Like a Broken Record: Selig Harrison on Ethnic Discord in Pakistan

Selig Harrison has made a career of predicting the imminent break-up of South Asian states.  He began with his 1960 work, “India: The Most Dangerous Decades.” Thereafter, he turned his eyes toward Pakistan, where his fetish for balkanistans seemed to be most satiated.

Now in his late seventies or early eighties, Harrison continues to harp on this theme.  He’s been particularly active this week.

Yesterday, he had an op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that “the United States should put the [A.Q.] Khan issue at the top of its agenda in Islamabad” — so as to clarify whether North Korea imported prototype centrifuges for uranium enrichment.  Something makes me think there are other pressing issues in Pakistan.  In his brilliance, Harrison recommends that Musharraf, ala the late Benazir Bhutto, give the IAEA access to Khan.  Sounds like assisted suicide for a terminally-ill politician to me.

But wait, Harrison wasn’t done for the week.  His name graces the op-ed page of today’s New York Times.  Harrison goes back to his old theme: the fracturing of Pakistan on ethnic lines.  He was big on an independent Balochistan back in the 70s.  He fancied an independent Pakhtunistan as well (perhaps without giving much thought to how that would impact Afghanistan). 

Those themes reemerge in today’s piece, an exercise in dishonest reductionism.

The Problem
Harrison argues:

“the existing multiethnic Pakistani state is not likely to survive for long unless it is radically restructured.”

Why?  Because:

“the Punjabi-dominated regime of Pervez Musharraf is headed for a bloody confrontation with the country’s Pashtun, Baluch and Sindhi minorities that could well lead to the breakup of Pakistan into three sovereign entities.”

It’s not simply a matter of the inordinate influence of a Punjabi majority overrepresented in the most powerful institiution, the army.  No, Harrison claims that the Pathan, Baloch, and Sindhis have:

faced “Punjabi domination for centuries.”  

This convenient imagination of an unfounded historical Punjabi domination with centuries-long roots Iraqicizes the Pakistan discourse, making it more accessible to provincial readers States-side.  The Punjabis become the Sunnis.  The Baloch, Sindhis, and Pathan become the Kurds and Shi’a (discounting their numerical majority).

Above all, it assumes Pakistan is a country with overlapping cleavages all subsumed under ethnicity.  Under this logic, Punjabis are powerful and rich; the Pathan and others are weak and poor.  

The reality is that Pakistan’s elite is more ethnically representative than Harrison allows.  There is a strong national presence of Pathans in the military, Urdu-speaking muhajirs in the bureacracy, Memons in commerce, and Sindhi political elites (Bhuttos, Legharis, Soomros).  The average Pakistani, irrespective of ethnicity, remains poor, underserved, and disenfranchsized.  Yes, allocation of development funds have tilted toward Punjab, but at the same time, the political elite in Balochistan and Sindh have done a poorer job at serving their constituencies.  Baloch sardars have suppressed their pions; the gas concessions they receive don’t trickle down to their peasants–Pakistan’s least educated and most underserved.  Similarly, elites from Sindh, including those from Larkana, have done little toward improving the lot of their peasantry.  After all, if their pions become educated and leave the plantation, who’ll tend to the fields?  Who will elect them to the National Assembly en masse?  And so while ethnic nationalism in Pakistan is a product of real divisions and inequity, it is also a tool leveraged by one faction of elites to maximally extract concessions (power, wealth) from another faction of elites–all for personal gain. 

Ayesha Siddiqa aptly characterizes the elite political culture in Pakistan:  

The feudal attitude and the culture of power have proliferated and entered all institutions. The key, of course, is the concentration of power and the subservience of groups of people under a central authority.

This is not to discount the reality and danger of Pakistan’s divisions.  I have argued previously that Pakistan’s present crisis furthers the risk of the country “tearing apart at the seams.”  But the seams are many: language and ethnicity, ideology and politics, sect, sub-ethnic (e.g. tribe), urban vs. rural, civil vs. military, etc. 

Harrison privleges ethnic nationalism, and those who agitate in its name, over other collectivisms.  And what about cross-cutting cleavages, like the rule of law movement, Islamism, and–God-forbid–Pakistani nationalism?  Focusing on a Oxbridge feudal with guns helps Harrison simplify a country of 160 million people.

