November 04, 2011

Tracing the historical roots of Pakistan’s current plight.

Fereydoun Majlesi

Cloaking the tensions seems an ever-difficult burden for Islamabad and Washington these days. Pakistan, which relies on the United States’ financial and political support, sweats blood to reconstruct relations with its powerful partner; relations that are not fully under the control of Pakistan, but are also affected by the interplay of several regional and internal actors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India and malignant groups inside the country’s byzantine power structure. To develop a better understanding of the problem, an in-depth look at Pakistan’s history and its key developments seems necessary.

1) Inception of Pakistan and the significance of the Iranian element: Pakistan is an ‘artificial state’, formed by eight distinct ethnicities inhabiting seven separate regions, with Islam serving as the glue which held these incompatible fragments together and facilitated Pakistan’s separation from Greater India two years after independence from British rule. As an historical empire, Indosphere carried the potential to incorporate the Muslim-dominated region on its western flank –the subsequent Pakistan- within its borders. Nonetheless, Islamabad, fragmented in nature, coveted an independent Pakistani identity for itself. These compartments included:












Baluchi and Persian (spoken by the Hazara minority)







East Pakistan



* Immigrant Muslims from mainland India



While the eastern bank of the Indus River (which snakes through Pakistan) has been politically, socially and culturally under Iran’s influence (and occasionally Iran's rule) throughout history, the western bank of the river has been historically more connected to India. Persian served as thelingua franca of the Indian Subcontinent up until 1857, when the British rulers replaced it with their own language out of fear of Iran’s expansionist predisposition.

During the rule of the largely maladroit Qajar Dynasty in Iran (from the early 18th century to the early 20th century) Britain adopted a two-faceted approach towards Iran, i.e. as a buffer against the Tsarist Russia, Iran was taken care of, while contained in the meantime in order not to restore its historical power. Upon the formation of Pakistan, anti-colonialist fervor and the need to create a national identity dictated choosing supra-ethnic Urdu as the official language of the country. Heavily influenced by Persian, Urdu would create no schism and was well-learnt by all ethnicities. Pakistan’s national anthem is actually quite readable in Persian. Two Pakistani presidents, General Iskander Mirza and Zulfiqar,Ali Bhutto married Iranian women. Up until the mid-1960s, during the years when Islamabad sought preferential ties with Tehran, Persian was officially taught in Pakistan’s schools. Islamabad’s membership in the Baghdad Treaty (later CENTO, after Iraq’s withdrawal in 1959) blessed the relations with a strategic flavor. Up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Islamabad also enjoyed the Shah’s generous financial aid. Iran’s approach towards the Pashtunistan region –claimed by Afghanistan- was also uplifting for Pakistan. While forming only one-third [sic] of Afghanistan’s population, Pashtuns dominated Afghan politics, believing in an inherent right to rule the country. Afghanistan never yielded to Pakistan’s mandate over the Pashtunistan region and floated the idea of annexing it to its own territory. Iran, wiling to see the Persian language and Iranian culture retain its dominance in Afghanistan, did not support Kabul’s territorial claims, which could eventually cast the shadow of the tribal culture of Pashtuns over the Persian culture.

2) Expanding its clout, Saudi Arabia –intoxicated by considerable oil revenues- upped the ante in its rivalry with Iran, cautious to mask it under a friendly face. Since the mid-1960s, the Sunni denomination of Pakistan, forming 80% of the country’s population, became the target of Riyadh, which tried to increase its influence via construction of traditional madrassas [Islamic seminaries] in the country, where students were indoctrinated with fundamentalist teaching. By the end of 1960s, Saudi petrodollars managed to replace Persian with Arabic in Pakistan’s schools.

3) In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which toppled Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi’s secular regime and replaced it with a theocratic Shi’a establishment; Saudi Arabia, unofficial patron of the orthodox Wahhabi sect, kicked the rivalry up a notch. Traditional madrassas mushroomed across Pakistan -particularly in the Baluchistan and Pashtunistan regions, with thousands of Talibsinstructed in radical Islamic teachings.

4) The end of the Vietnam War and the rise of a Soviet Union puppet state in Afghanistan provided Washington with a golden opportunity to use the ‘Muslim Viet Congs’, that is, the Muslim fighters combating Communist pagans as proxies to weaken the Soviet Army. From the westernmost frontiers of the Arab World to the Persian Gulf coast, thousands of Sunni Arabs departed for Afghanistan. Pakistan served as the logistic procurer of this devoted army that was led by the US-educated, English-savvy Osama bin Laden. Saudi and Emirati petrodollars, American direction and Pakistani intelligence, combined with Afghan zeal struck such heavy a blow to the Soviet Army that they eventually catalyzed the Communist empire’s meltdown.

