Pakistan's Harrowing Journey

In a new book, Ayesha Jalal chronicles how the country has lurched from crisis to crisis since its founding

In the spring of 2013, Pakistan experienced something never before seen in the country’s 67-year history: one civilian government ceded power to another after an open and relatively fair election.

That might seem a small achievement, but it was a landmark for the South Asian nation founded in 1947. It’s also the ending point for Ayesha Jalal’s new book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (Harvard University Press), published in September. A history of her homeland from just prior to its founding to almost the present, the book is the culmination of years of study about Pakistan’s reason for being, its place in the world and its prospects.

Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Fletcher School, tells the story of Pakistan with the intricate detail of a Mughal miniature painting: the players, major and minor, strive for power amid a complex interplay of domestic and international forces as the country, often dominated by the military, lurches from one crisis to the next.

“I think that Pakistan cannot be understood without understanding the larger global scene,” says Ayesha Jalal. Photo: Ahktar Mirza“I think that Pakistan cannot be understood without understanding the larger global scene,” says Ayesha Jalal. Photo: Ahktar Mirza
For starters, Pakistan might never have existed. With the British on the way out of India in the 1940s, Hindu and Muslim politicians could not agree on power sharing in a federated state; if they had, Pakistan would still be part of India, says Jalal. Almost at the last minute, before the British pulled out, two geographical corners of India, separated by 1,000 miles, were sheaved off to form Pakistan.

Even though the dividing lines were religion, “it was mainly religion as identity” more than a desire for a religious state, writes Jalal, author of The Pity of Partition and Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. The name itself, devised in the 1930s, signals its uncertain origins—an acronym for Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sind, and Balochistan.

Rule of Law?

From its earliest years, Jalal writes, Pakistan was convulsed with instability. The first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951, after just a few years in office. Civilian governments were routinely if abruptly tossed from office by martial law and military coups d’etat. Throughout, each new regime decried its predecessor and often changed the constitution to suit its needs.

“The real thing has been this abject failure to allow the rule of law to take place,” Jalal says. “Everybody who comes into power changes the rule of law at will; that’s what’s ailing Pakistan.”

By 1971, increasing inequality between Bengali East Pakistan and the Punjab-dominated West Pakistan divided the country, as the majority Bengalis resisted control by the dominant west. The resulting war led to intervention by India, Pakistan’s erstwhile enemy, defeating forces from the west and leading to the establishment of Bangladesh.

Ironically, that loss to India didn’t diminish the power of the military in Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had worked for the generals under martial law, became prime minister in 1973, but was overthrown by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and later executed on trumped-up charges.

Zia transformed the country by strongly politicizing Islam in Pakistan for the first time, following a trend throughout the Muslim world at the time. All the while, the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continued its ascent to power as almost a shadow government, pulling the strings when civilian rule was in place.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 inflamed all the worst tendencies in Pakistani politics, Jalal says. All of a sudden, money and arms for the Afghan jihadis came flowing into Pakistan from the U.S. “I think that Pakistan cannot be understood without understanding the larger global scene,” she says. “It has reacted, responded, interacted with transnational trends, which explains the positions it has taken.”

The ISI ballooned during the Afghan resistance movement that followed the Soviet invasion. “All the weapons from the United States were funneled through the Pakistan Army, and that meant lots of kickbacks, lots of money,” Jalal says. “That is a great transformative moment in Pakistan’s history. The ISI grew into a virtual state then. They had loads of money coming in, and they had a vested interest. There’s never been any looking back.”

The Cold War’s Bitter Legacy

It’s impossible to explain the continued dominance of the military in Pakistan without the Cold War, Jalal says. “It’s a rentier army—it has provided its services to the United States, and the U.S. has typically been interested in operational support from Pakistan,” she says. “They don’t have the same strategic aims, but America has gone along with providing them with money—and that’s the perfectly wrong way to go about it.”

In the years following Zia’s death in 1988 in a suspicious airplane accident, Pakistan continued to lurch from one political crisis to the next—and yet still managed to develop a nuclear weapons program, a priority for the military, which sees nuclear-armed India as its primary foe. Jalal details how Benazir Bhutto traded terms as prime minister—always prematurely ended by the military—with Nawaz Sharif. She was assassinated in 2007 during another comeback campaign. Radical Islamist groups, many fostered by the ISI, launched domestic terror campaigns. And throughout, the military took power and then receded to the wings, but never far offstage.

“It suits the military to wield all the power and have none of the responsibility—they let the politicians take the flak,” Jalal says. “These people are quite amenable to letting the politicians rule so long as their own privileges are intact.”

The military is not solely to blame for Pakistan’s tempestuous history, though. “The judiciary failed appallingly, at least in the early years of Pakistan,” she says. “In the beginning, the judiciary was under the thumb of the executive, but that is beginning to change—and that is where my hope lies. But the military is also more entrenched, so the struggle is going to be intense.”

Still, Jalal writes, “after eluding Pakistan for over six decades, democracy is coming to be recognized by a cross section of society… as the one remaining salve that can relieve the extreme stresses caused by aborted political processes and military authoritarianism.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at  

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