May Issue 2005

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

stephen-cohen-may05“It is often forgotten that Pakistan is one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically complex states,” says Stephen Cohen, as he begins the chapter on ‘Regionalism and Separatism’ — an issue that has acquired a flaming reference against the backdrop of the Balochistan crisis — in his new book, The Idea of Pakistan. The chapter focuses on the political incongruity of repeated military interventions and domination of the Punjab. What this really means in a statistical sense is graphically underlined by Cohen, one of the most astute American experts on South Asian affairs who has a unique insight into the armies of the two nuclear neighbours. Consider this excerpt: “The focal point of Punjabi domination was and remains the army. Seventy-five per cent of the army is drawn from three Punjab districts (Rawalpindi, Jhelum, and Campbellpur) and two adjacent districts in the NWFP (Kohat and Mardan). These districts contain only nine per cent of Pakistan’s male population. The officer corps is drawn from a wider, more urban base, but is still predominately Punjabi, often the sons of junior commissioned officers. Pakistan’s air force and navy are drawn from a much wider base.”

Nuggets like this are spread across the entire text of The Idea of Pakistan. Though Cohen has sought to examine the ways in which the idea of Pakistan intersects with present realities, his book is essentially a history of Pakistan. At a time when Pakistan has become an enigma for the world, and its relations with the United States poses many questions about its future, this book would serve as an excellent introduction to a country that is sometimes considered a dangerous place in the world.

As a strategic partner of the United States in their global war against terrorism, Pakistan raises some pertinent concerns for the US. At the top of the American agenda, of course, is terrorism, but Cohen has identified and reviewed three more: Pakistan’s nuclear programme, the issue of democratisation, and the country’s potentially hostile relationship with India. Add to this, the concern for Pakistan’s identity as a moderate Muslim state -an identity that is being challenged by Pakistan’s own Islamists.

Cohen raises the question about what America’s options are with regard to Pakistan and concludes his book by saying, “Americans must remember that although Pakistan will pursue its own vital interests as it sees them, an opportunity may exist to incrementally shape Pakistan’s future in a direction that is compatible with important American (and Pakistani) interests. Pakistan has demonstrated an ability to resist America in the case of its nuclear programme, its provocative policy on Kashmir, its tolerance of domestic extremists, and its support for the Taliban. In each case, Washington was unable to persuade Pakistan that these policies threatened vital Pakistani interests, as well as American ones. Before writing Pakistan off as a hopelessly failed state that its critics believe it to be, Washington may have one last opportunity to ensure that this troubled state will not become America’s biggest foreign policy problem in the last half of this decade.”

Hence, according to Cohen’s analysis there is some hope for us. He argues that it is too early to write Pakistan’s epitaph. Envisioning the next five to eight years, Cohen offers a number of possible outcomes: a continuation of today’s oligarchic Establishment; the emergence of a liberal, secular democracy; the rise of an Islamist state; a new political order rising from a divided state; and a nation recovering from a major war with India. The most plausible scenario, he suggests, is that “in five years, Pakistan will be pretty much what it is today.” Incidentally, this reminds one of a joke attributed to Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Many years ago, a group of intellectuals were discussing the worst case scenario for Pakistan and fears were expressed about the country lapsing into anarchy or breaking up. But Faiz reportedly interjected, saying, “Something even worse can happen. It will continue as it is.”

However, Cohen’s account surveys monumental changes, particularly after 9/11. He does not offer opinions; instead, he summarises the relevant facts and attemptes to analyse them. This has made his book a valuable and essential read for those who want to understand the various complexities of Pakistan’s eventful existence. The book offers a solid history of Pakistan that only an observer of Cohen’s highly regarded academic background could put together with such skill and lucidity.

Though the book has covered events that took place until the last months of 2004, it was completed before President General Pervez Musharraf formally reneged on his promise to doff his military uniform by December 31, 2004. Still, Cohen used the current situation as his point of reference as he toured South Asia to promote the book. He first went to India in January and at a function at the India International Centre, he said that he had no doubt that political reforms could save Pakistan. Political reforms and a rediscovery of Jinnah’s idea of a Pakistan that is “secular and friendly with India” is the best case scenario for Pakistan in the 21st century, he added. At the book launch in Lahore at the end of February, Cohen said that the Pakistan army must figure out a way to retreat from politics and allow politicians to govern the country so they can learn from their mistakes without fearing another military takeover.

