Both a nuclear power and important cricketing nation, Pakistan has existed as an independent country for little more than 60 years, but has been playing an important role in the historical epic of the Indian subcontinent for millennia. It has been the birthplace of the world’s first urban civilisation, home to one of the great flowerings of Buddhism, and cornerstone of the Mughal empire. Born in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims, it has been a frontline state in the Cold War and is currently a key location in the struggle against violent Islamism. Understanding Pakistan’s past is essential to understanding its future trajectory.
When the Europeans were dressed in animal skins and the USA was known only to the native Indian tribes, the men and women who lived on the land that is now Pakistan were part of one of the most sophisticated societies on earth. The ancient Egyptians, who lived around the same time, may have been better at building pyramids, but when it came to constructing cities, the Indus people were well ahead.
Nothing was known of the Indus civilisation until the 1920s, when excavations at Harappa and Moenjodaro revealed cities built of brick. Subsequent research has shown that the Indus people flourished around 2500–1500 BC.They had a population of roughly five million and a sophisticated bureaucracy with standardised systems for weights and brick sizes. While the evidence is sketchy, many scholars believe that a priestly elite governed the Indus people.
The Indus civilisation probably declined due to the drying of the Indus Valley. There followed centuries of economic decline and foreign conquest. The first to arrive were the Aryans, whose Vedic religion laid the basis for Hinduism as it is practised today. They were followed by Alexander the Great. When you travel in northern Pakistan and, in particular, places such as the Kalasha valleys, you may notice people with relatively pale skin, fair hair and blue eyes. According to popular theory these are the descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops.
After Alexander, a series of imperial powers flexed their muscles in South Asia. The Mauryas were notable for controlling virtually all the subcontinent and promoting Buddhism. Taxila, one of Pakistan’s best-preserved Buddhist sites, was founded by the Mauryans as a university. The Kushans followed close on the Mauryans’ heels, entering from Afghanistan. They took the Greek culture left behind by Alexander’s descendants and fused it with the art of India to produce their sublime Gandharan art. For the first three centuries AD, the Kushans held sway from Taxila to Kabul and left behind a host of ruins, particularly in the Peshawar and Swat Valleys.
In AD 711 an Arab general, Mohammed bin Qasim, arrived in Sindh. He and his 6000 cavalrymen were to have a major impact because they brought with them the religion of Islam. After the Arabs had made inroads from the south, in the 11th century the Turkish rulers of Afghanistan, led by Mahmud of Ghazni, brought the same message of Islam from the north. Muslims were then established as the ruling class, although it was not until the arrival of the Mughal dynasty that there was a truly formidable Islamic government able to leave a lasting architectural and cultural impression.
The Mughals were the undisputed masters of the subcontinent through the 16th and 17th centuries. Their empire was one of only three periods in history during which the subcontinent has come under sustained, unified rule. (The others to pull off this feat were the Mauryas and the British.) The first Mughal emperor, Babur, used the traditional route to invade: from Central Asia. Having taken Kabul he conquered Delhi in 1526. The dynasty he founded endured for more than three centuries. The other great Mughal emperors included Akbar (1556–1605), Shah Jahan (1627–58) and Aurangzeb (1658–1707). Because they were Muslims, the Mughals remain a source of great pride in Pakistan. Under Akbar and his son Jehangir, Lahore was the capital of the empire, and remains home to some of the Muhgals’ greatest architectural legacies, including the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort and Jehangir’s Tomb. All combine the Mughals’ skill for working on a grand scale and their great use of arches, domes, carvings and towers.
While the Mughals are today most often celebrated for their artistic legacy, they were also excellent administrators who managed to concentrate power in the central government. Their sophisticated bureaucratic systems became particularly highly developed under Akbar. He appointed officials on the basis of merit rather than family rank. He also prevented the establishment of rival power bases by paying loyal officials in cash rather than land. While many of the Mughal rulers were hostile to their Hindu subjects, Akbar took a different view. He saw that the number of Hindus in India was too great to subjugate. Instead, he integrated them into his empire and allowed Hindus to reach senior positions in the government and the military.
