Is Pakistan heading for meltdown? - I
by N S Rajaram on 02 Jan 2018 7 Comments

Reports from Pakistan indicate that institutions of the state are heading for collapse. There are powerful forces at work that may soon redraw boundaries in the region. To see that, we need first to recognize that Pakistan is a geographical anomaly in which a vast and turbulent frontier is being controlled by a much smaller Punjabi interior. The Indian political establishment has shown little strategic thought in analyzing the long term consequences of this anomaly.


Another anomaly amounting almost to an absurdity is that the real founder of Pakistan, at least in the territorial sense, was not Mohammed Ali Jinnah, but Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire. Had Ranjit Singh not recovered the Punjab, Kashmir, Sind and other areas that were then held by the Afghans, there would be no territory to fight over. Ranjit Singh was crowned on 12 April 1801 (Baisakhi day). Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev, conducted the coronation. Gujranwala served as his capital from 1799. In 1802, he shifted his capital to Lahore. Ranjit Singh rose to power in a very short period, from being a petty leader to finally becoming the Maharaja (Emperor) of Punjab.


He then spent the following years fighting the Afghans, driving them out of the Punjab. He also captured Pashtun territory including Peshawar (North West Frontier Province and Tribal Areas). This was the first time that Peshawari Pashtuns were ruled by Punjabis. He captured the province of Multan which encompassed the southern parts of Punjab, Peshawar (1818), Jammu and Kashmir (1819). Thus Ranjit Singh put an end to more than a thousand years of Muslim rule in the greater part of North India, especially the Punjab.


Jinnah’s folly


What Jinnah did was to reverse Ranjit Singh’s achievement by creating a state without a past or a future, dominated by a hostile frontier in search a utopian ideology forever looking beyond its boundaries to Islamic states. (Gandhi did the same thing trying to bring Swaraj by restoring the Caliphate, but that is a different story. This Gandhi-Jinnah fondness for the foreign, demonstrating the ideological bankruptcy of both men, needs serious study).


Returning to Ranjit Singh, it was not just Muslim rule, but the rule of non-Indians from Central and West Asia that he put an end to. Thanks to his military and political skills, North India including Punjab has been free of Central Asian influence for more than 200 years. They later came under the British, but that did not change the character of North India, especially the Punjab. Henceforth, it was Punjab that dominated Afghanistan and Central Asia and not the other way as had been the case for over a thousand years. This now seems to have come full circle with the Partition weakening Punjab and the frontier lands weighing down on Pakistan’s limited resources. This too was the fallout of Jinnah’s folly.


Successive Indian governments seem to be obsessed with ‘normalizing’ relations with Pakistan, not recognizing that the existence of Pakistan is now in a state of flux. Few have shown the faintest understanding of the cataclysmic changes taking place across the border that may soon render the Kashmir and other issues all but irrelevant.


Here is the reality: Pakistan is now a state on the verge of unravelling: the State of Pakistan is being overwhelmed by forces of history and geography. A state with less than a tenth the resources of India, Pakistan is forced to fight insurgencies on its frontiers perhaps ten times as great as in Kashmir. It is only a matter of time before the institutions of the state reach breaking point.


And this is because of the fundamental irrationality of Pakistan, which is less a state than a turbulent frontier that a small Punjabi elite is attempting to hold together. This is the picture that emerges from a careful examination of the history and current state of the Punjab and Central Asia over the centuries. Some of this was pointed out by Robert Kaplan, in his article The Lawless Frontier (The Atlantic Monthly, September 2000). But the shallow Indian media and political establishment have shown no awareness of these.


Disorder and irrationality: Border with a small core


In simple terms: while world attention is focused on the proxy war in Kashmir, the Afghan conflict and the like, conflicts far more fierce and fundamental in nature are taking place in the borderlands of Pakistan - in the Northwest Frontier, Baluchistan and even Sind. This has set the state of Pakistan on a course of irreversible dissolution. Here is the crux of the problem in Kaplan’s words: “Osama bin Laden, and the fighting in Kashmir obscure the core issue of South Asia: the institutional meltdown of Pakistan…”


And this is due to the “accumulation of disorder and irrationality” that is yet to be understood. And the jihad in Kashmir is a consequence of this fear of a crumbling state - in the hope of providing a unifying theme to unite forces of the frontier that are implacably hostile to the Punjabi ruling establishment.


