Pakistan in the region

Zia Mian directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, Princeton University. He is a writer and filmmaker on South Asia and nuclear issues. Previous interviews are here:

February 2004
February 2003

I caught up with him by phone on April 27, 2007 – just as the current crisis was beginning.

JP: Perhaps we could start with Afghanistan. Given the historical connection between the Pakistani state and the Taliban throughout the 1990s, and given that the Americans – Pakistan’s allies – are at war with the “reconstructed” Taliban, what is happening between Pakistan and Afghanistan today?

ZM: Pakistan has historically seen both a problem and an opportunity in Afghanistan. The problem is that the British Empire, like all empires, drew its boundaries with no respect for the lives and aspirations of the people on the ground. Its empire in India ended in the Northwest Frontier Province, despite the wars to conquer Afghanistan. While Afghanistan was outside the formal structure of empire, in fact there was social, economic and cultural continuity across the Pashtun region that spans Pakistan and Afghanistan. The new Pakistani leadership saw this as a problem once Pakistan became independent in 1947. Would there be calls for an independent Pashtunistan? Pakistan sought to limit the power of ethnic nationalism to unite Pashtuns across the border. They came to believe that in order to keep the NWFP, they would need leverage over Afghanistan.

At the same time, there was an opportunity. In its confrontation with India, especially after 1971 war that spilt off East Pakistan and created Bangladesh, the Pakistani generals looked at a map and thought, given how narrow Pakistan is, if India invades, where do we retreat to and fight back from? They decided they could retreat to Afghanistan and organize the defense from there. To do so they needed a client government in Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US effort to organize the resistance gave Pakistan a chance. It tried to take advantage of its support for the insurgents against the USSR to establish clients among the Afghan militias. But the real breakthrough came in the chaos after the Soviets left and the Americans stopped caring about what happened in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military helped create, train, arm, equip and at times led the Taliban to take power in Afghanistan during the 1990s. The goal was to create a client regime there. But, after 9/11, they had to distance themselves from the Taliban because of American pressure. But they seem not to have let go completely.

After the US invasion in 2001, many Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. They have used this space to reconstitute themselves. There are clear signs of their presence in remote areas and increasingly in towns and major cities, I both the NWFP and the neighboring province of Balochistan, which also has many Pashtuns.

The Pakistan army has tried to go into the tribal border areas to show they are tackling the Taliban and Al Qaeda there. But they have met resistance, including from the local people, in part because the army has killed civilians. Also, there are many in the army who do not want to fight what they see as an American war.   

Its also the case that General Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler since 1999, and his fellow generals, recognize that the Americans are not going to be in Afghanistan forever. They are looking at the balance of power and they want a stake in the future of Afghanistan. So this limits how far Pakistan will go to help the Americans against the Taliban.

JP: How much of an American proxy is Pakistan, in military terms? In the Cold War the US supported Pakistan to intervene in Afghanistan against the USSR, but Pakistan was more interested in confronting India. Now the US is allied with India and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. What has that meant for the military alliance between the US and Pakistan?

ZM: The US and Pakistan have a long military relationship. In 1954 Pakistan signed a military co-operation agreement with the US. Up to that point it was a very small army with very little equipment, inherited from the British army before independence. With this agreement with US, Pakistan hoped to get military aid, training, and equipment to build an army to match India. The US was looking for a Cold War ally and saw Pakistan as pivotal with its proximity to the Middle East and to the USSR and a willingness to support the US.

The US poured in money, training, and equipment and redesigned the army on American lines. A generation of officers was sent to US for training. Many went to on to become very senior. They included General Zia-al-Haq, who trained in the US and went on to stage a military coup in 1977 and ruled for over ten years. US training was hugely influential in shaping how the Pakistani military thought about military issues. They developed a taste for American equipment, and American strategy and tactics.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, this was conventional training and conventional weapons: tanks, planes, artillery, communications. These were the skills that won ambitious soldiers promotions and medals. As a consequence, these people had an important voice in military planning and decision making. In the 1980s, the Afghan war meant that the focus shifted to organizing and running a guerilla army. In this period the ISI came into its own, going from an insignificant agency to an enormously powerful institution. It received money, training in covert ops, ideology, and developed a capacity for recruiting, training and managing Islamic militants. These became the new ways of war.

