October 22, 2010

The US-Pak gap pt 2

A couple of people have made the point that I skipped over India in my overview of Pakistan-US relations. It's a fair point. India is a post by itself (hence the new post). India does of course come into the equation in any discussions about Pakistan and the US, and that's likely to increase in the future. I don't mean to downplay the India angle, but from the point of view of US-Pak relations, it still boils down to the issue of Pakistan's political and economic independence, which itself comes down to building a stable political system internally.

But yes, there's more to Pakistan's relationship with India than just that... India is special because it is intrinsically linked to Pakistan's self image.

A Pakistani diplomat I met in Jordan once asked me, "You've worked in the Middle East. Tell me, how is it that the Arabs are so much better at building a long-term relationship with the US than us."

The question troubled me on a number of levels. I know the diplomat is thinking about the aid Egypt has received since 1982, and continual political and diplomatic support that has allowed the Egyptian state to become a disfigured behemoth. Jordan is propped up by military aid and free trade agreements while Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states) find excuses to push their cash towards America so they get the big-power umbrella they need to survive. The main threat to these countries is that the ruling family will be deposed by their own people. I'd never worked in Pakistan at that point, and I found it worrying that from what I knew about the place. The fact that Pakistan isn't a centralised one-party/family state is a strength. Did the Pakistani establishment really think becoming Egypt or Jordan was the best direction for their country?

Whereas Arab countries are fearful for their ruling families (probably rightly so), Pakistan's fear is India. And whereas America's relationship - individually - with each of those states is more important to the smaller country than to America, as a whole it represents the foreign policy strategy that America uses to maintain its economy and position in the world.

For the Arab states mentioned above (apart from Egypt) their present form is largely based around a ruling family. So their narrow ruling classes are right in seeing a threat to the rulers as a threat to the country as a whole. Pakistan is based on an idea rather than a ruling family. That idea is a vague political conceptualisation of Islam. The threat to that idea is personified by India. An India that includes a peaceful Muslim-majority Kashmir knocks the most basic sense of the idea behind Pakistan; that Muslims would risk being wiped out physically and culturally while also removed from the history books if they were subsumed by the Hindu masses. An India at war with itself (in Kashmir and other non-Muslim provinces) proves the idea that Pakistan's founders were right to push for self determination and escape the "clutches of the conceited Hindu rulers of India" (as they would have put it).

This doesn't mean India is totally blameless. Historical evidence suggests that Pakistan's founders didn't expect to have the kind of relationship with India the country has today. It's speculated that Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, left some of his family and property in India at the time of partition because he thought he'd be able to travel between the two new Commonwealth states that both retained the Queen as their head of state and senior British Army officers heading their armed forces. In the early days Pakistan and India briefly talked about common defence agreements even while Kashmir lay unresolved.

In reality, Pakistan's founders, Jinnah in particular, probably saw Pakistan as a largely secular Muslim state with cultural and economic ties to both the UK and India. The point of Pakistan, in his mind, was not that every South Asian Muslim should live under Muslim rule, but that Muslims of the subcontinent would again be able to chart their political and economic destiny on their own terms as they did before the Indian Mutiny (First War of Independence) of 1857. India, he thought, would behave better to its Muslim minority when its regional power was checked by a Muslim neighbour. Also, it's worth remembering that Pakistan's squaring up to India hasn't always seemed like total folly. For many years, Pakistan had higher (but more volatile) economic growth rates and its industrial base and infrastructure was superior. Although Pakistan had the smaller army, it modelled itself on the numerically inferior Western forces designed to face a larger Warsaw Pact opponent. An approach the Israelis have used successfully against their Arab foes. India has surged ahead in the past 15 years, while Pakistan has really struggled in the last five.

The only future for Pakistan is a truly independent one. Relying on China as its patron is not wise. If India and China make common cause, Pakistan will again be out in the cold. China also has a Muslim minority that it doesn't always treat well. The potential for linkages to develop between Pakistan-backed elements working with or influencing Chinese Muslim discontent is high.

The only real future for Pakistan (or any country) is a truly independent one so that it has the confidence to engage the wider world on the basis of mutual interest. Pakistan will need peace with India if it is to stand on its own feet. But peace with India means building some sort of national consensus around Pakistan's identity, which is going to be a seriously tough prospect. There are infinite parallel universes of competing interests and visions. The easier option (which India indirectly encouraged) has been to build an identity around the idea of anti-Indianess and finding a big power patron to support Pakistan enough to avoid having to do any real meaningful country building. The only sort of government that will be able to start that process will be one with popular legitimacy. ie a democratic government that is seen as competent and sincere. That in itself is a huge challenge.

But perhaps this is where US policy can come in useful. By pushing the two countries together and pressuring them to make a real and lasting peace with a solution to Kashmir could kickstart Pakistan's inner conversation about itself. Right now, the only people with a compelling line of argument are extremists.