World Views
11:17 am
Thu February 13, 2014

U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Challenges And Opportunities With Pakistan’s Diversity

Pakistani boys unload food from a U.S. Army helicopter. Pakistan needs the United States "for a whole host of support," says Lahore School of Economics professor Shamyla Chaudry.
Credit Spc. Stephen J. Schmitz / U.S. Army / Flickr Creative Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Joshua White and Shamyla Chaudry.

Pakistan’s burgeoning, educated youth population and various religious and militant groups pose distinct policy concerns for the South Asian nuclear power and the United States, say analysts and scholars Joshua White and Shamyla Chaudry.

“The problem that Pakistan faces, with respect to religious extremism, is one that has a very deep history but is also complicated by the fact that the state itself has found it in its own interests to encourage various kinds of religious fervor and religious extremism for its own ends,” White says.

Al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan increase internal stability, and the organization’s increasing focus on the Middle East worries the United States, Chaudry says.

“Pakistan may want to preserve its relations with some of these extremists because they’re useful when it comes to Pakistan’s relationships with India or with Afghanistan,” Chaudry says. “But it may want to give up some of the relations because it hurts them [Pakistan] too much with the United States.”

An uneasy relationship between the United States and Pakistan, stemming from post-9/11 interactions, invokes mutual anxiety.

“The bin Laden raid was widely celebrated in the United States,” White says. “But in Pakistan it was seen as a very dangerous precedent.”

Chaudry says post-9/11 engagement between the two countries has been the most dysfunctional, and the most detrimental, in the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“I think that’s because of the nature of the issues and the way they were dealt with,” Chaudry says. “The way that the United States and Pakistan cooperated on counter-terrorism was very cloak-and-dagger type of politics. There was no transparency.”

Despite tensions, Chaudry and White say a strategic U.S.-Pakistan relationship is essential. A stable and peaceful future is central to policy and mutual understanding that accommodates Pakistan’s diversity and invests in Pakistan’s educated population.

“There are a fair amount of people who are educated, who have graduate degrees, who need work,” Chaudry says. “There’s not enough private foreign investment going into the country. If there were, businesses could really take advantage of the population.”

Pakistan is 95 percent Muslim, but misperceptions of Muslim homogeneity within the country fail to account for diversity in religious practice and attitude.

“Pakistan, since its early days as a nation, has always been challenged by its national identity,” Chaudry says. “The use of Islam in the national identity has led to a very confused narrative on what it means to be Pakistani.”

White says there are groups in Pakistan sympathetic to the Taliban, people who despise the Taliban, and “everything in between.”

“If you talk to Pakistanis, the vast, vast majority of them do not support terrorism,” White says. “Just as there are dozens of denominations within American Christianity, there are many schools of thought within Pakistani Islam.”

Coupled with the dynamism of the youth population, Chaudry and White say there are reasons for optimism in Pakistan’s future.

“There are new social movements. People take to the streets in support of a strong judiciary and judicial activism,” White says. “Pakistan’s diversity is actually a strength over the long term.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Shamyla Chaudry and Josh White, welcome to World Views

SHAMYLA CHAUDRY: Thank you.

JOSHUA WHITE: Great to be here.

GRILLOT:  Tell us what it is that you find to be concerning coming from that part of the world. What should we really be paying attention to in general?

CHAUDRY: First of all, I think the South Asia region is one of the most fascinating and challenging regions to work on. Pakistan is at the center of debates about stability in the region, about how Afghanistan is going to look post-2014 when the United States and NATO withdraw. There are questions of Pakistan's internal stability. As we all know, the government is facing very serious domestic security challenges from insurgents, many of whom are religious extremists. So, the question of extremism is at the forefront of what the government has to deal with. And for the United States, Pakistan is a very important country in this important region because of its very diverse population. It's one of the world's largest Muslim countries. It is a country that has nuclear weapons and that arsenal continues to grow, as we all know. So that is a concern, especially because we know that various parts of Al-Qaeda have been residing in Pakistan for many years. That dynamic is changing of course, but as Al-Qaeda shifts its focus more to the Middle East it has empowered its local affiliates within Pakistan. So, for me, as a Pakistan analyst, I look at that dynamic with great concern for the future, because more empowered local affiliates of Al-Qaeda means more instability for the Pakistani government. This is obviously a concern for the United States - the combination of nuclear weapons, domestic challenges for a new government, and remnants of Al-Qaeda staying there. 