After the end of the Afghanistan war and the collapse of the USSR, Pakistan was no longer needed. The US imposed sanctions and cut off aid because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Through the 1990s there was almost no aid or training. It started again after 9/11. The US has resumed cooperation, but its emphasis is countering al-Qaeda and Taliban. It has focused on intelligence sharing, covert action, counter-insurgency, ideology, and propaganda.

But many of the Pakistani generals still value Americans weapons. They are seen as high-equalizers against India’s larger numbers of soldiers, tanks, planes and so on. So Pakistan continues to seek big ticket, high-tech US weapons, like F-16s. The US has been pouring in billions of dollars a year in military aid. For the US, this has the added benefit, of course, of directing US government money to American military contractors who make and sell this equipment.      

JP: But now Pakistan’s patron, the US, is asking for help fighting Pakistan’s clients. Is Pakistan actively helping the Taliban now?

ZM: The extent of cooperation is hard to know. The Afghan government is certainly convinced that Pakistan is helping the Taliban.

It is clear that the Taliban are being allowed to organize and move freely in certain areas in Pakistan. They also continue to have access to weapons and other supplies, and funds. There has been no crackdown on the madrassas where the Taliban are recruited.

The Taliban have become a more diverse group. The people the US are fighting now are not just the old Afghan Taliban. There are also veterans from the Afghan war in the 1980s against the Soviets. Many who were trained by US to fight Soviets are now on the side of the Taliban. Many Pakistanis also volunteered to go fight against the Americans and started to join the Taliban. And, there are now the Pakistani Taliban, a home-grown movement of Islamic militants, many from madrassas.

Much of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has been and remains covert. This creates its own problems. When states support insurgencies covertly, they need deniability. To achieve deniability, they give local representatives autonomy. This means that local operatives of Pakistani intelligence agencies and the military who are supporting the insurgents do not answer to anyone and are not accountable.

JP: Turning to Pakistan’s other major military issue, what is happening with Kashmir?

ZM: The situation in Kashmir has calmed down a great deal in recent years. We are in a much better situation that we were in 1999, when Pakistan’s military started the Kargil war with India. This was the third war between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. The army became reckless because they thought that by testing nuclear weapons in 1998 they had created a “nuclear shield”. They felt they could conduct a conventional war to try to force a negotiated settlement. It didn’t work. Nuclear threats were made by both sides. Both countries came under tremendous pressure to calm things down.

On the other side, the Indian army’s massive military effort for almost twenty years has had a huge impact. The Kashmiri population is small. If you swamp it with soldiers, draconian measures, massacre, murder, torture, detention, as India has done, people back down. And as the movement for independence in Kashmir moved into Islamic militant hands, backed by Pakistan, the degree of identification between ordinary Kashmiris and the people claiming to fight for their freedom decreased. The Islamic freedom fighters, radical and conservative, were against the grain of the kind of Islam prevalent in Kashmir. They alienated the population with their attacks, their reliance on outsiders, and their brand of Islam.

Musharraf was pressured to do something about the Islamic militants that the army had been organizing and sending to fight against India in Kashmir. India has stepped down its operations, its abuses, detentions, and tortures, along with efforts to have some kind of democratic process, and to improve conditions. The Kashmiri leadership are looking for a negotiated settlement, talking to India and Pakistan, based on the belief that there is no military solution to it. Everybody has realized it’s reached a stalemate and it is time to find a different way.

The way forward so far has been based on autonomy measures, a mechanism whereby Kashmiris are given more and more self-government, recognizing their special place in India and that people there want to negotiate on their own terms their relationship with India and Pakistan. India-Pakistan have begun to negotiate elementary confidence-building steps, allowing movement of people across the Kashmir border. That has improved the situation on the ground in Kashmir a lot and enabled people to move more freely, talk, discuss, and organize. It has started to establish the minimal conditions for a debate in Kashmiri society about who are we, what do we want, what are our relationships to be. If there is some common understanding among Kashmiris about options and how they feel, India and Pakistan would have good sense to respect it.

