradoxically, the U.S. military is not in general a militarist force in the shaping of U.S. policy, if one gives “militarist” its old connotations of aggression and warmongering. Under the last Bush administration, the military was far more cautious than many of the president’s political appointees, and military opposition reportedly played an important part in blocking a U.S. attack on Iran in the last year of Bush’s second term. Military caution is rooted in a strong and realistic sense of the limits on America’s resources and of the potentially catastrophic risks of further open-ended military commitments. The role of the armed forces in shaping and limiting a U.S. administration’s options may be questionable under the Constitution, but it is something for which we may have good reason to be grateful under a future Republican president after 2012 or 2016.
On the other hand, if the U.S. military is already in a war, it does not like to be seen to lose it. This is as it should be. No country should want its armed forces to be made up of quitters. And, of course, apart from military pride, it is of great importance to U.S. power in the world, and to the struggle against Islamist extremism, that America not be seen to leave Afghanistan in defeat. But there comes a time in many wars when victory itself becomes so elusive, and the costs of pursuing it so great, that a broader and more detached view of national interests sees that these are best served by some form of compromise. This seems to me to be becoming the case in Afghanistan; not because of the costs of the Afghan war itself, which are bearable, but because of the way in which that conflict is destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States-and the world-which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan.
THAT PAKISTAN is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the international community than Afghanistan is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics. With around 184 million people, Pakistan has nearly six times the population of Afghanistan-or Iraq-over twice the population of Iran and almost two-thirds the population of the entire Arab world put together.
A central fact tends to be missed, in part because it is a deeply uncomfortable one for Americans, with their instinctive faith in democracy and their inborn desire to be liked and respected by other nations: that (and with deep regret I can attest to this from my own numerous interviews in Pakistan) the Afghan Taliban enjoy the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis at every level of society. And so the U.S. war there-and America’s demands of Pakistani assistance-are weakening the state. The support for the Taliban is not based in their religious ideology, which is alien to most Pakistanis. It is so prevalent because, as with the anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s (who were also not admired for their extremist ideals), the Taliban are seen as a legitimate force of resistance against an alien occupation of the country.
Underlying this is a hatred of U.S. strategy-and to some extent, hatred of the United States as a whole-which, as repeated opinion surveys have indicated, is among the highest in the world. This feeling is reflected in the fact (which I can also attest to from my own experience) that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis believe that 9/11 was a CIA and/or Mossad plot intended to justify a U.S. invasion and conquest of parts of the Muslim world. That this is poisonously evil rubbish which no one with two brain cells should be able to believe isn’t the point. The point is that Pakistanis do believe it, and this belief both reflects and reinforces their hatred of America and of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. In the West, politicians and the media have attacked the Pakistani government and military for not doing enough to help us against the Afghan Taliban. The great majority of Pakistanis by contrast think that Islamabad is doing far too much.
These beliefs and sentiments are dangerous in a wider context as well, since they are wholly shared among people of Pakistani origin in the cities of Great Britain. And it is members of this minority in the UK who pose the greatest potential terrorist threat to the West from within the West. In their weakest incarnation, these anti-U.S. feelings create a willingness to make excuses for anti-Western terrorism; in their strongest, they may lead to active support and even participation in violence.
The help of the Pakistani intelligence services to Britain has been vital in identifying the links of these potential terrorists to groups in Pakistan, and to preventing more attacks on the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Islamabad therefore has been only a partial ally in the “war on terror”-but still a critical and irreplaceable one. For we need to remember that in the end, it is only legitimate Muslim governments and security services that can control terrorist plots on their soil. Western pressure may be necessary to push them in the right direction, but we need to be careful that this pressure does not become so overwhelming that it undermines or even destroys those governments by humiliating them in the eyes of their own people.
