What’s Wrong with Pakistan? [1 of 2]

The 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.



by Robert D. Kaplan


Note for WoP readers: Robert D. Kaplan wrote an insightful article back in 2009. The article titled as Strategic Planning for Pakistan’s nukes….. is heavily relevant to what’s happening now in Pakistan and what might happen if our leaders did not take timely decisions on estranged US Pakistan relations. [Nayyar]

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.


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 Balochistan 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.

Despite its 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.”

Next: What’s Wrong with Pakistan [2 of 2]

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Related Posts:

1. Empire’s Paranoia About the Pashtuns [in three parts] 2. Some Soul Searching: Pakistani Nationalism and Schooling
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