The Domestic Roots Of Pakistan’s Extremist-Exporting Foreign Policy – OpEd


Why does Pakistan export extremists? The question takes on a new urgency after the Pentagon reported that the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with an increase in insurgent attacks and higher casualties among both Taliban and national forces.

Recently, the Pakistan–trained Taliban launched a massive attack on Kandahar on December 8, even as China called for peace talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.

Ironically the main aim of the conference was to discuss the stabilization of Afghanistan. But at least four Afghan policemen and two Spaniards were killed in an hours-long Taliban siege near the Spanish embassy in Kabul’s diplomatic area in the latest extremist attack that ended last Saturday.

The Taliban offensives show that attempts by the US and China over the last year to bring them to the negotiating table have failed to bring about a cease fire.

Taliban violence prevails because they receive Pakistani training and sustenance. The biggest mistake of the US is to rely on Pakistan to steer the Taliban to the conference room. The US is certainly aware that Pakistani-trained extremists are destabilizing Afghanistan, but it continues to supply Pakistan’s military with arms. So does China: indeed Pakistan is the largest buyer of Chinese weapons.

Diplomacy has failed because it persuades Islamabad that Pakistan’s geostrategic importance for the US outweighs Washington’s resentment of Pakistan’s extremist exports which have frustrated the success of NATO’s Afghan campaign since 2002.

No “external” factor explains why Pakistan exports extremists. Pakistan has been a western ally since the mid-1950s and many of its civilian and military leaders have at one time or another been educated in Britain or the US. But neither of these factors has induced Islamabad to renounce extremism as an instrument of state policy in Afghanistan.

At another level Pakistan wants to block “Indian influence” over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s “Indian pretext” is wrong because India has never been a troop-contributing country to NATO’s military effort. It is NATO – not India – that has blocked the return of the Taliban to Kabul. Economically China is the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan – and President Ashraf Ghani is aware that Beijing can offer his country more than India.

Pakistan’s use of extremism as a tool of foreign policy actually has its roots in its domestic politics. The explanation for Pakistan’s nurturing of extremists may lie in three outstanding factors: 1) Pakistan’s definition as an Islamic nation-state, 2) the fragmentation and weakness of its elected rulers, and 3) the political illegitimacy of its military rulers who have dominated its politics for much of its history.

Pakistan was carved out of British India in August 1947 as a nation-state in the literal sense of an alignment of the religious nation and territory, as a Muslim homeland in South Asia. Islam has been the central issue in Pakistan since 1947, the leitmotif of the Pakistani state. Some 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims.

But religion has not unified Pakistan. Pakistan’s political society has always been divided. After its birth as a state in 1947, Pakistan had no national elections until 1970. Fear of centrifugal tendencies was one of the reasons. In 1971 the Bengalis in East Pakistan seceded and carved out the state of Bangladesh. And nearly seven decades after the creation of Pakistan, the NWFP and Baluchistan remain flashpoints.

The first and last time that the Muslim League (founded in 1906) won a majority of Muslim votes was in the elections of 1945-6 in British India. It was reduced to minority status after 1947 – and split into factions after independence. Its contemporary heirs include the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, which won around 32 percent of the vote in 2013 and less than 20 percent in 2008, and the Pakistan Muslim League (Qureshi), which won 23 percent in 2008 and 3 percent in 2013.

Pakistan’s democracy is weak partly because of the strength of its anti-democratic forces, including extremist clergy and the military. The constitutional appellation of ‘Islamic Republic’ empowered the clergy and created a nexus between them and the state. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – the former prime minister (1973-77), declared Islam to be the state religion and set up a council to align secular law with the sharia. General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew and executed him, introduced the blasphemy law. Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister – who succeeded Zia – always in alliance with Islamist groups, introduced the death penalty for blasphemy during his previous term in office.

Even elected rulers have had to display credentials as “true” Muslims; indeed the Taliban, created by the late General Zia-ul-Haq, was sustained by the government of one of Pakistan’s best-known politicians, Benazir Bhutto.

Weak civilian politicians, like illegitimate military rulers, have played the religious card to mobilize political support. Religion has actually served as an instrument to cover up domestic discord – and also to justify jihad against India and, since 2001, against NATO in Afghanistan. Moreover, the connections between the clergy, military and politicians have also fomented extremist groups who have from time to time challenged the authority of the Pakistani state.

Meanwhile, education has been an instrument of political, intellectual and social engineering. It has been used to spread religious notions of jihad in Pakistan’s wars against India and to persecute its own minorities. Educational syllabi have been crafted to teach a warped Islamicized history. The media have been steered to disseminate official propaganda; Education has been used to instill in Pakistanis the idea that loyalty to the state and to Islam is synonymous. The country’s ruling elite has labeled most serious expressions of dissent as un-Islamic. In the meantime, the absence of political forces opposed to Islamic militancy have emboldened and empowered Pakistan’s jihadis, and fragmented political parties have enhanced the appeal of mullahs and the military.

A succession of inept politicians has paved the way for the successful staging of several military coups since 1958. The emergence of the military as political kingmakers, as well as their wish to mask their illegitimate political role has resulted in even closer ties with the clergy.

Over the last decade Pakistan has received as much military, development and humanitarian aid as it asked for, especially from the US. But the US and China have lost the diplomatic initiative on Afghanistan by relying on Pakistan’s ability to set up direct negotiations with the Taliban. The US has delivered tough messages but given $23 billion since the 9/11 attacks on New York to strengthen Pakistan’s resolve to fight terrorism. But if civilian and military governments relying on the clergy cannot fight home-grown terrorists, how can they help NATO to quash the Afghan Taliban?

The outstanding fact is that the generals and politicians alike cannot bring themselves to dispense with militants in politics. Using religion to gain a legitimacy which their politics cannot bestow on them Pakistan’s leaders are not going to stop the Taliban from destabilizing Afghanistan – and South Asia. That is what Islamabad’s American and Chinese arms suppliers should keep in mind – as they wonder why Pakistan merely steers the Taliban to the conference table, but never to stop fighting.

The US and China could still use their military leverage to persuade Islamabad to lead the Taliban to a cease-fire – but there is no sign that either is doing that or is succeeding in doing it.

If they give greater weight to the domestic roots of Pakistan’s extremist-exporting foreign policy they might work out more realistic strategies to defeat extremists in Afghanistan and make South Asia an area of stability.

Anita Inder Singh

Anita Inder Singh, a Swedish citizen, is a Founding Professor of the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. Her books include Democracy, Ethnic Diversity and Security in Post-Communist Europe (Praeger, USA, 2001) ; her Oxford doctoral thesis, The Origins of the Partition of India, 1936-1947 (Oxford University Press [OUP], several editions since 1987, published in a special omnibus comprising the four classic works on the Partition by OUP (2002, paperback: 2004) The Limits of British Influence: South Asia and the Anglo-American Relationship 1947-56 (Macmillan, London, and St Martin's Press, New York, 1993), and The United States, South Asia and the Global Anti-Terrorist Coalition (2006). Her articles have been published in The World Today, (many on nationalism, security and democracy were published in this magazine) International Affairs, (both Chatham House, London) the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Nikkei Asian Review and The Diplomat.

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