Like imperial powers before and after them, the Mughals became overstretched. By the time of Aurangzeb’s death, their empire had become so big it was largely ungovernable. Slowly but steadily the Mughals’ power ebbed away. Their administrative systems were weakened by debilitating and very violent succession struggles and by the decadence of court life. Local powerbrokers in the provinces seized their opportunity and, complaining of Muslim domination and too many taxes, mounted a series of armed rebellions. Faced with these challenges, the Mughals increasingly became rulers only in name. Technically, though, the Mughal empire existed right up until 1857, when the British deposed the 19th and last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II.
The first Britons to arrive in India were traders from the British East India Company. They came by sea at the beginning of the 17th century and their goal was not conquest but profit. Initially they restricted themselves to business, doing deals with the Mughal emperors and local rulers. Gradually, though, the relationship changed. In time British factories were established and when faced with disputes they began to apply British rather than local law. As the profits grew, the traders became increasingly involved in local politics. Matters came to a head in 1757, when armed men fighting for the British East India Company under Robert Clive clashed with the chief (nawab) of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula. That Clive won the encounter should have been of little surprise. Many of the nawab’s soldiers had been bribed to throw away their weapons.
The British soon started behaving like imperialists, determined to take territory. The first part of present-day Pakistan to come under British control was Sindh in 1843. Next the British tackled the Sikh rulers from the rich and fertile land of Punjab before moving on to the perennially ungovernable North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan.
The first major challenge to British rule came in 1857, when much of north and central India rose up against their imperial masters. The Indian Uprising has variously been called the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny and the First War of Independence. The Indian troops rallied around the enfeebled Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah, before finally being suppressed. The uprising was a shocking, brutal affair and left deep scars on both sides.
A major consequence of the revolt was the abolition of the British East India Company. The British crown imposed direct rule through its governor general or viceroy, and Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Significantly, the British made a compromise with the 565 princely rulers who controlled 40% of the land on the subcontinent. Instead of demanding that they surrender full sovereignty, the British allowed the princely rulers to keep control of their internal affairs if they professed loyalty to the Crown and surrendered all rights to conduct foreign or defence policy.
The British governed through an elite cadre of bureaucrats. Recruitment to the Indian civil service was competitive and initially restricted to British candidates. By 1910 a few Indians had been appointed to the civil service, a development that reflected the gradual shift of power in India. At the start of the 20th century, the demands for more self-governance were becoming louder and the British started to make concessions. First, some Indian councillors were appointed to advise the viceroy. Indians were then given limited roles in elected legislative councils (although the electorate was restricted to a small group of upper-class Indians). Increasingly, well-educated Indians made ever more strident demands for self-governance and found themselves in conflict with the British.
In Pakistan today there is still evidence of the British legacy. The law courts in Lahore, for instance, blend architectural styles from East and West, and the Mall (also in Lahore) is another lasting reminder of the Raj (British government in India). The British imperialists also left behind their traditional legacies: a railway network and the English language.
Two men are generally credited with having secured the existence of Pakistan. The first was Allama Mohammed Iqbal, a poet and philosopher from Lahore. Iqbal proposed the creation of a separate Muslim state on those parts of the subcontinent where there was a Muslim majority.
While Iqbal articulated the demand for a Muslim state, it took Mohammed Ali Jinnah to put it into practice. The British were initially reluctant to divide the subcontinent, but through a mixture of brilliant advocacy skills and sheer obstinacy Jinnah got his way. Jinnah is a universally revered figure in Pakistan. You will see his image and his name depicted on buildings all over the country. He is often referred to as Quaid-i-Azam or the Quaid (Leader of the People or Great Leader).
At the turn of the century the Hindus and Muslims had been united in their struggle against the British. The Indian National Congress, which was formed in 1885 to put demands to the British, included members from both faiths. Nevertheless, in 1906 the Muslims founded another political organisation, the All-India Muslim League, ‘to protect and advance the political rights of the Muslims of India and respectfully represent their needs and aspirations to the Government’.
For a time the emphasis remained on unity. In 1916 Congress and the Muslim League agreed to the Lucknow Pact, under which they were to campaign for constitutional reform together. After the British massacred a crowd of unarmed protestors at Amritsar in 1919, the demands for greater self-governance turned into an insistence on full independence. The British responded with limited concessions, increasing the number of Indians in the administration and in self-governing institutions.
The Indian leaders could see that they were making progress. But as an independent India became a realistic prospect, tensions between the Muslims and Hindus grew. Mohammed Iqbal first raised the issue of a separate Muslim homeland in 1930. He argued that India was so diverse that a unitary form of government was inconceivable. Religion rather than territory, he said, should be the foundation of national aspirations. It was the first coherent expression of the ‘two-nation theory’ to which Pakistan still adheres.
