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 state.
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 routes.
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.