Pakistan in the Bull’s Eye

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

It was the year 1812. The grand army of Napoleon, over 400,000 strong, invaded Russia. The reasons for the invasion were primarily economic. After his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt (1799) and his defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon had lost his naval initiative to the British. Britain emerged as the strongest naval power while France, under Napoleon was the dominate land power in Continental Europe.  Wars need money. England borrowed heavily from the bankers in London and used its naval power to blockade France and apply economic pressure on Napoleon. In response, Napoleon introduced the Continental System of finance that would make Europe economically independent of the bankers in London, and imposed a counter-blockade of Britain. The Czar of Russia, Alexander 1st, signed on to the Continental System at the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), but reneged on the Treaty in 1810. This was a triumph for British diplomacy and the Bank of England.

Czar Alexander 1st of Russia, who had been beaten by Napoleon in the war of 1806, was no better prepared for war in 1812 than he was in 1806, especially against a powerful continental army that included not just the French but the Germans and soldiers from other vassal states.  The Russians chose a defensive strategy, using a scorched earth policy to deny the invading armies their supplies and harassing their lines of communication.  Napoleon’s armies moved rapidly through Poland and, by September 1812, were at the gates of Moscow. The Russian commander Kutuzov was faced with an existential dilemma: to engage Napoleon and try to save Moscow, or abandon Moscow, keep the Russian army intact and save Russia. As long as there was a Russian army, there was hope that Russia could be defended. Once the Russian army was destroyed, there was little hope for Russia.

Kutuzov chose to abandon Moscow and retreat. The city was vacated and burned down.  Napoleon entered the burning Russian capital that was desolate, devoid of supplies. The Czar did not surrender. Faced with an early onset of winter, Napoleon retreated. His armies were mauled on their way back and devastated by cold and disease.  Only 40,000 of the initial army of 400,000 returned home. Russia survived. 

Now roll the clock forward by two hundred years and focus on Pakistan. History does not repeat itself. But in the words of Ibn Khaldun, “The science of history is a noble, useful and honorable discipline because it shows us the character and events of previous generations. It throws light on the paths of the Prophets and informs us of the condition of rulers in the context of politics and governance so that if one wants to follow them, one may use history as a guideline.”

Pakistan today is in the bull’s eye of global politics. The sole global superpower, albeit in the declining years of its economic dominance, is breathing down its neck from a neighboring country. The Americans and its NATO allies are engaged in a hot war in Afghanistan. The regional powers, Iran and India have their hands in the pot. A rising China and an assertive Russia look askance at the American presence in Central Asia. Drone attacks take a toll in Waziristan and the stresses of the war tear at Pakistan’s fragile social fabric, already weakened by a pervasive feudal structure and endless confrontations with India.

As it was with the Napoleonic wars, today’s wars are about economics.  Just as the politics at the turn of the nineteenth century was about the control of maritime lanes to Asia and a monopoly of continental trade and finance, the politics of the first part of the twenty first century is dictated by the control of oil, its production, flow and distribution. What we are witnessing today are the preliminary rounds in the geopolitical chess game that will determine the next superpower of the world: China or the United States.  The outcome is largely a function of who controls the energy resources of the world.

Two of the largest sources of energy in Asia are in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. The primary demand for this oil is from the expanding economies of China, India and ASEAN countries. Afghanistan lies along one of those transit routes. Pakistan lies at the intersection of the two. In other words, it is in the cross hairs. It is in the bull’s eye. 

If anything, the choices facing Pakistan are even more difficult than those facing Russia in 1812. Russia had a Czar. Pakistan, by contrast, is ruled by an elite that is out of touch with the masses. At the height of the devastating floods in 2009, the President of Pakistan was in France, more concerned about his chateau than about the poor millions under flood waters. The Russians faced a military threat. The Pakistanis face a political threat.  The Russia of 1812, although no match for the continental armies, was a vast and powerful country.  Pakistan is economically weak, at the mercy of external aid. The United States demands that Pakistan take action against its own people in Waziristan and NWFP, an impossible task considering the porous Durand line that cuts across homogenous tribal homelands on the Pak-Afghan border. This course of action, if pursued on a sustained basis would destroy the legitimacy of the Pakistan army in the eyes of its own people.  It would be a recipe for the ultimate destruction of Pakistan, because the army, despite its flaws, short comings and its political history, is the only institution that has the capability to hold this disparate nation together. As long as there is a viable army, there is a viable Pakistan. If this institution is destroyed by a confrontation with the United States, there will be no Pakistan.

Looked at from a different perspective the choices are easier. The United States does not seek to invade Pakistan. It only seeks political influence so that it can further its strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is not after Pakistan; it is after oil. Indeed, it invests in Pakistan to further its strategic interests.

Some Pakistanis suspect that the United States is after Pakistan’s strategic assets. I disagree. If that were so, the United States would have moved in that direction a long time ago. It is a scenario that may come to pass if and only if the Pakistan army fizzles out and the government is taken over by an extremist faction.

Despite its multiple social fissures and the rampant corruption that gnaws at the countries of South Asia, Pakistan has retained substantial intrinsic strengths. Its village economy is self sufficient and resilient. The biradari system in the Punjab and the tribal structures in Baluchistan and NWFP are sources of social stability and familial support. The intrinsic goodness of common people shows itself in times of stress as was evident during the great floods two years ago. The educational system, tattered as it is, nonetheless produces a good number of world class graduates.  And despite a five-fold increase in population since independence, Pakistan is self sufficient in wheat and food grains, at least for now.

The wisdom of history suggests that Pakistan avoid a frontal clash with the United States, much as Kutuzov avoided Napoleon in 1812. Even as the drones pummel the frontier areas with missiles, prudence dictates that Pakistan turn the other cheek, absorb the punishment and not expose its army to the overwhelming power of NATO.  There will be many more casualties in the drone attacks, more so-called collateral damage, but survival demands patience, perseverance and endurance. It is the classical paradox of peace: maintain a credible army but stand down and avoid wars.  

The long term solution is for Pakistan to define itself and its destiny, to have faith in that vision, and to pursue it with a single minded national focus. It is a task that Pakistan has never successfully accomplished. Is it a secular, modern nation as envisioned by Mohammed Ali Jinnah? Or, is it an Islamic theocracy as championed by Maududi?  Or, is it something else, as demanded by scores of opportunistic political parties that seem to crop up and disappear like mushrooms in the monsoon season? The answer lies hidden in the womb of the future. Expatriate Pakistanis have a role to play in this existential debate. And in the answer lies the ultimate destiny of Pakistan and where it will stand in the comity of nations.