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Pakistan’s Failings

Inability to forge a national identity, evolve viable political culture, and reliance on foreign aid have all played their role in the current crisis engulfing Pakistan

by Khaled Ahmed

Veteran Pakistani political observer Ahmed Rashid, writing in Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, has highlighted some factors that steered the country toward a failed state—almost from its point of inception at Partition.

According to the former journalist, Pakistan came into being from a bloodbath of religious and ethnic hatred that saw millions of Muslims choose to remain in India rather than migrating. The tragic beginning immediately raised the question of Pakistan’s identity: Was it to be pluralistic, democratic country for Muslims and other religious minorities or a theocratic Islamic state? Founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah appeared to suggest he wanted Pakistan to be a secular, democratic state. “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state,” he said in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1947.

Jinnah and nature of the state

Unfortunately, before Jinnah could achieve his aims, he died just a year after Pakistan’s formation in 1948. Since then, many Pakistanis, but particularly the military, have ignored his wishes. Today, no state-funded school textbook teaches children Jinnah’s words to avoid infuriating the religious clergy. The mullahs, military, and even politicians stress the Islamic nature of the state, highlighting its creation as the result of a religious movement. “It is an established fact that Mr. Jinnah did not struggle for a secular Pakistan as it is against the basic creed and faith of a Muslim to sacrifice his life for such a secular cause. The driving force behind their tireless efforts was setting up a country where people could practice Islam as their state ideology,” said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the most influential Islamic party in the country. The Army in turn, writes Rashid, trains its men to defend Islam rather than the nation.

The outsized role of the military in Pakistan cannot be underestimated. For half of its history, Pakistan has lived under military regimes, each “reinventing” the wheel by debating whether democracy is possible in an Islamic state, and whether a parliamentary or presidential system best suits the country’s “Islamic identity.” The 1973 Constitution, which established a parliamentary system of democratic government and remains in force, has been amended several times and is now barely recognizable from its original text. Attempts by secular politicians to live by the rule of law have failed. The first free and fair elections took place in 1970—23 years after Partition.

Forging a national identity

The reliance on an Islamic identity has been encouraged by Pakistan’s inability to forge a national identity, triggering an intensification of ethnic, linguistic, and regional nationalism that has fragmented the country. The largest province, with 65 percent of the national population, is Punjab, which Rashid maintains has never accepted Pakistan as a multi-ethnic state necessitating equal political rights, greater autonomy for the smaller provinces, and a more equitable distribution of funds. A rebellion of these smaller provinces against Punjabi domination led to the rise of Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan, war, and, in 1971, the creation of Bangladesh.

Ethnic nationalism has continued to tear Pakistan apart. Four insurgencies by Baloch nationalists seeking greater autonomy (1948, 1958-1963, 1973) have been put down with brute force by the army. A fifth insurgency has been under way since 2002. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a secular Pashtun nationalist movement was suppressed in the 1970s, while in Sindh, there have been severe tensions and rivalry between local Sindhis and Muhajirs, Urdu-speaking migrants from India, since the 1980s.

Failure of political culture

The delay in conducting elections led to the failure of a political culture taking root, which in turn encouraged the army to seize power as early as 1958. Desperately weak and with few resources, the army sought U.S. support, agreeing to become an anti-Soviet prop in the cold war in exchange for military aid. In 1954, Washington had agreed to provide a military and economic aid program to Pakistan worth $105 million annually, but also decided to covertly equip four infantry divisions for the army, six fighter squadrons for the air force, and navy ships. By 1957, covert U.S. military commitment to Pakistan had grown to an astounding $500 million a year. Pakistan became a frontline bastion for the U.S. in the cold war, joining several U.S.-led regional pacts, allowing a large CIA office to be established in Karachi, and letting American U2 spy planes fly over the Soviet Union from an air base near Peshawar.

Pakistani leaders have also courted Washington to gain security guarantees against India, which remains the country’s biggest rival, the two nations having fought two wars in 1965 and 1971. After the 1971 war, which saw East Pakistan breaking off to form Bangladesh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became president, setting off the first sustained period of democratic rule by a civilian politician. This proved short-lived, as he was ousted in 1978 by the military, leading to another decade of military rule that is widely acknowledged as the key reason for the country’s slide into rightwing majoritarianism that continues to this day.

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