The Pressures on Pakistan

by Anatol Lieven

South Asia 37 mins read


The survival of Pakistan in its existing form is a vital U.S. security interest, one that trumps all  other American interests in the country. A collapse of Pakistan — into internal anarchy or an  Islamist revolution — would cripple the global campaign against Islamist terrorism.  Strengthening the Pakistani state and cementing its cooperation with the West have thus become  immensely important to Washington.

So far, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appears firmly committed to the U.S.-led coalition,  and he seems to have the solid support of his military high command. In the short term, the  defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan will strengthen Musharraf’s domestic position. Most of the  causes of Pakistan’s decline over the last few decades, however, remain in place and have not  been changed by the war against terrorism. If these serious flaws in Pakistan’s governance  remain unaddressed, the country will sooner or later slip into a profound state of crisis. Even in  the shorter term, growing unrest as a result of economic crisis could well prompt Musharraf’s  military colleagues to shunt him aside in favor of a civilian government less supportive of the  United States. Musharraf’s power depends very much on the will of the military, and if faced  with its disapproval it is unlikely he would stay in office very long. 

Were a replacement government to pursue a pragmatic but more moderate course — somewhere  between absolute support for Washington and outright hostility to it — it would not pose a dire  threat to the U.S. antiterror campaign. Limited numbers of Pakistani tribal and religious  volunteers slipping over the border will not revive the Taliban. Outright support for the Taliban  from a radicalized Pakistani state, however, could do just that. 

To avoid Musharraf’s fall, Washington has already begun to deliver a significant flow of  economic aid, some of which was blocked after Pakistan tested its first atomic weapons in 1998.  A limited resumption of military assistance may also be forthcoming. To keep Musharraf in  power during a global economic recession, however, more will be needed; the money given so  far has not made up for the negative economic consequences Pakistan has suffered from the war  in Afghanistan. Musharraf has promised his people that they will reap rewards from siding with  the United States. But up until this point, such claims have been met with widespread public  skepticism, based on partly accurate — if exaggerated — perceptions that the United States has  broken its promises in the past. Washington has yet not done enough to prove that this time will  be different.


The United States also does not seem to fully appreciate the centrality of India in Pakistani  thinking about the current crisis. Strong popular support for the Taliban was present only in  Pashtun areas of Pakistan, closely linked to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. But Pakistan is  dominated by its Punjab province, and it is Punjabis, not Pashtuns, who have always decided the  fate of the country’s regimes. Punjabis account for 63 percent of Pakistan’s population and an  even higher proportion of the army, the officer corps, and the administrative elite. Pashtuns,  meanwhile, make up only 10 percent of the population. 

Relatively few of Pakistan’s Punjabis — many of whose parents fled India as refugees during the  dreadful communal massacres that attended partition in 1947 — seem to share the pro-Taliban  attitudes of their Pashtun neighbors. In October 2001, for example, when Pakistan’s ethnically  Pashtun regions saw serious demonstrations against the Musharraf government, the mood in  most of neighboring northern Punjab remained relatively calm. People there may have been  unhappy with the U.S. air campaign, but they never came close to taking up arms. 

Similarly, Pakistan’s long-standing policy of seeking an allied or client state in Afghanistan has  never been driven mainly by affinity for the Taliban. Rather, Pakistan’s chief motivation has  been the fear of strategic encirclement by India (which could occur if a pro- Indian regime took  power in Kabul) and the wish to achieve strategic depth against India. Musharraf has sold his  support for the current U.S. war effort to his fellow citizens by convincing them it is the best way  to avoid the formation of a hostile alliance between Washington and New Delhi. And most of the  population seems to agree; in an October Gallup poll, 56 percent of Pakistanis declared their  support for Musharraf’s strategy, even while 83 percent expressed opposition to the U.S.  campaign. 

To preserve this delicate balance within Pakistan, the United States will have to avoid tilting one  way or the other in its relations with the subcontinent. Within Pakistan, the army will have to be  treated once again as the United States’ key working partner. The army is Pakistan’s only  effective modern institution and the backbone of the Pakistani state. It is largely thanks to the  army’s discipline and unity that Musharraf has been able to keep protest against the U.S.  campaign within bounds. Maintaining a military focused on Pakistan’s core national interests,  therefore, remains the best way to save the country from being caught up in international  revolutionary Islamist delirium.