More threatening by far, however, is that these beliefs and feelings are almost certainly shared by a majority of Pakistani soldiers-who are to some extent insulated from society by military discipline and culture, but who obviously cannot be cut off from the influence of their families. The greatest potential catalyst for a collapse of the Pakistani state is not the Islamist militants themselves, who are in my view far too weak and divided to achieve this (a capacity for murderous terrorism should not be confused with a capacity for successful revolution); it is that actions by the United States will provoke a mutiny of parts of the military. Should that happen, the Pakistani state would collapse very quickly indeed, with all the disasters that this would entail.
And, of course, Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and one of the most powerful armies in Asia. Western fears have been focused on the threat that Pakistani nuclear arms (or more realistically, the materials and expertise to make a “dirty bomb”) might fall into the hands of terrorists; but a more immediate threat is that a fraying of the Pakistani military would lead to enormous quantities of conventional munitions (including antiaircraft missiles) and large numbers of trained technicians and engineers making their way into the terrorist camp. This would enormously increase the terrorist danger to the West, even if the Pakistani military as a whole held together. If the army and the state were to disintegrate completely, the consequences hardly bear thinking about.
It is essential to remember in this context that while the leadership of the Afghan Taliban has enjoyed a measure of official shelter in Pakistan (especially in northern Baluchistan and the city of Quetta, where several of them are credibly reported to be based), the Pakistani military has not actually supported the Afghan Taliban with sophisticated weapons, in the way that Pakistan, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and other countries supported the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. This is obvious from the Taliban’s lack of sophisticated weaponry and training. Indeed, even in June 2010, according to a briefing by the British military which I attended, they were still far behind the Iraqi insurgents even in the construction of improvised explosive devices.
This should serve as a stark reminder of just how much more Pakistan could do to help the Afghan Taliban (and other anti-Western groups) if the Pakistani state and military, or the relationship between Islamabad and Washington, were to completely fall apart. It is this terrifying outcome that present U.S. strategy in the region risks producing.
IF THE Pakistani army were a chiefly Pashtun army, then it might well have disintegrated already, given the strength of Taliban support among that ethnic group and the links between the Pashtuns of Pakistan and those of Afghanistan. Fortunately, the Pakistani army is mainly Punjabi, more specifically a northern Punjabi force-and throughout Pakistani history, Punjab and the army have had a deep reciprocal influence, especially in terms of that complex, ambiguous, deeply flawed, very weak but surprisingly strong sentiment: Pakistani Muslim nationalism. Indeed, Pakistani nationalism is very feeble except in the extremely powerful institution of the military and the very strong province of Punjab (or part of it) from which that institution is chiefly drawn.
With some 56 percent of Pakistan’s population, Punjab would naturally dominate the country and provide most of its soldiers. In fact though, the proportion of Punjabis in the army is around 75 percent (mainly from a few districts in the northwest of the province). Punjab’s weight within Pakistan, however, is not simply due to its domination of the military-bureaucratic establishment. The northern and some of the central districts of the province also possess almost three-quarters of Pakistan’s industry and its most productive agriculture.
This economic dynamism is due to two factors above all: the great British and Pakistani irrigation schemes of the 1880s-1950s and the impact of the Punjabi Muslim refugees who fled from Indian East Punjab in 1947. Like many migrants, the experience of being uprooted and shaken out of old patterns of life instilled in these people a new sense of economic initiative. It also fostered a deep hatred of India. This went on to fuel both the Pakistani military’s obsession with the Indian threat and mass support for the jihadist groups, which from the end of the 1980s on began to launch attacks, first in Indian Kashmir, then in the rest of India. Herein lie the origins of what the Pakistani politician and former ambassador to Washington, Syeda Abida Hussain, has called Pakistan’s “Prussian Bible Belt” in Punjab, a phrase linking the region’s strong military ties with some of its increasingly militant forms of Islam.
In Punjab, quite unlike the other provinces of the country, not only the great majority of the Punjabi establishment, but a great many ordinary Punjabis associate their provincial identity with that of Pakistan as a whole. The identities of most of Pakistan’s other nationalities are to a considerable extent shaped by their differences with the Punjabis (except for the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs whose ancestors migrated from India to Karachi and Hyderabad after 1947) and their ambiguous relationship with the Pakistani state.
