So the Trump White House is really on the ball now. After suddenly discovering what North Korea has always been, it has done the same with Pakistan, and is trying to cover its essential ignorance by saying how unhappy it is about it.
Rex Tillerson is threatening to cut aid to Pakistan on the grounds that it is “providing safe haven for terrorist groups“. He is careful to say however that this is an ongoing problem, and that as “relations have been deteriorating for several years” the damage was done before his appointment, and is therefore beyond the ability of the present State Department to reverse. This hardly indicates a genuine resolve to counter terrorism, but given the number of terrorists the US sponsors to suit itself this is not surprising.
Pakistan doesn’t seem worried, largely because it has been hearing all this for many years. It has never been a secret that since the Soviets took over Afghanistan in 1979 various groups have found shelter in Pakistan and then managed to arm themselves against the invaders. When the Soviet withdrawal was followed by civil war many combatants again based themselves in Pakistan, as they were never sure whether their friends in Afghanistan wouldn’t become enemies the following day when the pattern of alliances changed, as it frequently did.
Pakistan was always quick to point out that its various governments have not provided direct support, with funds, arms or personnel, to any of these combatants. This may be disingenuous, as Pakistan has also failed to properly investigate a number of murders of former Afghan combatants who have renounced violence and set up shops in Pakistan, and continues to repatriate refugees to areas where fighting is taking place, thus exporting conflict as they have no alternative but to take up arms to defend themselves. But it is up to the US to prove such allegations, and it has failed to do so despite their antiquity.
The reality is that Pakistan is fast becoming just another country which has been played and used by its Western friends. Of course it harbours unsavoury people: it was sponsored to do that. It suited the West to have a bad boy in the region, who could be blamed for everything and used as an excuse, and Pakistan was happy to fulfil that role to secure its own survival in a world where states based on religious preference were frowned upon, and increasingly pressurised to become the liberal democracy Pakistan has never pretended to be.
But now the West has new bogeymen: the same ISIS it happily funds and arms and recruits for, whose oil it buys and whose smuggling routes it controls. Pakistan is small potatoes now. The West doesn’t need an implied threat to other regional countries when these monsters are prowling around, consuming everything in their path, while little Pakistan insists on trying to be a fully-fledged member of the international community and build diplomatic relations with countries like China, who can offer it more than the US can materially.
Tillerson doesn’t care about fighting the Taliban, and Trump promised during his campaign to reduce US involvement in these expensive foreign conflicts. He is telling Pakistan that it is no longer useful in the battles the US wants to wage. So what is the country actually there for? Pakistanis realise the problems answering that question will raise, and are thus protesting about the “false narrative” being presented about their country, but are finding out the hard way that there is always an unacceptable price to pay for friendship with the US, and now it is time to pay it.
From white crescent to two fingers
As is well known, India gained its independence from the UK under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. One of the key pillars of Gandhi’s approach was Hindu-Muslim unity: he maintained, in effect, that being Indian was more important than belonging to this or that group of Indians. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s All India Muslim League initially advocated the same thing, and Jinnah himself created the Lucknow Pact of 1916 which sealed this unity in the form of a demand for self-government which safeguarded Muslim rights.
The British attempted to counter this with the old tactic of splitting the opposition. Jinnah was well aware of why this was being done, but by 1947 was prepared to grant the British the partial victory of creating two new states instead of one, thus making it appear that their hypocritical complaints about “respecting the rights of Muslims” were justified.
If Jinnah’s doctor had been professionally able to tell the world that he was already dying of lung cancer partition might have been avoided. But it also served a deeper purpose. Jinnah is revered amongst Pakistanis (referred to as Quaid-e-Azam, the “Great Leader”, just like Kim Jong-un). But he is seen as the villain of the piece by the many millions who revere Gandhi, and by the British who needed to blame someone else for losing their colony.
India was thus allowed to be independent as long as it ultimately continued to play the Western game. If it didn’t, the bad guys next door would come calling, and would have to answer to the West through them.
Pakistan was always unworkable because the majority Muslim population was on opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent. East Pakistan eventually became independent as Bangladesh, following a war in which it was supported by India, and there are ongoing disputes over the ownership of Kashmir. Its rightful borders are also disputed by Afghanistan, which has never accepted the Durand Line as delineating its own sovereign territory, and much of Pakistan has never been under the control of the central government at all: the heroin-producing areas have always been run by local warlords, who like ISIS are portrayed as invincible warriors by the Westerners who derive such profit from their products.
But the Muslim state wasn’t supposed to be workable, as this would encourage it to make its own decisions. It was merely an irritant to everyone else who might think they could evade Western protection. Everything given to India was matched by support to Pakistan, including nuclear capability derived from the West , whilst it continually endured the sort of governments, civilian or military, which the West continually says it has the right to remove when it suits it.