The threat that Pakistan might one day succumb to an Islamist revolution or dissolve into chaos  stems less from the strength of its Islamists than from the weakness of their opponents. Together,  Pakistan’s Islamist parties have never garnered as much as six percent of the vote in a general  election. They remain deeply divided by personal allegiances, political opportunism, regional  origins, and doctrinal differences. Still, the Islamists have managed to exert a political and  ideological influence in excess of their numbers, largely because, absent Islam, Pakistan has little  else in ideological terms to keep the country together. 

The smaller of Pakistan’s two Islamist parties, the Jamiat-ul- Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), has taken the  lead in fomenting violence against the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. The JUI is not only more  radical than the larger Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, but is also based among the Pashtun of the Northwest Frontier Province and northern Baluchistan, who have strong links to their  brethren in Afghanistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other hand, draws its main strength from  Punjab and from the mohajirs (migrants from India) of Karachi. Although the Jamaat-e-Islami  has joined in recent anti- American agitation, it remains less a true revolutionary force than a  dissident Islamist part of the Pakistani establishment. 

In recent years, the most menacing development related to the Islamists has been not shifts in  electoral politics but rather the growth of Taliban-linked radical armed groups within Pakistan.  The Pakistani army has actively helped some of these groups by providing them with training  camps and weapons, so as to strengthen their cadres fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir. But  such groups have had a destabilizing effect within Pakistan itself. One organization in particular,  the Sipah-e-Sahaba, has launched a vicious terrorist campaign against Pakistan’s Shi`a minority,  killing more than 3,600 people over the last decade. And the largest international group fighting  against Indian control of Kashmir, the Jaish-e-Muhammadi, has been officially named a terrorist  organization by the United States. 

Fortunately, the Jaish-e-Muhammadi may soon become the object of an army crackdown. In a  similar vein, although Islamabad’s attempts to gain greater control over Pakistan’s radical  madrassas (Islamic schools) made little progress before September 11, efforts are now being  intensified. These include imposing a broad, modern curriculum on the schools, registering all of  their foreign students, and forcing them to cut their ties with militant training camps. Washington  should keep the pressure on to ensure that Islamabad follows through on these efforts; the  madrassas have become training grounds for radical groups all over the Muslim world, and their  graduates have caused mayhem in Pakistan itself as well as staffed the Taliban. 

If Pakistan were to fall prey to radical Islamists, the blame would lie heavily on the country’s  secular and mildly Islamic political parties, which have dominated the country for the past 30  years. These parties have failed lamentably to develop Pakistan or improve the living conditions  of its people, thus making the radical option seem all the more attractive. One governing  politician after another has turned out to be incompetent, nepotistic, and corrupt. And when it  comes to government-sponsored human rights abuses, even Musharraf’s authoritarian regime has  been a good deal less dictatorial than several of the civilian governments that preceded it. 

The 1990s were a particularly depressing period for Pakistan in political terms. During that  decade, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party alternated turns in office with Nawaz Sharif’s  Muslim League, each forming a government twice. And both Bhutto and Sharif were ultimately  ousted after their regimes fell into a welter of corruption, incompetence, oppression, and  infighting. By contrast, the policies Musharraf has pursued since coming to power in 1999 have  been generally progressive — even, surprisingly, when it comes to freedom of the press, which  suffered considerable restriction under Sharif. Musharraf comes from a progressive family; his  mother worked for the International Labor Organization. Possibly for this reason, his government  has proved one of the most positive in Pakistan’s history as far as women’s rights are concerned – – introducing, for example, a new rule reserving 33 percent of local council seats for women. 

Given the poor record of recent elected governments, Musharraf’s openly expressed disdain for  his country’s politicians is understandable — as is his refusal to give them a place in his  government. Nonetheless, his exclusion of political parties is a mistake, and Washington should gently nudge him to change his approach. Because of the Punjabi domination of the army,  military rule increases discontent in Pakistan’s other provinces. And such unrest could soon  become a serious problem for Musharraf, since many Pashtuns of the Northwest Frontier  Province are already infuriated by the Afghan war. Pakistan’s politicians, whatever their faults,  retain great influence in their home districts, and Musharraf needs to use that support as a buffer  against mass discontent. 

