Most countries that exist above the banana-republic level of existence have an identifiable (even if always contested and malleable) national narrative that most (though not all) members of the ruling elite share and to which they contribute. Pakistan is clearly not a banana-republic; it is a populous country with a deep (if not very competent) administration, a very lively political scene, a very large army, the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and a very significant, even if underdeveloped, economy. But when it comes to the national narrative, Pakistan is sui generis. The “deep state” has promoted a narrative of Muslim separatism, India-hatred and Islamic revival that has gradually grown into such a dangerous concoction that even Best Friends Forever (BFFs) China and Saudi Arabia are quietly suggesting that we take another look at things.
The official “story of Pakistan” may not appear to be more superficial or contradictory than the propaganda narratives of many other nations, but a unique element is the fact that it is not a superficial distillation of a more nuanced and deeper narrative, it is only superficial; when you look behind the school textbook level, there is no there there. What you see is what you get. The two-nation theory and the creation of Pakistan in 712 AD by the Arab invader Mohammed Bin Qasim and its completion by the intrepid team of Allama Iqbal and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the face of British and Hindu connivance is the story in middle school textbooks and it turns out that it is also the story in universities and think tanks (this is not to imply that no serious work is done in universities; of course it is, but the story of Pakistan does not seem to have a logical relationship with this serious work).
This lack of depth and sophistication dooms this narrative to a cardboard existence and removes it from the ranks not only of the story of America or the history of that sceptred isle north of France, but also of the “5000 year old civilization of China” and “Eternal India”. Some intellectuals are aware of these shortcomings and half-hearted attempts to remedy the situation have been made, but I think it is fair to say that nothing has yet brought home the (halal) bacon; the story does not fit the post-enlightenment liberal notions of the world and does not even offer an alternative that claims to go beyond the ruling paradigm. Instead, the claim of an alternative system is being used to create just another nation state in a world of Westphalian nation-states. The working part of the state is entirely within the world norm, the supposed ideology has almost no connection to that norm, and problems were bound to arise at some point. This statement will sound strange to many people since in polite company it has been usual to ignore the contradictions between the two-nation theory and liberal notions of national identity; to the point that even liberal Pakistanis are not conscious of their own unusual and unique position. This wilful blindness is not without precedent in our world and can in fact be said to be just another “normal” facet of the world we live in, but there are contradictions and then there are contradictions. Ours have reached breaking point and will no longer hide quietly in the background. This is, of course, my opinion and may or may not make sense to everyone, but let it sit around in your mental living room for a few months; it may start to seem worth a look.
I would add that a superficial and even contradictory national narrative is not necessarily the road to ruin. Life goes on, even in countries with less than convincing “national narratives”. Pakistan is a country, it exists —at a strategic location—it encompasses very productive land, it is blessed with many bounties of nature and a talented and resourceful population, and it has an ancient and resilient culture. It can succeed (and success is being defined here as nothing more than “normal” existence in the world of today, all problems of capitalism and nationalism fully included) in spite of its creation myth since human beings can apparently hold several contradictory ideas in their head at the same time (it is even “normal” to do so). So this is not a claim that it is bound to fail, just that it can succeed in spite of its myths, not because of them. If someone wishes to argue that myths and hot air are being overvalued in my piece today, they may be right. But it is my claim that realpolitik and narrative have intersected with great force in Pakistan today, and while the “deep state” faces many very “real” problems that will take years to solve, the narrative is itself a problem that is making all the other problems much harder to solve.
Let us quickly review some history: In 1954, the ruling elite found its international partner (not without some effort) and Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTO. While Pakistan was happy to be part of the international anti-communist alliance, its elite saw India as the primary enemy. But when they launched an adventure in 1965 that ended in war with India in September, SEATO and CENTO were nowhere to be found. This started a narrative of American betrayal (a narrative that no American took too seriously) that was accentuated in 1971 when the Indian liberation of Bangladesh proceeded with little more than symbolic American intervention on the Pakistani side. The estranged lovers (estrangement being mostly one-way; the relationship was rather asymmetrical as Uncle Sam never seems to have paid too much high level attention to the hurt feelings of their “ally”) made up in 1980 in order to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan.
But there was now a new element in the relationship since Pakistan was led by more ambitious and intelligent people at this time, and managed the relationship with greater independence and “agency”. The simple-minded and childish notions of the 1950s and 1960s were left behind and the Pakistani high command was able to use American aid while building nuclear bombs and planning for a future projection of Jihadist forces into Kashmir and Afghanistan and beyond. Whether the American side understood what was going on and ignored it for devious reasons of their own, or whether their arrogance prevented them from seeing that their agents had a mind and plans of their own, the fact remains that the United States was no longer the sole creator of policies and projects in this era. After the US left the region with “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan, their ally did not allow this to interrupt their glorious work of arming and training Islamist armed groups. Rather they accelerated the process, eventually arming and training half a million young men to fight in the cause of Islam. By the mid-1990s, Pakistan had established a somewhat unruly client regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Afghanistan became “Jihad central”; the “go-to place” for any young Muslim dreaming of a new caliphate. This growing network was supported by the intelligence agencies of the state and a wider network of international funders and political supporters built around some favoured Madrasahs and the existing Islamist political parties like the Jamat e Islami.