All this was successful in stopping the spread of Communism to the subcontinent. It has not prevented India emerging as a serious economic power however, at the expense of Pakistan. But other countries take Pakistan seriously, as it has been there 70 years and has industry and exports to offer. Its neighbours are no longer scared of it, and it is seen as relatively moderate in the Muslim world – contradicting the Western narrative about the inherent violence of Islam.
The West has other bad guys it is using to threaten everyone with. It doesn’t need Pakistan when it can blow up a few hotels in India or send the Chinese in to buy everything up. The Muslim state is being left to find a new way to make itself useful. If it doesn’t, it will go the way of so many others, as it doesn’t have the resources to prevent this.
Mirage without the desert
Pakistan was founded as the Muslim Homeland in the same way Israel is the Jewish Homeland. But Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia. Any number of states are now more aligned with the Western narrative about Islam, and thus Pakistan can’t play that card internationally any more.
What other claim does it have to exist? Merely the fact that it is there. Its people are not ethnically different from millions of others who call themselves Indian or Afghan, regardless of which ethnicity they belong to within those national groups.
Nor is there a Pakistani language. It is standard practice for border agencies around the world to distinguish between Pakistani Pakhto and Afghan Pashto when assigning interpreters, but the differences between the two languages are so small the speakers of each don’t realise when a misunderstanding has occurred, and the resulting problem is ignored by those same border agencies.
Do Indian subcontinent Muslims, specifically, need a homeland? They already have them, on either side. The West helped create Bangladesh out of Pakistan, and many Pakistanis have family and fellow ethnics living there. The West also has a vested interest in making Afghanistan work, having intervened to secure this, and to keep it in moderate Muslim hands rather than let the Taliban regain power alone. Returning Pakistan to Afghanistan, which ruled it during the days of Ahmad Shah Durrani, would help achieve this objective if a diplomatic excuse could be found for doing this.
If Pakistan can’t profit from being the bad guy any more it has two choices. It could get even worse on its own account, and thus hasten its destruction in the name of “protecting the world”. Or it could be the good guy, the friend of one and all, and thus hasten its destruction because it serves no purpose. It has goods to offer, but not diplomacy. Getting into bed with Pakistan means getting involved in all its existing conflicts with India and Afghanistan and taking a position on them, which doesn’t help any of its neighbours win other friends, who are more useful in both trade and influence terms.
Therefore Pakistan is continuing to do what it has always been encouraged to do: play all sides at once, simply to keep conflicts going and prevent anyone developing their own resources. The difference now is that it is increasingly making the rules of this activity itself, seeing the West no longer needs Pakistan to do this as it once did. It decides for itself how far it wants to tolerate or help the Taliban and the other combatant groups in Afghanistan. It makes claims to Kashmir when it wants, not when the West wants it to.
Offering its people the same old Pakistan may prevent domestic revolt. It is doing precious little to help it in the rest of the world, but what other choice does it have? Even the old staple of blackmail – “We are your allies, you said we were good, so it will embarrass you if you don’t keep supporting us now” – won’t work when others are using all its old selling points more effectively, and reunification of part of the Indian subcontinent, however that is achieved, will be seen as a positive development by the international community.
Better the Devil you don’t know
Pakistan is seeking another guarantee of its legitimacy, and it is this which Tillerson is really objecting to. Long friendly with China, it is now prepared to allow Beijing to establish a naval base in the country, as a quid pro quo for being allowed to participate in the One Belt, One Road initiative , a supposedly economic scheme which looks remarkably similar to the “Road of Communist Conquest Ending in Australia” we were often warned about during Cold War times.
The idea is that if you allow another country to establish a base in yours, that country has an interest in maintaining the government and state which took this decision. It won’t want another country to take over, and possibly review this arrangement. That’s exactly how the US ended up with so many overseas bases in newly independent countries fighting for their identity, and why the US wants to stop others doing the same, having seen this work.
Pakistan doubtless expected the same benefits when it allowed the US to establish bases there from which to engage in conflict in Afghanistan. The US isn’t using Pakistan for this purpose any more because its presence there provoked anti-American riots led by radical Islamic groups, just like it did in Iran in 1979. The US remembers what happened there, and thinks the same might happen in Pakistan, and from there many other countries. It has scaled back its presence, but Pakistan has been weakened anyway by the experience, and is even less use than it was becoming already.
China needs nothing from Pakistan which it can’t get elsewhere, including a new naval base. In bilateral terms this new friendship exclusively favours China, but it blunts domestic discord because the concept of “Imperialist China” isn’t as evocative as “Imperialist America” because people haven’t had as much experience of it yet. The US would still rather destroy useless Pakistan than allow it to be useful to someone else, but at least this destruction is threatened by Imperialist non-Muslims without rather than radicals within, giving you better odds if you are the Pakistani government.
Pakistan is damned whichever way it looks because it has played the Western game, and thus expected Western protection, throughout its history. However big its army is, whatever deals it strikes, it has nowhere to go and nothing useful to do. The only question is whether other countries are prepared to fight wars over it, which is presently unlikely, or whether China will allow it to remain as a cautionary tale for those who wish to resist its own geopolitical games.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.