To ensure that support, however, Musharraf needs to give Pakistan’s mainstream politicians a  share of government patronage. After all, Pakistani politics run on a mixture of such patronage  and kinship. Without perks and government funds to distribute, politicians’ influence in their  home districts may crumble — particularly given public unhappiness with the record of past  civilian regimes. 

One good sign is that Musharraf has already announced his intention to hold national elections in  October 2002. The general appears ready to allow politicians to form the government, while he  stays on as president and supervises governance through the Council for Defense and National  Security — rather after the fashion of the Turkish military. Much can happen between now and  October, however. If, in the meantime, Pakistan’s economy deteriorates and the government fails  to rally political support and strengthen the mainstream parties, the Islamists might finally  become a serious force at the polls. Were this to occur, the military would then face an acutely  dangerous choice between canceling the elections and allowing the possibility of a massive  hostile vote. 

Meanwhile, the precarious state of the economy makes that danger even more acute. Annual  GDP growth in the 1990s averaged only 4 percent — not nearly high enough above the  population growth rate of around 2.5 percent to produce real improvements in living standards.  To make matters worse, in the same period India’s annual growth rate averaged 5.6 percent.  Now, with a global economic downturn, probable political chaos next door, and the necessary  austerity measures all at hand, improving Pakistanis’ lives is going to be even more difficult — if  not impossible. Indeed, Pakistan will be lucky if it can avoid further serious economic  deterioration in the coming years. If, after the failure of the civilian parties, the army regime also  fails to improve conditions, the Islamists may come to look like the last ones standing. Policies  ostensibly based on the Koran and the shari`a may emerge by default, the only options not  already tried and failed.


Pakistan’s most successful period, at least in economic terms, was the reign of General Ayub  Khan from 1958 to 1969. By contrast, its most disastrous time came during the civilian rule of  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto. During this period in the 1970s, Bhutto’s  socialist-inspired nationalization of various industries nullified much of the country’s previous  gains. The military regime that followed, however — that of General Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq,  who ruled from 1977 to 1988 — was little better. Zia squandered the most favorable economic  circumstances Pakistan has ever enjoyed: the oil boom, which at its height produced some $25  billion in remittances from Pakistanis working in the Persian Gulf states; and the Soviet  occupation of Afghanistan, during which U.S. and other Western aid brought in billions more.

Over the years, Pakistan’s military has been responsible for diverting a huge proportion of the  country’s resources to support itself. The military has always argued that such huge subsidies are  essential for defense against India. But this massive spending has left disastrously little for  infrastructure, education, and other fundamentals of economic development. Over the past ten  years, military spending has averaged more than 30 percent of the budget, and most of the rest  has been spent on debt servicing. 

Two other causes often cited for Pakistan’s repeated economic failures over the past 20 years are  “feudalism” and corruption. Neither is an adequate explanation, however, and both are  misleading. The prominence of hereditary landowners in Pakistani politics is striking, especially  when compared with the way the middle classes and wealthy peasants dominate politics in India  and Bangladesh. Pakistan’s “nobles” (only some of whom hold formal titles) owe their influence  partly to their wealth but also, and more importantly, to their positions as leaders of tribes, clans,  families, or hereditary religious organizations. Although this “feudal” elite is drawn from a much  narrower range of families than are the political classes of northern India, it functions politically  in much the same way, protecting followers through physical force or by influencing the civil  service, the police, and the judiciary. 

Over the past 20 years, the effect of the violent traditions in this society has been intensified by  the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Automatic weapons have become readily  available, heroin smuggling has increased, and armed radical Islamist militias have grown  drastically. In this environment, political and even business figures have had to provide physical  protection to their supporters, encouraging the feudalization of what might otherwise have been a  relatively progressive urban capitalist class. 

In both Pakistan and much of India, it is the overwhelming supremacy of loyalty to blood over  trust in the state or the law that lies at the root of corruption and a host of other social ills.  Kinship links are the fundamental building block of society and thus cannot help but dominate  politics as well. In such a social and political environment, modernization is devilishly difficult.  But without progressive reforms, the power of the Islamists will almost certainly grow in the  long term, despite the defeat they have suffered in Afghanistan.


