A pathology parading as a polity

By Lorenzo

What does it say about a country that it is forced to have its “home” cricket tests in another country? For the purposes of test cricket, Pakistan holds its “home” tests in the United Arab Emirates because Pakistan itself is deemed too dangerous.

A problem with violence

What does it say about a country that a bodyguard can assassinate the Provincial Governor he was responsible for guarding and be treated by many as a national hero? On 4 January 2011, Punjab governor Salmaam Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for publicly disagreeing with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. (Punjab is the major province of Pakistan, with about 56% of Pakistan’s population.)  While thousands of ordinary Pakistanis attended the slain Punjabi governor’s funeral, the murderer was also publicly hailed as a hero, with Pakistan’s most prominent religious Party praising his actions.

Protest against blasphemy laws.

Protest against blasphemy laws.

The Pakistani Minister for Minorities, the only Christian in Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on 2 March 2011 for his opposition to the same law. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the “Pakistani Taliban”, claimed responsibility for his murder.

Pakistan is a major arena for sectarian violence, with Muslim minorities also being targeted. In fact, is rated by Minority Rights Group International as being as threatening for minorities as Iraq and Afghanistan, with the threat rising faster in Pakistan than either.

Both the above assassinations were for championing the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian women sentenced to death for blasphemy. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws fall particularly heavily on Pakistan’s tiny (3%) Christian minority. A minority which is the target of mass suicide bombings and other attacks.


Blasphemy law is a classic example of how expanding the moral ambit of concern for acts narrows the moral ambit of concern for persons. In this case, the capital offence being to say, in response to taunts against her religion:

I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?

The claim that she, as a Christian, touching the water had made it haram, unclean, make it clear how much this particular case a matter of religious outcasting and provides an indication that, as some have suggested, much anti-Christian animus is a reworking of old caste prejudices.

Mosque, military and islands of capital

In Muslim countries not ruled by traditional monarchies, politics is often a clash between mosque and military; the only two significant organised power networks. With support for “secular” politics often meaning that one is a member of a minority group, as with the Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq; in both those cases using Baathism as their political vehicle–a political ideology founded by an atheist, a Christian and a modernising Sunni Muslim. Or one is a supporter of the military against the mosque. Or both.

Pakistan has some of the mosque versus military dynamics, with a series of military dictators (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2002) and a range of religious parties and militant groups. Its politics are complicated by significant landlord and commercial classes, providing some relief from any mosque-versus-military dichotomy. Pakistan still falls within Nobel Laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis‘s classic 1954 analysis Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour (pdf), with “islands of capital” surrounded by a “sea” of subsistence farming, but those islands are large enough to be the basis of significant political forces. (Not true in, for example, Egypt.)

India has larger islands of capital, both in critical mass and per head, hence its per capita GDP being about 25% higher than Pakistan’s. India also has a significantly higher literacy rate (74% to 55%): the female literacy rate in India (66%) being only slightly lower than the male literacy rate in Pakistan (69%).  Bangladesh, which has only two-thirds of the per capita GDP of Pakistan, also has a higher literacy rate (60%) than Pakistan, with its female literacy rate (53%) being only slightly lower than Pakistan’s overall literacy rate (55%).

States but not nations

The other complication in the development of a “normal” mosque-versus-military dichotomy is that Pakistan has no national identity apart from an Islamic one. Unlike Bangladesh (“the nation of Bengal“), which is overwhelmingly (98%) ethnic Bengali (it is essentially the country of Muslim Bengalis), Pakistan (“the land of the pure“) is a patchwork quilt of ethnicities and languages; Punjabis (44%), Pashtun (15%), Sindhi (14%), Saraiki speakers (11%), Urdu speakers (8%)–Urdu is essentially the Muslim version of Hindi–Balochi (4%) plus another 5% of various smaller minorities.

