Pakistan: A Two-Speed Society, Destination Unclear

The first time I met Zia-ul-Haq was in the late 1970's, at a dinner party at the home of the Pakistani Military Attaché in Amman. Zia had been head of the Pak Military Mission in Jordan at the time of the Palestine Liberation Organization's revolt in Black September (1970) against King Hussein, and Zia was paying a return visit as President. He had an entourage of a half-dozen senior military officers with him, and they spent most of the evening off in a corner by themselves speaking in... English!

Yes indeed, Pakistan is a two-speed society. On the one hand there are the civil and military elites, the latter being mostly Punjabi's, the prized martial class of the period of the British Raj. On the other hand are the rest, notably the masses, first conditioned by the Third World "non-aligned" (and implicitly anti-American) rhetoric of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Then, when nationalist movements became discredited in the Arab and Muslim world, radical Islam, with its image of a future Islamist state in Pakistan, rose to replace nationalism as the rallying point, and the ideological beacon, for popular discontent.

In this process of islamization, a fillip was provided by Zia himself (who happened to be not of an elite family). Zia, who was Bhutto's successor and his indirect executioner, was anxious to expand his base of support for his autocratic rule, and he sanctioned the blasphemy law against insulting Islam, as well as the spread of rote religious schools (the madrassas).

An additional and particularly disturbing factor was the cutoff of the educational and training program for Pakistani military officers in the U.S., due to Washington's displeasure with Pakistan's nuclear program. (The program's suspension, begun in 1990, lasted until the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks).

Fast forward to today. The vision of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, that of a liberal, democratic society tolerant of religious minorities, has largely gone away. What can take its place is uncertain. This uncertainty has produced a sort of identity crisis in the body politic of Pakistan.

Since its origins, Pakistan has been a frustrated state, trumped repeatedly by its more powerful neighbor, India, and frequently channeling its sorrow against the United States, all the more so since the spectacular rapprochement between India and the U.S. initiated by the Administration of George W. Bush.

Pakistan got the short end of the stick at the time of independence. Its leaders had to go and find a new capital. India's remained at New Delhi. Was partition a mistake? Could the Muslim minority have played a role in an all-India state? Like all counterfactuals, the answer is unknown. But these questions increasingly keep coming back.

Pakistan could be on the march toward what Iran became in the late 1970's: an "Islamic Republic." The spectacle of substantial numbers of imams and lawyers springing to the defense of the murderer of the liberal governor of Punjab, and the showering of the assassin with rose petals outside the courthouse, are shocking images of the fury and the fear that has descended on Pakistani society.

This brings us back to the Pakistani Army, the steel frame of the state, traditionally led by an elite corps of Punjabi officers. Unknown are the political sentiments of the emerging group of their younger successors. As I wrote in a previous blog (November 4, 2009), and borrowing from Yeats, "Can the center (i.e. the Pak Army) hold?" On verra.

Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was this Division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.