Iqbal gave no name to his proposed nation. That was done by a student at Cambridge University, Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, who suggested it be called Pakistan. Taken as one word Pakistan means ‘Land of the Spiritually Clean and Pure’. But it was also a sort of acronym standing for Punjab, Afghania (North-West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh and Balochistan.
By the late 1930s, Jinnah, who had previously argued for Hindu-Muslim unity, was convinced of the case for Pakistan. At its annual session in Lahore on 23 March 1940, the Muslim League formally demanded that the Muslim majority areas in northwestern and northeastern India should be autonomous and sovereign. With Congress strongly opposed, it was an issue only London could resolve. The man given the task was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was appointed Viceroy of India in 1947. Shortly after arriving in Delhi he became convinced that the demand for Pakistan would not go away and that, despite all its objections, Congress would accept it as the price for independence.
Creating two new independent nations out of one imperial possession was not easy. Assets were divided, and a boundary commission appointed to demarcate frontiers. Cyril Radcliffe, a civil servant who had never visited India, bisected the complicated and deeply connected border areas in little over a month. British troops were evacuated and the military was restructured into two forces. Civil servants were given the choice of joining either country.
As the moment of Independence approached, huge numbers of people went on the move. Hindus, fearful of living in the new Pakistan, headed east. So too did the Sikhs. In the period before the British extended their influence to Punjab and Kashmir, the Sikhs had been the dominant power, controlling territory right up to the Afghan border. By 1849 the British military had defeated them and now, with Partition looming, they decided to move and make their future in India. The Muslims, meanwhile, were also leaving their villages and making for their new homeland.
It was the largest mass migration in modern times. Around eight million people gave up their jobs, homes and communities. Most travelled on foot or by train and in doing so risked their lives. Many never made it, becoming victims of the frenzied violence triggered by Partition. The scale of the killing was terrible: it’s estimated that up to a million people were butchered in communal violence. Trains full of Muslims, fleeing westwards, were held up and slaughtered by Hindu and Sikh mobs. Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to the east suffered the same fate. For those who crossed the rivers of blood that separated the two new nations and survived, the feeling of relief was intense. And on 14 August 1947, Pakistan and India achieved independence.
While the new leaders in India were able to pick up where the British left off, their counterparts in Pakistan had to build state institutions from scratch. The task was made all the more difficult because the one man in Pakistan who could command unquestioning loyalty – Jinnah – died 13 months after Independence. His successors were both incompetent and corrupt. It took them nine years to pass Pakistan’s first constitution. When General Ayub Khan took over in a coup in 1958, most Pakistanis were relieved that the politicians were being kicked out of office.
At Independence, Pakistan was already a divided country, with Bengali East Pakistan cut off from the main body of West Pakistan by the great mass of India. Tensions between the two parts were immediately significant. East Pakistan was more populous and ethnically homogenous as well as being poorer, having been cut off from the traditional Bengali capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Even before Independence many Bengalis had argued that the British should create two new Muslim countries. Pakistan’s new rulers, few of whom were Bengalis, wanted a strong central government and just one national language – Urdu. The Bengalis insisted that Bengali should have equal status and complained that the central government, the federal bureaucracy and the main military establishments were all located in West Pakistan.
The political party that best articulated the frustration and resentment felt by many East Pakistanis was the Awami League, and in 1963 it elected a leader who would ultimately lead East Pakistan to independence. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman began by crystallising the Bengali’s demands into ‘Six Points’. He accepted that there should be one Pakistan but added that the federal government should be restricted to handling defence and foreign affairs and have no tax-raising powers. He said the two wings of Pakistan should have separate currencies and East Pakistan should be allowed its own paramilitary force.
These demands were utterly unacceptable to West Pakistan, which believed that the Six Points would leave the centre with so little authority that a united Pakistan could not survive. Despite long negotiations, a compromise could not be found and by 1971 the tensions between East and West Pakistan reached snapping point. On 25 March the military ruler in Islamabad, General Yayha Khan, ordered his army to take military control of East Pakistan.
