Ben Barber: Does Pakistan want peace?

06/12/2014 6:09 PM

06/12/2014 6:09 PM

Pakistan continues to baffle the outside world. Does it want war or peace? Afghanistan in ruins or rebuilt? Does it despise or worship America?

In New Delhi recently, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, reached out to shake hands with his enemy and neighbor, the newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But immediately, Pakistani officials and analysts questioned whether the Pakistani leader had the power to make peace. After all, it is the army that has ruled openly for half the 67 years since independence. And in the other half of that period it ruled from behind the curtain.

Why does this matter to us in America? Haven’t India and Pakistan been fighting for years since 1947 – shelling border villages in disputed Kashmir and sending surrogate rebels and terrorists to stir up trouble in Baluchistan, Afghanistan and Mumbai?

Did I say Afghanistan? Yes. That’s where President Obama just told us we will pull out all but 9,800 soldiers by 2015. And the rest will follow in the next year. After a 13-year war against Taliban enemies operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, we will have lost 2,322 troops.

But the key to peace in Afghanistan after we leave may well lie in the hands of Pakistan. The Pakistani army and its intelligence service – the much-feared ISI – have a long and familiar penchant for arming the Taliban; allowing them to recruit, train and fatten up in remote Pakistani tribal areas; and then turning them loose like rats into a granary to maim and kill Afghans as well as Americans and our NATO allies.

At least twice, the Taliban, Haqqani network or other poisonous group that Pakistan nurtures to trouble its neighbors has attacked India’s embassy in Kabul and consulate in Herat. Pakistan feels it has a patronizing claim over Afghanistan as its poor and backward neighbor. It also expects that if India’s giant army ever attacked, Pakistani forces might have to seek safe haven in Afghanistan.

So seeing the Afghans having normal diplomatic ties and foreign aid from hated India rankles like something is caught in the throat.

I’ve long wondered about Pakistan since I first visited more than 40 years ago and then returned over and over to report on the Afghan-Soviet War, Kashmir, Islamist groups, the army and development issues. The educated elites seemed so calm, clear and somehow sweet in that South Asian way we once mistook for spirituality in the time of Ravi Shankar and the Beatles.

Last week again in Washington, D.C., I met with two young members of Parliament on a visit and found them smart, courageous and well aware of all the subterranean currents within Pakistan.

At first they clucked in sympathy when I noted that a mother was stoned to death that day in front of the Lahore court for marrying the choice of her heart, not her father’s. And Dad was among those who smashed his daughter’s head to putty.

We all clucked again – “too bad, not right” – at the killing the day before of a Pakistani-American cardiologist who returned home to treat patients in his ancestral homeland but was shot 10 times and killed for being an Ahmadi – member of a minority sect.

“Aren’t you afraid to say anything in public because you might be accused of blasphemy?” I asked the MPs.

“Yes. Yes. Definitely,” was the reply.

These days, anyone who says anything that the ultra-religious dislike can be accused in a police station of blasphemy. Lawyers defending such people can also be accused. And in 2008, when the governor of Punjab suggested a need to refine the blasphemy law to avoid false accusations, he was murdered by his own bodyguard. When the bodyguard appeared in court, dozens of lawyers threw flower petals and hailed him as a hero of Islam.

So Pakistan remains at least two divided lands:

•  The elite in commerce, education and politics – governed by self-interest and fear of the Islamists and the military.
•  And the vast masses in the nation of 180 million who toil for a pittance on feudal lands. But just like Bob Dylan says in his song to the poor white man: “You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.” So do the poor Pakistanis get manipulated by the elites, the army, the police and the religious leaders.

So when a chance of peace wafts through the air in Islamabad and Delhi, rational Pakistanis expect that the Pakistan army will block it. After all, it is only the threat of giant India, with more than 1 billion people, that gives the army the justification for huge budgets, costly weapons systems, power over the media and the courts, and maintaining the bloodthirsty terror groups that killed U.S. journalist Danny Pearl in 2002 and nearly 200 people in Mumbai in 2008. And whose leaders have never been put on trial.

It is hard to give up on a country that has so many great people and such a unique culture. But it seems it suffers from a terminal affliction. It was carved out of British India to be a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. But after East Pakistan fought for and won independence as Bangladesh in 1971, it left Pakistan with fewer Muslims than remain in India.

But Pakistan sees itself as the spear point of Islam. Behind it lie the Arabic lands of the Middle East where Islam was born. In front lie the lands of idol worshippers such as the Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians. And today, armed with perhaps 100 or more nuclear weapons, Pakistan increasingly sees military power as its trump card in the battle of civilizations.

Benazir Bhutto once told me on a visit to Washington that “I gave the army everything it wanted and still they threw me out of office – twice.” Eventually she paid with her life for challenging the army-dominated system running what seems more like a crime syndicate than a modern nation that chooses its own civilian leadership.

I simply fear that every day the newspaper headlines about Pakistan take me on yet another sordid journey into honor killings of women; murdered journalists; the ISI trying to close a critical TV station; and another missed opportunity to end the conflict with India and open trade with its giant neighbor.

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