Many Punjabis by contrast believe that they are the state, and if they define themselves against anybody else, it is against India. As a senior official (of Mohajir origin) in Islamabad remarked sourly, “The difficulty about writing on Punjab as a province is that they think and behave as if they are the whole damn country.” This Punjabi commitment to Pakistani nationalism has profoundly shaped the country, and is indeed responsible for Pakistan’s survival as a state.
THE OVERTHROW of the regime can never happen in peripheral areas like Waziristan, Baluchistan or even Karachi. It would have to happen in Punjab. A main reason for this: if mass Islamist unrest were to take place in the northern part of the province, the military high command would have to be very worried about its troops refusing to fight against the rebellion.
A revolution from below in Punjab, however, would have to take place not just against the national government in Islamabad but against the provincial government in Lahore. While the national government is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), headed by the Bhutto-Zardaris, and is now widely loathed across much of Punjab, the provincial government is made up of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PLM-N) run by the Sharif brothers-now in opposition at the national level. And while within Pakistan the national government is generally seen (however unfairly) as having become highly subservient to America, the Sharifs have sought with some success to portray themselves as moderate Islamists who would take a more independent line when in national power.
Whether when actually in control-which they are certain to be sooner or later-the Sharifs would do anything very different vis-à-vis America is rather unlikely. In the countryside, the PML-N depends on the same networks of “feudal” power, kinship and patronage as the PPP. These “feudals” are tightly bound to the state by the webs of political patronage (or, if you prefer, corruption) which have long formed the most important part of their income. Examining the history of powerful local families in Pakistan, again and again you discover that while kinship links and local property are important, the breakthrough to real prominence came when they were able to be elected to Parliament (or selected by a military government) and thereby gained the ability to milk the state for benefits. The collapse of Pakistan would destroy all that and throw them back on the exiguous and fragile profits of their estates and urban rents.
In the cities of northern Punjab, the PML-N is much more closely linked to the industrialist class from which the Sharifs themselves were drawn into politics by then-President of Pakistan and Chief of Army Staff General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. This class, which depends overwhelmingly on its ability to export textiles to the outside world, is also acutely aware of the shattering damage to the Pakistani economy and its own interests that would result from a collapse in relations with the United States and the imposition of trade sanctions on Pakistan.
Equally important, the industrialists, like the “feudals,” are by their very nature an antirevolutionary force, fearful of the threat to their wealth and power from Islamist revolution. Both classes are also attached to Pakistan as a state by strong motives of collective interest. The industrialists depend on the existence of Pakistan for their very well-being. If the country were to fall apart, their industries would be ruined.
Indeed, an Islamist revolution and the collapse of Pakistan are synonymous. This is a crucially important point, both because it is true and because enough Pakistanis know that it is true. This means an Islamist revolt that overthrows the existing state is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely-and only feasible if accompanied by a mutiny within the military. And it is simply impossible that such an uprising could lead to the establishment of an effective and united Islamist radical government, whether of the Iranian or the Taliban variety. Pakistan is too weak for the first and too strong for the second.
In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement was able to seize control of a relatively powerful state apparatus and, equally important, to fuse religious ideology with extremely strong and popular traditions of Iranian nationalism. Pakistan as a whole possesses no such nationalism, and while Punjab and the military have held the country together, they have never been remotely powerful enough to impose Pakistani nationalism on the very different traditions of the other provinces. On the other hand, Pakistan is a much more developed and complicated country than Afghanistan, which the Taliban were able to conquer in the years after 1994, albeit in the teeth of strong resistance from the non-Pashtun ethnicities.
