Juan Cole: Pakistan Crisis and Social Statistics





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

Readers have written me asking what I think of the rash of almost apocalyptic pronouncements on the security situation in Pakistan issuing from the New York Times, The Telegraph, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent days.

And Stephen Walt also is asking why there are such varying assessments of Pakistan's security prospects. He suggests that one problem is the difficulty of predicting a revolutionary situation. But Pakistan just had a revolution against the military dictatorship! The polling, the behavior in the voting booth, the history of political geography, aren't these data relevant to the issue? Why does no one instance them?

As I have said before, although the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the Pushtun areas and in some districts of Punjab is worrisome, the cosmic level of concern being expressed makes no sense to me. Some 55 percent of Pakistanis are Punjabi, and with the exception of some northern hardscrabble areas, I can't see any evidence that the vast majority of them has the slightest interest in Talibanism. Most are religious traditionalists, Sufis, Shiites, Sufi-Shiites, or urban modernists. At the federal level, they mainly voted in February 2008 for the Pakistan People's Party or the Muslim League, neither of them fundamentalist. The issue that excercised them most powerfully recently was the need to reinstate the civilian Supreme Court justices dismissed by a military dictatorship, who preside over a largely secular legal system.

Another major province is Sindh, with nearly 50 mn. of Pakistan's 165 mn. population. It is divided between Urdu-speakers and the largely rural Sindhis who are religious traditionalists, many of the anti-Taliban Barelvi school. They voted overwhelmingly for the centrist, mostly secular Pakistan People's Party in the recent parliamentary elections. Then there are the Urdu-speakers originally from India who mostly live in Karachi and a few other cities. In the past couple of decades the Urdu-speakers have tended to vote for the secular MQM party.

Residents of Sindh and Punjab constitute some 85% of Pakistan's population, and while these provinces have some Muslim extremists, they are a small fringe there.

Pakistan has a professional bureaucracy. It has doubled its literacy rate in the past three decades. Rural electrification has increased enormously. The urban middle class has doubled since 2000. The country has many, many problems, but it is hardly the Somalia some observers seem to imagine.

Opinion polling shows that even before the rounds of violence of the past two years, most Pakistanis rejected Muslim radicalism and violence. The stock of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda plummeted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The Pakistani Taliban are largely a phenomenon of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas west of the North-West Frontier Province, and of a few districts within the NWFP itself. These are largely Pushtun ethnically. The NYT's breathless observation that there are Taliban a hundred miles from Islamabad doesn't actually tell us very much, since Islamabad is geographically close to the Pushtun regions without that implying that Pushtuns dominate or could dominate it. It is like saying that Lynchburg, Va., is close to Washington DC and thereby implying that Jerry Falwell's movement is about to take over the latter.

The Pakistani Taliban amount to a few thousand fighters who lack tanks, armored vehicles, and an air force.

The Pakistani military is the world's sixth largest, with 550,000 active duty troops and is well equipped and well-trained. It in the past has acquitted itself well against India, a country ten times Pakistan's size population-wise. It is the backbone of the country, and has excellent command and control, never having suffered an internal mutiny of any significance.

So what is being alleged? That some rural Pushtun tribesmen turned Taliban are about to sweep into Islamabad and overthrow the government of Pakistan? Frankly ridiculous. Wouldn't the government bring some tank formations up from the Indian border and stop them?

Or is it being alleged that the Pakistani army won't fight the Taliban? But then explain the long and destructive Bajaur campaign.

Or is the fear that some junior officers in the army are more or less Taliban and that they might make a coup? But the Pakistani military has typically sought a US alliance after every coup it has made. Who would support Talibanized officers? Not China, not the US, the major patrons of Islamabad.

If that is the fear, in any case, then the US should strengthen the civilian, elected government, which was installed against US wishes by a popular movement during the past two years. The officers should be strictly instructed that they are to stay in their barracks.

What I see is a Washington that is uncomfortable with anything like democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan; which seems not to realize that the Pakistani Taliban are a small, poorly armed fringe of Pushtuns, who are a minority; and I suspect US policy-makers of secretly desiring to find some pretext for removing Pakistan's nuclear capacity.

All the talk about the Pakistani government falling within 6 months, or of a Taliban takeover, flies in the face of everything we know about the character of Pakistani politics and institutions during the past two years.

My guess is that the alarmism is also being promoted from within Pakistan by Pervez Musharraf, who wants to make another military coup; and by civilian politicians in Islamabad, who want to extract more money from the US to fight the Taliban that they are secretly also bribing to attack Afghanistan.

Advice to Obama: Pakistan is being configured for you in ways that benefit some narrow sectional interests. Caveat emptor.

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