In the shadow of Afghanistan
Pakistan’s growing crisis

Re-produced with thanks from the STRATEGIC COMMENTS
(volume 4 Issue 8 October 1998) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies

PAKISTAN’S PAST POLICIES and failures have come back to haunt it with a vengeance. The country’s support for the radical Sunni Islamist Taleban movement in Afghanistan has helped to create regime which has succeeded (remarkably) in simultaneously infuriating both the US and Iran, and alienating them both from Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Taleban example has inflamed Sunni extremism within Pakistan’s itself, and fuelled an increasingly violent hatred of both the US and Pakistan’s large Shia minority. The threat of unrest has been increased by an acute economic crisis. The government is making an attempt - one of several in Pakistan’s history - to strengthen its position and outflank the radicals by adopting stronger Islamist positions. For the fourth time in 50 years, the Constitution has been amended to subordinate the law and the state to the Sharia (Islamic code), but precisely because this is such an oft-repeated move, it is unlikely to carry much credence.

The US cruise-missile strike against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan on 20 August, which passed over Pakistani territory, humiliated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s moderate Islamist government and led to massive demonstrations in Pakistan. It left the administration precariously situated between its fear of domestic Islamist protest and its desperate need for US and International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance to cover the yawning budget deficit. International aid was suspended after Pakistan conducted a series of nuclear tests on 28 and 30 May in response to those carried out on 11 and 13 May by its giant eastern neighbour, and old adversary, India. Pakistan’s nuclear tests have also greatly heightened tension with India, which has been ruled since March by the strongly anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani Bharatiya Janata Party.

Underlying the immediate crisis is a profound malaise affecting the whole of Pakistani society, and reflecting Pakistan’s failure in recent decades to create an effective modern state, to lay the basis for stable economic growth and to raise its people’s educational and living standards. Over the past decade, there has been rapid economic growth, but its benefits have been extremely unequal and it has been continuously undermined by steep population growth, which at 3% per annum is one of the fastest in the world. Pakistan’s population has soared from 84 million in 1981 to approximately 124m in 1998.

In the countryside, the intolerable demands being placed on the land and even more on limited water supplies are ruining the soil in many areas and thus undermining the long-term foundation of Pakistani agriculture. Over-population is contributing to a mass migration of peasants to the cities, where they are ripe for recruitment into the various religious and ethnic extremist groups.

Frankenstein’s monster

Islamabad’s support for radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan dates back to 1978 and the Mujahedin war against the Afghan communist regime and the Soviet army. Under General Zia-ul-Haq - Pakistani President from 1978-88 and Sharif’s mentor - the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) deliberately channelled most of the US and Saudi aid for the Mujahedin struggle to some of Afghanistan’s most radical Sunni Muslim groups. US officials who allowed this to happen are now deeply embarrassed by their role in helping to create a Frankenstein’s monster’ for both Pakistan and the West. In the mid-1990s, the victorious Mujahedin fell at each other’s throats and Afghanistan descended into a seemingly endless cycle of internecine violence. The ISI decided to support the Taleban, a radical movement formed by Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and Pakistani arms and Saudi money helped the group to conquer most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 1998.

Support for the Talenan reflected Pakistan’s old desire to have a stable client state on its western border, particularly since the large Pashtun (Pathan) ethnic group straddles both sides of that divide. Sharif’s professedly Islamist government also felt some sympathy for the Taleban’s Islamist credentials, and allowed radical Muslim ISI officers to conduct the administration’s policy of support. However, despite their Islamist rhetoric, most members of the Zia and Sharif governments have actually been rather latitudinarian, whisky-drinking Islamists from the Pakistani landed and commercial elites. Their Taleban proteges, as they are learning to their cost, are the genuine article, and the movement’s natural allies in Pakistan are not the government but the radical Sunni groups which are increasingly threatening Pakistan’s own internal stability. Members of these groups fought with the Taleban and have returned home imbued with their ideology.

Iran and the Shias

The international dangers for Pakistan from the situation in Afghanistan were radically underlined by two recent events:

* the bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August; and

* the killings of Iranian diplomats by Taleban fighters, who believed, correctly, that the Iranians had been supporting anti-Taleban forces.

The Taleban’s tense relations with Iran worsened drastically after its forces captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif - one of the last opposition strong-holds on 8 August, and the central town of Bamian, the chief centre of Afghanistan’s Shia minority, the Hazara, on 13 September. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Taleban fighters killed nine Iranian diplomats. Credible reports by eyewitnesses and Western human-rights groups stated that the Taleban also massacred hundreds of Shia civilians during the attack on Mazar-e-Sharif.

