The line of fire

Published July 31, 2016
Ziaul Haq. — White Star Archives
Ziaul Haq. — White Star Archives

When it first came out in 2005, following 9/11 and the initiation of Pakistan’s ostensible cooperation with the United States in the ‘war on terror’, Husain Haqqani’s Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military received considerable praise for its exhaustive account of the relationship between Pakistan’s military and extremist Islamist groups. Through an analysis of Pakistan’s history since 1947, Between Mosque and Military highlighted how, far from being a product solely of the Ziaul Haq years, the use of Islam as a political ideology to exercise domestic control and achieve international strategic objectives had always been a part of the process through which the military establishment had asserted its hegemony, and that this was unlikely to change as long as perceived concerns related to ethno-national movements at home, and Indian power across the border, continued to shape the military’s worldview.

Following from this, Haqqani expressed scepticism about the durability and depth of Pakistan’s commitment to fighting groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, suggesting that the country’s participation in the ‘war on terror’ simply entailed doing the bare minimum required to continue receiving US support while simultaneously working to protect and harbour militant ‘assets’ that could be deployed to influence the post-Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan, as well as in Kashmir. For Haqqani, the implications of this were clear: despite claims to the contrary, the Pakistani military establishment’s commitment to fighting Islamist militants and violent extremism would likely remain minimal in the foreseeable future.

Ten years later, after going through the newly released second edition of Between Mosque and Military, it becomes apparent the Haqqani’s scepticism about Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror’ was justified amidst the persistence of militancy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the perpetuation of a broader atmosphere of religious intolerance and bigotry within Pakistan, and the ceaseless levelling of allegations by the US and others suggesting that Pakistan has essentially played a duplicitous role in the fight against terror.

However, as Haqqani himself admits in the new preface to the book, a lot has changed since 2005; Gen Musharraf was toppled by a popular movement, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, the PPP came to power in 2008 and managed to complete its term, the PML-N took power in 2013 following an election that was largely seen to be free and fair, and Operation Zarb-i-Azb, launched by the military in the summer of 2014, appeared to indicate that the task of fighting militancy and terrorism was finally being taken seriously. Nonetheless, the updated edition of Between Mosque and Military, with revised statistics and a new chapter on events post-9/11, provides considerable evidence to suggest some things have remained fundamentally unchanged.


In the second edition of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Husain Haqqani questions Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Islamist militancy but is unable to offer a fresh perspective


For one, Haqqani concurs with other analysts writing on civil-military relations in Pakistan when describing how, despite the transition to democracy in 2008, the country’s military establishment continues to wield tremendous power behind the scenes, particularly in terms of its capacity to undermine civilian governments and control policy decisions related to internal security and foreign affairs. Secondly, and not insignificantly, Haqqani continues to express doubts about the extent to which radical Islamism is being tackled in Pakistan, focusing in particular on the continued existence of, and patronage extended to, domestic militant groups and organisations oriented towards Kashmir and India.

At the heart of Haqqani’s argument is an emphasis on the ‘policy tripod’ upon which the edifice of Pakistani policymaking has rested since Partition. The bulk of Between Mosque and Military is essentially a recounting of Pakistani history since 1947 that outlines how the three legs of the policy tripod — the promotion of religious nationalism, the continued pursuit of confrontation with India, and the courting of foreign (mostly US) economic and military support — emerged and subsequently served to empower the military establishment and as a justification for a broader political agenda in Pakistan. The story here is a familiar one; while the movement for the creation of Pakistan had started out as a relatively secular attempt to secure representation for Muslims within the Indian subcontinent, the use of religion to mobilise support for the cause created a situation in which Islam could be used as a legitimating ideology by the ruling elite post-1947. The use of Islam to create a unifying national identity became all the more necessary once ethnic divisions in Pakistan (exacerbated by the perceived dominance of Punjab), as well as the ideological threat posed by communism, threatened to undermine the power and authority of the ruling elite.

The use of Islam as a political tool to acquire legitimacy and exert control took place amidst a shift, very early on, of power away from the Pakistan Muslim League and its leadership to the military-bureaucratic establishment. The pressures of managing the new state proved to be difficult for a civilian apparatus that lacked capacity, creating an opportunity for the relatively well-developed military and bureaucracy, inherited from colonial rule, to acquire a greater de facto role in governance and policy. These domestic developments were strengthened by currents in the broader international environment; the dispute with India over the status of Kashmir validated the military’s belief that Pakistan faced an existential threat from its much larger neighbour and justified the diversion of disproportionate funds and resources to the creation and maintenance of powerful armed forces, and the imperatives of the Cold War facilitated the creation of linkages between the military establishment and the US, with the latter offering the former aid and assistance in exchange for a commitment to stand firm against communism both domestically and internationally.

