Pakistan's Foreign and Domestic Policy Since September 11th

Juan Cole
University of Michigan

May 1, 2002

My focus today will be the recent shift in the relationship between the Musharraf government and Pakistan's Islamic groups. First I will talk a bit about Pakistan's traditional stance towards Islamic groups and how it developed. Then I will outline how this relationship has changed in the wake of September 11th and highlight a few of the reforms that Musharraf has announced as part of his plan to secularize Pakistan's government.

Pakistan is a rapidly growing, multi-ethnic country, whose population is expected to reach 250 million by the middle of the century and whose ethnicities transcend national borders. When the country was created in 1947 as part of the partition of British India, Pakistan was not designed to be an "Islamic State" bound by Islamic Law, but rather an ethnic—and by South Asian standards, secular—home for Muslims. However, though it was to be a home for all Muslims, it is a highly stratified and unequal home, in which the elite top five percent of the population live extremely well, while more than 40% of the population live below the poverty line. This is due in large part to the fact that—unlike its Indian neighbor—Pakistan never underwent land reform. Thus the country's few landowners retained tremendous power over the country's large and heavily reliant peasant population, but very little organic connection exists between them.

When he was in power in the 1980s General Zia set out to forge ties between the country's rich and poor and reasoned that he could use Islam to do so. Therefore he set out to increase the Islamisation of Pakistan, by establishing the clergy as an arm of the state and using them to distribute alms taxes. At the same time, the Saudis and others promoted the establishment of hundreds of madrassas to educate the poor. Though they are now seen as teaching young men little more than the virtues of martyrdom, at the time it was thought that the madrassas could perform a valuable educational function and aid Pakistan's burgeoning poor. This was viewed as important because while the country's economic growth of about four to five percent per year has outpaced that of India since independence, Pakistan's tremendous population growth continues to outstrip its impressive economic record, leaving the country impoverished and underdeveloped.

Pakistan's situation has been further complicated by the fact that it is located in a "dangerous" neighborhood. It borders India to the east, China to the north, and Iran and Afghanistan to the west. Thus, given the potential threats that surround it on all sides, Pakistan has set great store in having a friendly government in Kabul and has repeatedly gotten involved in Afghan internal politics in order to influence the nature of its regime. For instance, after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan joined with the US in supporting opposition to the Soviet occupation force; this support included backing extremist mujahadeen guerrilla groups, which then created its own set of problems for Pakistan once the Soviets withdrew a decade later.

The chaos that ensued following the Soviet withdrawal precipitated Pakistan's decision to take the militant Islamic student movement—which became the Taliban—under its wing. Under the guidance and tutelage of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Pakistan armed the Taliban, helped them recruit new members, and provided them with the training and battle plans that they used to take over most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Once in power the Taliban did not simply do Pakistan's bidding, although a number of Pakistani militant groups were integrated into the Taliban's command structure. And overall, Pakistan did get most of what it wanted from the installation of a friendly regime in Afghanistan, namely strategic depth and an incubator for fighters to be used against India in the contested Kashmir region. Nevertheless, with these benefits came some costs. Because of this policy of the ISI, many of its own (and other state organizations') members grew close to anti-Western Islamists, including Osama Bin Laden.

When Everything Changed
This development appeared to have been viewed as greatly troubling to the United States. And it is rumored that late in the second Clinton Administration, the US approached Musharraf with a proposal to go after Bin Laden inside Afghanistan. At that point, Musharraf said no, not for ideological reasons, but rather for strategic ones. However after the September 11th attacks, the environment changed, forcing Musharraf to reevaluate his options. In short, according to the Pakistani press, the US gave Pakistan two choices: the Modern Age or the Stone Age.

Faced with such a stark choice, Musharraf decided to cut the Taliban loose. In exchange for promises of aid and the lifting of US sanctions, Pakistan offered to assist the US logistically and to provide access to its airspace in support of US operations into Afghanistan. I would argue that about 99% of Pakistan's elite understood the country's position, and a majority of the population as a whole supported Musharraf's decisions. At the same time, however, about 80% claimed that they also supported the Taliban, which led to Musharraf's famous comment that "my people are confused."

In order to solidify support for his shift in position vis-à-vis the Taliban, Musharraf successfully "played the India card" and articulated the dangers for Pakistan's elite should they choose not to support the US. First, he argued that Pakistan's position vis-à-vis India on the Kashmir issue would be further weakened if Pakistan refused to cooperate. Second, Musharraf pointed to India's meetings with the Northern Alliance and hence the danger to Pakistani interests if the Northern Alliance took over Afghanistan. Thus he argued he would use his influence with the US to prevent the Northern Alliance from taking over Afghanistan. He managed to gain the support with regard to Afghan policy of the Pakistan People's Party, most of the middle class, and the bulk of the country's peasantry outside the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan. It is worth noting as well that the country's Sufi mystics, who comprise a large chunk of the population in the populous Sindhand Punjab provinces, have little use for Islamic extremism. In short, support for Musharraf's position was pretty deep.

It is true that there was some very vocal domestic opposition to Pakistan's stance. Musharraf was publicly criticized and accused of "selling out" by right-wing fundamentalist generals, most of whom were tied to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JUI) party, along with a number of Islamic clerics of the Jamiat Ulama-e Islam. Nevertheless, for the most part support for Musharraf remained strong. The widely feared and anticipated mass protests and demonstrations failed to materialize. For instance, the clerics' calls for mass strikes really only succeeded in Karachi, and then only because transport workers—who had been trying to strike for months for secular reasons—finally walked out; thus no one could get to work. At the end of the day, the police easily managed the demonstrations—without calling out the military—which is to say (in South Asian terms) that they were not terribly serious.

Real Reforms?
Since September 11th, Musharraf has been engaged in a number of domestic reforms designed to weaken the power of the Islamic extremists, though their degree of implementation and ultimate level of efficacy remains unclear. First, he has reorganized the top echelon of the ISI, and replaced its head out of concern about his loyalty. Though information on this front is hard to come by, it appears that he has reduced the size of the ISI as well, and made significant reductions in particular in its Kashmir and Afghan units. Musharraf has also backed away from the military's earlier links to Islamic groups, but only really the jihadis and the Taliban and only vis-à-vis Afghanistan. That is, he remains somewhat militant on Kashmir. Second, after making a major speech decrying the power of the clerics in January, he announced that the government would begin to oversee the curricula in the country's madrassas. But this overhaul has yet to occur. He has not yet reformed any curricula, nor has he rolled back any Islamisation measures.

Third, two thousand extremists were arrested in January, but about 75% of them have been released, as the government could not identify an indictable offense with which to charge them. Fourth, Musharraf has announced his intention to overhaul the electoral system in a number of ways, including introducing joint electorates that include the religious minorities, increasing the number of seats in Parliament and reserving 60 seats for women, and making the possession of a bachelor's degree a minimum requirement for holding office. In short, he is attempting to secularize the government. However, some of the reforms he has chosen—e.g., the degree prerequisite—will have the unintended consequence of further ensconcing the country's top 5% in power and virtually disenfranchising the rural population, which is unwise.

The results of the recent referendum means that Musharraf has support to remain in power for another five years. However, whether he will succeed in secularizing the country and in dealing with the country's massive social problems during this term remains unclear.

Juan Cole is a professor at the Department of History, University of Michigan.

Rapporteur: Kelly M. Greenhill

back to seminar schedule, Spring 2002