Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thoughts about Pakistan

I have long thought that if I had the time (and the knowledge), I would like to write a book entitled, “The Two Partitions of 1947, and How They Permanently Screwed Up the World,” a book that would consider the partitions of India and Palestine in 1947, both badly botched by hastily departing British imperialists (with an assist by feuding Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), that in both cases, divided the colonies between Muslims and non-Muslims, and did so with so little regard for the actual conditions on the ground, and so inflamed the easily inflamed sensibilities on both sides, that it almost guaranteed that the successor states (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza under various sovereignties: India, and Pakistan), would be plunged immediately and repeatedly into war, and they have ever since.

Its hard not to pick up a newspaper these days (if anyone still engages in this archaic act) without reading of the “existential crisis” facing Pakistan. (“Existential Crisis” is a good term for retiring for overuse; when I was growing up, the only existential crisis I was familiar with was caused by teenagers who had spent too much time reading Camus and Sartre, and who bored their friends by wondering too much about the meaning of life.)

Anyway, there is a great fear on the part of the Obama administration that the Taliban will overrun Pakistan, force everyone into a Madrassa, aim their newly gained nuclear arsenal at Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Washington, and gleefully start World War III. This fear has been repeatedly debunked, and does not need to be gone into here (e.g., the Pashtun-based Taliban has little or no chance of imposing its will on the 85% of the Pakistani people who are not Pashtun.)

The Taliban problem in western Pakistan is the successor to the longstanding inability of any central government to impose effective control on the northwest frontier, and this problem has clearly been exacerbated by the failure of US policy in Afghanistan, and it seems to me that we are perilously close to that traditional remedy for US foreign policy failures, to assume that one can fix a problem by making the problem worse, with a Bay of Pigs or Da Nang solution to the Taliban problem, but that is also a subject for another day.

But if Pakistan does indeed face an “existential crisis” it is the simple question of why it exists at all. No nation has a more curious parturition. Before the British announcement in the spring of 1947 that in a few months time, in August 1947, a new nation called Pakistan would be created, it had little more than a gleam in the eye of the Muslim League. Until a few days before it was created, no one was sure or clear what it boundaries would be. The unseemly haste of the British departure, and the absurdities of the new national boundaries, the so-called Radcliffe Line, in both Bengal and the Punjab, ensured that India and Pakistan would be fighting from the first moment of their creation. And no one, including those who ardently supported the creation of Pakistan, could have ever imagined that say, that they were creating two hostile states, with uncrossable borders and little or no human, cultural, or economic contact.

Perhaps, if it had planned more carefully, the partition of India could have been effected with less pain, and perhaps, if cooler heads would have prevailed, a united India, with greater degree of local autonomy, could have been forged. As it is, India inherited most of the departing British bureaucracy, while Pakistan inherited part of the British army, and Pakistan has been a military state ever since, with its dominant rationale for existing to protect the 1947 partition.

All of this is laid out in its complexity and accompanying horrifying detail in Yasmin Khan’s excellent new book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2008.) It is a reminder, if one be needed, that history is little more than the concatenation of unintended consequence, and that one misstep often ensures another. If nothing else, when contemplating intervention in Pakistani affairs, America ought to tread with the utmost wariness. The great powers have already made blundered enough.

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