The Pakistani army was split in two. West Pakistani soldiers took to the task of restoring order in East Pakistan with relish. But most of the East Pakistani soldiers mutinied. Yayha believed that the civilian population in East Pakistan would remain largely neutral. It didn’t. The Bengali population stood behind Mujibur Rahman, who by this time had been arrested. The West Pakistani troops responded by raping, murdering and even massacring whole villages. Around half a million Bengalis were killed.
At first the West Pakistani army got the upper hand, not least because the Bengali resistance fighters – the Mukti Bahini – suffered from a lack of arms. A low-level struggle might have gone on for years had not India decided to intervene. Initially, Delhi believed that the West Pakistani army would be able to cow the East Pakistanis into submission. But as the resistance continued, a consensus emerged in Delhi that an independent East Pakistan (Bangladesh) was not only in India’s interests but also achievable. Half a million Indian troops were ordered into East Pakistan to support the claim of Bengali nationalism.
India enjoyed complete air superiority, and on the ground could rely on the highly motivated Mukti Bahini (generally estimated at 100, 000). Lieutenant General Niazi, the Pakistani commander, never stood a chance. He was outnumbered, outgunned and operating in territory with a hostile population. In December 1971 Niazi surrendered and Bangladesh was born.
Throughout the British Raj the leaders of the 565 princely states kept nominal control of their territories. For decades this amounted to nothing more than a constitutional nicety because in practice they were subservient to the British. But in 1947 the princely rulers had the power to decide whether they joined India or Pakistan.
The maharaja was uncertain what do to, but many Pakistanis were determined that the predominantly Muslim Kashmiris should join Pakistan. In October 1947 Pashtun tribesmen from North-West Frontier Province tried to force the issue by invading Kashmir, with the tacit consent of the new Pakistani authorities. But the strategy backfired when the maharaja requested armed assistance from India.
India agreed to help but there was a price. The maharaja would have to agree that Kashmir joined India, not Pakistan. The maharaja did opt for India but the timing of his decision has been highly controversial ever since. Pakistan argues that he signed the Instrument of Accession under duress after Indian troops had illegally entered Kashmir. The Indians maintain the signature came before their troops were deployed.
As a result of the fighting in 1947, and the crushing defeat of the 1965 war, Pakistan currently occupies around one-third of Kashmir, which it calls Azad (Free) Kashmir, and India occupies the other two-thirds. (The situation is further complicated by the fact that, after 1947, China occupied an area called Aksai Chin in Indian-occupied Kashmir. India’s objection to this was one of the factors behind the 1962 Indo-Chinese War, in which India was heavily defeated.)
Since 1988 there has been an insurgency in Kashmir that has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Kashmiri Muslims and Islamic militants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and further afield have tried to force the Indian security forces out of Kashmir. The Indians have refused to budge and have committed chronic human-rights abuses, while Pakistani proxies have attempted to neutralise (by force or otherwise) the secular Kashmiri nationalist movement. In recent years the insurgency has become dominated by non-Kashmiri fighters based in Pakistan, and India frequently accuses Pakistan of ‘cross-border terrorism’. The two countries have held sporadic talks on the issue but have never come close to reaching a solution.
In 1999 Pervez Musharraf (still just a soldier) ordered some of his troops into Indian-occupied Kashmir. Unnoticed, they took several hundred square miles of territory. Tactically, the Kargil campaign, as it became known, was a brilliant operation. Strategically, it backfired. The international community, fearful that the dispute could escalate into a nuclear exchange, demanded a Pakistani withdrawal. Ultimately India poured in numerous men and munitions to the Kargil area, forcing the Pakistanis to abandon the high Himalayan peaks they had occupied.
Kashmir remains a highly emotive issue for Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to sack Musharraf as head of the army as a result of the Kargil fiasco led to the coup that brought the general to power – a prime example of the central role Kashmir has come to play in Pakistani politics. Each day the newspapers and state-controlled TV pour out propaganda on the issue. For more than 60 years the Kashmiri people have been caught between India and Pakistan’s intense rivalry. By now most Kashmiris are sick of the fighting and given a choice would probably opt for independence. But with both sides determined to hang on there is very little prospect they will be given that choice.
The two countries created from British India in 1947 went down quite divergent routes. While India emerged as a robust democracy, Pakistan sat under military rule for over half its existence. Pakistan was hampered by its comparatively weaker political and economic development at Independence, and by the death of Jinnah the following year and his weak successors.
