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'Pakistan fears ethno-linguistic identities'

Atif Tauqeer Interview
May 9, 2018

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the US, is a fierce critic of his country's military establishment. In a DW interview, Haqqani calls for a "reimagining" of Pakistan's Islamic state ideology.

Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan
Image: picture-alliance/AP

DW: In your recently published book, Reimagining Pakistan, you said that Pakistan should be a secular state. Is it really attainable?

Husain Haqqani: The idea of my latest book was born in a conversation many years ago, when Salman Rushdie [novelist] said, "If nations are imagined communities, Pakistan is poorly imagined." There were some valid criticisms about how Pakistan was created in a hurry. The generation before us had to suddenly stop being Indian and start being Pakistani; they needed an ideology. I am a Pakistani by birth, so I don't need it.

In my book, I thought how I could contribute to the process of reimagining Pakistan. The good thing about imagination is that what is poorly imagined can be reimagined. That is why I wrote this book.

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US
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70 years of ideological orientation cannot be reversed overnight. Any attempt to phase out the invoking of religion as ideology would have to be gradual. Pakistan's civilian and military leaders would have to work together to ensure over time that Pakistanis realize the pitfalls of their contrived national narrative. The first step in that direction would be to trigger a debate over alternative paths for the country, something that has almost been shut down since former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq's era.

There are those who would argue that the state ideology has helped Pakistan survive against the threat of disintegration, especially after the loss of Bangladesh. But that suggests that Pakistan, as a nation and as a state, cannot sustain itself except through ideological rhetoric, which, in turn, must be sustained through issues that mean little for most people in the 21st century. If that is the case, Pakistan has no choice but to stay mired in conceptual argumentation as Islamization has proved to be a recipe for unceasing internal conflict.

The alternative is for Pakistan to evolve as a functional, territorial nation state and a working federation of its various component ethnicities and nationalities. For that to happen, its leaders must take a stand against the unidimensional preoccupation with ideology.

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It seems that many Pakistanis are challenging the state ideology these days. A number of mass movements have taken on the country's powerful military, which many analysts say is the custodian of Pakistan's Islamic ideology. Should the military establishment be worried about these developments?

The Pakistani military has always feared ethno-linguistic identities and believed they would result in a break up of Pakistan. Any demands for more autonomy or creation of states based on ethnic or linguistic bases are perceived as anti-national and other countries (especially India and Afghanistan) are accused of helping these demands. The separation of Pakistan's eastern wing in 1971 only reinforced these fears.

Pakistan's ideological national identity has always been seen as the glue that will tie disparate ethnicities together and will over time reduce the ethnic-linguistic bonds. The truth is justice, fair treatment and a genuine federalism is the real way to keep Pakistan together and to make it stronger.

At independence, the Pakistani state feared Pashtun irredentist demands. This led to the policy of encouraging Islamization in the northwestern regions of the country as a counter to nationalist Pashtun sentiments. The Pakistani "deep state" is unable to view any peaceful movement as genuine because this runs counter to their narrative about Pakistan. Just as the Baluch uprising is treated as anti-national so is the Pashtun awakening seen as against Pakistani interests. But the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a genuine popular movement seeking human rights and protection of the Pashtun peoples' lives and dignity. There is no evidence that the thousands of young people joining it are foreign supported or externally inspired.

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Pakistan's Supreme Court banned Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from politics, and recently Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif was also ousted. How do you see the top court's decisions against members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz Group?

Nawaz Sharif's ouster only reinforces what can best be described as Pakistan's viceregal tradition. Elected politicians are subject to the whims and "superior judgment" of appointed generals, judges, and civil servants, just as they were during the British colonial era. One need not be convinced of Sharif's innocence to note that in the last 70 years, all elected Pakistani prime ministers have either been assassinated, dismissed or forced to resign by heads of state with military backing, or deposed in coups d'etat. Sharif was himself a protege of the military establishment once, but now that he challenges them, he is being targeted through courts that once gave him carte blanche.

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The Trump administration has taken a tough stance against Pakistan in relation to Islamabad's alleged support to Islamists. What should Pakistan do to allay US concerns?

The Trump administration's policies reflect the deep mistrust that has characterized the US-Pakistan relationship. At the heart of that dysfunction is the divergence of core interests in South Asia. Even at the height of the alliance, the United States never shared Pakistan's views about its co-leadership in the region and its envisioning of India as a major threat to its neighbors.

The Americans doled out military assistance and economic support in return for favors such as intelligence bases against the Soviet Union and China during the 1950s and 60s as well as for using Pakistan as the staging ground for jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Pakistan, on the other hand, single-mindedly defined its national interest in terms of rivalry with India. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was not the end of jihad for Pakistan, but also the beginning of an opportunity to expand jihad to Kashmir and even India. Turning Afghanistan into a satellite with the help of obscurantist proxies like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network became an obsession for the all-powerful Pakistani military and intelligence services. Even blowback in the form of extremist attacks inside Pakistan did not alter that calculus.

The US understood that Pakistan was not on board with its vision for Afghanistan as well as the entire region. But there were NATO transshipments and intelligence sharing to consider. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also hoped that incentives, and occasional threats, would eventually lead Pakistan to change its strategic calculus. For that reason they put up with a situation in which American troops died in Afghanistan at the hands of fighters who received assistance and protection across the border, in the territory of an ostensible ally who received economic and military assistance from the US.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's military believed that the policies it was pursuing are in the country's "national interest" as the generals define it. They will not change their definition of national interest until the cost of pursuing it becomes higher than they are willing to bear.

American and Pakistani interests can converge only when one of the two countries changes its definition of its interests in Afghanistan, in relation to terrorism, and about China's primacy in the Indo-Pacific region.

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Husain Haqqani is a leading South Asia expert and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

The interview was conducted by Atif Tauqeer.

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