JP: Can you explain the crisis with the Chief Justice?

ZM: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has become a national flashpoint. He decided to hear the cases filed by relatives of people who were rounded up and disappeared, mainly in Balochistan and as part of the Pakistani military’s efforts to wage their own little war on terror. He told the government he wanted to know where the missing people were – habeas corpus. The government said, we don’t have them. The Court was clearly not convinced and has continued to pursue the matter, and held the government in contempt of court. Suddenly people who have been secretly detained for several years turned up in court.  

Musharraf decided not to tolerate this kind of challenge from the courts, so he took the extreme step of firing the Chief Justice. The real fear Musharraf had was that a Chief Justice and a Supreme Court willing to confront the military government on human rights might also intervene and prevent his securing re-appointment as President.

In protest at Musharraf’s action against the Chief Justice, many of Pakistan’s lawyers went out on strike and some judges resigned. Government lawyers have refused to represent the government. There have been public protests by lawyers across the country. Television has broadcast amazing scenes of lawyers wearing their traditional black suits and ties being beaten by police, with blood everywhere. This has been going on for weeks now.

The situation is unprecedented. Pakistan TV used to be a state monopoly. But now there are a few private TV stations, and they are more willing to report on what’s going on in the country. This has of course led to crackdowns on the TV stations. In April, after a report on protests by lawyers and the beatings of lawyers outside the supreme court, the police stormed one TV station in Islamabad and trashed it completely. Now it is unclear whether Musharraf ordered the police to do this – he probably didn’t. But this says something about the institutional culture of the police. The police saw the report and are used to having impunity, they must have said: “we know how to teach these people a lesson”. Musharraf later apologized to the TV station, but the message had been sent. Although as the struggle continues, there may be more severe crackdown on the media.

JP: The Justice issue is just one of several serious problems.

ZM: Pakistan is stuck in its traditional troubles. The military is too strong, controlling the state, society, the economy. This idea is filtering into the common sense of the country, with the crisis in Islamabad. The military want to take the nicest bit of the capital city and build a new facility. This is prime real estate, and they are getting it at below market rates, basically stealing it from exchequer. And political leaders are too weak: You’ve heard how Benazir Bhutto is negotiating for a return to the country on the military’s terms. You accept our power and we won’t prosecute you for corruption. That’s the traditional pattern for Pakistan.

The new thing is the rise of the madrassa phenomenon and the growing role of a generation of young, radical Islamist activists trained in these religious schools. These religious schools were once thought to be confined to the hinterland and to the conservative provinces like the North West Frontier Province (bordering Afghanistan). Many went to fight in Afghanistan. But there were also madrassas in the big cities, including Islamabad. These have created the Pakistani Taliban. The students from there have now become more active. In Islamabad, madrassa students have taken it upon themselves to take over public buildings, take hostages, and there has been a standoff with police for weeks. These are women madrassa students.

JP: Women students from religious schools are in standoffs with police over public buildings?

ZM: It started as a dispute over mosques. Islamabad was a custom-built capital, built in the 1960s by General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator. The capital had been Karachi. The dictator chose a green field site, basically farmers’ fields, and said “build me a city”. So it is a city with a master plan, with planned green areas, parks, all built into the plan. But in recent years, people started to build mosques in the green areas, and in shopping centres, without a permit. It is basically the private, illegal appropriation of public land. They got away with it for years. The logic was simple. You build a mosque wherever you want, people will come and pray, and you’ve created facts on the ground – who’s going to demolish a mosque?

Finally, the city administration said we can’t turn a blind eye to this anymore. Islamabad is undergoing a massive construction boom, land is suddenly in great demand. This also means the city administration needs to get some control back after years of unregulated development. The city demolished a couple of the illegal mosques and announced plans to demolish many more.

In response, in January this year, women students from a local madrassa occupied a public building, a children’s library, saying: you must stop the demolitions and rebuild the demolished mosques. The women students are still there. They wear burqas, but there are reports that some of them are armed with Kalashnikovs. 