Cohen, presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is perhaps the most knowledgeable observer of Pakistan and the effort that he has invested in writing the book is truly impressive. He has alo written acclaimed histories of the Indian and Pakistani armies. He begins his preface with the sentence: “It has taken me 44 years to write this book — the length of time I have been studying Pakistan (and India).” At the same time, he notes that the United States, unfortunately, has only a few true experts on Pakistan, and knows remarkably little about this country.

He says in his introduction that, “Much of what has been written is palpably wrong, or at best superficial. Over the years, it has become difficult to conduct research in Pakistan’s deteriorating security environment, and support for such work has dried up. Little wonder, then, that the views cover a wide spectrum, with ‘rogue state’ at one extreme — some would call it a potential nuclear Yugoslavia or even the most dangerous place in the world.” Fortunately, Cohen knows Pakistan well and his analysis is very perceptive. We should take him seriously, and so should the US in defining its policy towards Pakistan.

Cohen has comprehensively covered Pakistan’s history in terms of themes like: the idea of Pakistan; the state of Pakistan; the army’s Pakistan, political Pakistan; Islamic Pakistan; regionalism and separatism; demographic, educational, and economic prospects; Pakistan’s futures; and American options. The last three chapters stand out because of their discussion of what might happen in Pakistan in the near future and how the United States might influence the outcome. Cohen has argued that the US should seriously engage Pakistan but not submit to the tactic of the country’s rulers who tend to threaten that if something were to happen to them, the Islamists would take over. They negotiate with a gun to their head. It amounts to saying, ‘If you don’t help us, we will commit suicide.’ Cohen sees little risk of imminent collapse, so America could be tough on some issues.

Looking at the possible futures of Pakistan, Cohen expresses justified concern about Pakistan’s education system. In his view, it is abysmal by all standards. While the elite have access to good private schools and their children can study abroad, the public education system for the masses has almost collapsed. The primary education system is decrepit, but what Cohen finds more alarming is the condition of the university system and feels that it is “beyond redemption.”

Despite the relatively bleak picture that Pakistan projects, Cohen has identified a number of silver linings. Taking note of the fact that Pakistan has four times followed a “cycle of military intervention, military government, military misrule, a return to civilian government, civilian floundering, and renewed intervention,” Cohen argues that this does not mean “that the future must look like the past.” With each new cycle, he says, fewer and fewer parties are willing to play the role of ‘King’s party’ and be manipulated by the armed forces. He recalls that in 1965, all of the political parties supported Ayub Khan’s provocative policies towards India. In 1971, all the West Pakistan parties supported the army as it dealt with East Pakistan. But now, “Pakistan’s parties have shown a degree of independence from the army and the Establishment, and a number of them have linked support for Pakistan’s strategic polices with changes in the army’s domestic political role.”

In the same discussion, however, we find him suggesting that “Pakistan’s parties are further from power now than they have been for many years.” Why? Because even when there is “growing discontent with the army’s direction of Pakistani foreign policy, and some criticism of its changes to the constitution, there are no issues on which all the parties are aligned on the same side.” This is coupled with their rivalry and “the army’s greater capacity to manipulate elections and electoral coalitions.”

As Cohen explains it, the only civil-military strategy that will work in Pakistan, “short of a revolution, military defeat, or ideological transformation,” is one in which a ‘staged’ transfer of power and authority takes place over a period of years, spanning the tenures of more than one prime minister, and more than one army chief. But, as he explains in a later chapter, it is questionable whether the conditions for such a shift will arise soon.

Consequently, Pakistan, in the near future, “will be a state-nation lodged between a weak democracy and a benevolent autocracy.” But can it remain in this uneasy position indefinitely? Cohen has drafted a chart to summarise Pakistan’s probable and less probable futures, looking at various scenarios and rating their probability as well as their political and strategic impact. It is a very instructive chart and takes account of the various possibilities, from the continuation of the Establishment-dominated oligarchic system to a divided Pakistan.

Many informed readers in Pakistan will find discussions that sound familiar in this book, but they can still learn from it and enhance their awareness of the policy alternatives that the existing circumstances have thrown up. Obviously, Cohen has a deeper focus on the US-Pakistan relationship. For him, the most difficult question is whether the United States should address Pakistan’s deeper problems to prevent it from becoming a rogue state. Here is, thus, a message for the rulers of both countries. In the past, short-term gains took priority over long-term concerns but The Idea of Pakistan argues that ignoring long-term concerns could have grave consequences.

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.