The Pulse

Interview with Ayesha Jalal

The Diplomat‘s Justin McDonnell speaks with Ayesha Jalal about Pakistan’s foreign relations and politics.

By Justin McDonnell for
Interview with Ayesha Jalal
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ayesha Jalal is a Pakistani-American historian and a professor at Tufts University where she directs the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies. She is the author of several books, most recently having published Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. She spoke with The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell about Pakistan’s foreign relations and politics.

What is the Pakistani identity?

It is difficult to ascribe a singular identity to any country, far less Pakistan which, ever since its creation as homeland for India’s Muslim minority, has grappled uncertainly with the question of whether to define itself in Islamic or national terms. Whatever the claims of the official state nationalism, Pakistani identity as a lived experience is a reflection of its diverse regional cultures that have throughout history interacted with local and global dynamics irrespective of the self-projections of successive post-colonial governments, whether military or civil.

As a fragile state, why does Pakistan insist on being treated as India’s equal?  To follow up, what then is the future of the Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan dispute?

The issue is rooted in nostalgia for a lost past in which Muslims were the rulers of the subcontinent and also in the demand for Pakistan as it was orchestrated by the All-India Muslim League and its preeminent leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, during the final decade of the British raj in India. Jinnah and the Muslim League’s insistence on parity with the Indian National Congress in the sharing of power in an independent India was based on the claim that as a nation, and not a minority, India’s Muslims were entitled to equal treatment with the majority Hindu community.

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A resolution of the Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan dispute requires a mutually acceptable settlement between India and Pakistan that takes account of the aspirations of the people of these contested regions. This does not appear to be on the horizon given the political dynamics in both countries and, in the case of Pakistan, also the need to satisfy the concerns of an all-powerful military.

Looking at the special yet tortured relationship with the U.S., it’s never really been a proper, functional alliance. The two countries don’t share a common interest or even a common enemy. Yet, there are ties that bind the two together.  What do you see that the two countries could potentially do to move the troubled relationship onto a much more positive trajectory?

I won’t say that the relation has never been a functional one. Relations between nation-states are based on self-interest that rarely ever converges completely. Despite divergent interests during much of the Cold War, the United States and Pakistan maintained a relationship whose ebbs and flows were shaped by international politics. The war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, gave them reason to make common cause. Most of the strains in the American-Pakistan relationship are a product of the Afghan war that has been accentuated by their sharply different perspectives on India. A more positive trajectory may emerge if the two countries reached a working arrangement based on understanding each other’s constraints even while disagreeing with the policies adopted to deal with them.

How will regional dynamics, particularly China’s rise, impact prospects to reduce regional tension and violence, as well as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan?

China’s rise is not necessarily going to accentuate regional tensions and violence or, for that matter, strain Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. From Beijing’s perspective, the accent of the relationship with Islamabad is on building an economic partnership, not a new source of dependency for Pakistan. India and China also have mutual economic interests and will be wary of unduly unsettling relations over border disputes. In the past the U.S. has not been averse to Chinese-Pakistani military cooperation. There is no inherent reason why greater economic ties between Pakistan and China should be viewed as a threat to U.S. strategic interests in the region.

With the U.S. withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan set for the end of 2016, is the Pakistani military finally being forced to change its past policies and confront the militant factions in the northern part of Waziristan?  What is the military or political strategy to combat Islamic extremists who are challenging the state?

The recently launched military operation in North Waziristan and simultaneous swoops by paramilitary forces to apprehend militants holed up in key urban centers, with the assistance of the intelligence agencies, does appear to suggest a change of mind to some degree. But rooting out militancy completely will be a long and arduous process. For now the military is focusing on denying the militants a base from which to send trained killing machines to the rest of Pakistan. With the 2016 deadline fast approaching, the Pakistani military has decided to put boots on the ground in the strategically vital northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. However, the military operation is just the beginning. It will have to be followed up by a political solution and development initiatives to facilitate the return of more than half a million people who have been displaced by the military operation in North Waziristan. In the meantime, the possibility of battled hardened militants filtering into the cities and creating havoc is a very real fear.

Journalists have been victims of threats, harassment, and violence in recent years for writing unfavorably about the ISI, issues concerning the country’s sponsorship of proxies, as well as its looming nuclear issue. Is this situation bound to improve anytime soon?

The situation cannot improve so long as Pakistan remains in a state of war and the ISI continues to see itself as the final frontier against internal and external enemies, real and imagined. However with new forms of information technology, especially the Internet and social media, there is a growing awareness of the excesses of the military and its intelligence agencies and demands to hold them accountable. The issue of disappeared persons was taken up the former chief justice and continues to attract substantial media attention and popular support.

Will we see any move toward opening talks with those in the Balochistan province or will we see the military continue its terror campaign there?

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There were hopes after the 2013 elections that the newly elected government in Balochistan would initiate talks with Baloch nationalists fighting for independence. This has not happened in any significant way so far, which can partly be attributed to the military high command’s concerns with the scenario that will emerge in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

What does the civilian government need to do to take the reins and challenge decades of military supremacy in Pakistan?

By governing the country effectively, managing the federal political balance judiciously, strengthening elected institutions, and avoiding needless tiffs with the military top brass. The opposition parties too have to play a constructive role and not use every opportunity that comes their way to destabilize the government, especially at a time when a full-scale military operation is underway to enforce some modicum of control over the restive northwestern badlands of Pakistan. It will require several cycles of an uninterrupted political process before civilian supremacy in Pakistan can be established.