PAKISTAN’S WILD WEST

Imran Khan has not been as lucky in his political life as he was in his cricket.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:February 22, 2009 1:21 am

Imran Khan has not been as lucky in his political life as he was in his cricket. But he has a good and sobering story to tell about the condition of Pakistan. He is one of those who believe that the fight against the Taliban and the Al-Qaida will not be won with arms alone but will require a battle for the ‘hearts and minds’. What has happened in Swat is an interesting test of that hypothesis. Does one think of the truce a good sign of winning of the hearts or surrender to violent terrorism? Is the deal a genuine peacemaking plan or just a ruse to establish Taliban rule on the western edges of Pakistan?

One of the problems with maps is that one begins to believe boundaries are real barriers. The Durand Line was established with great difficulty after four Afghan Wars at the end of which the British conceded that they had lost. Afghanistan was to be an independent kingdom and not just a princely state under British paramountcy. But even so,the boundary between the North West Frontier Province and the eastern end of Afghanistan was always a matter of guesswork. This is the Wild West of India as it used to be before 1947 and Pakistan now. No one has really ruled over these territories in the sense in which we understand the word today. No one’s writ runs except of the tribal leaders. The Federally Administered Tribal Area is a false description since no one administers much around there. There is no sense in which Pakistan begins at one point and Afghanistan ends.

Afghanistan is not a nation,nor a nation state whatever the UN definition may say and whatever the many programmes of the US and other agencies may assert. It was a kingdom and we have forgotten the distinction between a kingdom and a nation. A nation needs an identity and a story that defines its members as a single people sharing a past. India has had a constant struggle about competing narratives of its nationhood but thanks to a vibrant democracy the competing narratives manage to fight and yet accommodate each other. Pakistan has had one break-up already and even now it lacks a story of why it is a nation. It is certainly not the Muslim nation Jinnah thought as one of the two nations inhabiting British India. Of that Muslim nation,only a third is in Pakistan. It was never homogenous with its eastern partner. The Muslim League was a UP and Bihar party not large in Sind or Pakistan or the NWFP. Pakistan has had to maintain Kashmir as a unifying element in its national narrative since there is none other.

This is why it has had a difficulty being a democracy and cannot last as a dictatorship either. Zia tried to instill Islamism as a unifying story. Americans subsidised him because they needed him to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Then the Taliban were the flavour of the month. The Soviets destroyed the kingdom of Afghanistan and no one,neither Gulbuddin Hekmateyar nor the Taliban,has been successful in making Afghanistan a nation. The latest attempt by NATO to install a democratic regime under Hamid Karzai is faring no better.

The reason is simple. A kingdom can elicit loyalty from disparate communities,which may each think of itself as a ‘nation’ as the Afghan King obviously did since he could summon up his subjects to defeat the British. Karzai commands no loyalty because he heads a multi national tribal concoction that shares no common history Pakistan has a core mainland—Punjab and Sind—which is like any nation and it is quite prosperous too. But on its western borders,Pakistan is fluid. It now faces a fluid Afghanistan. Boundaries make no sense here and sovereignty is a mirage.

Had 9/11 not happened or Osama bin Laden been not hiding there,the Pak Afghan border would get no more attention than Darfur or Congo get. The Americans and British soldiers dying there are defending their national territories not that of Afghanistan or Pakistan. India should only get involved if it needs to defend its own territory and not for any other reason.

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