Convenient Omissions
Toward simplication, Harrison neglected to mention at all the 15 million or so Urdu-speaking muhajirs (migrants from India) in Sindh.  Musharraf is a muhajir and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)–a muhajir party–was part of Musharraf’s ruling coaltion.

He says the Baloch “are forging military links with Sindhi nationalist groups that have been galvanized into action by the death of Benazir Bhutto, a Sindhi hero as was her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto”–the same Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that crushed the Baloch rebellion in the 70s.  But acknowledging that would challenge his bets on a Baloch-Sindhi state. 

The religious character of the militancy in FATA is suppressed to give it an overly Pashtun nationalist color.  That also requires ignoring intra-Pashtun divides: Durrani vs. Ghilzai; urban vs. rural; Afghan vs. Pakistani; Sunni vs. Shi’a; and the anomaly that is the tribes of FATA.

Harrison treats ethnic separatism as a natural phenomenon.  Aside from the fact that all nationalisms are constructed, ethnic separatism in Pakistan has had its fair share of foreign support.  Afghanistan, India, and the Soviet Union actively supported, armed, and housed Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi separatist groups.  Baloch separatists remain housed in Kabul.  India’s dozen or so consulates across Afghanistan surely aren’t just giving out free copies of Bollywood VCDs or posters of Salman Khan.

Finally, why should the concern with ethnic separatism be limited to Pakistan?  The idea that ethnic discord naturally lends toward secession is a slippery slope argument can be applied to neighboring India, which has its own fair share of insurgencies, across the Middle East from Iran through Morocco, and to fragile states across the Ferghana Valley.

The Solution
Harrison’s “radical” restructruing would result in:

“a loosely united, confederated Pakistan…preserved by reinstating and liberalizing the defunct 1973 Constitution.”   

Here’s what “liberalizing” the constitution means:

“Eventually, the minorities want a central government that would retain control only over defense, foreign affairs, international trade, communications and currency.”

“[The central government] would no longer have the power to oust an elected provincial government, and would have to renegotiate royalties on resources with the provinces.”

The 1973 Constitution is a product of unanimous consensus.  It remains in effect, albeit in a highly adulterated form.  Reverting the constitution close to its original form is essential; but more importantly, the document needs to be respected.  More than constitutional reform, Pakistan needs the rule of law.  These are not mutually exclusive.  But what’s the value of a law that isn’t respected?  Pakistan needs a functioning, independent judiciary–something that is supported throughout country.  The deposed Baloch chief justice rallied Pakistanis in Peshawar, Lahore, and other major cities on this issue.

Moreover, the ’73 Constitution provides Pakistan with a federalist government and offers an underused mechanism for addressing inter-provincial disputes: the Council of Common Interests.  Some tweaking might be necessary.  But a radical federalism is neither necessary, nor is it necessarily in the best interests of Pakistan.  It can actually reify singular cleavages, i.e. ethnic/provincialism, do little toward improving good governance, reducing poverty, etc, and strengthen rapacious notables (as confessionalism has done for Lebanon’s zu’amaa).

There are other proposals toward creating provincial equity that deserve consideration.  One is dividing Pakistan into much smaller provinces.  This approach would avoid reinforcing ethnic divisions within Pakistan. 

America to the Rescue?
Harrison argues that constitutional changes in Pakistan require “American pressure.”  He writes:

“the United States and other foreign donors use their enormous aid leverage to convince Islamabad that it should not only put the 1973 Constitution back into effect, but amend it to go beyond the limited degree of autonomy it envisaged.”

So “Islamabad”–whoever that is!–must hand over A.Q. Khan (top of the agenda in Harrison’s first op-ed), defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and then strengthen federalism.  

To top it off, an overwhelmed central government in Pakistan now must be prodded by an overburdened and undercapable Washington.

Who should Washington prod?  General Kayani, who doesn’t want to get involved in politics?  Pervez Musharraf, who’s on his way out?  The next prime minister in a hung parliament? 

Does Harrison seriously think Washington can actually do more good than harm in this regard?  That’ll play well in Pakistan–Washington pushing for a weakening of the central government.  Add that to the talk about seizing Pakistani nukes, entering the tribal areas, propping up Musharraf, and opposing the independent judiciary.   Makes you wonder if there’s anything worse than a Pandora’s box.

