OPINION

‘U.K., U.S. must share blame for Pakistan's ambivalence on terror'

Farzana Shaikh: In more recent years there have been some signs of concern in Pakistan over the erosion of Pakistan's South Asian identity, and by extension, the loss of the country's attachment to regional expressions of Islam. — Photo: Special Arrangement

Farzana Shaikh: In more recent years there have been some signs of concern in Pakistan over the erosion of Pakistan's South Asian identity, and by extension, the loss of the country's attachment to regional expressions of Islam. — Photo: Special Arrangement  

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's recent visit to Britain was marred by an ill-tempered row over Prime Minister David Cameron's accusation about “exporting terror”. In the end, they made up but the issue raised by Mr. Cameron has not gone away. Was Mr. Zardari protesting too much? And should Britain and America share some blame for Pakistan's ambivalence towards terror groups? Farzana Shaikh answers these and other questions in an interview with Hasan Suroor arguing, among other things, that Kashmir remains a main hurdle in normalisation of India-Pakistan relations.

You have criticised David Cameron for his remarks on Pakistan's duplicity in fighting terrorism. But wasn't he right in saying what he did? There is, of course, the view that what really upset Pakistan was that he chose to make those remarks in India. Was it then a diplomatic gaffe by an inexperienced Prime Minister or does it signal a broader shift towards a tougher British approach? It has been suggested that since he made the remarks soon after his discussions with Barack Obama in Washington he probably had the backing of the American President.

Notwithstanding his choice of India as the stage from which he chose to launch his broadside accusing Pakistan of “exporting terror”, Mr. Cameron's remarks, I believe, lacked diplomatic restraint. But I also believe they were unfair. This is not to say that Pakistan is blameless in the conduct of its Afghan policy —it is not. It is because I think that the blame for what has gone wrong in Afghanistan needs to be more fairly apportioned than Mr. Cameron acknowledged. It is no secret, for example, that the United States and its allies, including Britain, have long suspected Pakistan's military and its intelligence service of ambivalence (“looking both ways” as Mr. Cameron put it) in their conduct over the war in Afghanistan. Yet, the U.S. and its allies chose for many years, especially during the last Bush administration, to turn a blind eye, preferring to sub-contract their dirty work to the ISI. For this, they must share as much of the blame as Pakistan for thwarting the course of the war in Afghanistan.

It is also no secret that the U.S. and Britain have long worked in concert in framing their so-called “Af-Pak” policy. There is every reason to assume that they have done so again on this occasion. It looks like Mr. Cameron has agreed to play the “bad cop” to Mr. Obama's “good cop” routine. We must remember that a key part of Mr. Obama's policy towards Pakistan has been to try and shed the image of America as a bully. So what better way to pursue this objective than to call on Britain — America's “junior partner” (to use Mr. Cameron's phrase) — to do the bullying. After all, the stakes involved in Britain's relations are nowhere near as high as America's relations with Pakistan.

How do you see India and Pakistan rivalry for influence in Afghanistan playing out once the Western forces leave? Is it going to be the new theatre of conflict between the two countries — Afghanistan as the “new Kashmir”?

Pakistan's Afghan policy is overwhelmingly informed and shaped through the prism of its relations with India. It has been clear from the inception of the state in 1947 that Pakistan would not tolerate what military analysts like to describe as a “pincer movement” that would subject the country to hostile forces along its eastern and western flanks. That policy, rooted in Afghanistan's rejection of the Durand Line, which serves as its boundary with Pakistan, remains broadly intact. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 left the field open for Pakistan to inject substance into this policy by ensuring that its proxies controlled Afghanistan. However, 9/11 proved to be a major setback for Pakistan, which was forced by the international community to sever its links with its most notorious proxy — the Taliban.

The big question for Pakistan now is how best to retain its influence over Afghanistan in the face of an international community wary of giving Pakistan the kind of leverage in Afghanistan to which it has long been accustomed. The international community clearly believes that to do so would replicate conditions that led to the emergence of the Taliban. While this is reassuring, it also means that Pakistan, and especially its all-powerful military, has been led to jockey hard (and dangerously) to gain an edge over the pace and direction of any future settlement in Afghanistan. That may explain the nervous tension etched on the faces of Pakistan's current leadership, which is uncertain how things will pan out in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Western forces. However, there is no reason yet to assume that the withdrawal of the Western forces from Afghanistan will necessarily involve the end of a Western presence altogether. In that case not only would Pakistan's room for manoeuvre be limited, but also it would serve as a brake against attempts by regional powers such as India (or possibly even Iran) to use Afghanistan as an arena to wage proxy wars.

You have been very critical of Pakistan's foreign policy, especially its obsession with India, and in your book Making Sense of Pakistan, you have written how this has had “devastating” consequences. You have also argued that Pakistan's attempt constantly to define itself against India has meant that even after 60 years it has failed to evolve a coherent national identity of its own. Do you notice any change? A desire to move away from the old way of doing things.

