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Pakistan’s tumultuous history


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the “land of the pure,” is at 191 million people the world’s second-most populous Muslim country.

It has had a tumultuous history since being carved out of the British Indian Empire in 1947, originally consisting of two parts in the west and east, separated by what was left of India.

Pakistan has been called a “hard country,” a “garrison state,” and a “warrior state.” Some refer to it as, not a country with an army, but an army with a country.

Obsessed by its rival India, it has neglected economic and political development, pouring resources into an unequal effort to retain military parity with its giant neighbour, which has five times its population and almost 10 times its economy.

Indeed, some authors suggest that, since the state was created for India’s Muslims, who lived across the width and length of the entire subcontinent, not just in the areas allocated to them in 1947, they should still be the rightful rulers of India — as was the case for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the British.

The Mughal Empire was, after all, the creation of Turkic and Persian Muslims.

Since its inception, Pakistan has had a dearth of effective political leaders, or parties truly committed to democratic norms.

Parts of the Punjab and Sind remain virtually feudal, and corruption is a way of life. Economic stagnation and massive youth unemployment fuel resentment and violence in cities such as Karachi and Lahore.

Most politicians are political brokers who use patronage to build power bases. They are unresponsive to ordinary people, being obliged to reward their relatives, dependents and connections — that is, when they even manage to govern. In fact the nation’s military has, more often than not, ruled the state.

Pakistan’s military establishment has viewed the political class as self-interested hostages to ethnic and regional interests and sees itself as the sole institution able to unify the country. It even has major business interests.

As the military gained strength over time, it arrested the development of democratic institutions. Only once, in 2013, has an elected government completed its tenure and peacefully transferred power to another elected government.

The imposition of martial law by President Iskander Mirza in 1958, the rise of generals Muhammad Ayub Khan and Yayha Khan in the 1960s, the 1970s populism of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, the authoritarianism of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s, General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship from 1999 to 2008, and the 2007 assassination of Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, also a former prime minister -- all have been disasters.

Pakistan today faces increasing ethnic and sectarian strife, as Sunnis and Shia, Balochs, Sindis, Punjabis, Pashtuns and Muhajirs (Muslims who fled Indian territory after 1947) contend for power -- or seek to separate. Many madrasahs (religious schools) graduate Islamist extremists who target other sects in Islam, especially the Ahmadiyyas. The country struggles to exist as a cohesive unit.

An insurgency in Balochistan that began a decade ago is now the most violent and long-lasting of five rebellions that have broken out in Pakistan’s least developed province since the country’s independence from Britain in 1947.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, alongside the Afghanistan border, the Pakistani Taliban continues its own insurgency.

A rent-seeking state, Pakistan has made use of its pivotal position in South Asia to attract billions of dollars of aid money, especially from the United States, during the Cold War and the more recent War on Terror.  

But most of it has been funneled to its military, its nuclear program, and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency.

The ISI has consorted with radical Islamist organizations and supported terrorist groups to achieve foreign policy objectives — usually involving Pakistan’s permanent confrontation with India.

It has fomented trouble in Afghanistan by supporting that country’s Taliban, in order to gain “strategic depth” against India. Both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, were sheltered in Pakistan.

Despite Pakistan’s longstanding ties to the United States, there is a strong current of anti-American feeling in the country, and CIA drone strikes against suspected terrorists have only added to this sense of hatred.

Veteran politician Nawaz Sharif currently heads a civilian government but his two previous stints as prime minister don’t offer much hope that he might institute significant reforms.

South Asia remains a very dangerous neighbourhood, in no small part because of Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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