A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

A Mutiny Grows in Punjab

Mini Teaser: Securing Pakistan is far more important than “victory” in Afghanistan. And the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign is only stoking extremist flames in the Hindu Kush. Washington must pull back.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

More threatening by far, however, is that these beliefs and feelings are almost certainly shared by a majority of Pakistani soldiers—who are to some extent insulated from society by military discipline and culture, but who obviously cannot be cut off from the influence of their families. The greatest potential catalyst for a collapse of the Pakistani state is not the Islamist militants themselves, who are in my view far too weak and divided to achieve this (a capacity for murderous terrorism should not be confused with a capacity for successful revolution); it is that actions by the United States will provoke a mutiny of parts of the military. Should that happen, the Pakistani state would collapse very quickly indeed, with all the disasters that this would entail.

And, of course, Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and one of the most powerful armies in Asia. Western fears have been focused on the threat that Pakistani nuclear arms (or more realistically, the materials and expertise to make a “dirty bomb”) might fall into the hands of terrorists; but a more immediate threat is that a fraying of the Pakistani military would lead to enormous quantities of conventional munitions (including antiaircraft missiles) and large numbers of trained technicians and engineers making their way into the terrorist camp. This would enormously increase the terrorist danger to the West, even if the Pakistani military as a whole held together. If the army and the state were to disintegrate completely, the consequences hardly bear thinking about.

It is essential to remember in this context that while the leadership of the Afghan Taliban has enjoyed a measure of official shelter in Pakistan (especially in northern Baluchistan and the city of Quetta, where several of them are credibly reported to be based), the Pakistani military has not actually supported the Afghan Taliban with sophisticated weapons, in the way that Pakistan, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and other countries supported the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. This is obvious from the Taliban’s lack of sophisticated weaponry and training. Indeed, even in June 2010, according to a briefing by the British military which I attended, they were still far behind the Iraqi insurgents even in the construction of improvised explosive devices.

This should serve as a stark reminder of just how much more Pakistan could do to help the Afghan Taliban (and other anti-Western groups) if the Pakistani state and military, or the relationship between Islamabad and Washington, were to completely fall apart. It is this terrifying outcome that present U.S. strategy in the region risks producing.

IF THE Pakistani army were a chiefly Pashtun army, then it might well have disintegrated already, given the strength of Taliban support among that ethnic group and the links between the Pashtuns of Pakistan and those of Afghanistan. Fortunately, the Pakistani army is mainly Punjabi, more specifically a northern Punjabi force—and throughout Pakistani history, Punjab and the army have had a deep reciprocal influence, especially in terms of that complex, ambiguous, deeply flawed, very weak but surprisingly strong sentiment: Pakistani Muslim nationalism. Indeed, Pakistani nationalism is very feeble except in the extremely powerful institution of the military and the very strong province of Punjab (or part of it) from which that institution is chiefly drawn.

With some 56 percent of Pakistan’s population, Punjab would naturally dominate the country and provide most of its soldiers. In fact though, the proportion of Punjabis in the army is around 75 percent (mainly from a few districts in the northwest of the province). Punjab’s weight within Pakistan, however, is not simply due to its domination of the military-bureaucratic establishment. The northern and some of the central districts of the province also possess almost three-quarters of Pakistan’s industry and its most productive agriculture.

This economic dynamism is due to two factors above all: the great British and Pakistani irrigation schemes of the 1880s–1950s and the impact of the Punjabi Muslim refugees who fled from Indian East Punjab in 1947. Like many migrants, the experience of being uprooted and shaken out of old patterns of life instilled in these people a new sense of economic initiative. It also fostered a deep hatred of India. This went on to fuel both the Pakistani military’s obsession with the Indian threat and mass support for the jihadist groups, which from the end of the 1980s on began to launch attacks, first in Indian Kashmir, then in the rest of India. Herein lie the origins of what the Pakistani politician and former ambassador to Washington, Syeda Abida Hussain, has called Pakistan’s “Prussian Bible Belt” in Punjab, a phrase linking the region’s strong military ties with some of its increasingly militant forms of Islam.

In Punjab, quite unlike the other provinces of the country, not only the great majority of the Punjabi establishment, but a great many ordinary Punjabis associate their provincial identity with that of Pakistan as a whole. The identities of most of Pakistan’s other nationalities are to a considerable extent shaped by their differences with the Punjabis (except for the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs whose ancestors migrated from India to Karachi and Hyderabad after 1947) and their ambiguous relationship with the Pakistani state.

Many Punjabis by contrast believe that they are the state, and if they define themselves against anybody else, it is against India. As a senior official (of Mohajir origin) in Islamabad remarked sourly, “The difficulty about writing on Punjab as a province is that they think and behave as if they are the whole damn country.” This Punjabi commitment to Pakistani nationalism has profoundly shaped the country, and is indeed responsible for Pakistan’s survival as a state.

THE OVERTHROW of the regime can never happen in peripheral areas like Waziristan, Baluchistan or even Karachi. It would have to happen in Punjab. A main reason for this: if mass Islamist unrest were to take place in the northern part of the province, the military high command would have to be very worried about its troops refusing to fight against the rebellion.

A revolution from below in Punjab, however, would have to take place not just against the national government in Islamabad but against the provincial government in Lahore. While the national government is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), headed by the Bhutto-Zardaris, and is now widely loathed across much of Punjab, the provincial government is made up of the Pakistan Muslim League–N (PLM-N) run by the Sharif brothers—now in opposition at the national level. And while within Pakistan the national government is generally seen (however unfairly) as having become highly subservient to America, the Sharifs have sought with some success to portray themselves as moderate Islamists who would take a more independent line when in national power.

Whether when actually in control—which they are certain to be sooner or later—the Sharifs would do anything very different vis-à-vis America is rather unlikely. In the countryside, the PML-N depends on the same networks of “feudal” power, kinship and patronage as the PPP. These “feudals” are tightly bound to the state by the webs of political patronage (or, if you prefer, corruption) which have long formed the most important part of their income. Examining the history of powerful local families in Pakistan, again and again you discover that while kinship links and local property are important, the breakthrough to real prominence came when they were able to be elected to Parliament (or selected by a military government) and thereby gained the ability to milk the state for benefits. The collapse of Pakistan would destroy all that and throw them back on the exiguous and fragile profits of their estates and urban rents.

In the cities of northern Punjab, the PML-N is much more closely linked to the industrialist class from which the Sharifs themselves were drawn into politics by then–President of Pakistan and Chief of Army Staff General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. This class, which depends overwhelmingly on its ability to export textiles to the outside world, is also acutely aware of the shattering damage to the Pakistani economy and its own interests that would result from a collapse in relations with the United States and the imposition of trade sanctions on Pakistan.

Equally important, the industrialists, like the “feudals,” are by their very nature an antirevolutionary force, fearful of the threat to their wealth and power from Islamist revolution. Both classes are also attached to Pakistan as a state by strong motives of collective interest. The industrialists depend on the existence of Pakistan for their very well-being. If the country were to fall apart, their industries would be ruined.

Indeed, an Islamist revolution and the collapse of Pakistan are synonymous. This is a crucially important point, both because it is true and because enough Pakistanis know that it is true. This means an Islamist revolt that overthrows the existing state is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely—and only feasible if accompanied by a mutiny within the military. And it is simply impossible that such an uprising could lead to the establishment of an effective and united Islamist radical government, whether of the Iranian or the Taliban variety. Pakistan is too weak for the first and too strong for the second.

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