As there are growing signs that the United States-led war on terrorism is broadening into Pakistan and reports suggest that military operations are being carried out by the U.S. and other coalition forces on Pakistani territory, with or without the consent of the Pakistani authorities, interesting questions are being raised about Pakistan’s sovereignty. Earlier, Pakistan’s grant of four military bases to the U.S. and the increasing influence of the U.S. over national policy-making had raised growing concerns among Pakistanis. These developments have led to a dilemma regarding a clash between Pakistan’s national security policies and sovereignty.
This development has a little longer history and is self-generated. Since the end of the Cold War, the Pakistani ruling classes in search of new strategies for national security have been inadvertently undermining the sovereignty of the state itself. The structures created during the covert war against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan were redirected by the Pakistani state to achieve the objectives of national security against India: that in the absence of strategic depth, India could be contained only with an offensive strategy that kept its Army embroiled in Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, the jehadi groups became their first line of defence and India was kept militarily engaged in a proxy war without the Pakistan army getting directly involved.
But these structures both at the ideological and material level actually became a threat to the state itself. Even before September 11, many Pakistani analysts expressed concern over these ominous developments. The current ruling regime had also sensed the trajectory of these developments. The military establishment had for some time been divided over its support for the Taliban and seriously concerned about the growing sectarian violence within the country. And yet, many analysts were taken by surprise when Pervez Musharraf abandoned the Taliban, when the Americans put him on notice after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He had been trying for some time to distance himself from the Taliban and curb the powers of some of the radical Islamic groups at home. That divorce was not possible without force. His half-hearted attempts were an indication that curative and incremental methods were not an answer to the problem. He needed a pretext. September 11 provided him that pretext, support and legitimacy to carry out with force what his internal reforms were supposed to have done—restore the internal sovereignty of the state.
It is an irony that the radical Islamic groups that are supposed to be a threat to Gen. Musharraf today are a product of the Pakistani state. It was the abdication of the traditional developmental role by the corrupt and decaying state that created the space for political Islam. The strengths of religious extremism in its initial stages had come from state patronage but increasingly popular support for it grew in civil society. The radicalisation of Pakistani civil society started by Zia-ul-Haq in his efforts to gain legitimacy was continued by successive democratic regimes as well as by Gen. Musharraf for national security reasons. In the process undermining the internal sovereignty of the very state whose executive authority they wielded.
Even Gen. Musharraf, the so-called progressive, while maintaining an overtly moderate anti-fundamentalist stance for the benefit of the international community on whose doles he depended to resuscitate the asphyxiated Pakistan economy, covertly backed the jehadi groups. Before September 11, his policy was to curb Islamic powers at home while supporting them across the borders. Within Pakistan there was search for ways and means to impose restrains on the powers of the jehadi groups but at an ideological level there was also an effort to gain legitimacy for the concept of jehad. These fine distinctions are difficult to maintain and thus this policy contributed to the growing power of the Islamic groups within Pakistan.
The consequence of the state aligning itself too closely with the jehadis for its own strategic objectives was the loss of its internal sovereignty to the religious fundamentalist forces. In terms of the exercise of powers, the feudal, military-bureaucratic oligarchy still has a strong stranglehold over the state apparatus. But Islamic fundamentalist parties have acquired over the years an invisible power disproportionate to their actual following. Therefore, the rollback became essential to regain the hegemony of the state over civil society and undermine the empowerment of the clergy over civil society. The abandonment of the Taliban and subsequent pressures to crack down on the jehadi groups within Pakistan, clearly foreign and security policy debacles, were essential to restore the state’s sovereignty.
When the time for the divorce came, Gen. Musharraf could abandon the jehadis and yet not face a serious challenge because unlike Gen. Zia, he did not depend on the Islamic groups for his legitimacy. His January 12 speech was a sign that he was emboldened by the failure of Pakistan’s religious parties to mount a significant challenge to his support for the war on terrorism. The irony of Gen. Musharraf’s actions since September 11 is that he is being forced to demolish incrementally the national security edifice created by the Pakistani military, to achieve its strategic objectives in the region. The paradox here is that he is partly forced into this situation by the Americans as well as dependent on their support. While the Pakistani state is trying to restore its internal sovereignty, it is gradually losing its external sovereignty to the U.S.
Despite Gen. Musharraf’s measures, the process of restoring the internal sovereignty of the state will be difficult. Popular support is going to be the hardest obstacle in metamorphosing the Pakistani state. The political consensus among social groups that existed since the October 1999 coup, which gave Gen. Musharraf his legitimacy, has eroded tremendously. His personal pursuit of power and attempts to institutionalise the military in democratic governance will not help in rebuilding Pakistan’s failing institutions. Unless the military is marginalised in the power structure there will be no change in the progressive institutional decay. As Gen. Musharraf depoliticises Pakistani civil society in his endeavour to “introduce” democracy and as the state is perceived to be losing its external sovereignty, anti-U.S. and anti-ruling class feelings are bound to grow. It remains to be seen whether Gen. Musharraf’s turnaround on jehad is a tactical retreat only to establish hegemony over civil society or in the long term a compromise on Pakistan’s national security objectives. On one side, he can pursue a calibrated strategy, as he has been prone to, and, on the other, he has the option of redefining Pakistan’s national security. But what if the rift between the jehadis and the state agencies become irreversible? If the radical Islamists close ranks and challenge the Government’s crackdown, then Gen. Musharraf has no choice but to fight on. Perhaps a message clearly lies in the May 8 suicide attack in Karachi. From now on, a retreat can be suicidal for him but Pakistan’s self-generated dilemma will persist.
On June 1, Vanda Felbab-Brown joined the Asia Society India Centre for the discussion, “Mired in conflict: Afghanistan’s future post-U.S. exit and its impact on South Asia.”