Hoodbhoy reviews Cohen’s new book on Pakistan

Demilitarise the state and detoxify its education system

Joel, of Far Outliers, points to Pervez Hoodbhoy’s review of Stephen Cohen’s latest book, the “Idea of Pakistan”.

The military is only one (albeit the most important) component of the wider “establishment” that runs Pakistan. Cohen calls this establishment a “moderate oligarchy” and defines it as “an informal political system that [ties] together the senior ranks of the military, the civil service, key members of the judiciary, and other elites.” Membership in this oligarchy, Cohen contends, requires adherence to a common set of beliefs: that India must be countered at every turn; that nuclear weapons have endowed Pakistan with security and status; that the fight for Kashmir is unfinished business from the time of partition; that large-scale social reforms such as land redistribution are unacceptable; that the uneducated and illiterate masses deserve only contempt; that vociferous Muslim nationalism is desirable but true Islamism is not; and that Washington is to be despised but fully taken advantage of. Underlying these “core principles,” one might add, is a willingness to serve power at any cost….

“Pakistan has adapted to changing strategic circumstances,” Cohen observes, “by ‘renting’ itself out to powerful states, notably the United States, but also Saudi Arabia and China.” He warns that the September 11 windfall and the al Qaeda card will, beyond a certain point, cease to guarantee cash and support. And although economic growth is currently strong, Pakistan has a fundamentally weak economy that is deeply dependent on remittances from overseas workers. Low-tech textile exports are the mainstay of its industrial production, and its work force does not meet the requirements of a modern economy. The army, meanwhile, is strong enough to prevent state failure but not imaginative enough to push through major changes. In the long run, minimal economic opportunity, a booming birth rate, intensive urbanization, a failed educational system, and a hostile regional environment will result in a large, young, and ill-educated population that has few prospects for economic advancement and is susceptible to political mobilization by radicals.

Cohen ventures several reasoned-and reasonable-guesses as to Pakistan’s trajectory, focusing his attention on the forces driving it in different directions. He thinks that the present system is likely to continue, but that certain trends (the rise of radical Islamist groups, revived ethnic and regional separatism) and possible disruptions (the loss of U.S. or Chinese support, a major war with India, a series of assassinations) could yet transform it. [Foreign Affairs via Far Outliers]

Sepoy of Chapati Mystery hadpreviously argued, rather sharply, that Cohen does not go far enough in examining the role of American foreign policy expediency in perpetuating the mess that Pakistan had ended up in. Hoodbhoy echoes Sepoy’s point, but in a more charitable way.

But, as Cohen points out, Pakistan’s nuclear dreams probably began 40 years ago when-under the aegis of the Central Treaty Organization-the U.S. Army initiated large-scale training of Iranian, Turkish, and Pakistani officers in armor, artillery, and other technical services. Hundreds of Pakistani officers attended U.S. schools between 1955 and 1958. “There was an important American contribution in the form of periodic visits by American nuclear experts to the Staff College in Quetta,” says Cohen. During a visit to the Staff College, he noted that the school’s official history refers to “a 1957 visit by a U.S. nuclear-warfare team that ‘proved most useful and resulted in modification and revision of the old syllabus’ to bring it into line with the ‘fresh data’ given by the team.” In Cohen’s opinion, “present-day Pakistani nuclear planning and doctrine is descended directly from this early exposure to Western nuclear strategizing; it very much resembles American thinking of the mid-1950s with its acceptance of first-use and the tactical use of nuclear weapons against onrushing conventional forces.”

Cohen brings this new, and quite surprising, insight to U.S.-Pakistan nuclear history, but one might have expected a more detailed examination of this critical area, rather than a few quick comments. It is, in fact, a subject worthy of another book from him.

The U.S. response has been a series of flips and flops, largely determined by immediate political needs rather than long-term strategic thinking. President Jimmy Carter imposed sanctions on Islamabad but waived them following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A series of presidential waivers allowed U.S. economic and military assistance to continue flowing through 1990, as a reward for Pakistan’s anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan. This was despite the fact that Pakistan disclosed in 1984 that it could enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and in 1987 that it could assemble a nuclear device. Even as the president of the United States solemnly informed Congress that Pakistan was not seeking to make nuclear weapons, anyone in Islamabad or Rawalpindi could hail a taxicab and ask to be taken to what was (and is) known as the “bomb factory.” Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington toughened its stance on Pakistan’s nuclear program and, after the 1998 nuclear tests (which were in response to similar moves by India), imposed harsh new sanctions. But soon after September 11, 2001-when Islamabad regained the strategic significance it had lost at the end of the Cold War-Washington dropped all nuclear-related sanctions, in part as a reward for Musharraf’s decision to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban.

Throughout this period, it was never a secret that Pakistan was and continues to be host to an array of radical Islamist groups. These pathological social and religious formations have a variety of aims-some target the American empire, whereas others focus on the more limited goal of “liberating” Kashmir or eliminating religious rivals-but all trace their origins to the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad, which over the course of a decade profoundly affected Pakistani society, culture, and politics and unleashed developments that would have dire consequences down the road. “During the first Afghan war, the [Inter-Services Intelligence agency’s] strategy was to support hard-line Islamic groups, and with American concurrence, the ISI characterized the war against the Soviet intruders as a religious struggle against atheistic communism,” Cohen writes. “Again with American encouragement, young Muslims were recruited to the ’cause’ from the Arab and Islamic world, inadvertently creating a cohort that was to eventually form al Qaeda.”

Cohen uses the words “concurrence” and “encouragement,” but these are unsatisfactory descriptions: it is clear who the senior partner in this arrangement was. As the junior partner, Pakistan received a support package from Washington that included help with organization and logistics, military technology, and ideological support for sustaining and encouraging the Afghan resistance. Of these, the last was by far the most important, serving as it did to attract men and materiel from the Arab world and beyond to the jihad in Afghanistan. [Foreign Affairs]