The third phase

Updated 05 Nov, 2018


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

PHASE one was state construction and finding ties to bind a new nation. Roughly between 1947 and 1958, when the political class was quickly overtaken and subjugated by a military and bureaucratic elite in the permanent state. Religion was quickly identified as the binding tie with potential in a country of diverse people and political histories.

Ayesha Jalal has masterfully explained that and much more in State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence. It remains essential reading for anyone trying to understand the start we got off to and nothing has surpassed it since. Probably nothing will — Ayesha got it bang on.

Phase two began in the late 1970s. Three events in relatively quick succession that took the militarised and bureaucratised state and the experimentation with religious nationalism in the first three decades to the next level. The three events: the Zia coup and his Islamisation drive; the Iranian revolution just as petrodollars were turbocharging regional politics; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan under the Cold War overhang.

For at least two decades since the late 1970s, much of what Pakistan did or responded to stemmed from a combination of the three events layered on top of the original militarised and bureaucratised state and the experimentation with religious nationalism. There is no authoritative tome on that phase because we haven’t produced a world-class historian or political scientist since to write the book. There lies its own tale of sorrow.

The extremist in the ascendant is also linked to what’s happened to the country and what the state has done in semi-response over the past decade and a half.

But, and this seems clear, we’re into the third phase now. Since its full effects are just beginning to come into view, it’s hard to give it a definitive name. The second Afghan war; the war inside Pakistan; the Taliban era; post-9/11 and AfPak; the Al Qaeda effect — it’ll take time, and perhaps that world-class historian or political scientist, to settle on a precise, evocative name.

The precise start of the third phase isn’t clear yet either. It could be the Afghan Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan in 1996. It could be 9/11 and the UN-backed, US-led war in Afghanistan that began in October 2001. It could be 2004, when a big battle was fought by the military in Fata and the first peace agreement with what would become the Pakistani Taliban was signed.

But whatever the name eventually settled on and whatever the precise date eventually agreed to, it is quite clear we — Pakistan — are already into a third phase of our history. And this third phase could be the most confusing and deadly yet. Hyper-sensitivities, personal predicaments and murky threats mean it’s not possible to spell out the argument in print. But an attempt can be made.

It is obvious that the state is on the defensive and the extremist is in the ascendant. The two are linked — even though the extremist/ terrorist/ militant is of different stripes and sects and often at war with each other. The state as colluder everyone is more or less familiar with, but since 2001-2004 the state’s defensiveness has taken a new turn. It is rooted in two contradictions.

The first contradiction is rooted in the second war in Afghanistan. If we helped the mujahideen defeat the Soviets, then how can we help the Americans fight the Taliban, drawn from the same inspiration as the mujahideen? Both wars can’t be right and we’ve never had the courage to say the first one was wrong.

In hard-line circles in Pakistan, the contradiction is more severe: in trying to thread the needle between helping the Americans and shielding the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani state in effect betrayed the Afghan Taliban in their rightful fight and sided with the imperialist Americans. If you take phase one and phase two and layer on top the new contradiction, you get an almighty mess — and a Pakistani state that is severely on the defensive.

The second contradiction is more delicate and there is no easy way to say it. For a decade and half, the Pakistani state has waged counter-insurgency campaigns and counterterrorism operations. In the fight that has been fought, the state has been significantly successful. But the religious milieu that produced the enemy and its foot soldiers is also where the state draws its fighting resources from.

That has left the state’s right flank further exposed — to abuse, exploitation and the ugly stuff we heard this week. So, the defensive crouch has deepened and the slings and arrows of the extremist are suffered because the fight against militancy that is already being waged has still to be fully won. Again, take the results of phase one and phase two of history and layer on top this new contradiction, and the defensiveness is easier to see. Not to justify, not to accept — just to explain it for what it could be.

The extremist in the ascendant is also linked to what’s happened to the country and what the state has done in semi-response over the past decade and a half. Ultra-sensitivities, personal predicaments and a threatening landscape prevent from spelling that out, too. But the original sectarian divide in phase two morphed into a fierce militancy on one side of the majority sect that has seemingly triggered a backlash from another side of the majority sect that is demanding more public oxygen and a greater say in the national discourse.

May God bless that poor woman and keep her safe. She has suffered enough. The rest of us, our suffering in this third phase of Pakistan’s history may just be beginning.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2018