In my book I have argued that conflicting visions over the role of Islam in Pakistan have made it impossible to reach a broad consensus over fundamental questions about the purpose of Pakistan or, indeed, about the precise relation between “being Muslim” and “being Pakistani”. This lack of consensus, I suggest, gravely impeded the development of a coherent national identity for Pakistan. In its absence there emerged what I describe as a “negative identity”, predicated on Pakistan's opposition to India. One of the most significant implications of this “negative identity” that rests on no more than being “not India” has been to dilute Pakistan's South Asian roots in favour of a more robust “Islamic” profile informed by the Islam of West Asia. The consequences have been deeply damaging for Pakistan, where the broadly pluralistic instincts characteristic of local varieties of Islam have been forced to give way to harsher readings of Islam imported from abroad.

In more recent years there have been some signs of concern in Pakistan over the erosion of Pakistan's South Asian identity, and by extension, the loss of the country's attachment to regional expressions of Islam. Many are now turning to popular Sufi Islam hoping that such moves will curb the influence of Wahabi Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. Others believe that the key lies in normalising relations with India and in embracing our primary identity as a member of the South Asian community of nations instead of as the mover and shaker of an imaginary Islamic umma. But such change has been slow to gain momentum owing to the ever-present contestation over Pakistan's identity — a Muslim country or guarantor of Islam.

A word about that old chestnut — Kashmir. How important is the Kashmir issue for the new generation of Pakistanis? Is the Pakistani public opinion really with Islamabad when it insists that Kashmir remains the “core” issue in its relations with India?

There is no doubt that Kashmir remains a “core” issue for most Pakistanis. At the same time, there are many who have grown weary of a dispute they believe has been used by the military to justify its dominance over Pakistan's national politics. Many also suspect that Pakistan's military may cynically have kept alive this conflict to further its political fortunes. In short there is now a broad consensus that, whatever the merits of the Kashmir case, it is no longer acceptable for Pakistan's military to continue to benefit from this conflict — and especially not at the expense of Pakistan's people.

More importantly, however, I think it is worth reiterating that neither India nor Pakistan can ever reach their full potential without coming to an agreement over Kashmir. India's aspirations to graduate from a regional to a global power will forever be frustrated so long as it cannot free itself from its regional yoke that is Kashmir. As for Pakistan, I have no doubt that real democracy will always elude us so long as our military is allowed to feed off the conflict in Kashmir.

These should be compelling enough reasons for the international community to really put its mind to assisting both parties to resolve this issue: after all, world leaders never tire of stating their intention to help India join the ranks of other emerging global powers and to advance the cause of democratic government in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the U.K. last week was dominated by headlines about his attempts to fast-track the “coronation” of his son Bilawal as the new star of the Pakistan People's Party. In India, there is pressure on Rahul Gandhi to take over from Manmohan Singh. Do you relish the prospect of a young Bhutto and a young Gandhi in power in Islamabad and Delhi?

President Zardari's attempt [thwarted by Bilawal's last-minute decision to stay away from his “coronation” at a rally in Birmingham] to launch his son's political career in the U.K., must be seen as a sideshow. The main objective was to launder Mr. Zardari's image among the one-million strong Pakistani diaspora in Britain. Its support is badly needed to off-set Mr. Zardari's tarnished image, which is still dogged by serious allegations of corruption and, in the wake of his lavish tour of Britain and France in the midst of devastating floods in Pakistan, irreparably damaged by accusations of callousness.

The prospect of political dynasties, even if infused with new, young blood, continuing to hold sway in South Asia fills me with dread. But I am enough of a realist also to understand that the blot of political dynasties in South Asia is not yet ready to disappear of its own accord. The only way out is to render political dynasties irrelevant by ensuring that the political parties in our part of the world subscribe more rigorously to the processes of internal democracy. The chances of that are, comparatively speaking, greater in India than in Pakistan. This is because unlike India with its well-developed party system, the only institutions that ever received attention in Pakistan were the army and the civil bureaucracy.

Both have worked assiduously to stifle a culture favourable to political parties in Pakistan. Over time this has reduced Pakistan's political parties to mere vehicles for the promotion of personal agendas. Even the Pakistan People's Party, arguably the only party with the potential to develop as a political force that transcended personal interests, failed to withstand the corruption that has afflicted other parties. Today the PPP is a mere shadow of the organisation that carried the hopes of so many in the 1970s. Benazir Bhutto squandered the opportunity to revive her party. Hemmed in by the army and snubbed by the bureaucracy, she fell back on the support of her ready-made coterie of “yes men and women”. She was not helped by her feudal background, where unquestioning loyalty is par for the course. I suspect that not much will change when and if Bilawal Zardari Bhutto decides to take over as head of the party. Meanwhile, what is disheartening is that no other party has emerged in Pakistan with a programme or a vision to heal the deep (and possibly irreparable) divisions that now scar Pakistan.

Interview with Farzana Shaikh , Associate Fellow of Chatham House and author of Making Sense of Pakistan.

Recommended for you