Pakistani media reports indicate that on the evening of September 14 the president, General Pervez Musharraf, met with his cabinet and national security team in a marathon session lasting until the early hours of the next morning. The task at hand was to decide if the Pakistani government should accede to the demands made by the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedies, demands related to the still-emerging US policy toward Afghanistan, accused of harboring prime suspect Usama bin Laden. The US request came in the form of a virtual threat. Media reports tell us that the Pakistani government was asked to restrict the movements of goods and supplies to Afghanistan, seize the assets of Afghan/Taliban leaders, provide logistical support to the US armed forces along with the use of Pakistani airspace if the need arises and, most importantly, share up-to-date intelligence on bin Laden and his followers in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Problem
In the late 1970s, another Pakistani general, Zia ul Haq, must have convened a meeting similar to Musharraf’s. Then, the military junta was asked to play a crucial role in support of the US-financed resistance to the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan. That decision was undoubtedly an easier one for the dictator Zia ul Haq and his advisors. The general had been in power for two years, and his religiously conservative regime was already unpopular at home and abroad. Supporting the US would grant his government badly needed legitimacy on the world stage. Zia ul Haq also anticipated a US aid package to help the Pakistani state address its perpetual social and economic problems.
To the skeptical Pakistani population, the military regime portrayed its intervention in Afghan affairs as humanitarian and political assistance to fellow Muslims. But the junta’s decision to play ball with the US was also taken for geostrategic reasons. Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan had been strained, due to boundary disputes and the feared spillage of Pashtun nationalism across the border. Afghan rulers and elements of Pakistan’s Pashtun population in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan periodically questioned the artificial line that the British had drawn to divide a culturally and ethnically continuous area into parts of British India and Afghanistan in the mid- nineteenth century. On occasion Afghanistan presented arguments for a greater Pashtun state to include parts of Pakistan’s northern territory.
Hence, with openly hostile India on their eastern flank, Pakistani military strategists have also regarded their not-so-friendly western neighbor with anxiety. This state of affairs was aggravated by the communist-led coup in Afghanistan in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion of that country in the winter of 1979. The US-backed resistance to the Afghan regime guaranteed, at least in the minds of the Pakistani military leaders, a somewhat concrete resolution of their Afghan problem.
Afghan War’s Impact
The mass displacement of the Afghan population, the destruction of their homes and villages and the loss of 1.5 million Afghan lives during that country’s long civil war has somehow been erased from the consciousness of the Western media. Nor do many outside Pakistan remember the Afghan war’s impact on Pakistani civil, cultural and political life.
The Pakistani military used the infusion of international aid to strengthen its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which became the principal liaison between US intelligence agencies and the varied factions of the Afghan resistance movement known as the mujahideen. The ISI assumed a lead role in suppressing democratic dissent within Pakistan. With well over 90,000 men under its aegis, the ISI remains an independent power base within Pakistan’s government structure. There are no consitutional checks and balances on its operations. Its leadership consists of highly motivated and, in most cases, religiously zealous officers who are concerned with safeguarding what they consider to be the spatial and ideological boundaries of the Pakistani state. Hence, the ISI has been directly or indirectly involved in all major domestic and international decisions made by successive military and civilian governments over the last two decades.
On the political level, the economic and development aid helped Zia ul Haq to consolidate his plan for Islamization of the country. Some of the legacies of this era are evidentiary laws based on the Islamic sharia, the creation of sharia courts, laws that discriminate against minorities and women and the dreaded blasphemy laws which continue to restrict the civil and political rights of Pakistani citizens. Development funds were also used to establish and maintain madrassas (religious schools) in different parts of the country. Zia ul Haq and his junta considered the students and graduates of these schools the foot soldiers who would support the dictator as he pressed ahead with his agenda to build an Islamic polity and a theocratic state. Another legacy of the war was the unprecedented infiltration of Pakistani society by drugs and arms. Profits from drug and weapons trafficking helped finance the covert war in Afghanistan, while funneling enormous wealth to a section of the Pakistani military brass.
ISI’s Dampened Excitement
But the triumph of the Afghan resistance forces in 1992 did not result in what the Pakistani military had always desired: a stable Afghanistan following the dictates of Islamabad. With the Cold War already a fading memory, the US and other Western countries virtually abandoned the victorious mujahideen, making only vague promises of development aid to rebuild war-ravished Afghanistan. In subsequent years, infighting among the new Afghan leadership — and their growing independence from the ISI — led Pakistan to intensify its involvement in the affairs of this struggling state. The Taliban, a radical faction of madrassa students under the guidance of Mullah Mohammed Omar of Kandahar, were bankrolled by the Pakistani military on their path to victory in 1995-96.
From the perspective of the generals in Islamabad, the Taliban’s loyalty to and dependence on them, at least, would guarantee a safer and less volatile western border. In addition, the Pakistanis were interested in secure routes to the landlocked Central Asian states. A stable Taliban-led Afghanistan would contribute to a larger geopolitical strategy wherein Pakistan, the US and international petroleum companies envisioned multiple pipelines transporting oil and natural gas from the mineral-rich Central Asian countries to Pakistani ports on the Persian Gulf. But the strongly independent and unpredictable nature of the Taliban regime, and the continuing war in northern Afghanistan, have over the last two few years dampened the initial excitement that these schemes had generated in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Zia ul Haq’s Ghost
More than a decade after his death in an airplane explosion, Zia ul Haq’s ghost lingers on, as Pakistani cultural life shifts toward embracing orthodox Islamic values in both public and private spaces. Further, as the state has forsaken the task of providing systematic educational and employment opportunites to its constituents, the madrassa system has become an avenue for a large percentage of the rural and urban poor seeking social and cultural advancement. The millions trained in the madrassas have emerged as highly organized and violent power brokers who can destabilize any regime that manages to take power. The Pakistani state and military have cynically deployed these forces against internal opposition, and recruited them for the state’s other covert war in Kashmir. The price of such manipulation is that, a decade after Zia’s death, Pakistan remains today a politically unstable place, rife with growing ethnic and sectarian violence.
The differences between the late 1970s and September 2001 far outweigh the similarities. Musharraf has also been in power for two years, and he is also unpopular domestically and internationally. But Musharraf’s military junta may not be able to push its new Afghan policy as easily as the previous dictator did. The same madrassa-trained forces that were nurtured by Zia ul Haq, and used to bolster the rule of governments since he died, could now meet Musharraf with sharp and violent resistance.
Meanwhile, the indices for health and education in Pakistan are among the lowest in the world. Violence and lawlessness is endemic, and most people eke out a living under the official poverty line. Combined with religious militancy and the easy availability of weapons, this puts Pakistan in a socially explosive situation. By accepting the US demands in exchange for fresh promises of international largesse, the Pakistani military may be saving its own skin from the wrath of a US-led coalition. But in the process, the regime once more appears willing to plunge Pakistan into an uncharted future, with no regard for such stability as remains in Pakistani social life.
Among most Pakistanis and Afghanis, the promise of US assistance in exchange for strategic support falls on deaf ears. These people remember a series of broken Western promises, most recently when the US and its allies did not provide much-needed development assistance in the early 1990s. When the Berlin wall fell, it seems, so did US and Western interest in countries which had done the West’s bidding to accelerate the Cold War’s demise. One hopes against reason that in its current high-stakes game the Pakistani military does not take the long-suffering populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan on yet another disastrous ride.