- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2000

Since the creation of their state in 1947, Pakistanis have rarely felt the recognition they believe due a nation of their size and strategic import. In 1971, they lost East Pakistan, which, with the help of India, became the independent state of Bangladesh. Ever since, many in the military establishment are all the more determined to win control of the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir. "What was taken from us in the East [Bangladesh] we must take from India in the West [Kashmir]," they argue.

Many Pakistanis envision a state consisting of Pakistan plus Kashmir and Afghanistan. This large Muslim power would seek close links with the former Soviet republics, considered to be a vast market for Pakistani products and a recruiting ground for Islamist militants.

Believing in a "next round" of conflict with India, Pakistan's military has long been on the lookout for "strategic depth" in the region. During the 1971 war some of Pakistan's air force was given shelter in Iran, well out of the Indian reach. Relations with Iran, however, have soured as a result of Pakistan's efforts to turn Afghanistan into a client state. Today, the Afghanistan of the Taliban provides that hinterland where "Jihadists" can train for their war in Kashmir without fear of direct Indian reprisal. (Some of these camps that were the target of a U.S. cruise missile attack last year intended to destabilize Osama bin Laden's terrorist network).

Pakistan's expansionist policy was conceived at a time when India was allied with the Soviet Union while Washington was closer to the counter Beijing-Islamabad axis. The collapse of Cold War alliances has ushered in a period of Indo-U.S. cooperation, leaving Pakistan in the uncomfortable position of having to rely evermore on China. This relationship, too, has been stymied by U.S. efforts to control the transfer of missile and nuclear technology between these states. Pakistan has rarely been as alone as it is today.

For these reasons, a section of the educated class is in favor of a reorientation of their country's policy, requiring a mending of fences with India. In other words, Islamabad would abandon its irredentist claims to Kashmir and adventurism in Afghanistan and accept the role as a junior partner in relations on the subcontinent. Such a limited role would allow the country to pare its military spending and devote more of its scarce resources to reviving its ailing education and economy.

Already in the early 1970s many regarded military rule as the root cause of their misfortunes. A generation later Pakistanis ask "what is wrong with this country that only gets from bad to worse?" The problem is to be seen in the totalitarianism that here goes by the name Islamic Movement. A tiny cadre party of ultranationalists uses religious trappings to appeal to the masses.

In free and fair elections, the "Islamists" do not manage 5 percent of the vote and yet in Pakistani politics they are as influential as if they had a majority. Much of that is due to their infiltration of the military, especially the intelligence services, which they have controlled since one of their sympathizers, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, ruled Pakistan from 1977-88. During that period, Islamists were placed in such positions as to make any government not of their liking end in chaos.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made an attempt to get out of the Islamist spider web and drastically change the direction of his country's foreign policy. After withdrawing troops from forward positions in Kashmir last year, Mr. Sharif was quickly brought down by the military's Islamist stalwarts, thus heralding the arrival of Pakistan's fifth military government. From Pakistan's current ruler, Gen. Parvez Musharraf, have come conflicting signals. The Islamists tell him every day what they expect him to do and what not: Intensify fighting in Kashmir, do not force the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.

The general has cunningly risen through the ranks of the military's Islamist machinery without being a party man. Now every side doubts that he may be at heart a man of the other party. The big question is whether he himself realizes what a definite choice between moderation and Islamism is facing his nation. If Gen. Musharraf continues the confrontation with India, using an international legion of "Jihadists" in Kashmir, there can be no improvement of relations with the United States and Europe. The same applies to the continued application of the infamous "Blasphemy Law" (to terrorize religious minorities) and the public justification of "honor killings" of women as "Islamic."

With such barbarity, Pakistan risks isolating itself even from its Muslim friends. Gen. Musharraf has been rebuked by Islamists for having praised Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Mr. Ataturk consolidated his rump state by forswearing Turkish irredentism and seeking to ameliorate relations with all neighbors. To this end, he outlawed the "Islamic Movement."

Given the choice, more Pakistanis would advise Gen. Musharraf to follow the course of Mr. Ataturk rather than that of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in Kashmir. The recent collapse of a cease-fire agreement in Kashmir supports the notion that Pakistan's Islamist rulers will maintain their hard line in regional relations. Ultimately, it will be up to the citizens of Pakistan, who suffer the brunt of the country's isolation, to demand a moderate stand from their government, both externally and internally.

Khalid Duran, a professor of Middle East and South Asian studies, is the editor of the journal TransIslam.

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