Both of Pakistan’s Islamist parties are now seeking to extend their influence over the military.  The Jamaat-e-Islami hopes to inspire a traditional, orderly military coup by a collective of the top  generals. The JUI, on the other hand, appears to be taking the more radical course of fomenting  mutiny in the lower ranks. 

A coup from the top, if it were only partially inspired by Islamists, would not necessarily pose a  dire threat to U.S. interests. By contrast, a mutiny from below would pose appalling risks,  especially pertaining to control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Even a radical regime would be  unlikely to ensure its own annihilation by using such weapons, but the danger of nuclear material  finding its way into the hands of terrorists would become very great indeed. 

Fortunately, the risk of Islamist rebellion within the army, although real, is very far from  imminent. Pakistan’s military remains highly disciplined and obedient, content with its privileges and prestige. The army’s stability has three roots. The first is the enormous proportion of  Pakistan’s resources that the military is allowed to consume. These resources come not just from  budgetary expenditures, but also in the form of state-owned land and property that has been  transferred over the years to the army’s Fauji Foundation. The foundation is the biggest  corporation in the country and generates profits of around $30 million a year. It serves, among  other things, as a financial support mechanism for retired soldiers. 

The other explanations for the army’s loyalty are the warrior traditions of northern Pakistan and  the modern frame given these traditions by the British Indian army, from which the Pakistani  military is descended. The army maintained its British officer culture until the early 1970s, but  this ethos could not endure forever in a service drawn from a poor Muslim country. Some form  of Islamization of the army, including its upper ranks, was inevitable. And that Islamization was  further encouraged when, starting in 1990, the U.S. military broke off its training and  consultation programs in response to Pakistan’s attempt to build a nuclear weapon. These  American programs should now be resumed as a matter of urgency. 

It remains unclear how far the Islamization of the military has translated into support for the  Taliban, terrorism, or radical anti- Americanism. The role that the army, and specifically the  Inter- Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), played in helping build up the Taliban is now a  matter of record. So too is the way in which the army has helped extremist groups fighting in Kashmir. On the other hand, the Musharraf regime and the military high command had been  growing increasingly exasperated with the Taliban for at least a year before September 11. A key  moment occurred in March 2001, when the Taliban destroyed several huge, pre-Islamic statues  in defiance of a direct personal appeal from Musharraf. One official exploded, “Friendly Afghan  regime? What friendly Afghan regime? They never listened to a word we said!” 

Much of the army, like most of society, had some sympathy for the Taliban as it faced the might  of the United States. This sympathy did not mean, however, that the military was ever prepared  to commit national suicide for the Taliban’s sake. Furthermore, of all the ISI chiefs over the past decade, only one, Lieutenant General Javed Nasir, can fairly be described as a radical Islamist.  Some of the others have had certain leanings in this direction, but their Afghan strategy was  chiefly dictated by their perception — mistaken and exaggerated as it may have been — of  Pakistan’s strategic interests, of the anti-Pakistani attitudes of the Northern Alliance, and of the  hostile intentions of India and Russia.


Pakistan’s central preoccupation, as far as the army is concerned, remains not Afghanistan but  Kashmir. Pakistan’s struggle with India over control of Kashmir began within weeks of the two  nations’ independence in August 1947. Over the decades since, the battle over this province has  become a key part of Pakistan’s army, and even its state, ideology. 

The conflict reached a new peak in the winter of 1998-99, when Sharif was prime minister and  Musharraf his army chief of staff. Pakistan launched a militarily brilliant but politically reckless  operation in Kashmir, helping militants (possibly including Pakistani troops, and certainly  backed by Pakistani artillery and logistics support) occupy heights on the Indian side of the de  facto border near Kargil, overlooking the main Indian line of communication. The Pakistani-backed fighters held their own against Indian counterattacks, but Pakistan was eventually forced  to withdraw under heavy pressure from the international community, led by the United States. 

The result of this diplomatic debacle was that, even before September 11, the Pakistani military  and civilian elite had begun to moderate their attitudes on Kashmir. This new attitude was soon  displayed in a new openness to bilateral talks with India. The Pakistani elite also seems finally to  have woken up to the domestic threat created by all the radical mujahideen the country has  supported. Sartaj Aziz, a former foreign and finance minister, explained recently, “For every ten  [militants] who are trained here to fight in Kashmir, one goes and the rest stay in Pakistan to  cause trouble.” And retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood observed, “Thanks to the U.S.  antiterrorism campaign, the mujahideen fighting in Kashmir will have to be reined in. The state  has to have a monopoly of armed force. Above all, our possession of nuclear weapons makes this  essential, because if there is internal instability here, there will be attempts at intense  international scrutiny of us.” 