The army has come to see itself as the defender of Pakistan’s honour, but its record is far from glorious. If Pakistan is, as many Pakistanis believe, a failed state, then the army must take a share of the blame. Consuming a disproportionate amount of government expenditure, and wielding significant economic as well as political power, even in times of civilian rule the military has interfered in foreign and domestic policy areas.
There have been four military rulers in Pakistan’s history. All were more willing to grasp power than to give it up. The first was General Ayub Khan, a Sandhurst-educated paternalist who believed the illiterate Pakistani masses were not ready for Western-style democracy. After 11 years in power, he was forced out of office by mass protests in 1969. As a heavy drinker and habitual womaniser, his successor, General Mohammed Yayha Khan, was hardly representative of the people he ruled. He offered hope to the nation by organising Pakistan’s first-ever national elections. Widely accepted to have been the fairest that have ever occurred in the country, they asserted a Bengali political nationalism unacceptable to Yayha. His response was to send the tanks into East Pakistan in a bloody, yet unsuccessful war. India’s military support for Bangladeshi independence led directly to Yayha’s downfall, and a brief period of civilian government under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Bhutto was overthrown in 1977 (and later executed) by General Zia ul Haq. If Yayha Khan was a bon vivant, Zia was a puritanical prude – and a disaster for Pakistan. Propped up by American and Saudi largesse following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia grew the intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), into one of the most powerful institutions in the country, and an enabler of radical Islamism. On the domestic front, his most damaging legacy was to impose his rigid, intolerant interpretation of Islam on Pakistan. He introduced a series of hardline measures such as public floggings of thieves and two-month prison sentences for people seen drinking, eating or smoking during Ramazan (Ramadan). There is no reason to believe that General Zia would ever have given up power voluntarily had he not been killed in 1988, in an air crash that was almost certainly the work of saboteurs.
Pakistan’s fourth military (now civilian) ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, is determined to undo Zia ul Haq’s legacy. He has publicly opposed the Islamic militants, although he has taken mixed steps to challenge them, sending the army into the autonomous and radicalised Tribal Areas along the Afghan border for the first time but then leaving the controversial madrasah (Islamic college) system largely untouched for fear of provoking violent reactions. Having launched the Kargil war himself in 1999, he has continued to make an exception for Islamists fighting the Indians in Kashmir.
Musharraf has faced a fundamental contradiction throughout his rule. A man who assumed power illegally, and whose rule depends on military force, Musharraf has argued that he alone can restore democracy and economic stability. Yet military rule and democracy have never made good bedfellows in Pakistan. Musharraf’s tolerance of press criticism and his progressive ideas gave him early credibility at home. But Islamists and civil society alike have pointed to the vast sums his government has received from the USA as an ally in its ‘War on Terror’, and the contradictions in spreading democracy by propping up army rule. The generals find it difficult to accept that Pakistan’s military governments have been just as bad at economics as the civilian ones.
While President Musharraf has consistently maintained that Pakistan’s army is part of the solution to the country’s ills, only in 2007 did it become apparent that the army might in fact be part of the problem. An attempt to sack the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, led to a rare rebuke from the courts, which was backed up by mass protests. The legality of Musharraf’s re-election as president months later was disputed, and although this led to his final stepping down as army chief to wear civilian clothes, it was accompanied by the imposition of a state of emergency and crackdown on civil society, the media and the independent judiciary. Planned elections for January 2008 were thrown into further turmoil with the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, just months after her return from exile.
The army’s military record is about as bleak as its political one. From the outset it has been unable to cope with the sheer size of its Indian rival. Faced with an acute military imbalance, Pakistan’s first politicians made defence expenditure their top priority. Yet even today Pakistan’s army is half the size of India’s, with significantly fewer tanks and aircraft. Pakistan has had four major military confrontations with India. The 1971 war resulted in Pakistan losing approximately one-fifth of its territory. The other three clashes, in 1947, 1965 and 1999, all took place in Kashmir. On all three occasions Pakistan started fights it was never in a position to win.
Domestic politics has undergone many challenges since Pakistani Independence, irrespective of whether the leader of the day arrived through the ballot box or by a coup. Despite the unifying banner of Islam, many of the deepest problems have arisen from different ethnic groups competing for a slice of political and economic power.
