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CEW Director on Pakistani-US relations after bin Laden

After bin Laden: Pakistan-friend or foe?

This past week's stunning developments on the global security front and the death of international terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden have many Americans (and non-Americans) wondering how close two long term allies really are. Those allies are the United States and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The unanswered question of how could bin Laden have lived for six years outside the Pakistani capital in proximity of areas heavily populated by Pakistani military personnel raise many other concerns about Pakistan's stability as a country, its government's integrity, and its military's commitment to fighting global terrorism.

What do we know about Pakistan? Founded in1947 when the British left India, Pakistan was the Muslim state that broke from the larger Hindu state on the Indian sub-continent. Its founder was Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) who worked directly with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Jinnah, who headed up India's Muslim League, wanted two Indias (one Muslim and one Hindu) and he wanted a diverse Indian Muslim state that was secular in orientation. His main protagonist in the Muslim League was Muhammad Iqbal who called for an Islamic republic based on Sharia law and Islamic teachings.

For its first twenty-four years, Pakistan consisted of two regions: West Pakistan, the region we know today as Pakistan (with a population of 170 million and the sixth largest country on earth) and East Pakistan which was 1000 miles east of Islamabad on the other side of India. The intra-Islamic war of 1971 between both regions ended up creating the autonomous Islamic nation-state of Bangladesh (a nation of 164 million and the eighth largest country in the world.)

The interesting thing about Pakistan is that it has been known for political instability since 1947. In its first 50 years, it spent 25 years as a democracy and 25 years as a military regime. The vacillation between authoritarian government and weak democratic governance led to fissures within the social and political landscape of the country. Its famed strong men such as generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan attempted to keep Pakistan secure and stable and working with both eastern (Communist) and western (democratic) states in the 1950s and 1960s. But, the role of Islam in the society continued to rise to the fore in Pakistani politics.

Often the generals would attempt, like Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in Turkey in the 1920s, to take the Pakistani polity toward secularism and stability only to have the cracks reemerge in the nation's partisan politics catapulting the Pakistani system back toward authoritarianism.

Even Sulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of the late Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, tried to bring about democratic socialism and parliamentarism, but the divides between those wanting an Islamist society and a secularist state were too great. In July 1977, General Zia ul-Haq foisted a putsch upon the state and brought with him another period of martial law. The US worked with General Zia, but as the story of "Charlie Wilson's War" tells us, Islamism in Pakistan even got the best of the military leadership and Pakistan drifted toward more Islamism: enforced Ramadan fast periods; Fridays off for worship; prayer (salat) encouraged five times a day; a declaration that those opposed to Muhammad as Allah's prophet were unbelievers; government elites mandated to live by the tenets of Islam; and the Quran was to be the basis for national law.

This transformation is not out of the ordinary in an Islamic society, but given the weakness of the institutions of the Pakistani state the roots of today's paradoxical relationship between the US and Pakistan can be found in that era. Let's fast forward to 1999 and the coup by General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, like Zia and others before him, claimed to be rescuing Pakistan from itself (a corrupt and feckless democracy.) Musharraf did win election as president but was sent packing by the legislature as another round of democratization came to Pakistan by 2008.

But, the weakness of the government, the relative strength of the military, the inability of the state to govern its own territory (by 2009 Pakistan controlled at best 50% of its own territory with the Taliban controlling the other 50%) and the issues related to a growing discontent with American influence in both Pakistani foreign policy and domestic politics have led to a system that continues to be relatively unstable and difficult to manage. Islamism in the military (in the form of a kind of Pakistani Muslim nationalism) might be one circumstantial explanation as to why bin Laden was able to stay out of sight as long as he did.

The challenge the US faces in Pakistan is one that was studied by political scientist Joel Migdal when he looked at "weak states and strong societies." When state structures are tenuous or non-existent and extra-parliamentary or social forces are able to overwhelm states and militaries then problems will persist.

Should we cut ties with the Pakistani government and military given the problems instigated by the tenseness of our relations with Pakistan in recent months? No. Pakistan is still a nuclear-tipped state with weapons that could undermine the region and pull larger states into a geo-political tussle that could destabilize not only Southwest Asia, but the Far East as well. As American general David Petraeus, soon to lead our CIA, said a few years back, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not all about bombs and bullets, but the indigenous governments in the Muslim world winning "hearts and minds" as well. Americans need to understand the Pakistani context as well as the role of Islam in the area if they want to understand how our relations with Pakistan can improve in the wake of the removal militarily of America's number one enemy in Abbottabad.

Kurt W. Jefferson is the Director of the Center for Engaging the World in the Churchill Institute at Westminster College where is chair and professor in the Department of Political Science. He teaches courses and researches on transnational studies and global politics.

Published in the News Tribune (Jefferson City, Mo.) on Sunday, May 8, 2011, p.11.

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