Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Why ‘Pakistan’ Doesn’t Exist – And Why Meddling May Not Help
The Obama Administration, by all accounts, is scrambling to fix the crisis in Pakistan.
The United States and Japan have each pledged billions to shore up the country’s doddering economy. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke is busy drumming up international support for what is being described as a “global concern.” Drones continue to pound militant hideouts in the lawless tribal region. And everywhere there’s talk about the impending disaster set to unfold along the badlands bordering Afghanistan.
Some in the American foreign policy establishment have begun whispering ominous warnings about a nuclear-armed “failed state” sandwiched between a densely populated archenemy and a country both the U.S. and NATO are trying desperately to stabilize.
To be sure, the problem is deadly serious. And it’s poised to get much worse.
Not long ago, the BBC reported that Taliban militants operating in the country’s Swat region had expanded operations into nearby Buner, a part of the Malakand region, where strict Sharia law had been implemented under a peace deal with the central government. Here’s the scary part: Buner is only some 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, where security forces have been placed on high alert. All told, the situation is terribly gloomy. But stepping in isn’t necessarily going to make things better.
You see, the problem with Pakistan is not that it is a failing state, but that it is, in fact, no state at all. Think of it as a deeply fragmented assemblage of deeply fragmented provinces held together by the dual interventions of the mosque and the military.
Let me explain.
The Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen has theorized that the foundational components of modern states – territory, authority and rights – were built up through gradual processes with deep historical roots. For example, the divine right of kings emerged as an early expression of secular sovereignty when monarchs asserted autonomy against a controlling papacy. The territorial state was created to provide an autonomous base for secular authority at a time when church leaders refused to submit to monarchical control. Gradually, the Christian political communities of the past began to resemble the world of secular sovereign states we recognize today.
Squeezing the facts into a modular concept, Sassen has suggested that “critical capabilities” developed over the centuries, at particular “tipping points,” jump tracks and “become lodged in novel organizing logics.
The foundational changes eventually produce a political picture that is recognizably different from previous years. Empires give way to nation-states, nation-states form transnational unions; slowly, the world seems like a different place. But it all begins with those foundational components from long ago. Without them, there would be no “capabilities” to organize into any meaningful political whole.
So what does this have to do with Pakistan?
Consider the history of that tormented country.
From its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been something of an enigma. Fashioned out of two Muslim-majority wings in the eastern and northwestern regions of British India, the state was hurriedly and controversially cobbled together out of geographically and politically disjointed territories. Racked by internal divisions from the get-go, the country was never a “nation-state” in the traditional sense. Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus felt a strong connection to India. Those in the west were uprooted from their homes as their Muslim neighbors voted to join the new state of Pakistan; Muslims in East Punjab faced a similar plight.
In nearby Sindh, according to Wikipedia, Sindhi has been the sole official language since at least the 19th Century. Urdu – the “national” language – is spoken by only 18 percent of the population. As recently as 1967, a Sindhi literary movement contested the imposition of Urdu by the central government, urging Sindhi nationalists to unite around an autonomous “Sindhudesh” within a federated Pakistan. Balochistan, the largest of Pakistan’s provinces, is a hotbed of ethno-linguistic separatism. The North-West Frontier Province is known to its nationalist Pashtun inhabitants as Pakhtunkhwa or “the land of the Pashtuns.”
Put together, the country labeled “Pakistan” is a fiction without any of the “capabilities” – common language, cohesive history, territorial integrity etc. – that facilitate the organization of nation-states. The “tipping point” that marked its beginning was a failure of secular politics in the larger national community of British India. There was never an “organizing logic” giving shape to a distinctive nation-state of Pakistan. Seen this way, the country’s troubles today merely reflect the circumstances of its founding. Pakistan, as it is known in the West, and traced on a map, does not – and arguably has never – existed.
This is why intervening in the country’s internal affairs is actually intervening in a complicated web of relationships between multiple warring nations. It is a mission for which the United States is wholly unprepared.
President Obama is correct in noting that bringing stability to Afghanistan will involve dramatic change in Pakistan. What he needs to remember is that the people who call these countries home do not see them as neatly as they appear on international political maps.