In response, Tehran placed tens of thousands of troops along its border with Afghanistan and Iranian officials publicly threatened military intervention. Pakistani and Saudi officials worked frantically to prevent open war, and succeeded in persuading the Taleban leadership to return unharmed around ten of the 50 Iranian truck drivers and traders who had been detained since the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif. Even before this agreement was concluded, it seemed unlikely that Iran would actually invade Afghanistan, given the dismal fate of most such outside interventions (including Iranian ones) over the past 300 years. However, it is certain that Iran will step up its military supplies to the Hazara and the northern Afghan opposition forces. More menacingly for Islamabad, Iran may also increase its covert support for militants from the Shia minority in Pakistan, which has been increasingly targeted by Sunni radical groups. Shias make up around 20% of Pakistan’s population, with their most important centres in the province of Punjab. So far in 1998, at least 600 people have been killed during violence between Sunni and Shia militants, mainly in Punjab.

Many of the most radical Sunni Islamists in Pakistan seem to hate the Shia even more than they do the West or India. The fact that they are neighbours encourages violent clashes on a daily basis in Pakistan’s urban slums. The very existence of the Shias is moreover an offence against the Sunni radical vision of a unified, homogenous and powerful Muslim community of the faithful’. Thus, the Sipah-i-Sahiba (Army of Companions of the Prophet) is virulently anti-Shia and its militants have carried out many murders of Shia Muslims. And one of the fastest-growing groups, Lashkar-i-Taiba (Soldiers of the Holy Places) promotes hatred of the Shias as well as the Christian and Ahmadi minorities and the Westernised elites.

Although founded in 1947 as a state intended to unite the Muslims of the subcontinent, Pakistan since independence has experienced much internal violence. A mainly peaceful secessionist movement was previously active in the North-West Frontier Province, and a violent rebellion was bloodily suppressed in Balochistan in the early 1970s. Sindh, and especially Karachi, Pakistan’s economic capital, have been torn apart by violence between the indigenous Sindhi population and immigrant groups, Mohajir Muslims from India and Bangladesh (former East Pakistan which broke away with help from India in 1971) and Pashtuns from the Frontier province and Afghanistan. More recently, Mohajir groups have also begun to fight each other.

Four thousand people were killed in political violence in Karachi in 1993-96, and large areas of the Sindh countryside remain effectively out of central-government control and prey to armed groups which combine banditry with ethnic radicalism. The kidnappings and murders of foreigners by religious and ethnic radicals as well as ordinary criminals have done great damage to foreign investment and the economy.

In this already highly unstable context, the prospect of greatly increased Sunni-Shia violence is especially worrying because it chiefly affects Punjab. This province has always been Pakistan’s most important and stable region and 56% of the country’s population lives there. The Punjabi elites have staffed the civil service and officer corps, and most of the soldiers in the army come from the province - following the tradition established under the British. A serious and violent communal split in Punjab would therefore weaken the core of the Pakistani state as well as imposing a new burden on the army.

The need for financial help

Such tensions are increased by economic hardship, and their rise makes it even more important that Pakistan receives help from the IMF and the West. The suspension of assistance as a punishment for the nuclear tests (including an IMF loan programme of $500m over the next year) was a savage blow to Pakistani finances. By the end of August, the government was warning that its foreign-exchange reserves were so low that it might have to stop servicing its $32 billion foreign debt. By the end of September, liquid foreign-exchange reserve had fallen to barely $600m. Exports and remittances from Pakistani workers abroad are also falling as the global economic down-turn worsens. Inflation has climbed to above 20% from 8% in 1997; the Pakistani rupee has lost 40% of its value against the US dollar since May, and is still falling; and a budget deficit of $4.5bn is predicted for 1998.

Faced with this crisis, Pakistan expressed willingness in September to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty if sanctions are lifted, and India may follow suit. However, if Pakistan has to sign and India does not, this will be a fresh humiliation for Sharif. Washington is deeply worried about the rise of either radical Islam or internal chaos in a potentially nuclear-armed Pakistan, and has put pressure on the IMF to resume lending. However, given the acute demands on IMF resources, help on the scale necessary may not be possible. Pakistan is asking not just for international aid to be resumed but for it to be greatly increased to around $5bn in total.

Meanwhile, the Taleban’s protection of Osama bin Laden and other anti-Western terrorists is threatening Pakistan’s relations with the US and laying Islamabad open to further humiliations. If the activities of the Afghan-based terrorists continue, further US missile attacks across Pakistani territory are likely, and each one will be a serious blow to Pakistani government prestige and will inflame radicalism in the country.

The state’s last argument

The rising power of the Islamist radicals has been helped by the fact that Pakistan’s main democratic’ opposition, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, has been badly discredited and weakened by its failures when in office, as well as by the deep corruption of its leadership and the bitter feuds within the Bhutto family. The one truly effective modern institution in Pakistan - even in the economic sphere - remains the army, which is ready to take over the state if the politicians lose control and instability increases. But given the growing and opposed radicalisms in Pakistani and especially Punjabi society, a military take-over, rather than stabilising the country, might inflame emotions to such an extent that the state’s disintegration would become a real possibility.