[lg policy] Pakistan: Two mutually exclusive competing visions of the nation/state are still vying for dominance (fwd)

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Tue Jun 2 21:17:45 UTC 2009

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 27 May 2009 12:01:22 -0400
From: Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com>
Reply-To: Language Policy List <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Subject: [lg policy] Pakistan: Two mutually exclusive competing visions of the
     nation/state are still vying for dominance

view: The sole struggle —William B Milam

  The question remains whether the PPP-PMLN solidarity on this can hold
beyond the army’s campaign in Swat. There is much more territory to
regain and hold. Remember, one of the principal tenets of
counter-insurgency military strategy is to take and hold territory

A couple of weeks ago while I was in the United Kingdom to promote my
recently-published book, I found myself facing an audience at one of
England’s ancient and most prestigious universities. The questions
were intelligent and well-informed. One very bright student challenged
my assertion (better explained in the book than in my presentation,
perhaps) that one of Pakistan’s fundamental problems is that it has
not yet, 62 years after its creation, settled on a national identity.

My contention is that two mutually exclusive competing visions of the
Pakistani state/nation are still vying for dominance. The one we in
the West know best is that of the state’s founder, Mohammed Ali
Jinnah, who outlined on August 11, 1947, a vision of a secular,
tolerant, progressive state/nation.

The one we know less well, but which may even predate at least the
articulation of Jinnah’s liberal version, is the much more restrictive
vision of an Islamic state which had been the objective of the
Islamists and Islamist Parties who were part of the Pakistan Movement
even before Partition. Possibly because Jinnah died so soon after
Pakistan’s creation, the identity of the state/nation was never agreed
and remains up for grabs to this day.

Bits and pieces of Jinnah’s vision have been, for sixty years,
consistently traded away for political gain by both civilian and
military leaders of the country in what I call “Faustian Bargains”. I
have written in this column several times about these deals, including
that the “Swat peace deal” was simply the latest version. It has been
many years, I suspect, since the secular aspect of Jinnah’s vision was
a remotely possible element of a Pakistani national identity. Some,
perhaps even that British student, may think the fight is over and the
Islamist vision has won.

The current violent military struggle against Islamist extremists in
Swat, and perhaps beyond, is probably only indirectly related to the
question of Pakistan’s unsettled national identity. It is not clear
that, even if Jinnah’s vision had been adopted and had guided the
state’s civilian and military political leaders from the beginning,
there would be no such struggle in Pakistan given the history of the
last thirty years — the creation and arming of the mujahideen to fight
in Afghanistan, and the jihadists in Kashmir (unless one argues that
leaders guided by Jinnah’s vision would not have followed such

The Taliban and their allies appear to have a strategic aim of carving
out a sanctuary in Pakistan, to make it easier and safer to plan and
launch operations in the region and against the West rather than any
overall political strategy relating to Pakistan’s national identity.
That the Taliban who overreached in Swat and Buner represent such an
extreme and repugnant version of the Islamic state is, perhaps, a
major reason that public opinion seems to have swung to favour
military action to push them back and eliminate their threat to the

The view put forward by the British student was that the real problem
of Pakistan’s national identity is that the country is a patchwork of
different and often competing nationalities, ethnic and language
groups, and cultures. Very little has been done to try to incorporate
these disparate elements into a national framework, and there remains
great tension among them, and between them and the central government.
This view is, of course, fully consistent with Pakistani history, as
well as current reality; we need only refer to the long-running
insurgency in Balochistan as evidence. And there is plenty more if we
need it.

There is much to argue for this view. Certainly most historians have
pointed out that this heterogeneity is a critical problem that has
inhibited building a Pakistani nation. “Nationalities in search of a
nation” is one of the first headlines in the book I was talking about.
In fact, provincial, ethnic, or language identifications seem
increasingly to be elements of disunity in Pakistan. There are, of
course, religious differences among nationalities, ethnic and
linguistic groups that figure in this disunity, but there are equally
— perhaps even greater — elements of provincial, ethnic, and
linguistic pride and prerogative involved. These may be exacerbated by
economic and social disparities.

But the question of national unity is not necessarily the same as the
question of national identity. Bangladesh, with a common language and
homogeneous culture, the hallmarks national unity, also has no
commonly agreed national identity — although it did not start that way
as did Pakistan.

The two versions are, in fact the basis of the two major political
parties — the BNP version, a geographic and religious identity, was
invented by the first military government to counteract the original
Awami League primordial version based on the common language and
culture. In reality, these two versions have come much closer together
over the past twenty years.

It seems clear to me that the struggle over Pakistan’s national
identity fundamentally involves religion. After all, Pakistan was
created as a religious sanctuary, and the kind of sanctuary it would
be is at the core of the identity problem. That must be why Jinnah,
perhaps a little late, endeavoured to set Pakistan on a secular course
at the beginning. He may also have been trying to make up for his
earlier ambiguity on the nature of the Pakistani state he was creating
during the period when he was seeking to hold the Muslim League
together for the 1946 election.

When I think back on my days in Pakistan, and beyond the sheer
pleasure of the many great friendships I made (many of which I still
maintain from afar), the words that ring loudest in my memory are
those of a senior Pakistani diplomat who I admired but did not get to
know well enough. In what I suspect was an unguarded moment, he said
to me once, Pakistan is in a desperate “struggle for its soul”. Almost
ten years later, I have heard similar words from others, but, until
the last few days, almost never from political or military leaders.

Now, the government and the army have taken up the fight against the
Taliban in Swat with intensity and, as far as I can tell,
intelligence. The question in my mind is whether they suddenly believe
that this really is a struggle for Pakistan’s soul. If so, what led
them to change their minds from just a few months ago when they were
willing to try one more Faustian Bargain at the expense of the people
of Swat?

And what about the rest of the political class? The news out of the
all-parties conference was not reassuring. An indirect backing of the
government’s policy, we are told. In order to get consensus, all
reference to the Taliban and to the military operation in Swat was
removed. On the other hand, the PMLN appears to back the PPP
government, at least for now, and that is good. Reading further, I
find that if there had been a vote in the Assembly on a resolution
backing the operation, it would have won by a large majority.

The question remains whether the PPP-PMLN solidarity on this can hold
beyond the army’s campaign in Swat. There is much more territory to
regain and hold. Remember, one of the principal tenets of
counter-insurgency military strategy is to take and hold territory. It
took the US Army quite a while to re-learn that in Iraq, having
forgotten it once it left Vietnam almost forty years ago.

The Pakistan army certainly has the manpower to undertake that
strategy; but does it have the will, and the public backing? And will
it have such backing as well as the will to reduce its forces along
the eastern border in order to hold the state’s reacquired territory?
Or will Pakistan have to go through all this once again in six months
or so?

William B Milam is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson
Centre in Washington and a former US Ambassador to Pakistan and


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