Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Back to the medieval map
Old boundaries, alliances return as Pakistan tears itself apart
Perversity characterizes Pakistan. Only the worst African hellholes, Afghanistan, Haiti, Yemen and Iraq rank higher on the U.S. think-tank Fund for Peace's Failed States Index this year.
The country is run by a military obsessed with -- and, for decades, invested in -- conflict with India, and by a civilian elite that steals all it can and pays almost no taxes.
Despite an overbearing military, tribes "defined by a near-universal male participation in organized violence," as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner put it, dominate massive swaths of territory. The absence of the state makes for 20-hour daily electricity blackouts and an almost non-existent education system in many areas.
The root cause of these manifold failures, in many minds, is the very artificiality of Pakistan itself: a cartographic puzzle piece sandwiched between India and Central Asia that splits apart what the British Empire ruled as one indivisible subcontinent. Pakistan claims to represent the Indian subcontinent's Muslims, but more Muslims live in India and Bangladesh put together than in Pakistan.
In the absence of any geographical reason for its existence, Pakistan, so the assumption goes, can fall back only on Islamic extremism as an organizing principle of the state.
But this core assumption about what ails Pakistan is false. Pakistan, which presents more nightmare scenarios for American policy-makers than perhaps any other country, does have geographical logic. The vision of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in the 1940s did not constitute a mere power grab at the expense of India's Hindu-dominated Congress Party.
There was much history and geography behind his drive to create a separate Muslim state anchored in the subcontinent's northwest, abutting southern Central Asia. Understanding this legacy properly leads to a very troubling scenario about where Pakistan -- and by extension, Afghanistan and India -- may now be headed.
Pakistan's geographical coherence, albeit subtle and problematic, is mirrored in its subtle and problematic linguistic coherence. Just as Hindi is associated with Hindus in northern India, Urdu is associated with Muslims in Pakistan.
Urdu -- from "horde," the Turkic-Persian word for a military camp -- is the ultimate frontier language. Reflecting its geographical links to the Middle East, Urdu is written in a Persianized Arabic script, even though its grammar is identical to Hindi and other Sanskritic languages.
It is believed that Urdu came into existence through the interaction of Turkic, Persian and indigenous Indian soldiers in Mughal army encampments, not just on the Indus frontier but in the medieval Gangetic cities of Agra, Delhi, and Lucknow. Thus, it is truly the language of the Indian subcontinent.
Urdu is Pakistan's lingua franca, even as Punjabi, with links to the non-Islamic Sikhs and Hindus, enjoys a plurality of native speakers in Pakistan.
Under Pakistan's military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, the combination of Urdu literacy programs in religious institutions and the teaching of Arabic in state schools gave Urdu more of a Middle Eastern and Islamic edge, writes Alyssa Ayres, now U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, in Speaking Like a State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan.
The linguistic, demographic and cultural organizing principle of the Indus Valley is Punjab -- whose name means "five rivers," the Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi and Sutlej, all tributaries of the Indus.
Punjab represents the northwesternmost concentration of population and agriculture before the ground starts to climb toward the wilds of Central Asia. As such, it is coveted because of its special access to Central Asian trade routes, though it was a frontier battleground in its own right relative to the rest of British India.
Because of Sikh uprisings, the Mughals had a difficult time securing Punjab. The British fought two wars to wrest the region from the Sikhs in the 1840s, after the rest of India had already been subdued. Once Punjab was conquered, however, the Pashtun northwest frontier, the gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, beckoned for the British.
Because Punjab abutted the northwest frontier zone, which in turn abutted southern Central Asia, its soldiers became known for their military prowess -- the "sword arm of India," contributing 28 of the 131 infantry units in the Indian Army by 1862.
But with the recreation of an Indus state and a Gangetic state upon the demise of the British Raj in 1947, Punjab, rather than a frontier province of greater India, became the urban hub of the new Indus Valley frontier state: Pakistan. Although eastern Punjab fell within India, western Punjab still contains more than half of Pakistan's population. With close to 90 million people, western Punjab would be the world's 15th-largest country, putting it ahead of Egypt, Germany, Turkey and Iran. Punjabis have accounted for as much as 80 per cent of the Pakistan Army and 55 per cent of the federal bureaucracy.
