Perversity characterizes Pakistan. Only the worst African hellholes,
Afghanistan, Haiti, Yemen, and Iraq rank higher on this year's
Failed States Index. The country is run by a military obsessed with -- and, for
decades, invested in -- the conflict with India, and by a civilian elite that
steals all it can and pays almost no taxes. But despite an overbearing
military, tribes "defined by a near-universal male participation in organized
violence," as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner put it, dominate
massive swaths of territory. The absence of the state makes for 20-hour daily
electricity blackouts and an almost nonexistent education system in many areas.
The root cause of these
manifold failures, in many minds, is the very artificiality of Pakistan itself:
a cartographic puzzle piece sandwiched between India and Central Asia that
splits apart what the British Empire ruled as one indivisible subcontinent.
Pakistan claims to represent the Indian subcontinent's Muslims, but more
Muslims live in India and Bangladesh put together than in Pakistan. In the absence
of any geographical reason for its existence, Pakistan, so the assumption goes,
can fall back only on Islamic extremism as an organizing principle of the
But this core
assumption about what ails Pakistan is false. Pakistan, which presents more nightmare
scenarios for American policymakers than perhaps any other country, does have
geographical logic. The vision of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in
the 1940s did not constitute a mere power grab at the expense of India's
Hindu-dominated Congress party. There was much history and geography behind his
drive to create a separate Muslim state anchored in the subcontinent's
northwest, abutting southern Central Asia. Understanding this legacy properly
leads to a very troubling scenario about where Pakistan -- and by extension,
Afghanistan and India -- may now be headed. Pakistan's present and future, for
better or worse, are still best understood through its geography.
THE MUSLIM EXPERIENCE in South Asia begins with the concept of al-Hind,
the Arabic word for India. Al-Hind invokes the vast tracts of the northern and
northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent that came under mainly
Turko-Islamic rule in the Middle Ages and were protected from the horse-borne
Mongols by lack of sufficient pastureland. The process of Muslim conquest began
in Sindh, the desert tract south and east of Iran and Afghanistan, adjacent to
the Arabian Sea, easily accessible to the Middle East by land and maritime
The Umayyad Arabs
conquered and Islamicized Sindh in the early eighth century. Then came the
Turkic Ghaznavids (based out of Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan), who conquered
parts of northern India in the 11th century. The Ghaznavids were followed by
the Delhi Sultanate, a military oligarchy between the early 13th and early 16th
centuries, which preceded the splendorous rule of the Persianized Mughal
dynasty on the subcontinent. All these Muslim warriors governed immense
inkblots of territory that were extensions of the Arab-Persian world that lay to
the west, even as they interacted and traded with China to the north and east.
It was a land without fixed borders that, according to University of Wisconsin
historian André Wink, represented a rich confection of Arab, Persian, and
Turkic culture, bustling with trade routes to Muslim Central Asia.
To the extent that one
area was the ganglion of this Muslim civilization, it was today's Pakistan.
Fertile Punjab, which straddles the Pakistan-India frontier, "linked the Mughal
empire, through commercial, cultural and ethnic intercourse, with Persia and
Central Asia," writes University of Chicago historian Muzaffar Alam. This area
of Pakistan has been for centuries the civilizational intermediary connecting
the cool and sparsely populated tableland of Central Asia with the hot and
teeming panel of cultivation in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan's many
mountain passes, especially those of Khyber and Bolan, join Kabul and Kandahar
in Afghanistan with the wheat- and rice-baskets thousands of feet below. The
descent from Afghanistan to the Indus River, which runs lengthwise through the
middle of Pakistan, is exceedingly gradual, so for millennia various cultures
occupied both the high plateaus and the lowland riverine plains. This entire
middle region -- not quite the subcontinent, not quite Central Asia -- was more than
a frontier zone or a bold line on a map: It was a fluid cultural organism and
the center of many civilizations in their own right.
