Balkanized Pakistan, echoes of history

Pakistan is by nature a balkanized country and has been since partition.

August 2, 2017 21:37
4 minute read.
Nawaz Sharif

MAN in Pakistan reads a newspaper with news about the disqualification of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court... (photo credit: REUTERS)

Recent developments in Pakistan bring to the forefront, once again, the corrupt nature of Pakistani politics. The Pakistani Supreme Court’s disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from holding parliamentary office on the grounds of corruption charges is the latest instance of a long-held practice of corruption in Pakistan’s political system, during both civilian and military governments. Commentators are right to draw attention to this systemic phenomenon which plagues democracy and leaves citizens in a perpetual state of impoverishment.

To state the obvious, corruption in politics is neither new nor unique to Pakistan. If we are to understand why a stable democracy in Pakistan remains so elusive, and why the country remains in a state of violence and underdevelopment, while neighbor and rival India is gradually inching its way out of such conditions, we must look for exogenous factors as sources of explanation.

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Again, commentators will call attention to the military’s constant drain on the nation’s resources and the promotion of extremist religious ideology. The refrain that “most countries are states with an army, while Pakistan is an army with a state” is valid, but the military’s drain on the country, and the multiple bouts of martial law, are not the source of the country’s dysfunction.

What few commentators will mention, however, is that Pakistan is by nature a balkanized country and has been since partition.

This phenomenon goes beyond merely attitudes changing according to geography or demography or the debates about a federal system of government. Moreover, this is not about a great “nationalizing” project to instill Pakistani identity. Urdu was instituted as a national language, but children and adults in the provinces speak their provincial language at home and among friends.

A quick review of the historical forces behind this balkanized Frankenstein is required. Starting with Punjab, arguably the most dominant province in Pakistan, we see a landlocked province shared with India which has historically provided the largest share of recruits for Pakistan’s armed forces. With the exception of ancient cities like Lahore, the province is primarily agricultural in nature and has a highly feudal system of landlords, tenants and peasants.

Sindh Province, also agrarian in nature and home of the Bhutto family, contains the original capital of Pakistan and the historical port city of Karachi. Those who would not be embraced by the strict codes of Punjabi identity could traditionally find refuge in the “melting pot” of Karachi which, due to its access to the outside world via the major port, was not inherently averse to outsiders.

Nevertheless, Karachi has been marred for decades by violent gangs, often along ethnic- sectarian lines.

And we come to the “failed” states within the state of Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP). Balochistan, which shares its name and history with the province on the Iranian side of the border, remains highly tribal and underdeveloped.

Indeed, many of the revenge/honor crimes which make international headlines come from this province. NWFP, the name itself an indicator of how Pakistanis view this province, was historically considered by both indigenous Indian rulers and the British to be largely ungovernable and not worth the military and civilian expenditures to exert state control over, provided its heterogeneous populations did not constitute a security challenge to the empire.

The long-held practice of ruling this balkanized country has been to a) promote leaders who, through their greed, are willing to keep the peace, and b) to use the military to co-opt militia tribal leaders into a loose network of security assets. Tribal leaders in Balochistan and NWFP would accept these terms provided that their local cultures were not disrupted and commitments to a central government remained minimal. Sindh and Punjab were largely left to their feudal ways as long as they remained economically productive, providing the agricultural resources needed to keep the country’s population content.

Where Kemal Ataturk used the state’s resources to crush the superstitious ways of the Ottoman past and create unified subservience to the secular, republican project, in Pakistan such issues as education and technological innovation have necessarily been ignored to keep the hostile provinces from rebelling against the state.

This process will continue as long as civilian and military leaders persist in their status quo policies of co-opting and ignoring the “badlands” and merely keeping the two main provinces of Punjab and Sindh on life support.

This is probably the approach Pakistani leaders will take for the foreseeable future, since any other policy would require too much effort to build coalitions and would likely involve bloodshed. The assertion of state power would be viewed by most populations within the country’s borders as a foreign occupation, in the same vein as the United States is seen in neighboring Afghanistan.

If the status quo is to change, however, the overarching goal must be the subservience of all populations and institutions to the state and the traditional rules of modern government: law and order, equal treatment for all citizens, abstaining from violence, and a commitment to market-oriented economic principles. With the international community continuously looking for Pakistan to cease its support to terrorist groups, internal and external conditions could be ripe to change the nature of Pakistan’s balkanized dysfunction.

The author has an MA from the University of Chicago, and is a former US diplomat and FBI counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with over 15 years of experience studying and working in the Middle East and South Asia. He has published op-eds in both the Pakistani and Israeli media

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