The protests started over the demolitions, but the students have added other issues. They started protesting corruption and moral depravity in society, and demanding enforcement of sharia (Islamic law). They established their own court – in the capital city – where they pick people off the street and punish them for violations of sharia. This is an amazing development. It shows that the crisis in law and order and state authority has become very acute.

The government has been very passive. They say we don’t want to hurt anybody. But this doesn’t stop the authorities from beating the hell out of human rights protesters, including women activists, and women lawyers. What this suggests is that the insecurity of the regime has reached the point where they don’t want to provoke a confrontation that will unite the Islamic parties and militant jihadis against the state. The Islamists could create a real challenge to the state.

At the same time, Musharraf needs to show public opinion that he is in charge of the situation and no one should think of challenging his government. He also needs to show the West that he can take on the Islamists. He also convince his fellow generals that he can manage all these problems. There is always a risk that he may look for, if not create, an opportunity to be able to put on a show of force.

JP: Has Musharraf headed in any particular direction?

ZM: Musharraf is not the master of his own fate, even though he claims he is. He is both president and Chief of Army Staff, and has made of point of refusing to give up his military position even though he promised he would. This is his way of keeping the military leadership loyal to him. Musharraf and the senior generals usually find common ground. The senior generals aren’t going to take a stand and say no to Musharraf. To do so would be to put their own careers on the line. But if enough of the generals feel something is not right, they can check Musharraf.

There are tensions, for instance over support for the Taliban and the Islamists groups. It used to go all the way to the top. Musharraf was one of the architects of the 1999 war with India, that started with Islamist militants crossing over into Kashmir from Pakistan. Among the militants were Pakistani soldiers in camouflage.

Musharraf has been involved in all of the decision-making around Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan. But there were more religiously-minded conservative generals for whom support for the Taliban wasn’t just a tactic. Some of those have retired or been pushed out after 9/11. The US was very worried about the Pakistani military leadership for a while. But there is still a lot of sympathy among the military for Islamic groups, ideologically, as well as for strategic and political reasons. This includes people who simply don’t like America’s foreign policy or fighting America’s wars.

There are many who feel the increasing number of suicide bombings in Pakistan stem from Musharraf’s support for the US in Afghanistan.

JP: Let’s turn to India for a minute. In a recent article in Tehelka Arundhati Roy described India’s elite as being in the midst of the most successful unilateral secession ever attempted. Last time we talked you said India was sowing the seeds of future problems.

ZM: In India, it seems we’re starting to see that the process of urbanization, industrialization, and education set in place after independence by the avowedly socialist Congress Party has produced a new ruling class. This new elite has interests in business as well as the state. It is a bourgeoisie that owns means of production, factories, and so on, as well as a middle class to work in these new jobs. The influx of foreign investment into India, with Indian companies and multinationals setting up there, has also created a large group of young people who are seeing rapid increases in income and seeking to satisfy a sense of the “good life”, buying into the American dream.

These classes were a by-product of other processes, now they want to harness society to serve their needs. They are now, as classes do when they emerge, trying to consolidate power and shape decision-making to respond to their interests. They have moved towards liberalization – the transfer of public assets and goods into private hands – so that they can make private profit from what was previously public investment. They want state resources to build and strengthen infrastructure for their lives and aspirations. There are more imports of luxury goods and less emphasis on producing within India for Indian needs.

This is what Arundhati Roy meant: the successful seek to secede, and they want to take everything with them. The new Indian elite is trying to pull the ladder up after themselves, in the typical pattern. This leaves 3-400 million in desperate poverty and marginalized from economic and political institutions.

JP: And a military transformation is accompanying that.

ZM: Leaders in India, left and right, have grand ambitions. It is part of the new sense of success and achievement, a new sense of India’s capacity as a strong state and economy. People have started to say, we have economic growth, we are becoming an economic superpower, we should have the other aspects of great power.

This is a sentiment the Americans and Europeans are happy to feed. Buy our weapons. Get big buildings. Buy submarines and jet fighters. The US military-industrial complex finds in India a huge new market in a context when other markets aren’t growing. Indian spending increasing by leaps and bounds with military modernization across the board. They are building nuclear weapons and missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines, jet fighters, new radar systems, everything. It seeks power projection, which requires a huge capacity for logistics, ships, refueling airplanes.