Not that resolving the Kashmir issue will be easy. India will not give up its possession of most of  the province under any terms. Pakistan’s long-running insistence, therefore, that India comply  with U.N. resolutions calling for a referendum on independence in Kashmir is a non-starter. Only  when Pakistan accepts some degree of Indian sovereignty will it become possible to work toward  a settlement involving partial demilitarization, open borders, and the restoration of partial  autonomy to Indian Kashmir. A settlement might also encompass some territorial adjustments  between the two Kashmirs and, as in Northern Ireland, new cross-border institutions embracing  both territories. But as part of this process, Pakistan would have to stop giving military help to  the Kashmiri insurgents. 

None of this will happen, however, if Pakistan is expected to make the first move alone. India  too has to make important concessions for a peace process to begin. These sacrifices should  include recognition of the international community’s role in seeking a settlement and of the  centrality of Kashmir to the Indo-Pakistani relationship. India will also have to address the  legitimate grievances of Kashmir’s Muslims, their fear of the Indian security services, and their  frustration at New Delhi’s unconstitutional meddling in local affairs. Although U.S. leverage  over India is slight, the United States should try to encourage this process. 

After all, as long as the contest over Kashmir continues, it will remain a draw for radical  mujahideen from throughout the Muslim world and will encourage groups within Pakistan to  give them support and shelter. Islamist terrorists also know that the best way to encourage  revolution in Pakistan is to provoke New Delhi or Indian Hindus into savage repression of India’s  Muslim minority. The war between India and Pakistan that might ensue would radicalize  Pakistani Muslim feeling — especially if India were seen as being backed by the United States.  Such a war also would entail the horrendous risk of a nuclear exchange between the two  countries. 

The United States cannot now hope to limit this risk by ridding the subcontinent of nuclear  weapons. One reason neither India nor Pakistan will give up such assets is the fundamental lack  of symmetry between the two countries. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is that country’s key deterrent  against India. It plays the same role as did Western nuclear forces during the Cold War: it deters  a potential adversary with a heavy superiority in conventional forces. India’s development of nuclear weapons, by contrast, was not focused solely on Pakistan. Rather, India was as or more  concerned about its rivalry with China, its own desire to be seen as China’s equal in Asia, and its  aspirations to become a great power on the world stage. 

The nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, then, will not be easy to eliminate. It could,  however, be contained and made less dangerous — especially if the United States would make the  right moves on Kashmir. Doing so would also help reduce the devastating economic impact the  continued conflict has had on both countries, especially the much weaker Pakistan. Maintaining  a military rivalry with a country that has a population seven times larger than its own is steadily  bankrupting Pakistan. In the 1990s, India spent around two percent of its GDP annually on its  military. Pakistan spent five percent of its GDP, which is one-eighth the size of India’s, on a  military less than half the size of its rival’s. 

With no money left over for investment in infrastructure, Pakistan is unable to do much to  promote its economic growth. Nor can it afford to improve the deep inadequacies in its state  education system. Such inadequacies encourage the country’s poor to turn toward radical  madrassas, since these do not demand fees and provide free food and clothing. The military  rivalry with India, in short, has become a key factor pushing Pakistan toward long-term  disintegration. And radical Islamists are waiting to pick up the pieces. 

In the long term, only serious economic growth and the development of accountable political  parties will stabilize Pakistan and end this threat. In the short-to-medium term, however, the  army remains the best bulwark against chaos and revolution. It is on the army, therefore, that Washington must base its immediate efforts. Inevitably, this will require providing Pakistan with  some of the new weaponry it seeks. But it will also require a resumption of training programs  and different forms of contact with Pakistani officers at all levels. If Pakistan’s military is going  to remain supportive of the United States and take the difficult steps necessary to defend the U.S.  war against terrorism, these officers must be convinced that their actions are in Pakistan’s  national interest. And Washington still has a lot of convincing to do.

Foreign Affairs January/February 2002