Could Pakistan Dissolve Altogether?

Interview: Afghanistan scholar Thomas Barfield on Pashtun rebels, a nuclear Punjab, and how Islamabad played Americans for suckers.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user <a href="">Aqib_123</a>

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Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield has been publishing relentlessly ever since the mid-1970s, when he wandered northern Afghanistan doing doctoral fieldwork. He has since emerged as one of America’s foremost experts on the region, focusing on political development, provincial-state relations, and customary law. In 2006, Barfield, now president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to complete his upcoming book on the changing concepts of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. I caught up with the professor to discuss the P-word—Pakistan—and its role in our current predicament. At the time of our interview, Pakistan’s government had not yet signed its agreement with the Taliban that allowed for the imposition of strict Islamic law in six northwestern regions, including Swat.

Mother Jones: To what degree does future Afghan stability depend on reconciliation between India and Pakistan?

Thomas Barfield: The India/Pakistan relationship is probably central. Pakistan has from its inception defined itself in opposition to India, and that makes it difficult. But Kashmir needs to be reconciled. Pakistan could also dissolve: The four provinces have very little holding them together.

MJ: Dissolve into what?

TB: Four ministates or something, in which case your policy changes radically. If you’re dealing with rump nuclear-armed Punjab and three separate, independent nations, then reconciliation almost becomes a moot point.

MJ: Can you make peace in Afghanistan without dealing with Kashmir?

TB: Yes, you can. Kashmir’s a separate issue, and settling it would not necessarily stop the Pakistanis from meddling in Afghanistan—which they used to talk about as their fifth province.

MJ: And also an extension of their battle with India.

TB: They view everything as an extension of their battle with India. They bought our tanks and planes so that they could fight India, with which they have lost three wars. It’s totally not in Pakistan’s self-interest to do this, and yet they’re utterly driven by it. But if you solve the India thing, I presume that would go a long way to providing regional peace.

MJ: What can the US do to facilitate this, given that India doesn’t want outsiders involved in the Kashmir dispute?

TB: It’s not clear Pakistan’s military can survive without our subsidies—it’s a bankrupt country. One of the things for us to tell Pakistan is that we may not want to get involved in this directly, but we want to see this problem solved. And in this the US is probably neutral, because there’s no constituency in the United States that’s keen on Kashmir one way or the other. Most people don’t even know where it is.

MJ: Pakistan’s army and ISI, its military intelligence service, basically made the Taliban what it is. Was this support driven by ideology or India strategy?

TB: Part of it was its India strategy, this “strategic depth” they talk about. The Pakistani belief was, “What if the Indians overran the plains? We would regroup in Afghanistan and drive them out.” But one look at Afghanistan and you say, “Wait a minute, how are you going to move your equipment?” It’s ridiculous. It’s not strategic depth. It’s nothing. The Pakistanis also have a paranoia—which they actually now might make true—that India is trying to surround them, since India has always had good relations with Afghanistan, and Afghanistan and Pakistan have always had bad relations.

MJ: How come?

TB: Afghanistan was the only state that voted against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations on the grounds that it was an illegitimate state, it shouldn’t be allowed to exist. With Partition there were only two options: Join India or join Pakistan. The Afghans said there should be two more options, that the Northwest Frontier province and Baluchistan should be able to vote to become independent or join Afghanistan—they said people weren’t given those options and therefore it was an unfair process. If you look at Afghan maps of Pakistan, they always include what they call Pashtunistan, which runs to the Indus River. As you can imagine, Pakistan is not real pleased to see maps like that, which give away half its territory. So there’s been this hostility. And essentially, because India’s been opposed to Pakistan, Afghanistan has had good relations with Delhi. But the big thing is that Afghans hold Pakistan responsible for most of the trouble in their country.

MJ: India has also been visibly doing good things in Afghanistan.

TB: Oh, a lot. When the truck bomb went off at the Indian Embassy last July in Kabul, the Indians saw that as a calling card from ISI saying, “Get out. This is our territory.” And they responded by saying, “We’re going to give Afghanistan another $400 million.”

MJ: Wasn’t Jalaluddin Haqqani the bomber?

TB: Yeah. But he’s an Afghan who fights for the Taliban, and this wasn’t a Taliban operation. This was a message from Islamabad to India. The bomb went off as India’s military attaché was coming to work, so it wasn’t just a bomb; it was an assassination specifically targeting one of their high military officials.

MJ: Does Pashtun nationalism play any role in Pakistan’s military activities?

TB: Pashtuns are a small minority—something like 15 percent—so their nationalism is looked upon very critically. The government and military are dominated by people from the Punjab.

MJ: Right. In fact, many Pashtuns basically live on reservations, the tribal areas, that operate under a 1901 law.