If the Pakistani state collapsed, the result would be not successful national revolution but a whole set of horrible local ethnic wars, in which much of the country would quickly be reduced from its present just-about-bearable level of existence to that of Somalia or the Congo. Once the current regime fell, it would be impossible to put it back together again because India would almost certainly make it its business to prevent Pakistan’s reconstitution by supporting local ethnic groups in their struggle for continued independence.
Deeply unpleasant though the choice is, the United States may have to accept a tactical setback in Afghanistan rather than risk strategic defeat in Pakistan. For if the picture drawn here is correct, then U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.
AMERICAN AND British soldiers are dying in order to avoid the costs of failure: the negative effect this would have on America’s prestige in the world, on the reputation and morale of the U.S. and UK armed forces, and on the confidence of our extremist enemies. So, a humiliating scuttle from Afghanistan is not at all desirable. How to square this miserable and tragic circle?
A new U.S. strategy must recognize that it is essential to ease the pressure on Pakistan, above all by reducing those factors which are increasing radicalization in the country and weakening the status and strength of the Pakistani state and army. This should lead to a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan-as soon as possible. At present, Washington’s intention is to pull most ground troops out once the Afghan security forces are capable of fighting on their own, but to leave major U.S. air bases and Special Forces in country to support them.
This is badly mistaken, from three points of view. First, as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership will continue to fight. They have stated that again and again, and the view of both sympathizers and experts is that they could not abandon that stance without absolutely unacceptable disgrace. And as long as they continue to fight, Afghans and Pakistanis will be willing to join them. It should be remembered that the Soviets withdrew completely from Afghanistan in 1989-and by reducing the nationalist element of support for the mujahideen, they actually strengthened the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. If American forces remain, then the government in Kabul will inevitably go on being seen as a U.S. puppet. The war in Afghanistan might be diminished, but it will continue indefinitely, and so-much more importantly-will the destabilization of Pakistan. To reduce Pakistani mass fear and hatred of the United States, it is essential that America be seen clearly to take a step back from its presence on the ground in a Muslim country and region.
Second, the continued presence of U.S. bases will make it far more difficult for Washington to develop what should be its core strategy in the region: handing responsibility for guaranteeing Afghanistan’s security to the major regional states. In particular, China, which on the one hand fears the Taliban but on the other is very close to Pakistan, may prove crucial in the long term to forging a regional consensus on this issue. Nothing of the sort can emerge, however, as long as these states can leave Afghan security to America, while fearing that Washington’s real motive for keeping bases is not to fight the Taliban but to build up U.S. regional power.
Finally, to retain a military presence in Afghanistan will mean continual embroilment in Afghan politics-and the general future outline of this seems rather clear. If the United States continues its present strategy of building up the Afghan National Army while the state and the political systems remain weak and dysfunctional, then sooner or later the military will seize power. Yet, Afghanistan’s deep ethnic, political and regional differences would likely lead not to more effective government but to new clashes and further coups and countercoups. If U.S. troops are present in Afghanistan, then Washington will be drawn into these new conflicts as referee, participant or both-and will thereby confirm every belief in Muslim minds about America’s desire to dominate and weaken the Muslim world.
The U.S. strategy should therefore be to continue the present offensive and efforts to buy up local Taliban commanders, while at the same time seeking initial contacts with the Taliban leadership using Pakistan as an intermediary. In other words, the purpose of the offensive should not be victory but a more advantageous deal with the insurgents. The basic terms of this should be Taliban control of the south of the country, continued development aid to this region and some participation in central government in return for the exclusion of al-Qaeda, a crackdown on the heroin trade and recognition of the Afghan national government. If successful, such a deal would surely involve a measure of humiliation for the United States, but would also have certain real advantages.
Above all, however, the removal of the hated American presence, and the end of U.S. attacks inside Pakistan, would greatly diminish impulses to radicalize in that country, especially if the United States can help develop that state economically (admittedly a horribly difficult process, especially under the present Pakistani government).
It is the possible collapse of Pakistan, not the outcome of the present war in Afghanistan, which is the really terrible threat to America and its allies from this part of the Muslim world.