For Haqqani, the implications of these developments are not difficult to discern. With the military having secured a strategic and material basis upon which to intervene in Pakistan’s politics, Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958 simply represented the culmination of a process that had begun as early as 1948. Domestically, Islam continued to be used as a means through which to cultivate the legitimacy of the state, particularly in a context where rising ethno-national sentiment in the smaller provinces and Bengal threatened to disturb the status quo over which the military establishment wished to preside. Not coincidentally, the use of Islam in this fashion also had the effect of mobilising sentiment against India, actively demonised as the Hindu ‘other’, whose size and power justified an ever-increasing role for the military in Pakistan’s politics and policymaking. Finally, the readiness of the US to cooperate with military regimes in Pakistan in the name of fighting communism provided Ayub Khan and his successors with a source of external validation and material support that buttressed the institutional pre-eminence of the military in Pakistan.

As such, when Ziaul Haq came to power in 1977 on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan had already laid much of the ideological and logistical groundwork that would come to underpin the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. The military establishment’s affinity for Islamic ideology, and Gen Zia’s own desire for Islamisation, created an environment in which madressahs and training camps could be set up en masse, with funding from the US and others, to train holy warriors to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Once the Afghan jihad ended, this same infrastructure was deployed to pursue strategic objectives in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.

It is here that Haqqani identifies the fundamental reason why it makes sense to question Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Islamist militancy. As is convincingly demonstrated in Between Mosque and Military, the Pakistani military’s approach towards India, both as an adversary and as a justification for its own outsized institutional position, has led to the pursuit of policies, since the 1980s, that have emphasised the use of Islamist militant proxies to address the conventional military imbalance between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and to pursue ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan to ensure the maintenance of a friendly and pliant client government in that country that could be relied upon for support in the event of any conflict with India. All of this is made possible by the continued political dominance of the military within the domestic arena, facilitated in part by the support of foreign patrons, and the persistent reliance on Islam as a legitimising ideology for both internal and external interventions. It is only when all of this changes, either through improved relations with India, a reduced political role for the military establishment in Pakistan, or a shift away from the use of Islam as a political tool, that Haqqani believes the military’s support for, and endorsement of, strategically valuable militant organisations (like the Haqqani network in Afghanistan or Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan) will come to an end.

When Between Mosque and Military was first released in 2005, it was hailed as what was then the most comprehensive account of the dynamics that shaped the relationship between the military and Islam in Pakistan. However, then, as now, it could be argued that the book does not offer any particularly groundbreaking new insights into this question. After all, scholars like Ayesha Jalal and Hamza Alavi laid much of the ground, and provided many of the arguments for Haqqani’s book. Since the first edition was published in 2005, considerable work has been done on the questions of religious nationalism, military authoritarianism, and violent extremism in Pakistan; the work of Ayesha Siddiqa and Aqil Shah has done much to further refine our understanding of the Pakistani military, and a veritable industry has cropped up around examining and explaining Islamist militancy and violence in this part of the world.

The absence of fresh analytical insight is compounded by the narrative structure of the book. While it is reasonably well-researched, Between Mosque and Military appears to be aimed at a broad, general audience rather than a more specialist, academic one, and sacrifices detail and theory for accessibility. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, some of the problems of this approach become apparent when considering, for example, the question of precisely how the strategic worldview of the Pakistani military, and its attendant effects, could be changed or challenged. The book has little to offer about possible mechanisms for reform, with this omission being exacerbated by its curious, almost casual dismissal of civilian politics. Barring an interesting chapter on the travails of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the book treats civilian politics as being ultimately subordinate to military machinations. While this observation might broadly be correct, it prevents a more nuanced analysis of the ways in which popular movements and the incremental process of democratic consolidation might open up avenues for meaningful change.

This is especially frustrating when considering where the book ends; Haqqani has very little to say about Zarb-i-Azb and events since the attack on the APS in Peshawar in Dec 2014. While it may be reasonable to assume that Haqqani would continue to express scepticism about the military’s perceived reversal regarding its use of militant Islamist proxies, a more detailed analysis of this alleged shift would have been welcome.

Nonetheless, Between Mosque and Military stands out because few works in this genre are as explicit in detailing the precise links between ideology, militancy, and the military in Pakistan. Even fewer do so in a fashion that is accessible and engaging. For the most, there is little to find fault with in terms of Haqqani’s description of the factors that gave rise to Pakistan’s contemporary problems with terror and militancy. For all its flaws, the book provides an authoritative and relatively comprehensive account of civil-military relations and Islam in Pakistan that bears constant repeating.

The reviewer is assistant professor of political science at Lums.

Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military
(WAR ON TERROR)
By Husain Haqqani
Penguin Books, India
ISBN: 978-0670088560
462pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2016

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