Of the five major ethnic groups in Pakistan (Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch and Mohajirs), the Punjabis have the upper hand. Theirs is the richest and most populous province and provides most of the army’s officer corps. All the other national groups routinely complain of Punjabi dominance.
Apart from the Bengalis, who achieved independence in 1971, the most sustained campaign of ethnic violence has come from the most unlikely source: the nine million Mohajirs. In 1947 they were among Pakistan’s keenest advocates. Most headed for the capital, Karachi, to secure official government posts. Their impact on the city was enormous. By 1951 the native Sindhi community had been completely outnumbered; just 14% of the city’s population spoke Sindhi, as opposed to 58% who spoke the Mohajirs’ language, Urdu.
Gradually, Pakistan’s traditional inhabitants reasserted themselves and many Mohajirs were forced out of their government jobs. By the 1980s the Mohajirs’ dreams of forging a new Islamic nation had been replaced by bitter disillusionment expressed in increasingly militant politics. The Mohajirs’ political party, the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), has always denied any involvement in bloodshed, but there is no doubt that the conflict between the Mohajirs and the Sindhis did turn violent. At the height of the troubles in the 1980s and early 1990s, Karachi became a byword for ethnic violence. Pakistan’s central government did not make a serious attempt to tackle the MQM until 1995, when the army launched a clampdown. It was a brutal campaign with many extrajudicial killings. The MQM has been forced into relative quiescence ever since, although violence again erupted in 2007 with a murderous attack on a political demonstration, allegedly by MQM supporters.
Preoccupied by their struggle with the Mohajirs, the Sindhis have always been too weak to threaten the Pakistani state and make an effective demand for independence. That is not to say they have entirely given up on the idea. In 1983, for example, armed Sindhi nationalists took control of some small towns and railway lines in Sindh, but the army, using helicopter gunships, was soon able to disperse them.
Baloch nationalists have shown greater determination. Many Baloch never wanted to join Pakistan in the first place. When the British departed, Kalat (the largest of four princely states located in Balochistan) immediately declared its independence. The new Pakistani government used troops to bring Kalat into line and on several occasions since then the army has used force to suppress armed revolts in Balochistan. The most significant began in 1973 after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dismissed Balochistan’s provincial government. The fighting lasted four years and the army had to deploy no fewer than 80, 000 troops. Coming so soon after the loss of Bangladesh, it was a battle the Pakistan army had to win, which they did in bloody style. The recent exploitation of Balochistan’s gas reserves has prompted a resurgence of Baloch attempts to gain political and economic autonomy, a movement that the Pakistan government has again sought to solve by purely military means.
In the run-up to Independence, Pashtun nationalists opposed the creation of Pakistan even more strongly than the Baloch. Their demand for their own land called Pukhtoonkhwa (sometimes also referred to as Pashtunistan) is not without historical justification. Before the British arrived the Pashtuns lived as one nation. In 1893 the British divided the Pashtuns by drawing the Durand Line, which today constitutes the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The strength of Pashtun nationalism has diminished in large part because of the Pashtuns’ relatively strong representation in Pakistan’s central institutions. While the Tribal Areas have been left to stagnate (and become a haven for violent Islamism), the Pashtuns have been particularly active migrants within Pakistan. The establishment of a large Pashtun community in Karachi, for example, means many Pashtun families have a direct interest in the stability and continued existence of the Pakistani state. Despite having had the strongest national movement in 1947, the Pashtuns have never presented a significant challenge to Pakistan’s central institutions. The reason is clear: to a greater extent than the Sindhis, the Baloch and the Mohajirs, the Pashtuns have been given a share in the country.
Power and wealth in Pakistan have always been highly concentrated. In 1959, 222 individuals were making use of two-thirds of the total credit in the Pakistani banking system. In the 1970s just 22 families owned 66% of the country’s industrial assets, 70% of insurance and 80% of banking. Pakistan’s financial and political dynasties are intertwined, comprising a political elite that has run the country in tandem with (or alternating with) the military since Independence.
In recent years two families have dominated Pakistani politics: the Bhuttos, who lead the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); and the Sharifs, who lead the Muslim League (PML). The Bhuttos, who come from rural Sindh, represent old money and feudalism. The Sharifs, by contrast, are industrialists who have made new money – and are almost certainly now the richest family in the country. At various stages of his meteoric career, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was president, chief martial law administrator, and prime minister of Pakistan. A charismatic populist with socialist leanings, he advocated state control of the economy and made an enemy of the Sharifs by nationalising their factories.