When some of these warriors took the fight to the West and triggered a much larger war (justified or not is another argument) Pakistan’s military establishment decided to dump its more unruly friends (the “bad jihadis”) but either through lack of capacity or lack of will, did not wish to go after the good jihadis (the ones who target India and Afghanistan). Unwilling or unable to find a narrative that justified their sudden change from pro-jihad to anti-jihad, GHQ opted for a short-cut. Bad Jihadis were described as agents of evil powers (mainly CIA, RAW and Mossad). Many of the Taliban killed in Pakistan were said to be uncircumcised Hindus. India was said to have 14 consulates in Afghanistan from where they and their American friends were running this vile operation. Military-affiliated websites like paknationalists.com and rupeenews.com provided a narrative that may seem fantastically improbable to outsiders but that fit in well with previous military psyops efforts and was smoothly accepted by many middle class Pakistanis. When losses in this new civil war accelerated, another element was added to the narrative. Now we were innocent victims of America’s “so-called war on terror”. This narrative could also draw upon liberals in the West who had their own suspicions about their ruling elite and served as a rich source of talking points for the military’s favourite propagandists.
This narrative of “we are fighting America’s war” cleverly excluded any mention of our own role in bringing this menace to our shores. That America (and not just America) may have picked on Pakistan because Pakistan’s own armed forces had worked hard to make it the world headquarters of jihadist terrorism was not part of the story that was put together. Instead, it was all America’s fault. They brought the jihadis here, they dumped them on us and left. They were now using the jihadis as an excuse to attack us unfairly and with mala fide intent. The mala fide intent was usually presented as an American desire to “steal our nuclear arsenal”, but other theories like “imposing Indian hegemony” or protecting Israeli interests (the last being an activity that the US has long performed at great cost to itself, so it was not a claim without any foundation) were also cited.
This story, while useful in the short term since it got the armed forces off the hook and preserved the possibility that the mullah-military alliance could be revived once the Americans left, is now turning out to be too clever by half. The crucial assumption in this scheme was that America would leave and let us return to status quo ante prior to our being overwhelmed by the confused civil war we are fighting in the interim. This fine balance also required that the Americans remain indifferent to the narrative and don’t take counter-measures in the media-management field. Finally, it assumed that the US could be alternately pressured and pleasured forever without seriously rupturing the relationship. Unfortunately, the plan did not factor in Seal Team Six and Obama’s willingness to risk a unilateral operation that simultaneously humiliated and pressured the military high command while putting them in a very uncomfortable position in front of their own people.
Only time will tell if the net effect of this operation will be positive or negative. In the early weeks, the only thing that is clear is that GHQ had not anticipated any such operation and may not even have known about Osama’s presence half a mile from their military academy. The Pakistani leadership (which in this case means not just the military leadership but also the political leadership, who have been handed an unexpected opportunity to play a role beyond being the military’s human shield) initially reacted by trying to find some backup from China and Saudi Arabia and even Russia. But early indications are that neither China nor Saudi Arabia is willing or able to bail them out if they continue with their past policies. The word is that the Chinese have told the Pakistani leadership that they are our bestest, fastest, deepest friends and the entire politburo prays for our health every day, but as far as budget support is concerned, it may be a good idea to apply to the IMF and Uncle Sam. The half-hearted effort to wave a Russian offer in America’s face is even more of a joke as both the Russians and the Pakistanis are just blowing hot air in an attempt to get Uncle Sam’s attention and neither is likely to get very far. Meanwhile, the jihadis are not rolling over and playing dead either, which complicates matters further.
In short, in the real world, the second coming is not about to happen and the black flags from Khorasan are not going to drive the infidels into the sea. Pakistan will have to live within its current boundaries and will have to make a serious effort to go after any transnational terrorists based in our territory. Even the India-specific terrorists will have to be told the game is over. For the deep state, this is not an easy news bulletin to deliver to its own people because they have been telling a very different story for a very long time. Most people in Pakistan do not even know that Pakistan was world headquarters for international Jihad for so long and that our own intelligence agencies set up most of the militant organizations and trained most of the terrorists we are now fighting. Most Pakistanis probably believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” and Mumbai 26/11was staged by some rightwing Hindu colonel. This amazing level of denial and disinformation has been carefully cultivated by the deep state, but is now coming home to roost. With the US plucking Osama a stone’s throw from PMA Kakul and with the jihadis attacking our most cherished institutions (GHQ, Cricket -- the attack on the Sri-Lankan cricket team -- and now Mehran airbase) the narrative is coming home to roost with a vengeance.
What will happen next? As an eternal optimist, I think things will slowly get better after several years of civil war in which the state will be pitted against the very people it created and lionized not too long ago. While the initial phases of this civil war were fought while telling our own people that our enemies are Hindus and Jews and their uncircumcised agents in the tribal areas, this clever scheme will have to be abandoned because it is impossible to fight one set of jihadis while working with another set as friends and allies. They all see each other as friends and they can see (even if some people in GHQ cannot) that this war can only mean that the state is abandoning its jihadi dreams in exchange for membership of the capitalist globalised world led by Chimerica. To them, this means war and it means war to the finish. This would be a very hard war to fight even if we know what is going on; it an impossible war to fight when our own people don’t know who is fighting whom. Which is why the narrative will have to be altered and a start has already been made by the generally pro-army anchor, Kamran Khan. It will not be an easy job and there will be much resistance from within GHQ’s own propagandists, some of whom have such serious psychological issues with India that this realignment threatens to fry their fragile eggshell mind. But there is no choice. Slowly but surely, the times they are a changin'….
Omar Ali is a Pakistani-American physician who also moderates the “Asiapeace” discussion group on the internet.