5) For Washington, it seemed that all it had coveted for years were now materialized. Withdrawal from Afghanistan ushered in the gradual collapse of USSR. Sensing no need for alQaeda or the Afghan Mujahedeen, the White House left Afghanistan to itself to turn into the battleground of former US allies. The Mujahedeen were now preoccupied with domestic conflicts, stemming from the agenda of their financial supporters or influenced by alliances between Shia and Sunni groups (which was frowned upon by radical Wahhabis). Pakistan’s Army, humiliated by several blows from its Indian rival in successive wars, had now found a chance to up the ante and play a more influential role. Pakistan wielded its Pashtun community as a proxy to turn Afghanistan into a client state, under Islamic rule. Islamabad’s intelligence service marshaled thousands of idle Pashtun insurgents, led by the one-eyed Mullah Umar, to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Resistance to the new rulers was stronger among the citizens of Persian-speaking cities of Herat, Mazar Sharif, Balkh, Bamiyan and the Panjshir Valley (the last one under the rule of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud).

6) The genie was now out of the bottle: the Taliban, recognized only by its breeders, i.e. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, embarked on a campaign of purging the Persian-speaking Shia’ Hazaras. Their Arab brethren, alQaeda, which had paved the way for Mullah Umar’s control over 95% of Afghan soil, now turned towards their most formidable enemy, the West and its purported modernism. The US Embassy blast in Nairobi and the Gulf of Aden suicide attacks convinced President Clinton to fire Cruise missiles at Bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan. But in a war-ridden country, where almost everything was leveled to the ground, there was nothing to lose. Clinton’s preoccupation with the Monica Lewinsky scandal denied him further focus on Bin Laden’s capture.

7) Pakistan is on the verge of collapse. Abject poverty, the military’s monopoly, corrupt bureaucracy, ailing economy, increasing population, disposition to dominate Afghanistan, the burgeoning power of radical Islamists and their mulawis, armed tribes, ethnic clashes (particularly between the economically dominant Urdu-speaking population on the one hand, and the Sindhis and Punjabis on the other), failure to consolidate a national identity and a nation-state centered around a common language, dispersion of power centers, and conspicuous conflict between the interests of domestic groups and foreign powers—all have placed Pakistan in a plight. In a recent remark, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confessed that his government’s support for the Taliban was aimed to curb India and Iran’s influence in Afghanistan (though for Tehran and New Delhi, Afghanistan looks more like a liability than an asset.)

8) Saudi Arabia and Israel’s efforts, along with Pakistan’s conduct and Iran’s reluctance to continue cooperation with the United States, have significantly contained Iran’s influence in Afghanistan. The Mujahedeen have fallen victim to their cultural and language affinities with Iran. Thus, the seasoned troops of Ahmad Shah Massoud who could serve as the backbone of Afghanistan’s nascent army were disbanded while Pashtun gunmen, many of whom sympathized with Taliban, replaced them. Statistical manipulations have fragmented the Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan (which amounts to two-third of the country’s overall population) into Tajik, Hazara, Herati and Uzbek communities, while ignoring the Persian-speaking Pashtuns of northeast Afghanistan. Persian was relegated to the secondary official language of Afghanistan. The currency is published with Pashtun legends and the national anthem is sung in Pashtun.

9) Pakistan’s hopes for reconciliation with Taliban appear dim, while Islamabad still enjoys US financial aid. In the meantime, Islamabad has not wavered in its approach towards Afghanistan as its political backyard. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s challenge with a deep identity crisis renders its dissolution a likely option. Americans, perhaps, are not very upset about the prospect of this disintegration. If Pakistan is divided into Sindh, Punjab, Kashmir and Waziristan regions, no singly powerful state would remain to exert leverage through the country’s N-bomb stockpile.

10) Iran can administer fruitful diplomacy in the region only if it dispels concerns about its religious and political ambitions; substitutes the ineffective attitude of winning the support of the Muslim World’s street with relations with the states and a resumption of decent ties with West; otherwise, the outbreak of a new war in the region won’t be a far-fetched concept.

Fereydoun Majlesi is a historiographer and international affairs analyst


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