Punjab is like an internal imperial power ruling Pakistan, in the way that Serbia and the Serbian army ran Yugoslavia prior to that country's civil war and breakup.
"Punjab is perceived to have 'captured' Pakistan's national institutions through nepotism and other patronage networks," writes Ayres. Its rural female literacy rate is nearly twice that of Sindh province and the province on the northwest frontier with Afghanistan, and it's more than triple Baluchistan's.
Punjabis, she adds, "are better off than everyone else [in Pakistan], with more productive land, cleaner water, better technology and better-educated families."
The Ghaznavids, the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal dynasty all controlled the subcontinent's northwestern frontier, but their boundaries were all vague and somewhat different from one another -- all of which means Pakistan cannot claim its borders are legitimate by history alone. It requires something else: the legitimacy that comes with good governance and strong institutions. Without that, we are back to the medieval map, which is what we have now -- known in Washington bureaucratic parlance as "AfPak."
The term AfPak itself, popularized by the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, indicates two failed states -- otherwise, they would share a strong border and would not have to be conjoined in one word. Let me provide the real meaning of AfPak, as defined by geography and history: It is a rump Islamic greater Punjab -- the tip of the demographic spear of the Indian subcontinent toward which all trade routes between southern Central Asia and the Indus Valley are drawn -- exerting its power over Pashtunistan and Baluchistan, just as Punjab has since time immemorial.
This is a world where ethnic boundaries do not configure with national ones. Pashtunistan and Baluchistan overlap with Afghanistan and, less so, with Iran. About half of the world's 40-plus-million Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. The majority of the more than eight million Baluchis live within Pakistan, the rest in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran.
In recent decades, the age-old pathways in this region have been used by Islamic terrorists, as well as by traditional traders. The link between Pakistan's premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the so-called Haqqani network tied to al-Qaeda merely replicates the arteries of commerce emanating from Punjab outward to southern Central Asia. Punjabis dominate the ISI, and the Afghan Pashtun Haqqani network is both an Islamic terrorist outfit and a vast trade and smuggling operation, to the Amu Darya River to the northwest and to Iran to the west.
Because the subcontinent has historically been so rich in cultural and commercial connections, when modern states do not sink deep roots into the land, the result is a reversion to traditional patterns, albeit with contemporary ideological characteristics.
The U.S. State Department and many policy analysts in Washington have proposed a new silk route that could emerge in the event of a peace treaty in Afghanistan. What they fail to recognize is that a silk route is already flourishing outward from Punjab. It is just not oriented to western purposes.
The longer the fighting goes on in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland, the weaker Pakistan as a modern state will become. As that occurs, the medieval map will come into even greater focus.
Jakub Grygiel, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, points out that when states or empires involve themselves in irregular, decentralized warfare, central control weakens. A state only grows strong when it faces a concentrated and conventional ground threat, creating the need to match it in organizational capabilities and thus bolstering central authority. But the opposite kind of threat leads to the opposite result.
Pakistan's very obsession with the ground threat posed by India is a sign of how it requires a conventional enemy to hold it together, even as its answer to India in the contested ground of Central Asia -- supporting decentralized Islamic terrorism from Afghanistan to Kashmir -- is having the ironic effect of pulling Pakistan itself apart. It is unclear whether invigorated civilian control in Pakistan can arrest this long-term process.
This process could even quicken. With the Soviets abandoning Afghanistan in the late 1980s and the Americans on their way out in coming years, India will attempt to fill the void partially by building infrastructure projects and providing support to the Afghan security services. This will mark the beginning of the real battle between the Indus state and the Gangetic state for domination of southern Central Asia.
At the same time, as Pakistan is primarily interested in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the part of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush mountains may, if current trends continue, become more peaceful and drift into the economic orbit of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, especially given that Uzbeks and Tajiks live astride northern Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This new formation would closely approximate the borders of ancient Bactria, with which Alexander the Great was so familiar.
Indeed, the past may hold the key to the future of al-Hind.
Robert Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J12
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