Of course, border problems are nothing new, but in the case of Pakistan it is of an altogether different dimension. The reason is simple: Pakistan is made up mostly of border regions with a small Punjabi core.


As Kaplan said, “Pakistan covers the desert frontier of the subcontinent. British civil administration extended only to Lahore, in the fertile Punjab, near Pakistan’s eastern border with India; its Mogul architecture, gardens, and rich bazaars give Lahore a closer resemblance to the Indian cities of New Delhi and Calcutta than to any other place in Pakistan. But the rest of Pakistan - the rugged Afghan-border regions of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, the alkaline wasteland of Sind, and the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountains embracing Kashmir - has never been subdued by the British or anyone else.” It is a small chunk of India latched on to a huge and hostile border region. It is a total mismatch.


This might be an oversimplification but his basic insight is valid: Pakistan is made up of a vast desert frontier with a small Punjabi core. This unruly desert frontier is what a Punjabi elite and a sprinkling of Muhajirs are trying to rule, while holding up Islam as the unifying force. But this has not made the people on the frontier hate them any less, for Islam always has led to divisions with each side charging the other to be less pure. Pakistan’s answer to this encirclement was to create the Taliban through which to control Afghanistan itself. This was facilitated by the war in Afghanistan, which the CIA financed and Pakistani ISI managed.


This obscured for a while the fundamental irrationality and chaos inherent in the makeup of Pakistan. The flow of foreign money, especially during the Afghan War, obscured also the economic fragility of the small productive Punjab trying to support the vast unruly and unproductive frontier. The Cold War and the Afghan War gave Pakistan an exaggerated sense of importance. Pakistani leaders and elite failed to recognize that they were needed only to do a dirty job that Americans didn’t want to do themselves.


To compound the folly, Pakistan has now embarked on a course of destabilization of India itself, though some harbor illusions of normality. How to have ‘normal’ relations with an abnormal state that is not a state? Pakistan is a state that is distinguished not by reason but dogma, beginning with its geography. Its belief in Islam as the solution to all its problems has led it to define itself as the Jihad state par excellence. It has made it the most despised country in the world. It sees spreading terror as its salvation. This bespeaks a mind stupefied by religious dogma to a point beyond reason and logic. This is Talibanism pure and simple.


This has come back to haunt it in the form of Afghan refugees and lawlessness on a scale that has overwhelmed the Pakistani establishment. The problem is rooted in history and geography. Foreign aid and rescheduled payments can only prolong the agony; they cannot alter the geo-strategic reality or inherent irrationality of Pakistan’s composition. It is independent of who is in power, the military or a civilian government. The frontier tribes recognize neither. Nor do they care to be ruled by plainsmen from the Punjab, be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or British. Actually the Sikhs were the most successful rulers.


This is the basic force of history that the Punjabi ruling elite calling itself Pakistan is fighting against. The outcome of the struggle is a foregone conclusion. It follows a historic pattern: a weak state in the Punjab has always succumbed to forces from the northwest. A strong state of which Punjab is a part has always turned back the invader. So the only hope for its Punjabi heartland to survive is to be part of the strong state of India. How this is to be brought about is not clear at this time, but it should be the starting point in any analysis. You need a normal state before normalizing relations. Pakistan today is not a normal state.


With such mighty forces at play, it is clear that a Punjabi-Mohajir elite in a slender sliver of land cannot hope to control a vast and lawless frontier, as Kaplan puts it. The only natural boundary between this frontier-land and the plains is the Indus River, which leaves Pakistan with no strategic depth. The question then becomes one of survival, not exercise of authority. It also shows the futility of India placing trust in any Pakistani leader in the hope of achieving peace. No leader can control either geography or the forces of sectarian hate and violence that dominate the region. It is only a matter of time before the state crumbles under this weight.


When the inevitable happens, all of Pakistan will become a ‘lawless frontier’. The only institutions left in Pakistan will be the madrasas (Islamic schools) that turn out something like half a million ‘students’ a year fit for nothing except jihad. Their first targets will the elite at home. They are already running the state in Afghanistan and much of Pakistan. Left unchecked, they will soon control all of Pakistan. The consequences for the region can be cataclysmic, and India should prepare for the inevitable. But some continue to fantasize about ‘normalized relations’ with a pathological entity.


(To be concluded…)

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