The more one learns of Pakistan, the stronger the conviction that, like the British before them, in the tribal areas of that troubled country the Americans are fast approaching the limits of their power. The British struggled for three quarters of a century to subdue the tribes of the North West Frontier without any great success, finally settling on a policy of non-interference. Islamabad has decided on a similar policy. The reasons are both historical and pragmatic. The three provinces that make up the outer rim originally federated with the Punjab on the understanding that they would enjoy a large measure of autonomy and in the ensuing half-century, every attempt by the centre to extend its control over the periphery has met with fierce and oftentimes bloody resistance. The result is that something of an uneasy standoff has developed with a delicate constitutional balance allowing for substantial self-government in the provinces.

This fragile equilibrium prevents the desire for autonomy in the regions from developing into a full-blown argument for secession. At the same time, in the conflicting loyalties and fierce independence of the frontier tribes, both New Delhi and Kabul have seen an opening for their diplomacy. Both powers have encouraged a militant particularism in the provinces. This has fed Islamabad’s chronic insecurity, with disastrous results for wider regional stability. What Islamabad fears most is a replay of 1971, when the rise of Bengali nationalism resulted in a loss to Pakistan of 56 per cent of its population and half of its territory. Islamabad’s nightmare scenario is a similar process in the tribal areas resulting in a further round of secession, robbing the state of precious strategic depth and further weakening it vis-à-vis India. In an effort to counter this, Pakistan has traditionally sought to extend its strategic reach into Afghanistan. Denying India influence there undercuts New Delhi’s ability to project power into the tribal areas and so Islamabad has considered it a strategic priority to ensure a friendly government in Kabul.

To achieve this, Pakistan has sought to cultivate a pan-Islamic identity, reaching out beyond Afghanistan to Iran, the Central Asian republics and restive Muslim minorities throughout the region. The problem with this strategy, quite apart from the threat it poses to regional stability, is that religion is an insufficient basis for a movement of national unity. As a resource to be mined for purposes of nation building, the value of Islam consists primarily in its emotional resonance, its symbolic and lyrical quality, rather than its more secular, programmatic aspects. Whenever Islamabad has tried to give the concept political content, it has simply revived all the old antagonisms.

We see a similar dynamic at work in the Middle East. Iran made the same appeal to pan-Islamism in an attempt to break out of its isolation. The flaw in the design, of course, was that Shiism is a minority sect, with limited appeal in the region. This meant glossing over the long running confessional fault-lines between Sunni and Shiite and appealing instead to the traditional discourse of anti-imperialism, drawing upon anti-Western rhetoric and symbols. Anti-Americanism then becomes the great glue that binds the disparate strands of the resistance movement together. And so you get this curious hybrid, a strange kind of syncretism, a wholly alien and synthetic construct, with a transparent geopolitical dimension, stripped of any recognisable theological content.

Similarly, pan-Arabism: the idea that Arab unity is a romantic idea shared by all Arabs is true only in the abstract. Once you try to give it political content, disagreement soon emerges. Arab unity, translated into a working political concept carries with it the prospect of domination of the diverse peoples of the Middle East by a single power, historically Egypt or Iraq. Similarly, pan-Islamism has usually meant domination by one sect, be it the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia or the Shiite of Iran. That is why the great universalising projects, these great ideological constructs, have failed to take root, because of the salience of ethnicity. Put simply, there is a more ancient and enduring basis of legitimacy, that is, an ontological basis of group identity and allegiance that is missing in any purely ideological construct. And so, although they have great romantic appeal, these great universalising projects quickly run into objective limits in the shape of ethnic and tribal localisms.

The key for American policy is not to make moves that upset this delicate balance, which is what I worry about most as AfPak policy moves into its decisive phase. In a move that threatens to overthrow Pakistan’s fragile equilibrium, American policy has now aligned itself with the centre against the periphery in an effort to deny Al Qaeda its mountain sanctuary. This is a high-risk departure from the historical pattern by the United States and even more so by Islamabad, because in the event that this stokes latent separatist sentiment, the consequences for wider regional stability could be disastrous. If the beleaguered Pakistani state is plunged into a further crisis by rebellion in the outer rim the very real danger is that the country could simply unravel, reducing Pakistan to a rump Punjabi state and so the administrations in Washington and Islamabad are playing for high stakes - Washington certainly, but Islamabad even more so. Washington’s dilemmas are merely strategic, where Pakistan’s are existential. Of course, from the narrow perspective of the counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan, the new policy makes perfect sense. If we want to break the back of this insurgency, we have to target its strongholds. This does not mean isolated outposts in Helmand, but rather its sanctuaries in Waziristan. That is why the upcoming offensive by Pakistani forces is so significant. My worry is that policy has been designed without sufficient attention to this longstanding historical dynamic.

Its success will depend on the extent to which the Pakistanis are able to target the insurgency without reviving all the old antagonisms. The danger is that the tribes will see in it yet another of the centre’s periodic attempts to overthrow the constitutional settlement and extend its rule into the periphery. To forestall this possibility, the Pakistanis need to embark upon an urgent round of public diplomacy to convince tribal leaders that foreign elements are the real threat, and that Islamabad has no designs on the tribal areas. Whether they can cut through the layers of mistrust and establish their bona fides on this issue is an open question. One hopes that they are capable of this kind of nuance because without it, one fears the worst.

Further Reading:

For more on the Pakistan dimension of the conflict, this April 2009 CATO Institute Paper really brings out some of the complexity of the situation. Alternatively, President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas' recent Washington Post piece is worth a read. For an insight into what the Pakistani forces can expect when they launch their offensive, see this Telegraph piece and finally, Richard North has another good post on the developing situation over at Defence of The Realm
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