WHITE: I would add a couple things to what Shamyla said in putting out a very comprehensive picture of everything we worry about with respect to Pakistan. I think one problem that I’ve focused a lot on is the challenge of religious extremism in Pakistan. I spent time hanging out with groups that are sympathetic to the Taliban, with people who despise the Taliban, and everything in between. And the problem that Pakistan faces with respect to religious extremism is one that has a very deep history but also is complicated by the fact that the state itself has - not just over the last 20 or 30 years, but over the last 60+ years  - found it in its own interests to encourage various kinds of religious fervor and religious extremism for its own ends. And this is what makes Pakistan such a daunting problem today for people in the US government or people who are trying to resolve the problem. It's that Pakistan is not only presenting challenges to the region, but Pakistan has sort of actively created some of its own problems in sponsoring various religious groups, in sponsoring militant groups. And as much as we look at that as a problem, we also find everyday that we need to have our relationship with Pakistan in order to try to resolve those problems. So backing away isn't an option for the US government. It's not an option for really any country that cares about dealing with these problems. 

GRILLOT: Well, I'd like to follow up on that if you don't mind because Pakistan, to me, really seems to be a major dilemma for the United States in terms of how to deal with it, as you've pointed out. We need to be friendly, and focused, and we need their help, basically. We need to bring them into the fold in order to engage with them cooperatively and with the rest of the region.  Shamyla you mentioned Afghanistan, for example. But they also have all of these elements  - these very diverse groups, these extremists, and they sponsor terrorism - there are all kinds of other troubling things that make us want to run the other way from Pakistan, right? So how are we dealing with that? How is the United States government dealing with that today and solving this dilemma? It just seems so incredibly challenging. 

CHAUDRY: Well, first of all, the United States and Pakistan have a long history of dysfunctional cooperation and it comes from both sides. It's not just the Pakistanis are difficult and the Americans have to deal with it. I think both sides have had to deal with it and there have been positive points in that historical trend-line of the relationship. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, there was a lot of covert cooperation between the Americans and the Pakistanis that a lot of folks were proud about. And then there was a period of disengagement. I think it's the period of 9/11, post-9/11 engagement that has been probably most dysfunctional for the relationship and the most detrimental. I think that's because of the nature of the issues and the way that they were dealt with, the way that the United States and Pakistan cooperated on counter-terrorism was very cloak-and-dagger type of politics. It didn't involve institutions. It didn't involve civil society groups. There was no transparency about the policies, both in the United States and in Pakistan. And I think both countries came to realize this was detrimental to their own interests at home. I see the relationship right now as being realistic about that, and trying to bring the policy interests to the forefront and acknowledging that we may not agree on certain issues. Pakistan may want to preserve its relations with some of these religious extremists because they're useful when it comes to Pakistan's relationships with India or with Afghanistan, but it may want to give up some of their relationships because it hurts them too much with the United States. And it still needs the United States for a whole host of support. So I think that there's an acknowledgement right now that this can be a strategic relationship but we don't want to make it more than what it is right now. We may, right now, be just in a more transactional mode. And I think, very much so right now, the mood on both sides is "let's keep things stable between our governments so that we don't jeopardize the withdrawal out of Afghanistan." We don't want things to go off the rails there because it's too costly for both sides. 

WHITE: The last couple of years in the relationship are very instructive and interesting in this regard. 2011 was the terrible, no good, very bad year in US-Pakistan relations, where everything that both countries had tried to build towards in a strategic relationship pretty much fell apart. The bin-Laden raid was widely celebrated in the United States and for very good reason, but in Pakistan it was seen as a very dangerous precedent. It scared the military leadership that we were able to undertake that kind of operation. There was the arrest of an American down at Lahore, Raymond Davis, which caused a lot of drama in Pakistan, a lot of anxiety about what the US was doing. And then there was an inadvertent attack by the United States on a Pakistani check-post near the Afghan border. All of this combined to turn the relationship from one that was merely dysfunctional into one that was probably on the verge of breaking down. Both countries sort of proceeded to have kind of a trial separation for a while, to begin to think on their own whether they could live without each other. The conclusion on both sides was that perhaps we had aimed too high in the relationship, but that we actually need each other in many ways. It might be more transactional. It might not be as warm and fuzzy as it used to be, but we need Pakistan because it’s in an important part of the world, because it has nuclear weapons. We need to remain in conversation with them for counter-terrorism reasons. They need us because their economy is very poor and we provide a lot of capital, because their military equipment is based on years of US provision of equipment, a whole host of reasons. And so we came to an awkward but workable accommodation. And that's where we stand now and I think it speaks to the fact that, as awkward as this is, both countries see value in continuing relationship. 

