This article was published on the IDSA website, here
John R. Schmidt’s article (‘Pakistan’s Alternate Universe’), published in Foreign Policy, tries to offer a counter narrative of Pakistan’s links with the Taliban. However, it would be more appropriate to term the article as the establishment view masquerading behind a thin film of a supposedly neutral counter narrative. In doing so, the author creates a dangerous veneer of legitimacy for Pakistan’s military establishment and its policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Principally, he argues that Pakistan’s fear of India and internal compulsions force it to seek an alliance with Taliban and other unsavoury elements.
At the outset, there is nothing that is fundamentally new in this assertion; Pakistan’s India complex is well known. Having a bigger, hostile neighbour can be a bit unnerving for any country. However, there is a not-so subtle difference between genuine concerns for security and a deliberate exaggeration of the threat – real or imagined. The author’s tone is striking, for it seeks to acquit Pakistan of all responsibility for its decisions by trying to brush them under the carpet of political compulsions.
The first assertion that Schmidt offers in his (or Pakistan’s?) defence is Pakistan’s discomfort regarding India’s growing presence in Afghanistan. In support of his arguments, he mentions India’s $2 billion aid to Afghanistan and the presence of ‘thousands of Indian aid workers’ in the country. It is impossible to comprehend how the presence of aid workers gives India any strategic advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan, unless of course India trains them to conduct surgical operations across the Durand Line. The same goes for the ‘four Indian consulates’. The bogey of the four (and sometimes eight) Indian consulates has been used by reactionary elements in the Pakistani press time and again in order to drum up anti-India paranoia. Pakistan itself has four consulates in Afghanistan, while Germany has three. What does that prove, if anything?
To be fair to Schmidt, India does have designs in Afghanistan that are not purely philanthropic. However, they are also not necessarily nefarious. It is in India’s interest to see an Afghanistan devoid of extremist groups that may be detrimental to its own internal and external security. India also has an eye on Afghanistan’s natural resources and it wants to develop the supporting infrastructure in order to facilitate its commercial interests. However, it would be a colossal exaggeration to argue that India sees Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan. India is aware that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long and porous border, and both nations enjoy ties of culture, ethnicity and kinship. Even if it desires, Afghanistan cannot ignore Pakistan. For India, it would be foolhardy to even contemplate such a harebrained scheme, for it can ill afford the luxury of indulging in such costly and fruitless great games.
Schmidt goes on to make a rather fantastic (and if I may add, unsubstantiated) claim that the “Pakistani army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing a jihadi takeover of the state”. Not only is such an assertion patently false, it is also rather dangerous. It is worth pointing out that Schmidt contradicts himself by making this assertion, for he accepts the Pakistan army’s role in supporting the Jihad in Kashmir towards the end of his essay. American diplomats have a time honoured tradition of putting faith in cruel, autocratic institutions of power in order to counter equally cruel religious fundamentalists. Such (blind) faith gives much needed international legitimacy to such institutions and place considerable checks on the growth of democracy in the developing world.
As far as the Pakistan Army is concerned, its commitment to uprooting extremists is often influenced by concerns for its own survival rather than any deep ideological aversion to such ‘non state’ actors. In her insightful book Taliban and Anti Taliban, Farhat Taj describes how during operation Rah-e-Nijat in 2009 against Hakeemullah Mehsood’s faction, instead of crushing the group the army merely displaced the group from South Waziristan to North Waziristan. Also, the army has been complicit in the brutal repression of anti-Taliban lashkars in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). There is a world of difference between exercising restraint against these groups and wilfully abetting their actions. The army seems to be doing the latter. Moreover, if Schmidt’s hypothesis of Pakistan’s reluctant acceptance of the Taliban is to be believed, how does one explain incidents such as the Kunduz airlift of 2001?
Towards the end of his essay, Schmidt writes in a very nonchalant manner that “Their decades-old dispute over Kashmir is the reason that the Pakistanis began supporting jihadi groups in the first place, and they are unlikely to sever their final links with them until it is resolved.”
Once again, he tries to portray that Pakistan had no choice but to send its jihadi groups to Kashmir. Pakistan’s support of jihadist groups is mentioned in such a matter-of-fact manner that make Pakistan’s course of action look normal, almost legitimate. Also, the claim is factually inaccurate. Pakistan’s use of ‘non state’ actors has a much longer and colourful history, which starts with the invasion of Kashmir in October 1947. Even in 1971, Islamic militias called Razakars were used to repress the Bengali resistance in East Pakistan. Whatever its own ideological inclinations, the Pakistan army has repeatedly used the rhetoric of Islam and Jihad to achieve less than holy aims.
Schmidt’s essay must have come as a breath of fresh air for the khakis in Islamabad. Whatever his aims, the arguments that he has employed do not stand the test of casual perusal leave alone scrutiny. Furthermore, it bolsters the stance of anti-democratic forces in Pakistan, which is regrettable considering the already lop-sided nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan.