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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pakistan: Divining a Way
By Firdaus Ahmed

Washington Post staff writers, Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung, inform ‘U.S. efforts fail to convince Pakistan's top general to target Taliban’ (31 Dec 2010). They write that, ‘In October, administration officials choreographed a White House meeting for Kayani at which Obama could directly deliver his message of urgency. The army chief heard him out, then provided a 13-page document updating Pakistan's strategic perspective and noting the gap between short-term U.S. concerns and Pakistan's long-term interests, according to U.S. officials.’ Since the document’s contents are privileged information, they can at best be surmised. The article attempts this and suggests what is unlikely to have figured in that document.

Strategy is usually thought of as being externally focused. However, there is a considerable role of internal factors, particularly in regimes politically beset. Strategy or prioritization of ‘ends, ways, means’ choices is not necessarily a rational exercise to meet external and internal ‘threats’. Strategic theory has it that strategic elites deploy strategy to also preserve their dominance in internal power structures. In the process, and secondarily, if external strategic ends are met then that would be ‘successful’ strategy. In short, strategy’s external dimension is at best a rationalization, utilizing the dominant understanding of strategy for plausibility. This is the case with regimes of uncertain legitimacy. Pakistan provides the best case study for this.

It is very likely the strategy paper Kayani handed Obama has the rationalization. The paper perhaps reflects Kayani’s earlier utterances on the India-centricity of Pakistan and its Army. It may explicate why Pakistan cannot act against the Taliban due to reasons of lack of public support and of troops. Troops are apparently required to dissuade India from ‘Cold Start’. Pakistan’s internal security and political stability being uncertain, Pakistan cannot open another front and hope to win. While US support would be behind Pakistan in any such action, the support itself could prove a liability by making the Islamist counter more potent.

The mysterious strategy paper, equally likely, is unlikely to have dwelt on the internal political angle. The strategy document, meant for US eyes, can be expected to present Pakistan’s Army as the ‘last bastion’. This way continuing largesse can be ensured, even if it comes with greater strictures and supervision of its use. Pakistan Army can then remain at the apex. This would be unacknowledged, not for reasons of deception, as much as Kayani himself being unconscious to the internal compulsions behind strategy.

Understanding Pakistan is seemingly easy. The Pakistan Army wants to remain atop the power structure and therefore has manufacture the Indian ‘bogey’ and is milking the threat of an Islamist take over of a nuclear armed state for its corporate purposes. This explanation hides a more disturbing reality, brought to foreground by two assassinations – one of Mohtarma Bhutto earlier and of Punjab’s Governor, Salman Taseer, now.

The less visible but more significant dimension of internal politics in Pakistan is dominance of an elite with a narrow feudal base. It has in its ranks the higher echelons of bureaucracy and the industrial elite. It has, through the medium of promotions into the elite nucleus of the Pakistan Army, coopted the brass. The privileges that this brings generals, makes the Pakistan Army protective of the power structure. The discourse on Pakistan, in its concentration on praetorianism of its Army, misses the fact that this is consequence of the very social structure of Pakistan. The assassinations have done more to reveal the elite-mass divide than social science.

The assumption that changing the Army’s hold on power would be adequate may prove wrong. The deeper social structure, rather than merely the ‘deep state’, requires change. The elite, both unwilling to forego its advantages and, equally, not knowing how to do so without upheaval, has only the security template as answer to the Islamist challenge.

This has reluctant support of apprehensive allies, interested more in stability than uncertainties of social transformation. They prefer the route of democratization, of expanding middle classes through increased education and economic opportunity. The program, being long term, amounts to slow suicide for the elites. It is no wonder then that it has not found any takers, with elites manipulating external support for own ends. The result is that masses are left with little political recourse than weigh on the side of a political opposition carrying the ‘Islamic’ mantle.

Since elites will not, and if past record is guide, cannot, be the vehicle of change, a ‘strong man’ could prove useful. The problem is with the Musharraf episode proving that there is no guarantee of a Kemal Pasha. External (read ‘Western’) support can only be provocative, mistaken for self-interested manipulation, making for a more energetic backlash. From Tunisia through Egypt to Central Asia, authoritarian regimes are in place, leaving little chance for a democratic opposition to substitute for the Islamist opposition. The Algerian case of the early nineties and Palestinian experiment last decade indicate that democracy will in the short term at least yield up Islamist parties. However, not accommodating to the change leaves the authoritarian regime in place and an armed Islamist opposition. It is arguable that the regime of Ayatullahs has not necessarily been worse than that of the Shah.

While Pakistan is not an authoritarian state in the same mould as the others to its west and north, it is poised on the cross hairs of Islamism. In case it succumbs to its ‘internal contradictions’, engagement rather than counter-revolution or containment is the answer.

However, at a minimum, Pakistan must persist along the long, hard route. And its supporters must not push it into a civil war. Prospects of this are not entirely dim. The US is supporting long term change in terms of funding civilian side, as the Kerry-Lugar bill suggests. General Petraeus is not insisting that Pakistan army carry out operations that could lead to destabilization through a vertical divide in the society and the military. He is instead relying on drone attacks in Pakistan and special forces operations in Afghanistan. What Pakistan needs is to remain on even keel. The Kayani strategy, handed over to Obama, seems to suggest that Pakistan may yet pull through. If its record on the precipice of ‘failed state’ status is any indicator, it may yet manage to evade the status.

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