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Imperialisms in South Asia

Sahar Shafqat
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

In November 2009, the Pakistani Army began a major assault in South Waziristan, believed to be the stronghold of the largest of the Pakistani Taliban factions. In a stroke of genius, the Army dumped thousands of leaflets one day ahead of its assault as part of a public relations effort. The leaflets bore a letter directly from the head of the Pakistani Army, General Kayani, to the Mehsud tribe which lives in South Waziristan. The letter said: “The [military] operation is not meant to target the valiant and patriotic Mehsud tribes but [is] aimed at ridding them of the elements who have destroyed peace in the region.” In order to clear up any confusion as to whom the letter was from, the Army helpfully included a picture of General Kayani on the leaflets.

One might wonder what the effect of such a leaflet might be, delivered to a people who have seen constant violence at the hands of either militants or the Pakistani state for several years. One might also wonder about the effectiveness of a so-called warning that gives residents only one day to pack up their homes and try to escape the advancing bombs. But of course, the leaflets were not really meant for the locals, who have an overall literacy rate of roughly 17 percent (and only 3 percent among women); they were for the benefit of the Obama Administration, and more specifically, for the benefit of those in the administration who have become increasingly frustrated with the Pakistanis for what they perceive as intransigence or simply sheer folly.

The United States desperately wants Pakistan to act against the militants within its borders. The US believes that its own war effort in Afghanistan is faltering because the Afghan Taliban are receiving logistical and financial support from the like-minded Pakistani Taliban across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is this understanding that has led to the formulation of the term “Af-Pak,” as if the two can be lumped into one single theater of war. This formulation is misleading; the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are actually very distinct groups, deeply rooted in their local political and social contexts, and the two conflicts are similarly distinct. But the US and other Western powers are convinced that Pakistan must take action against the Pakistani militias that are based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of which South Waziristan is a part, and are puzzled by Pakistani inaction against forces that seem to pose an existential threat to the state of Pakistan. 

The theme of Pakistani intransigence is widespread in US coverage of the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This theme is useful because it completely obfuscates the political and social realities that are propelling the conflict in Pakistan. By branding the Pakistani Army as stubborn, it becomes possible for the United States to project failure outward, onto the Pakistanis, and it suggests that success in Pakistan and Afghanistan hinges on the Pakistani Army realizing what is good for it. All that is needed, it seems, is for someone to give the Pakistanis a good talking-to, and make them come to their senses. A hint of this is seen in Time magazine’s reporting on the South Waziristan operation, when it noted that “Pakistan’s army is finally getting serious about its internal enemies.”

The Obama Administration’s frustration is shared by some misinformed progressives, who also wonder why the Army doesn’t just get on with the job of “wiping out” the Pakistani Taliban. So why isn’t the Pakistani Army targeting Pakistani militants? The common explanations fall into three camps. One is that the Army is misguided or lazy or stubborn. This is the theory that the Bush and now the Obama Administrations have been partial to. Another explanation for inaction is that the Army is sincere in its efforts to fight militancy, but is unable to do so effectively without greater funding and more sophisticated weaponry and other supplies. This explanation has been advanced most clearly by the Pakistani Army itself, as well as civilian leaders such as President Zardari.

The third explanation, which is the most accurate one, is that the Pakistani Army has a vested institutional interest in maintaining the various Taliban militias for use as strategic assets. From this perspective, the Army isn’t holding back because it is paralyzed or because it is stubborn—the Army is holding back because it has entirely different targets in mind.

The balance of power in South Asia

By now most observers are familiar with the theory of strategic depth that the Pakistani military is committed to. The theory assumes that Pakistan’s greatest threat is posed by India. In the event of a conventional attack by India, the Pakistani military would be unable to repel the attack at first, and would need to retreat to friendly territory that would allow the armed forces to regroup and launch fresh attacks against India. Such friendly territory would give the Pakistani military greater leverage and would help equalize the balance of power between Pakistan and India. The Taliban government in Kabul was installed by Pakistan in 1996 and was seen as a guarantor of this balance of power. The toppling of the Taliban in 2001 was a great setback for the Pakistani establishment, since it upset the balance of power, and renewed the fundamental anxiety of the Pakistani establishment: a defeat at the hands of India, which given the overwhelming military advantage that India possesses, is equivalent to the collapse of Pakistan as a sovereign nation-state—a true existential threat.

What has remained mostly absent in the discussions of the regional conflict is the role that India has played. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Indian establishment has taken full advantage of the post-September 11 situation in South Asia.  In fact, India has been the biggest beneficiary of the shift in US foreign policy towards South Asia after 2001. India has now achieved the status of regional hegemon and emerging global player, thanks to a nuclear deal with the United States that essentially welcomes India to the nuclear club (with important caveats), and it has joined the G-20, a grouping of the 20 largest economies of the world.

The Indian establishment saw an opportunity in the post-2001 environment to gain advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan, and seized it. Since then India has become extremely close to the Karzai government. India has given $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, in addition to acquiring millions more in contracts for Indian firms. It has opened five consulates in Afghanistan, a number that bears little correlation to any long-standing trade or cultural ties. All of this makes the Pakistani establishment extremely nervous. It perceives that it is being squeezed from both sides, and by its biggest enemy. Indeed, the Pakistani establishment sees that India is taking full advantage of the current situation.  In a sense, the two countries are fighting a proxy war inside Afghanistan. 

In 2008 the then-presidential candidate Barack Obama astutely noted that any resolution of the Afghanistan war required resolving the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan. Obama’s campaign even specifically mentioned the conflict over Kashmir as an issue that would have to be addressed. Candidate Obama was right. But when he took office, the actual policy towards the region shifted significantly. In perhaps the first signal that India would continue to be favored, the designation of the regional envoy, Richard Holbrooke, which was originally meant to be “Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India,” was changed to drop India from the title. It was a clear message that the “problem” of Afghanistan would be resolved only by putting pressure on the Pakistanis, not the Indians.  This has only increased the anxiety of the Pakistan military establishment. So it makes sense that they continue to perceive their biggest threat as the Indians and, relatedly, the United States—not the militants.

As recently as January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates exhorted Pakistan to “commit itself to a greater role on its western border with Afghanistan as it faces an ‘existential threat’ there rather than on the frontier with India.” But in the face of the ground reality, it is easy to see why the Pakistani establishment does not see things Washington’s way.  

Making peace

To move towards peace in the region, it is imperative to look at the big regional picture, which includes India. But the larger issue is that of imperialism. Why is it, in any case, that Pakistan can include Afghanistan in its central military policy, and assume that a “friendly” (read: puppet) government there will do its bidding? Why is it that India can assume the same? And of course, why is it that the United States is in the region at all?  Afghanistan must be for Afghans. They must decide the fate of their country, not external actors. Progressives must call for the United States to leave the region, yes, but we must also call for an end to intervention by regional players, including both Pakistan and India.  It may be a simple point but it bears repeating that peace can only come when imperialism ends.

Sahar Shafqat is Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Pakistan, and a member of Action for a Progressive Pakistan.