What we know as
modern-day Pakistan is far from an artificial entity; it is just the latest of
the many spatial arrangements for states on the subcontinent. The map of the
Harappan civilization, a complex network of centrally controlled chieftaincies
in the late fourth to mid-second millennium B.C., was one of its earliest predecessors.
The Harappan world stretched from Baluchistan northeast up to Kashmir and
southeast down almost to both Delhi and Mumbai, nearly touching present-day
Iran and Afghanistan and extending into both northwestern and western India. It
was a complex geography of settlement that adhered to landscapes capable of
supporting irrigation, and whose heartland was today's Pakistan.
The Mauryan Empire,
which existed from the fourth to the second centuries B.C., came to envelop
much of the subcontinent and thus, for the first time in history, encouraged
the idea of India as a political entity. But whereas the area of
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India all fell under Mauryan rule, India's
deep south did not. Next came the Kushan Empire, whose Indo-European rulers
conquered territory from the Ferghana Valley, in the demographic heart of
Central Asia, to Bihar in northeastern India. Once again, the heart of the
empire that linked Central Asia and India was in Pakistan; one of the Kushan
capitals was Peshawar, Pakistan's frontier city today.
Later on, throughout
the Middle Ages and the early modern era, Muslim invaders from the west grafted
India to the greater Middle East, with the Indus River valley functioning as
the core of all these interactions, as close to the Middle East and Central
Asia as it is to the Ganges River valley. Under the Delhi-based Mughal dynasty,
which ruled from the early 1500s to 1720, central Afghanistan to northern India
was all part of one polity, with Pakistan occupying the territorial heartland.
Rather than a fake
modern creation, Pakistan is the very geographical and national embodiment of
all the Muslim invasions that have swept down into India throughout its
history, even as Pakistan's southwest is the subcontinental region first occupied
by Muslim Arabs invading from the Middle East. The Indus, much more than the
Ganges, has always had an organic relationship with the Arab, Persian, and
Turkic worlds. It is historically and geographically appropriate that the Indus
Valley civilization, long ago a satrapy of Achaemenid Persia and the forward
bastion of Alexander the Great's Near Eastern empire, today is deeply enmeshed
with political currents swirling through the Middle East, of which Islamic
extremism forms a major element. This is not determinism but merely the
recognition of an obvious pattern.
The more one reads this
history, the more it becomes apparent that the Indian subcontinent has two
principal geographical regions: the Indus Valley with its tributaries, and the
Ganges Valley with its tributaries. Pakistani scholar Aitzaz Ahsan identifies
the actual geographical fissure within the subcontinent as the
"Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient," a line running from eastern Punjab southwest to
the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. This is the watershed, and it matches up almost
perfectly with the Pakistan-India border. Nearly all the Indus tributaries fall
to the west of this line, and all the Ganges tributaries fall to the east. Only
the Mauryas, Mughals, and British bonded these two regions into single states.
For those three empires, the Indus formed the frontier zone and required many
more troops there facing restive Central Asia than along the Ganges, which was
under no comparable threat.
Likewise, the medieval
Delhi Sultanate faced so much trouble in Central Asia that it temporarily moved
its capital westward to Lahore (from India to Pakistan, in today's terms) to
deal with the military threats emanating from what is today Afghanistan. Yet,
for the overwhelming majority of history, when one empire did not rule both the
entire Indus and the entire Ganges, the southern and eastern parts of
Afghanistan, most of Pakistan, and northwestern India were nevertheless all
governed as one political unit. And the rich and populous Indus Valley, as
close to the wild and woolly Central Asian frontier as it was, formed the
pulsating imperial center of that unit.