GRILLOT: Well, it seems like, as you said, they need each other. It's maybe a relationship based on necessity more so than anything else. So, finally, I'd like to return to this notion of the diverse nature of this country. I don't know that many understand how diverse Pakistan is. Josh, you alluded to the fact that you spent a lot of time with religious extremists that run the entire spectrum, so they're very diverse in that way. And Shamyla, you've referred to various groups and organizations within the country that lead to a significant amount of diverse internal relations. So, what is it that unifies this country? Is there anything that's bringing them together? 

CHAUDRY: Well, I think for Pakistan, since its early days as a nation it has always been challenged by its national identity. It was created as a homeland for South Asia's Muslims - an Islamic state in name, not entirely in practice. I think Islam has been invoked when convenient for political purposes and very much so in a whole host of national security policies. I think that use of Islam in the national identity has led to a very confused narrative on what it means to be Pakistani. I actually think that the diversity issue and the confusion is extremely relevant to the challenges we talked about as they relate to religious extremism, because there isn't just one kind of religious extremism. Some of these groups are inherently ideological - they're pushing for things like sharia, Islamic law. Some of them are more opportunistic - they're looking for moneymaking opportunities; they’re looking for political power. Some of these groups are actually more provincial - their motivations are rooted in ethnic grievances against the state or against the military. In particular I'm thinking of the province of Belochistan. So there's not an easy way to approach any of these conflicts because they are so diverse, because the population is so diverse. I think that's something that the government is going to have to deal with head-on, and I haven't seen them do it just yet. In terms of the opportunities and the potential of Pakistan - a lot of this is very obvious and, unfortunately, since 9/11 the focus on Pakistan has been on security issues because that's what the US is concerned about there. A lot of the positive issues haven't been talked about. Pakistan is a real country. It has institutions that are established. There's a civil service. There's a strong military. It has its weaknesses. It's not a banana republic. It's not a state that's on the verge of collapse. It is a weak state with poor governance, but it's not one of these Balkanization arguments - that doesn't really apply to Pakistan. I hope it never applies. The population is growing. There is going to be this fairly significant youth bulge that we witness over the next ten to twenty years. There are a fair amount of people who are educated, who have graduate degrees, who need work. There's not enough private foreign investment that's going into the country. If there were, businesses could take advantage of this population. But unfortunately I think the security picture really diminishes investor confidence in no other way. That's kind of the unfortunate case that Pakistan is in right now.

WHITE: Well, there are a number of things that make me optimistic. One is that if you talk to Pakistanis, the vast, vast majority of them don't support terrorism. Particularly they don't support terrorism within Pakistan. They might have different views about what might be permissible in Palestine or some other part of the world, but looking at their own country they say it is dangerous, it is unacceptable, and it is un-Islamic to attack the government, to attack schools. Most Pakistanis I know are devout, religious people who are just as afraid of Taliban movements as we are. The second thing is, as Shamyla said, this is a young country and for all of the dysfunctions that having a very young population can bring, there's a lot of dynamism. There are new social movements. People take to the streets in support of a strong judiciary and judicial activism. There's a lot of vibrancy to the society. And third, the very issue of religious diversity is part of Pakistan's strength. I have studied a lot of theology. I'm a Christian. I'm interested in religious issues. And I went to Pakistan expecting to find quote "Pakistani Islam," and what I found was a really wide variety of Islamic practice. Just as we have dozens of denominations within American Christianity, there are many schools of thought within Pakistani Islam. There are the Charismatics. There are the Mystics. There are those who are more legalistic in their interpretation. You have this wide spectrum. And I think that even though Islam is the underlying principle that the state has used to keep the state together, Pakistan's diversity is actually a strength over the long-term. That's something that I'm looking to as a point of optimism. 

GRILLOT: Well, Shamyla Chaudry and Josh White, thank you so much for sharing this information with us today. Very insightful information about Pakistan. Thank you.

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