The Pashtun make up around 42% of the population of Afghanistan while being the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan–in fact almost as many Pashtun live in Pakistan as the entire population of Afghanistan. Which makes the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities a bit moot–Afghanistan is really the bit that didn’t end up in British India, the Russian Empire (cum Soviet Union) or Iran. Just as Pakistan is the (western) bit of Muslim-not-India.

The lack of a common identity for each country, beyond being overwhelmingly Muslim, is one of the destabilising features of both countries–they are states without being nations. With the modern world’s massive broadening of the expected scope of state action, that is a serious problem. The notion that Afghanistan cannot be conquered or ruled successfully is nonsense: it was both plenty of times, just under very different expectations of what was permitted and useful to do for either.


If the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities is a bit moot, and if Pakistan is defined as “Muslim-not-India”, then the obvious way for Pakistan to get more strategic depth against India (against which it has fought four wars, all of which it started and all of which it lost) is to dominate (possibly even absorb) Afghanistan.  Now, trying to define yourself against a country, India, which is much larger demographically (1,210m to 182m) and significantly richer (the Indian economy is about 9 times the size of the Pakistani economy) may seem a deeply silly thing to do. But if the only unifying state identity is “Muslim-not-India”, if your second largest ethnic group is the largest ethnic group of the neighbouring Muslim country, and if you are the Pakistani military and believe that ultimately God is on your side, then it may seem the only game in town. Especially given the tradition of over a millennia of successful Muslim aggression against Buddhists and Hindus, from the C8th to the C18th. (Until the rise of the Maratha and Sikh empires, themselves then overthrown by the British, the founders of the modern Pakistani army.)

Muslim conqueror building a "minaret of beheaded skulls".

Muslim conqueror building a “minaret of beheaded skulls”.

Welcome to the Taliban strategy. The Taliban were not a result of the (ultimately) successful insurgency against Soviet rule in Afghanistan (1979-1989). They arose in 1994 and operated as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, being recognised by only three countries–Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The countries which had provided the bulk of the logistical support and funding for the anti-Soviet insurgency. (The Saudis had matched US funding dollar for dollar with about the same amount again being raised by private donations, mainly in the Saudi kingdom and the UAE.) About 10% of Afghanistan had remained under the control of the Northern Alliance, groups who had been crucial in the anti-Soviet insurgency but were not sufficiently pliable for Pakistani purposes.

Osama bin Laden, scion of perhaps the second wealthiest family in Saudi Arabia, had originally made his name helping to organise funding and volunteers for the mujahideen. The Taliban were very much Wahhabi flavoured in their conception of Islam, yet another iteration of the endless round of Islamic reformist movements seeking to get back to the original, “pure” Islam; locked in the Islam-has-(literally)-all-the-key-answers side of Islam’s epistemic event horizon.

The Stillborn God

But Islam is not the answer to the problems of modern governance. No religion is; first because, even within a single religion, getting agreement on what the religion actually requires in various situations is impossible except through the operation of violence. The lesson Europe mostly took from the Wars of Religion of c.1524-c.1648. Hence Latin Christendom becoming Western civilisation–adding in Graeco-Roman classicism and science as civilisation-defining characteristics. The great task of the Enlightenment.

Ali beheading war captive Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.

Ali beheading war captive and satirical poet Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.

Second, because modern governance deals with a host of, literally, entirely new questions, or old questions recast in very different contexts. Third, because the most successful development path is through the evolution of the social bargaining state; which requires a certain minimal civility and mutual acceptance that strong reliance on religious identities gets in the way of. If the infidel “pollutes” what they touch–as with Asia Bibi and sipping water–there is not much grounds for social bargaining.

Which is precisely where the Taliban strategy ran into deep problems. Osama bin Laden was appalled at the al-Saud calling in infidel troops (US, British, French) to defend itself against Saddam Hussein’s aggression. The House of Saud claims the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques“, while the core of Arabia is supposed to be the land of only one religion. The use of infidel forces “polluted” holy Arabia and meant, according to bin Laden et al, that the al-Saud had forfeited their status as defenders of the heartland of Islam. A classic case of religious identity precluding social bargaining, albeit of the international variety.