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After Bhutto: Who Will Lead the Pakistan People’s Party?

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has created a leadership vacuum within the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The populist, center-left party gained patrimonial colors after the execution of its founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979.

Party leadership passed on to his wife, Nusrat. However, their daughter, Benazir, would soon rise to center stage, eclipsing–quite aggressively–her mother and brothers. Benazir was effectively at the party’s helm for the past two and a half decades, becoming at some point its chairperson for life. The party has no internal elections and Bhutto’s competitors were shut out.

Filling her shoes will be no easy task. Not only did Bhutto wield an almost absolute command over the People’s Party, but her persona–very much tied to her father’s–made many willing, if not desiring, to accept her complete stewardship.

To top it off, Bhutto has been lionized since her passing. News anchors on Pakistan’s private channels now refer to her as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto; she is now a martyr. Within hours of her passing, the news channels ceased to use the word ‘death’ and instead term her passing as shahadat, or martyrdom.

No potential successor shares the unique set of characteristics as Bhutto: the ‘royal’ name; popular appeal in Pakistan; political instinct; and deep contacts and friendships with leaders and influencers in the West. Most likely, Bhutto’s void will be filled by multiple individuals. The probable candidates are listed below in order of importance.


Amin Fahim
As the vice chairman of the PPP, Amin Fahim is best positioned to assume leadership of the party. Fahim led the party in the National Assembly and was its presidential candidate in the faux polls held in October.

He is a feudal figure from Bhutto’s home province and political base of Sindh. Fahim has considerable name recognition nationally, but does not have the Bhutto name and the star power associated with it. His international connections are not strong, so he lacks Bhutto’s capacity to leverage an extensive network of foreign friends and supporters in order to challenge the U.S.-backed Musharraf.


Asif Zardari
Most eyes are naturally focusing on Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and closest adult relative with a political background. But Zardari is not a Bhutto; he did not marry “into” the family. His influence comes from two sources: one, like Bhutto and Fahim, he comes from an influential Sindhi feudal family; two, he was married to the daughter of Pakistan’s most popular politician post-Jinnah.

But Zardari is not viewed as the inheritor of the Bhutto mantle. And so it is highly likely that his political status will recede with the murder of his wife.

Zardari is a stained political figure. The PPP has, in recent years, sought to distance itself from him, who garnered the moniker “Mr. 10 Percent” as a result of his prolific corruption.

At best, he will play the role of a figurehead in a post-Bhutto PPP. Not only is Zardari hampered by negative perceptions and the lack of a claim to the Bhutto name, he is also in poor physical health. And it’s also unclear as to whether he is emotionally prepared to play politics; Zardari has been extremely distraught in multiple appearances on national television since yesterday. He also has three teenage children to raise.


Aitzaz Ahsan
As a leading figure in the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan’s popularity–particularly with the middle and upper-middle class–has risen considerably this year. As a result, his relations with Benazir Bhutto cooled considerably; she was not happy, to say the least, with his commitment to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the judiciary’s cause.

Ahsan withdrew his nomination papers from the January elections; it’s unclear as to whether he had Bhutto’s endorsement, though it’s likely it was done against her will. His commitment to the judicial cause, while earning Bhutto’s anger, also gained points with the Pakistani public. Ahsan is seen as one of the few viable politicians who refused to consent to Musharraf’s subversion of the constitution. And so he can serve as a vehicle for restoring the public trust in the People’s Party as a popular, democratic front.

Unlike Bhutto, Ahsan is Punjabi, not Sindhi and so it’s difficult to see him alone holding up Bhutto’s popular base in Sindh. He could, to some extent, help propel the People’s Party in Punjab, but that would put the party on a more agitational course with not only the PML-Q, but also the PML-N — and it’s unclear as to whether the party wants to tussle with the latter.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
As Benazir Bhutto’s eldest child, Bilawal’s entry into politics would precede that of his younger sisters (aged 16 and 14 respectively), if he choses to enter this dangerous field. But he’s only 19 and barely speaks Urdu. Bilawal just began his studies at Oxford, after living in Dubai for eight years–almost half his life. While Benazir spent her adolescence and early adulthood as her father’s political apprentice–even accompanying him to the Simla negotiations with Indira Gandhi–Bilawal has had no similar training. Bilawal’s political career will begin, if ever, gradually and in a highly managed fashion


Farhatullah Babar
A long-time Bhutto loyalist and spokesperson, Babar will continue in his media relations capacity and providing counsel to the remainder of the party’s senior brass. He did not register for the January national and provincial elections and resigned from the Senate in 2006. If he returns to electoral politics, it’s more likely he’ll re-enter that body.