TB: Yes, the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act. Some of the Pashtuns feel like they are a colony of Pakistan. They’re not full citizens, and the act gives the Pakistani government the right to collective punishment, to burn down villages, to ban trade, and even to put whole tribes under interdict—even if they’re not living in the area. So it’s fairly draconian, and it comes directly out of British colonial rule.

MJ: So if the army isn’t Pashtun, how does a smaller element like the ISI exert so much control?

TB: A lot of people in the ISI are Pashtuns because they had the language skills. During the Soviet War period, [Mohammad] Zia ul-Haq began Islamizing the army. Before, the army was fairly resolutely secular, but since the ’80s you saw a greater and greater influence of Islamists in the army as well as the ISI. By the time they were helping the Taliban, some [army officials] were highly sympathetic to this idea of a Wahhabi-style Islamic state. Pakistan was formed as a state for Muslims separated off from India—it’s name means “land of the religiously pure”—and it’s always been like, “Well, are we Muslim enough?” All states founded as places to protect a religious group run into that problem. Israel has that problem with its right wing, and in Pakistan it’s even stronger.

MJ: How has army support of the jihadis imperiled the Pakistani government?

TB: The easiest example: The jihadis took over Swat Valley, which is full of Pashtuns, but was under the direct rule of the government and always had been. It had become one of the more secular, progressive areas of the Pashtuns, because it was a resort. It had ski lodges, and was a big tourist place for foreigners in the ’70s and ’80s. Swat is only a couple hours drive from Islamabad. This is like rebels taking Fredericksburg and sending their representatives to Washington saying, “We want autonomy. Northern Virginia isn’t good enough for us.”

MJ: And Pakistan has basically bent over.

TB: Yes, it really has. They have trained their troops to fight conventional warfare on the plains with tanks, with missiles, against India. So in a place like Swat, where you’ve got guys with guns fighting in mountains, and who are experts on ambush, they have just trounced the Pakistan army. The army is able to take back the major roads, the major towns, but its people are not trained and they don’t seem to have the stomach for taking these guys on in essentially a counterinsurgency.

MJ: Yet we’ve given the Pakistanis more than $10 billion, some $6 billion for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the border, ostensibly to fight the jihadis. Has Pakistan taken us for a ride?

TB: Oh sure. But they took us for a ride during the Soviet War, too. They feel they’re experts at playing us for suckers. A lot of these problems were evident, three, four, even six years ago, but nobody, including the Bush administration, was particularly interested. All the attention has been on Iraq. So this gave the Pakistanis a lot of flexibility to cause mischief. As far as they were concerned, at some point the US was going to get out of there; their whole strategy was to keep the Taliban in reserve and keep their own options open. Now people are seeing that the whole region could go up. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It has 173 million people. It’s big. So the focus and the context—even the appointment of [US diplomat Richard] Holbrooke to be special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—implies that both countries are part of the problem.

MJ: So what happens if Pakistan dissolves?

TB: There will probably be an independent Pashtun state, unlikely to join with Afghanistan, because for all the lip service Afghans give to Pashtunistan, they can count. If they were part of this state, they would be a minority, and that’s probably not a good idea from their point of view. There could be an independent Baluchistan. That’s Pakistan’s major gas producing area, and there’s been an insurgency there for a long time. Some people say Baluchistan might join with Sindh, the other major populated area. Sindh is mostly Shia, and they feel persecuted by these radical Sunnis. There’s really a large number of Shias in Pakistan that these radical Sunnis consider to be heretics—they are mostly in the south. Also in the south, in Karachi, you have all the so-called Muhajirs, the people who left India to resettle in Pakistan. So effectively you’d get three or four states. The most powerful would still be the Punjab. That would be the one holding the nuclear arms—Islamabad, Lahore, that area.

MJ: Who would be in charge?

TB: The Punjabis. They see themselves as the dominant group in Pakistan. They’re more moderate on the religious and political spectrums—as long as they can be in charge. The army that you see now is mostly Punjabi, so you’d have this large army overlooking this rump state with lots of nukes. The other thing to consider is the elites are highly modern and moderate, highly westernized: Could a social revolution break out in which the elites who have run the place since it was founded are displaced by an entirely different social class that is more radical—that doesn’t have the same vested interests or education? The army has always stood to prevent that, so presumably if they would hold on to the army, the army would hold on to Punjab and prevent things from getting out of hand. But then the question would be, if it starts to fall apart like that, would India feel the need to make a preemptive strike to go after the nukes?

MJ: Yikes!

TB: Yes. They do not want to see it that way, because when people start planning three or four moves ahead and worrying about preempting this and that, things can get pretty dangerous pretty fast.


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