Pakistan’s internal dynamics and security

This column by Ismail Khan originally appeared in The Times on November 20, 2009.

Ismail KhanIn a diverse country like ours, parliamentary democracies largely settle these things. With institutions like the Senate, where there is equal representation of all the provinces, consensus and shared threats emerge. Without consensus, the state is hardly monolithic in terms of its direction.

These days, news from Pakistan is full of rumours, accusations, and counter-accusations. It is speculated that the days of Mr. Zardari, if not the PPP government, are numbered; that Mr. Zardari is thinking to play the Sindh card; that Clinton has winked at a change in Pakistan’s setup, etc. The source of this speculation is the media, which when asked, calls itself an impartial observer.

On top of it, despite the severity, this news is full of innuendoes. Worst of all, there is excessive usage of labelling. So many commentaries on the news from Pakistan have become a dirty affair insinuating that at the end of the day, you are either an agent of the ISI or of the CIA, either a covert jiyala or on the payroll of the agencies, either a flag-waving patriot or trying to divide the country.

In the midst of all of this, the debate over the content of discontent gets lost. Imagine, even if someone is a full-time employee of any agency, forget being on contract, does that bury the content? Not at all. Then why not address the content? Maybe it can offer answers to our accusations against one another.

Although bad governance has recently been quoted as a concern for the masses, which it is, the list of entries in the charge sheet against Mr. Zardari has hardly anything to do with governance. Here is the list that haunts Mr. Zardari: the PPP government tried to bring the ISI under the Ministry of Information; the president announced the no-first use of nuclear weapons in the context of India; the rulers appeased India after the Mumbai attacks; the civilian government signalled ‘yes’ to the Kerry-Lugar Bill, so on and so forth. On all these issues, the media has largely stood with the PPP’s critics in the power corridors.

The common theme in all these issues is security. Of the many fallouts of the military’s prominence in Pakistani politics, the lack of consensus on security issues arguably occupies the top post. Remember how Sharif and Beg disagreed over sending troops to Iraq or how Sharif distanced himself from Kargil, despite the level of his involvement. Benazir Bhutto also never identified herself with the Kashmir jihadist movements.

Although it can be rightly said that irrespective of factors, the threat identification of a state remains the same, but in Pakistan’s case, the threat was not the same because our internal dynamics were not addressed properly.

The civil-military imbalance is one such dynamic; due to the deep imprint of the military on the security paradigm, civilians have tried to distance themselves from it. This is because security is a dividing line between the two groups; in fact, it would not be wrong to argue that the security paradigm overrides Pakistan’s national policies. The present debate over Mr. Zardari’s fate too finds its roots in the security issue.

There are other dynamics too. In the traditional sense, security is against an enemy state, which in Pakistan’s case remained India. The Pakistani narrative owes the genesis of this threat identification to partition; however, as scholars have argued recently, the threat was more extreme with those identities that experienced the ‘threat’. In Pakistan’s case, Punjabis and Urdu-speaking people can be identified as such groups, who would still recall the suffering of their ancestors at the time of partition.

Back then both the groups were well-represented in the institutions of state, which is why the nation-building task was done more by them. However, concerns change with time. Even in Punjab and among the Urdu-speakers, the local threat may not necessarily be India’s acquisition of resources. This change is clearly seen in the concerns of MQM, for which it has been disliked by many.

The paradigm remained fixated on India. This is not to suggest that with the involvement of other groups’ concerns, the paradigm would have remained the same or not. What did not happen was the representation of the variability of security of all the identities in the state’s identification of the threat.

Examples are abundant. A person living in Waziristan has been in a state of war since 2002, but it was only recently that the state went for its help. Worst of all, his or her message is being relayed just recently, which is why they are extremely frustrated over being left alone. Similarly, while Pushtun nationalists wanted to take on the militants early on, they had to relent because some groups in Islamabad were dissatisfied, until the militants were found making headlines of being “sixty miles away from Islamabad”.

Concerns of identities in Pakistan are economic and about acquisition of resources for the self. The Baloch, for instance, dislike their rapidly-changing equation with the Pushtuns, not least after the influx of Afghans into Pakistan; in Sindh, different groups want to secure their interests amidst all the groups. Thus while Pakistan has its finger pointing against India for blocking water, Sindh has levelled the same charges against Punjab for stealing water. Worst of all, the best way to get rid of an issue is to dub the person raising an issue as being a sympathiser of India.

Recently, this has been amplified by the commentaries on the electronic media; it must be noted that popular electronic media in Pakistan is Urdu-medium in nature. For their perceptions on historical experiences, many anchorpersons believe in the Indo-centric security paradigm. The Mumbai attack is a prime example, where there was a sense of madness by the media over the government’s alleged appeasement of India. Hardly anyone knew about Swat. Now they have expressed surprise over discontent in Balochistan or in Sindh. The media’s concern over security is questionable because of its ignorance of the debates within; it would not be wrong to imagine that had the same media existed in 1999, Sharif would have gone much earlier than October 1999.

In a diverse country like ours, parliamentary democracies largely settle these things. With institutions like the Senate, where there is equal representation of all the provinces, consensus and shared threats emerge. Without consensus, the state is hardly monolithic in terms of its direction.

Like it or not, the military has to equally face embarrassment as it is left in the wilderness every time it fights. Worst of all, the state’s security policies are hardly defended by all actors; that in itself is a cause for confusion within the military.

Today when there is an elected government, it finds itself grilled whenever it takes a security decision. Even if faces get changed, the underlying factors will once again re-emerge, raising the concerns with more severity. It would be much better if we read correctly the relationship between security and the internal dynamics in Pakistan. Calling someone a covert agent and blaming the whole course of history on this is hardly what a serious academic would find time to read. Today, everyone is busy making the same mistake.

Muhammad Ismail Khan is a graduate student of International Relations at Boston University.

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