With the murder of Benazir Bhutto, most likely by religious fanatics, the ad hoc and shortsighted nature of US policy toward Pakistan is on display once again. As pundits and diplomats in the West seek a Plan B for Pakistan, let’s step back for a second to look at how thoroughly bankrupt US policy in that region has become, and recognize the desperate need for a new diplomacy for the Muslim world in general.
Several questions demand attention. What is the problem to which Bhutto was supposedly a solution? What is its history? And who was Bhutto?
The discussion of Bhutto assumes that she would have brought greater stability by reining in the forces of militant political Islam in Pakistan. But that is an illusion. The Taliban, Jamaat-i-Islami and likely even Al Qeada all have links to the Pakistani military and intelligence. The Pakistan security forces use these militants as proxies in their cold war with India on two crucial fronts in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Geographically, Pakistan is long and thin and sandwiched between two hostile states, India and Afghanistan. Pakistan was born of communal violence in postindependence India. One million people were killed and 15 million displaced during that cataclysm. And since then, three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan for control of Kashmir.
Since the early 1970s Afghanistan and Pakistan–locked in a border dispute of their own–have each attempted to subvert the other with cross-border guerrilla forces.
Beginning in 1973 Pakistan supported Galbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami. This later became an anti-Soviet mujahedeen force and has recently been allied with the resurgent Taliban. Afghanistan, in turn, supported Murtaza Bhutto’s guerrilla group, Al Zulficar, in its efforts to overthrow the right-wing dictator Zia ul-Huq, who ran Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. (For more on this, see the books of Raja Anwar.)
Since its inception, the Pakistani officer class has wanted Afghanistan to remain weak so as to provide “strategic depth”–fallback room in case of a major land war with India. For its part, Afghanistan still covets large pieces of Pakistan that were lost when the British drew the current border–the Durand Line–in 1893.
On both sides of the border live Pashtuns. The Afghan Pashtuns have always been the ruling ethnicity, but in Pakistan they are a large, poor, restive minority, making up about 16 percent of the population. The last thing Pakistan wants is for the Pashtun minority within its borders to link up with, or become the tool of, a strong neighboring Afghanistan ruled by Pashtuns and allied with India.
In other words, a central but often overlooked piece of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” is Pakistan’s security. Why does Pakistan tolerate and even support the Taliban to keep Afghanistan, to its west, weak? Because Pakistan is threatened by India to its east.
And so Pakistan’s security forces–though they deny it–shelter, fund and train the Taliban and other Islamic militants who fight in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir.
The central point is this: Pakistani security forces will never end their support of Islamic radicals if Pakistan’s security vis-à-vis India is not first guaranteed. Until then any discussion of this president versus that president is a charade.