Shah Mehmood Qureshi
As head of the PPP in Punjab, Qureshi will continue to shape the party’s operations in the country’s largest province. A feudal and Cambridge graduate, he frequently comes on political talk shows on behalf of the party. Qureshi could increasingly become a power broker at the national level.


Sherry Rehman
A graduate of Smith College, Sherry Rehman came from a similar cultural and ideological background as Benazir Bhutto. While she can help continue the party’s media campaign in both Pakistan and the West, odds are she will do little more.


Fatima Bhutto
A 25-year old Columbia graduate and daughter of Benazir’s slain brother, Fatima is perhaps the ultimate wild card in the post-Benazir PPP. Relations between she and her aunt were immensely hostile. Fatima accused Benazir of being behind the assassination of her father, Murtaza Bhutto–one of Benazir’s younger brothers. Fatima has been an active columnist and civil society advocate in Karachi. She has the name, the brain, and the brawns to play politics. In a potential step toward rapproachment with other Bhuttos and the Zardaris, she and her Lebanese stepmother, Ghinwa Bhutto–who runs her own PPP faction–attended Benazir’s funeral. That’s, however, a long way from mending ties with her late aunt’s inner circle. Though Fatima has been reluctant to assume any status seen as hereditary, she could come to see some utility in national politics. Will she and her stepmother rejoin Benazir’s PPP, or will they continue to remain separate, and even push for defections toward their camp? It’s all very much in the air.


Other Influentials: Raza Gilani; Jehangir Bader; Raza Rabbani; Babar Awan; Qaim Ali Shah; Enver Baig

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Tuesday Wrap-Up: Imran gets IJT’d; Battle of the Bhuttos;

  • Musharraf: Uniform off by end of month; doesn’t budge on emergency rule (ER)
  • White House: Free and fair elections not possible under ER; Negroponte arrives on Friday
  • Army support of Musharraf appears to remain strong
  • Swatting Swat: Full-scale army-led operations in effect; Internally-displaced persons in the thousands
  • Caretaker prime minister to be appointed on Thursday; Muhammad Mian Soomro leads the pack:
    • If Soomro is chosen, the impact on presidential succession and dissolution of parliament is unclear. Senate chairman (was Soomro) is in line to succeed Musharraf should he vacate the presidency, with National Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain next in line. It appears both Senate chairman and NA speaker remain in office until new parliament convenes.
  • Musharraf’s “Mission Accomplished”: The National Assembly completed its term for the first time in Pakistan’s history
  • Operation Petty Stakes: The Islami Jamiat-e Tulaba (IJT), student wing of the Jamaat-e Islami (JI), seized Imran Khan during his rally at Punjab University. They detained him in a campus building and handed him over to police. Khan might be tried on anti-terror charges.
    • Khan has been allied with JI for some time. JI leadership condemned the IJT’s moves. A spokesperson said, “It seems like our student supporters reacted this way because of an ego issue…They didn’t want Imran to steal their limelight. We condemn this action.” However, three points need to be considered:
      1. The JI is reportedly working with the PML-Q on seat adjustment for the upcoming elections.
      2. Imran Khan is effectively an anti-establishment politician and, regardless of their differences, the major political parties are potentially threatened by his rise.
      3. The IJT is somewhat autonomous from the JI. Along with the student wing of the MQM, it has terrorized Pakistani university campuses for years. Though their actions against Khan could simply be defense of what they see as their turf, it is also probable that they could have at the behest of the intelligence services with or without the consent of the JI leadership.
  • Battle of the Bhuttos: Benazir Bhutto sets a record for op-eds published while under house arrest; Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece, tells the West that her aunt isn’t all that she seems
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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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