Here, alas, is the
conundrum. During the relatively brief periods when the areas of India and
Pakistan were united -- the Mauryan, Mughal, and British -- there was obviously no
issue about who dominated the trade routes into Central Asia. During the rest
of history, there was no problem either, because while empires like the Kushan,
Ghaznavid, and Delhi Sultanate did not control the eastern Ganges, they did control
both the Indus and the western Ganges, so that Delhi and Lahore were
under the rule of one polity, even as Central Asia was also under their
control. Today's political geography is historically unique, however: an Indus
Valley state, Pakistan, and a powerful Ganges Valley state, India, both
fighting for control of an independent and semi-chaotic Central Asian near
abroad -- Afghanistan.
geographical and historical logic, this Indus state is far more unstable than
the Gangetic state. Here, too, geography provides an answer. Pakistan encompasses
the frontier of the subcontinent, a region that even the British were unable to
incorporate into their bureaucracy, running it instead as a military fiefdom,
making deals with the tribes. Thus, Pakistan did not inherit the stabilizing
civilian institutions that India did. Winston Churchill's first book as a young
man, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, wonderfully captures the
challenges facing colonial border troops in British India. As the young author
then concluded, the only way to function in this part of the world is through
"a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of
subsidies and small expeditions."
PAKISTAN'S GEOGRAPHICAL COHERENCE, albeit subtle and problematic, is mirrored
in its subtle and problematic linguistic coherence. Just as Hindi is associated
with Hindus in northern India, Urdu is associated with Muslims in Pakistan.
Urdu -- from "horde," the Turkic-Persian word for a military camp -- is the ultimate frontier language. Reflecting its
geographical links to the Middle East, Urdu is written in a Persianized Arabic
script, even though its grammar is identical to Hindi and other Sanskritic
languages. It is often believed that Urdu came into existence through the
interaction of Turkic, Persian, and indigenous Indian soldiers in Mughal army
encampments, not just on the Indus frontier but in the medieval Gangetic cities
of Agra, Delhi, and Lucknow. Thus, it is truly the language of al-Hind.
Urdu is Pakistan's
lingua franca, even as Punjabi, with links to the non-Islamic Sikhs and Hindus,
enjoys a plurality of native speakers in Pakistan. Under Pakistan's military
dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, the combination of Urdu literacy programs
in religious institutions and the teaching of Arabic in state schools gave Urdu
more of a Middle Eastern and Islamic edge, writes Alyssa Ayres, now U.S. deputy
assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, in Speaking Like a
State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan.
demographic, and cultural organizing principle of the Indus Valley is Punjab,
whose name means "five rivers": the Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, and Sutlej, all
tributaries of the Indus. Punjab represents the northwesternmost concentration
of population and agriculture before the ground starts to climb toward the
wilds of Central Asia. As such, it is coveted because of its special access to
Central Asian trade routes, though it was a frontier battleground in its own
right relative to the rest of British India.
Because of Sikh
uprisings, the Mughals had a difficult time securing Punjab. The British fought
two wars to wrest the region from the Sikhs in the 1840s, after the rest of
India had already been subdued. Once Punjab was conquered, however, the Pashtun northwest
frontier, the gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, beckoned for the
British. Because Punjab abutted the northwest frontier zone, which in turn
abutted southern Central Asia, its soldiers became known for their military
prowess -- the "sword arm of India," contributing 28 of the 131 infantry units in
the Indian Army by 1862.
But with the
re-creation of an Indus state and a Gangetic state upon the demise of the
British Raj in 1947, Punjab, rather than a frontier province of greater India,
became the urban hub of the new Indus Valley frontier state: Pakistan. Although
eastern Punjab fell within India, western Punjab still contains more than half
of Pakistan's population. With close to 90 million people, western Punjab would
be the world's 15th-largest country, putting it ahead of Egypt, Germany,
Turkey, and Iran. Punjabis have accounted for as much as 80 percent of the
Pakistan Army and 55 percent of the federal bureaucracy.