So, al-Qaeda struck at the “near enemy” (al-Saud) by striking at the “far enemy” and the Two Towers fell. The US response to the jihadi taking out two buildings was to take out two countries. Starting with bin Laden’s haven of Afghanistan.


Which put Pakistan, and particularly the Pakistani military, in a very difficult spot. If the US blamed Pakistan, it had an obvious ally for military action. One that had its own nasty experiences of Pakistani-based Islamic militancy; including an attack on the Indian Parliament a mere two months later, which came close to provoking an Indo-Pakistani war all on its own.

So, Pakistan essentially played a double game. President Musharaff publicly signed on to the “war on terror”. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continued to maintain links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Including, it turned out, providing a haven for bin Laden himself, part of a much wider pattern of support for violent Muslim militants. But what would one expect from the intelligence services of a military which defines itself as the coercive arm of “Muslim-not-India”?

Those who complain that the Obama Administration simply snatched and killed bin Laden rather than “going through proper channels” (i.e. requesting extradition) have no understanding of Pakistan. It is not a rule of law country. Any official response, or even unofficial request or notification, would have immediately resulted in bin Laden being tipped off and vanishing again. The Obama Administration would have been publicly crucified for its naivety and stupidity–almost certainly becoming a one-term Presidency.

Fake ally, real enemy

In the end, the insoluble issue of the Afghanistan intervention has not been Afghanistan itself; it has been being saddled with an “ally” that is actually, functionally, an enemy–as this magazine article by New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall explains. She covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the NYT from 2001 to 2013 and has now written a book on the conflict. That bin Laden had been, and remained, an ally of the ISI is a basic thesis of the book, with bin Laden regularly travelling around and being waved through checkpoints.

But what do you do about a nuclear-armed polity of 182m which is more of a pathology than a functioning state? Both the Bush and Obama Administrations had reasons to go along with Pakistan’s double game; for public admission of the problem would create huge pressure for a public response.

So, what do you do? Kill bin Laden, declare victory and go home. But that is not a solution, it is at least as much an evasion as a response. If the Taliban end up reconquering Afghanistan because the Pakistani state is still helping them, and the Afghani state is not strong enough to stop them, it will be seen in the jihadi circles as a great victory. A victory that will not satisfy, but will encourage.

Carlotta Gall’s bleak conclusion is:

When I remember the beleaguered state of Afghanistan in 2001, I marvel at the changes the American intervention has fostered: the rebuilding, the modernity, the bright graduates in every office. Yet after 13 years, more than a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height of the war and tens of thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan’s predicament has not changed: It remains a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but to pull out now is, undeniably, to leave with the job only half-done.

Meanwhile, the real enemy remains at large.

The previous Western involvement in Afghanistan bore dreadful fruit because the West lost interest after the Soviets went home. If the Taliban strategy ends up succeeding despite over a decade of US-led military effort, what might they then be emboldened to try?


  1. Posted March 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Another interesting and wide-ranging piece. keep them up!

  2. Posted March 23, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    If the Muzzies keep getting out of line, maybe we could bomb the Kaaba. What a hoot that would be 😉

  3. kvd
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    I think that the term “war on terror” should be replaced with something more closely descriptive of reality; perhaps “defence against terror”?

    In a war you generally have a defined opponent – geographical, political, state, whatever. You can suss out their intent to attack, and measure their capability to do so. With nation states, most intelligence efforts are directed to controlling intent because capability (think North Korea, Russia) is both known and advertised.

    But with terrorism, the intent to attack is a given; it is the limiting of capability to strike which requires most effort. Aggressive nations can, ultimately, be reduced to rubble, but terrorists might actually live next door, or within your own community. They are many-headed, cellular structures – making a victorious once-off stike impossible.

    I think we use the word “war” because that is more positive, even maybe romantic, than “defence”. But it is not the truth, not representative of what we face.

  4. Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks! I will try.

    [email protected] It has been suggested.

    [email protected] Nicely put.

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