And India is seeing a new role for itself in the future. It is conducting big joint exercises with the US Army, Navy and Air Force. India is looking to a role in policing the Indian ocean and the straits between the Indian ocean and the Pacific where oil and goods pass. India looks west and sees itself having a role in Arabian sea.

In 2004, the US and India signed a strategic partnership agreement. The agreement has 4 elements:

1. US help with India’s nuclear program.
2. US help with India’s space programs
3. Dual-use high-technology
4. Missile defense.

The US State Department went on record and said the US goal is to help India become a major world power and that they understand the military implications of that statement. The US is preparing India to become a major power. The intent is to help India as a competitor to China. That’s also feeding Indian militarization and ambitions.

JP: What are the implications for Pakistan?

ZM: The Pakistani military sees itself as vulnerable. They see their position eroding. What can they do if the US sells to both sides in South Asia, and India has much more money to spend on weapons? Pakistan can buy more hardware from China, but it is not as good as the US stuff they are used to. The real danger is that as they see the conventional gap grow, they will become more reliant on the nuclear arsenal.

As Indian conventional military power grows, Pakistani will say it won’t give up the nuclear option, even if Kashmir is resolved. To manage the imbalance, they may feel the need to push their nuclear weapons to the edge of readiness very rapidly in any crisis with India.

JP: Final question: Iran is constantly in the headlines. What does Iran’s nuclear situation look like from South Asia?

ZM: Both Pakistan and India are torn between their regional interests to have good relations with Iran, and their alliances with US. The whole problem is really encapsulated in an important project proposed some years ago: a gas pipeline to bring Iranian gas through Pakistan to western India, to provide energy for India. India does have huge energy needs, natural gas is more environmentally friendly and preferable to coal and nuclear power. The Iranians are happy to sell it and it diversifies their client base. Pakistan would benefit from the gas, the rent they could charge for the pipeline passing through, and the trust it could generate between India and Pakistan.

The problem: the US doesn’t want Iran to sell gas. They told the Indians they can’t buy, they told Pakistan they can’t let pipeline be built. Where Iran could have played a great role in improving the level of cooperation between the two countries, the US is trying to prevent that for narrow short-term interests in trying to control and contain and undo Iran. This is one of the biggest problems.

The second is the Iranian nuclear programme – from an Iranian point of view, the program started in the 1950s, under “atoms for peace”, the same program that helped provide nuclear training, technology, and reactors to India and Pakistan. The Shah wanted a large nuclear program, and nuclear weapons. But he was a US ally and there were not too many concerns about helping Iran’s program as long as he was in power.

The Islamic revolution has an interesting nuclear history. Khomeini denounced the atomic energy program on theological grounds. He also said, we don’t need the stuff. He gave it no attention, and no money. But the scientists managed to stay in business through the hard times. Then the Iran-Iraq war happened and the US provided plenty of help for Iraqis and the international community did nothing while Iraq used poison gas against Iran. The Iranians thought: we have to look after ourselves.

The first Gulf War also played a role. Like other militaries in the region, the Iranian leadership may have felt the need to develop a nuclear deterrent after the US attack on Iraq. It also became clear Iraq had been running a secret nuclear weapons program, and the future of Saddam Hussein and the program was not clear to the Iranians.

Nuclear weapons are also a matter of national pride: the Iranians looked around the neighborhood and saw the Indians have it, the Pakistanis have it, the Iraqis may get it, why not us?

Today the Iranian revolutionary leadership doesn’t have much to show for its 20 years in power. It has a 10-year war and an oil exporting economy whose infrastructure is on the verge of collapse for lack of investment. It has one national project: its nuclear program. Something only the government can do. This has become their measure of achievement. When the west attacks the nuclear program, they see it as proof of its importance – they believe the West doesn’t want Iran to have the program because nuclear technology is so important.

It’s a shame this is what they picked on for a national project. Iranian science is advanced in many ways. It could have been a centre for much of the middle east. But Iranian mullahs are like mullahs everywhere: they are interested in technology, not science. They want the symbols of being modern, rather than actually wanting to be modern since that would imply a commitment to a different kind of society.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.

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