The Debate

A Wake-Up Call for Pakistanis

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The Debate

A Wake-Up Call for Pakistanis

Pakistani citizens need to reconsider their tacit support for the Army and its national narrative.

A Wake-Up Call for Pakistanis
Credit: Peshawar mourning via Asianet-Pakistan /

Pakistan and the world were shocked by the deadly and heartbreaking attack by the Pakistani Taliban on a school in Peshawar that killed more than 130 children, many the sons of Army personnel. Yet just a few days later, Pakistan’s courts decided to grant Zaikur Rehman Lakhvi, the terrorist mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, bail.

The debilitating situation in Pakistan is the natural outcome of a strategic culture that is entirely the creation of the Pakistan Army. A perpetual hostility towards India is a keystone of the ideology of the Army, and by extension, the Pakistani state, given that Pakistan is an army with a country. Its strategic depth theory, whereby Pakistan is undefeated as long as it continues to challenge and resist India’s rise, has seen it resort to asymmetric warfare and encouraged it to solicit the support of dangerous non-state actors. Indeed, the Taliban has been famously funded and supported by the Pakistan Army to heighten its influence in Afghanistan, at the expense of India’s. The Pakistani elite has allowed geopolitics and its desperately ambitious agenda to destroy the internal state of the country, while sustaining its material interests. True, the Army has become wary of an Islamist takeover – especially after the Pakistan Taliban conquered the Swat – which would alter its unparalleled grip on power, and so has finally begun cracking down on such groups with Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Meanwhile, ordinary Pakistan’s have been rightfully condemning the Taliban, yet by and large they consistently fail to consider the role of the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in creating and perpetuating an untenable status quo. Pakistanis have historically viewed the Army as their protector, and have granted it a legitimacy that has been perpetuated by the sustained myth of the Indian threat and by the failure of civilian governments to govern, more often than not because of the Army’s penchant for coup d’états. (When the Army has ruled Pakistan, as it has done for much of its existence, it has fared little better.) Through the successful political manipulation of the general public, the Army has effectively guaranteed that ordinary Pakistanis share the Army’s strategic concerns and priorities. This has encouraged widespread support for the Army and its policies, despite the heavy costs these policies impose on ordinary Pakistanis.

While some leading analysts have been critical of the Army’s policies, ordinary Pakistanis are failing to connect the dots between the Army and the acts of violence. Pakistanis condemn the Taliban and other militant groups, but not the force that propels them. With its skewed thinking on security and threats, the Army has used Islamism and militant groups for strategic purposes, creating an enormous infrastructure conducive to the  terrorism and violence that pervades the country.

The Army’s crackdown on groups that are against it, even as it supports and bails out militants like Lakhvi and Hafiz Saeed that contribute to its agenda, are evidence of its duplicitousness in tackling terrorism. Its policies have been seriously detrimental to Pakistan, yet the country’s citizenry has been complicit, more often than not supporting the very entity that backs the groups responsible for these attacks. When it comes to terrorism, it is not just the Army that is guilty of duplicitous principles and selective reasoning.

Ironically, even though Pakistan has been able to balance against India in the sense of not suffering a decisive defeat, and has been able to acquire nuclear weapons, the country has been reduced to a shambles and the Army has failed miserably at providing for civilian security. Is this the sort of “protector” that Pakistanis had envisioned? The Army’s hyper-realpolitik Hobbesian approach to international relations has rendered Pakistan internally insecure and badly integrated, culminating in radicalization and sectarianism.

The Pakistani public needs to stop blaming the West, India, and international conspiracies and instead look inward, recognizing that the true problem lies with the Army and ISI. As activist Zeenia Shaukat observes, “The ‘Indian agents’ thinking is deeply entrenched not only in the mindset of our policymakers, but also among the general public.” Pakistanis need to rationalize the Indian conflict and stop buying into a fundamentally incorrect national narrative, which justifies its hyper-realpolitik approach and obsessive rivalry with India and which has been deeply detrimental to the country. They must acknowledge that while India and its foreign policy may have been Pakistan-centric in the decades post-independence, they are no longer. Rather, India has transcended the boundaries of South Asia and moved into the international system, developed important strategic partnerships with a host of nations, and has made economic development a major part of its psyche. India’s defensive posture, as opposed to Pakistan’s overtly offensive one, reveals the real aggressor. In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, India has been condemned to follow a reactive and unconstructive policy towards Pakistan. Yet ordinary Pakistanis still retain their xenophobic view of India, as revealed in a survey showing that the majority of Pakistanis (57 percent) consider India the greatest threat, compared to the Taliban (19 percent) and al-Qaeda (5 percent).

The military is an entrenched element of the Pakistani consciousness, undermining a true, long-term commitment to democracy. Yet the 185 million Pakistani citizens could be an endogenous force for change. They have a crucial role to play in Pakistan’s transformation from a warrior state to a development-focused entity – if they can understand that Pakistan does not need to persist as a warrior state. Then the military’s grip on all aspects of society could be loosened, and the country could step away from its militancy.

To do that, Pakistanis must unconditionally believe in and support democracy and its institutions, and give them a chance to work. They must contribute towards building a vibrant civil society that can counter Islamists and military rule. If Pakistan transforms its security competition with India into a development one, focuses on integration both internal and with the international economic order, engages in social innovation and industrialization, and generally adopts a more inward-looking modern approach, then there is hope.

It is time for Pakistanis to reconsider their consistent and tacit support for the Army. The shocking TTP attack in Peshawar is an outcome of decades-old Army and ISI policies, which are coming back to haunt them. Condemning the Peshawar attack is not enough; recognizing the roots of this, and so many past attacks, is paramount. Pakistan is not doomed to instability and violence. Its problems have been created by an elite serving its own strategic agenda, with ordinary Pakistanis are complicit in their implied support for that same elite.

Parallels can be drawn with successful development-oriented states like South Korea and Taiwan, as TV Paul points out, which despite some historical similarities have consciously followed very different trajectories. The term “consciously” is important here. Pakistan’s status quo is not inevitable; it has been self-created and sustained. The country is both perpetrator and victim of its own misguided policies – an important point that needs to be acknowledged by the country’s elite and its citizenry. While South Korea and Taiwan have also in a sense suffered from the geostrategic curse – being active allies and recipients of U.S. aid, and have a similar security orientation attributable to tumultuous experiences post-formation and an enduring rivalry with larger neighbors; both have also followed a commendable developmental approach, through heavy investment in social welfare and infrastructure that has produced sustained economic progress.

Pakistan’s status quo is a choice made by elites, based on lopsided priorities. It is up to Pakistanis to decide whether they want to continue to wear a blindfold and tacitly or overtly support this choice, and by extension Islamism, or whether they prefer to choose the path of moderation and development – both economic and social.

Shairee Malhotra is a Mumbai-based analyst. She has an MA International Relations from Queen Mary University of London, and has worked as a researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.