Punjab is like an
internal imperial power ruling Pakistan, in the way that Serbia and the Serbian
army ran Yugoslavia prior to that country's civil war and breakup. "Punjab is
perceived to have 'captured' Pakistan's national institutions through nepotism
and other patronage networks," writes Ayres. Its rural female literacy rate is
nearly twice that of Sindh province and the province on the northwest frontier
with Afghanistan, and it's more than triple Baluchistan's. Punjabis, she adds,
"are better off than everyone else [in Pakistan], with more productive land,
cleaner water, better technology, and better educated families."
Pakistani historian and
anthropologist Muhammad Azam Chaudhary writes, "If the motherland of the five
rivers [Punjab] had not been obtained, then in terms of geography, it would
have been impossible to establish Pakistan." Yet Punjab itself is not
indivisible, for the southern part of the province is made up of speakers of
Saraiki -- a linguistic mixture of Punjabi and Sindhi -- with their own separate
identity. And while the rest of Pakistan sees Punjab as hegemonic, Punjabis
themselves harbor an inferiority complex (again, like the Serbs), claiming that
they have sacrificed much for a state that doesn't work and, as a result, get
insufficient respect from other Pakistanis.
The tension between
Punjabis and other Pakistanis overlaps with the tension that exists among the
other ethnic groups. Chronic urban conflict in Karachi, Pakistan's largest
city, pits local Sindhis against Baluchis and Pashtuns, just as in Baluchistan
there are tensions between Baluchis and Pashtuns. Islamic ideology, like
communism in Yugoslavia, has proved an insufficient glue to form a prideful
national identity. Instead, this frontier region between the Middle East and
Hindu India has become an explosive amalgamation of often warring ethnic
This is not, of course,
how Jinnah envisioned Pakistan. He imagined a federalized state in which the
various ethnically based provinces retained a high degree of autonomy. With
such freedom, the angst of domination by Punjabis -- and by each other -- would not
have existed, allowing for a civil society to emerge and, with that, a state
with vibrant institutional capacity. Indeed, history shows that central
authority can only be effective if it is strictly delimited. Regrettably,
Pakistan has been what 20th-century European scholars Ernest Gellner and Robert
Montagne call a "segmentary" society. Hovering between centralization and
anarchy, such a society, in Montagne's words, is typified by a regime that
"drains the life from a region," even though, "because of its own fragility,"
it fails to establish lasting institutions. This is the byproduct of a
landscape riven by mountains and desert, a place where tribes are strong and
the central government is comparatively weak. Put another way, Pakistan, as
King's College London scholar Anatol Lieven notes, is a weak state with strong
India is the
counterfactual to Pakistan's dilemma. India's individual states are
linguistically based and thus have confident identities: Kannada-speaking
Karnataka, Marathi-speaking Maharashtra, Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh,
Bengali-speaking West Bengal, Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh, and so forth. This
might, in some scenarios, lead to local nationalism and irredentist movements,
as is the case with Pakistan. Because central authority in New Delhi is
restricted, however, diversity is celebrated and has become, in turn, a healthy
basis for a pan-Indian national identity.
If India were less
diverse and consisted of only the "cow belt" of Hindi-speaking northern India,
observes Lieven, it might not have become a democracy but rather "some form of
impoverished Hindu-nationalist dictatorship." Instead, India is like Indonesia:
a geographically sprawling and diverse democracy united by a common language
that does not threaten the use of local tongues and dialects.
Kashmir, the contested region over which
India and Pakistan have fought for decades, is where the two countries'
different personalities are most in evidence. According to Indiana University's
Sumit Ganguly, India requires the Muslim-dominated Himalayan territory to substantiate its claim as a
rather than as a Hindu-dominated state, whereas Pakistan requires Kashmir to
substantiate its claim as the chief remnant of Muslim al-Hind.
And so we come to the core reason for
Pakistan's perversity. The fact that Pakistan is historically and
geographically well-rooted is only partially a justification for statehood.
