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Volume 45, Number 1 (Winter 2007)

Musharraf’s Tempest

book cover imagePakistan: Eye of the Storm
by Owen Bennett Jones.
Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut),
xxx + 328 pp., second edition, $17.00/£10.99 paper, 2003.

David Campion

On Christmas Day, 2003, Pervez Musharraf survived the second attempt on his life that month. As his motorcade sped through the streets of Rawalpindi, two suicide bombers drove their cars straight into the convoy of official vehicles and detonated their explosives. Rocked by the blasts but unhurt, General Musharraf was driven to his residence in his damaged car. Others were not as lucky. Not counting the bombers, a dozen people died, including three policemen. At least 46 others were injured. A visibly shaken Musharraf later appeared on state television to reassure the Pakistani people—and perhaps to alert potential rivals—that he had survived yet another assassination attempt. “This is a targeted action; I am the target,” he declared. “These blasts have given new strength to my resolve to eliminate terrorists and extremists from the country and, God willing, this mission will be accomplished.”While most Americans were in their homes opening Christmas gifts with their families, the gift for the President of Pakistan was that he had lived to see the end of another day in office.

The subtitle of Jones’ book “Eye of the Storm” is an accurate one. The attacks of September 2001 have had more of an effect on daily life in Pakistan than on any other country, including even the United States. Terms like “homeland security” and “Ground Zero” have entered the American lexicon to the degree that we subconsciously accept that we are the bull’s eye of international terror and that only the threat exists outside our shores. Jones’ book, however, is a salient reminder that America is a distant theatre in the war on terror. Both before and after September 11th, this conflict has been fought primarily in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Caucasus—with occasional though devastating forays into Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Western Europe, and North America. Moreover, many Indians, Russians, and Israelis could make the claim, not unreasonably, that the war on terror, like the great global conflicts of the twentieth century, had been well underway before the US decided to enter, and that America’s new allies have already been waging the struggle for years on their own.

The book is structured thematically with each chapter providing a layered analysis of one of the many elements that has combined to create the crisis of present-day Pakistan. Topics include the Kashmir crisis (which began almost immediately after the nation’s creation in 1947), the complex nature of Pakistani nationalism, the loss of East Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh, the failed attempts to breathe life into the nation’s stillborn democracy, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the longstanding and ever-present dominance of the army as a political and social force in the country. Jones’ ability to provide historical context and depth to the current storm engulfing present-day Pakistan is the greatest strength of this book.

Jones traces his analysis of Pakistan back to its founding in 1947 when the British ended their rule over the Indian subcontinent that had lasted for well over a century. The final decision to partition Pakistan from India and create two independent nations from the colonial centerpiece of the British Empire was largely the result of rising levels of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in the waning years of the British Raj. It was also the vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of India’s Muslim League who feared that his fellow Muslims would be subjected to the tyranny of a Hindu majority if the British left behind a united and democratic India. Yet, Jinnah was no extremist. A Bombay-born barrister with a Lincoln’s Inn education, he enjoyed his cigarettes and scotch as much as any Englishman, had married a non-Muslim, and was never a particularly religious man. Jinnah’s design for Pakistan was a parliamentary democracy based loosely on Islamic principles and a tradition of Muslim tolerance for other religions that dated to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire and the courts of the Mughals. Yet Jinnah never lived to see the success of his nation. Pakistan’s founder died within a year of independence, and with him was buried any hope of the steady leadership needed to nurse the new nation through its infancy to political maturity. Jinnah’s successor, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated a few years later and after a decade of ineffectual attempts to agree upon a constitution and establish a viable civil government, the army seized power in 1958. Since then, control of Pakistan has oscillated between repressive and authoritarian military regimes and short-lived attempts at democratic civil governance.

The loss of its greatest leader was merely one problem that Pakistan faced in its earliest years. A more significant concern was forging a sense of national identity among a population whose ethnic, linguistic, and kinship loyalties did not necessarily align within the boundaries of the new nation. Pakistanis are hardly a homogenous people. The country is shared among Punjabis who occupy the prime agricultural land, Baluchis in the remote and arid western area that borders Iran and Afghanistan, Sindhis on the commercially prosperous coast of the Arabian Sea, Kashmiris in the contested Northeast, and Pashtun tribes along the Northwest Frontier Provinces that also border Afghanistan. Added to the mix are the mohajirs, Pakistanis whose families—or who themselves, in some cases—migrated from other parts of the Indian subcontinent during partition and who have no ancestral or cultural affinity to their new home apart from their Pakistani citizenship. Though leaders like Jinnah and Musharraf fit into this category (being from Bombay and Delhi respectively), the majority of mohajirs have often experienced difficulty being accepted by their other countrymen. It is also worthwhile noting that the ethnic regions of Punjab and Kashmir are divided between India and Pakistan and that the loyalties of Pakistani Pashtuns wind through the mountain passes to their ethnic brethren in Afghanistan rather than being oriented to Islamabad and other the political centers of Punjab. Indeed, the mountainous border regions with Afghanistan have always posed a geographic challenge to effective governance. In the days of the British Raj, colonial officials made no attempt to rule directly the Northwest Frontier Provinces and instead allowed tribal law and custom to prevail so long as order was maintained. Little has changed in the intervening century. In this region, Pakistani law is rarely enforceable over local tradition and kinship ties while the political boundary with Afghanistan is by any real measure virtually non-existent. It is here that foreign terrorists find their safest haven.

In many cases, the hubris and ineptitude of Pakistan’s civil and military leaders have exacerbated the existing ethnic tensions. The worse case of this was the secession of the Bengali population in East Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The loss of East Pakistan dealt a political and psychological body blow from which Pakistan has never fully recovered. In one instant, Pakistan lost over half its population as well as the source of over half its GDP. Perhaps the most difficult reality for Pakistanis to accept in this outcome was that the unity of South Asia’s Muslims, which had been the primary justification for Pakistan’s existence as a nation in the first place, had not proved strong enough to overcome feelings of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic identity nor could it withstand the harsh realities of economy and geography. To the outside observer nowadays, Pakistani nationality might seem relatively unproblematic compared to the headline-grabbing religious divisions within the country that stem primarily from Sunni-Shia sectarianism. Jones, however, convincingly demonstrates that existing social fault lines in the country are much more complex and have rarely aligned primarily over issues of religion.

Yet the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural heterogeneity of Pakistan is inadequate in explaining that country’s current crisis. Neighboring India encompasses vastly greater diversity but has managed to succeed where Pakistan has failed. Innate hostility toward India continues to animate Pakistani politics. A softening of this attitude or even the suggestion of conciliation and compromise on Kashmir would spell the end of any Pakistani politician’s career, as it often has. The same is true in India, though to a lesser degree. In the midst of this longstanding mutual antagonism, the challenge to the United States is that it must engage both of these rivals simultaneously. On the one side is India, a healthy but imperfect democracy governing a pluralistic, chaotic, vibrant, and increasingly prosperous society whose government seeks to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. India is a natural ally and a country with whom the US shares much. Pakistan, by contrast remains a difficult but indispensable ally—and one with whom the US has had a longer and more checkered past.

David Campion is assistant professor of history at Lewis & Clark College. This review is the first of two parts.

Posted: May 14, 2007

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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