Nawaz Sharif’s father, Mohammed Sharif, realised that to protect his business interests he would need political as well as financial muscle. After Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by General Zia, he placed his youngest son Nawaz in the Zia administration. In June 1979 the Sharifs were rewarded for their services to the military regime by having their company denationalised. From that moment the Sharif family fortunes soared.
But the Bhuttos made a comeback. After Zia’s death, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, returned from exile and was elected prime minister. The two families slugged it out for the next 10 years, with Nawaz and Benazir both having two terms as prime minister.
The Sharifs and the Bhuttos have rock-solid political bases. The Sharifs are based in Raiwind, just outside Lahore. You may be able to talk your way into their sumptuous estate, complete with private zoo, which has been unoccupied ever since President Musharraf forced the Sharifs into exile. And you will certainly find that many people in the area express blind faith in, and undying admiration for, Nawaz Sharif and all his relatives. Similarly if you visit Larkana in Sindh (it is near Moenjodaro and also has a private zoo), you will find people referring to Benazir Bhutto as if she had been a queen. These unswervingly loyal political heartlands provided both politicians with a springboard for their national ambitions. When over half the electorate cannot read, it is a huge advantage to come from a family that people have heard of.
Pakistan’s failure to break the power of the big families has held back the country’s development. In many parts of Pakistan the local landowner (often referred to as a ‘feudal’), tribal chief or religious leader always wins any election. As a result, the National Assembly and Senate in Islamabad are, for the most part, filled with people whose main interest is to hang on to their wealth and privileges. The weakness of the state institutions means many Pakistani citizens are forced to rely on their local leaders to provide basic services. The courts are so slow and unreliable that many Pakistanis expect their local leader to resolve legal disputes. Having heard both sides of an argument the local bigwig will hand down summary justice on the spot. Tribal chiefs often order that people they find guilty of some misdemeanour be punished with a beating and some even have private prisons.
At the close of 2007, while the big families were as active as ever, their political futures were muddy. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaf Sharif returned from exile (despite both having outstanding corruption charges against them) to re-establish their political primacy, a gamble that ended in disaster with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December in Rawalpindi days after the Eid al-Adha holiday. Her son was quickly appointed her political successor, but the repercussions her murder would produce remained unclear.
Pakistan has played a surprisingly important role on the world stage since Independence. Its strategic location explains why, squeezed between the powerhouse of India, and Afghanistan, long an arena for competing empires to play out their rivalries. Foreign policy has been driven by these neighbours. Knowing its relative weakness compared to Delhi, Islamabad has continually pursued the idea of ‘strategic depth’ to bolster its position, seeking to tie down the Indians in Kashmir while encouraging the formation of a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul to secure its restive Pashtun borderlands.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Durand Line became an active Cold War frontline. The Americans were determined to force the Soviets out and Pakistan became their base of operations. Billions of American dollars were spent supporting the mujaheddin (Islamic fighters) who were prepared to enter Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and fight.
The Pakistani leader at the time, General Zia ul Haq, couldn’t believe his luck and proceeded to skim off vast amounts of the American money. Mujaheddin who saw the anti-Soviet war as a largely nationalist struggle were sidelined by Zia in favour of the most radical Islamist factions. These continued to be supported following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 in the hope that they would form a new Afghan government. When this gambit failed, the Pakistanis acted as midwives to the new Taliban militia, helping them take eventual control of the country. At the same time, other radicals were encouraged to take the fight to Kashmir.
Because it gave shelter to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban was removed from power by the Americans after 11 September 2001. In the process, the Pakistanis once again were in a position to benefit because the Americans now wanted to pay Pakistan to help destroy the very forces they had together created. Since then, relations between Islamabad and the newly democratic Kabul government have been rocky to say the least, with Pakistan again voicing support for negotiations with the regrouped (and rearmed) Taliban.
Pakistan has found itself in a tricky position. On the one hand it wants to encourage Islamic militancy so that there are enough young fighters to keep the Kashmiri struggle alive. On the other hand, it is trying to shut the militants down so as to prevent the possibility of an Islamic revolution at home and also to please the West and keep the aid dollars flowing in. Given the increased international focus on Islamic extremism it is unclear how long Pakistan will be able to sustain what has become a very difficult balancing act.