Although a Muslim frontier state between mountains and plains has often existed
in the subcontinent's history, that past belonged to a world not of fixed
borders, but rather of perpetually moving spheres of control as determined by
the movements of armies -- such was the medieval world. The Ghaznavids, the Delhi
Sultanate, and the Mughal dynasty all controlled the subcontinent's
northwestern frontier, but their boundaries were all vague and somewhat
different from one another -- all of which means Pakistan cannot claim its borders
are legitimate by history alone. It requires something else: the legitimacy
that comes with good governance and strong institutions. Without that, we are
back to the medieval map, which is what we have now -- known in Washington
bureaucratic parlance as "AfPak."
The term AfPak itself,
popularized by the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, indicates two failed
states -- otherwise, they would share a strong border and would not have to be
conjoined in one word. Let me provide the real meaning of AfPak, as defined by
geography and history: It is a rump Islamic greater Punjab -- the tip of the
demographic spear of the Indian subcontinent toward which all trade routes
between southern Central Asia and the Indus Valley are drawn -- exerting its power
over Pashtunistan and Baluchistan, just as Punjab has since time immemorial.
This is a world where
ethnic boundaries do not configure with national ones. Pashtunistan and
Baluchistan overlap with Afghanistan and less so with Iran. About half of the
world's 40-plus million Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. The
majority of the more than 8 million Baluchis live within Pakistan, the rest in
neighboring Afghanistan and Iran.
In recent decades, the
age-old pathways in this region have been used by Islamic terrorists, as well
as by traditional traders. The link between Pakistan's premier spy agency, Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI), and the so-called Haqqani network tied to al Qaeda merely
replicates the arteries of commerce emanating from Punjab outward to southern
Central Asia. Punjabis dominate the ISI, and the Afghan Pashtun Haqqani network
is both an Islamic terrorist outfit and a vast trade and smuggling operation,
unto the Amu Darya River to the northwest and unto Iran to the west.
Because al-Hind has
historically been so rich in cultural and commercial connections, when modern
states do not sink deep roots into the land, the result is a reversion to
traditional patterns, albeit with contemporary ideological characteristics. The
U.S. State Department and many policy analysts in Washington have proposed a
new silk route that could emerge in the event of a peace treaty in Afghanistan.
What they fail to recognize is that a silk route is already flourishing outward
from Punjab -- it is just not oriented to Western purposes.
The longer the fighting
goes on in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland, the
weaker Pakistan as a modern state will become. As that occurs, the medieval map
will come into even greater focus. Jakub Grygiel, a professor at Johns Hopkins
University's School of Advanced International Studies, points out that when
states or empires involve themselves in irregular, decentralized warfare,
central control weakens. A state only grows strong when it faces a concentrated
and conventional ground threat, creating the need to match it in organizational
capabilities and thus bolstering central authority. But the opposite kind of
threat leads to the opposite result. Pakistan's very obsession with the ground
threat posed by India is a sign of how it requires a conventional enemy to hold
it together, even as its answer to India in the contested ground of Central
Asia -- supporting decentralized Islamic terrorism from Afghanistan to Kashmir -- is
having the ironic effect of pulling Pakistan itself apart. It is unclear
whether invigorated civilian control in Pakistan can arrest this long-term
This process could even quicken. With the
Soviets abandoning Afghanistan in the late 1980s and the Americans on their way
out in coming years, India will attempt to fill the void partially by building
infrastructure projects and providing support to the Afghan security services.
This will mark the beginning of the real battle between the Indus state and the
Gangetic state for domination of southern Central Asia.
At the same time, as Pakistan is primarily
interested in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the part of Afghanistan north
of the Hindu Kush mountains may, if current trends continue, become more
peaceful and drift into the economic orbit of the former Soviet Central Asian
republics, especially given that Uzbeks and Tajiks live astride northern
Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This new formation
would closely approximate the borders of ancient Bactria, with which Alexander
the Great was so familiar.
Indeed, the past may
hold the key to the future of al-Hind.
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