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by Jon P. Dorschner 

In his book Pakistan: A Hard Country1 Anatol Lieven joined the long parade of South Asia scholars attempting to A) explain what is happening, B) provide some explanatory variables C) provide specific foreign policy recommendations, and D) forecast what will happen in the future.

Scholars grappling with these issues fall into two very broad categories. The alarmist group concludes that things have already deteriorated too far and that it not a question of if Pakistan will disappear but when.

The second group (often called the “muddle through” group) is more fatalistic. It believes that while Pakistan has gone to the brink of destruction on numerous occasions, it has always found a way to muddle through. Lieven belongs to this group.

There is a well-founded consensus reflected in Lieven’s assessment that, “Pakistan is divided, disorganized, economically backward, corrupt, violent, unjust, often savagely oppressive towards the poor and women, and home to extremely dangerous forms of extremism and terrorism.” However, unlike the alarmists, Lieven points out that Pakistan “is in may ways surprisingly tough and resilient as a state and a society,”2 and “failing a catastrophic overspill of the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan will therefore probably survive as a state.”3

Lieven argues that this “resilience” is based on the unique character of Pakistani society.  Pakistan is a “weak state” with a “strong society.” Pakistan’s deeply entrenched social norms are only partially based on Islam. Pakistanis are not the diehard Islamic fanatics often portrayed in the press. Rather, Pakistanis are inherently conservative. Their conservatism includes their attitude towards Islam, but extends to a wide variety of social and political attitudes and practices. As is the case in any deeply religious society, Islam is manipulated to provide religious sanction to attitudes and practices that are in many cases not explicitly Islamic. Many of these attitudes and practices that predate Islam were assigned an Islamic significance after Islam became the predominant religion in the region. The founding of Pakistan as an explicitly Islamic state has only speeded up and encouraged this ongoing process.

In the Pakistani context, a small minority of violent Islamists are the revolutionaries. They use extreme methods in their attempt to force or convince a reluctant population to abandon its inherent conservatism and embrace their version of Islam based on a narrow and violent definition of jihad and a stark anti-modernism disguised as Islamic purity.

Pakistan’s Islamic radicals belong to a variety of groups claiming to espouse a “pure” form of Islam. The leading Islamic radical group is the Tehriq-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), often called the “Pakistani Taleban.” The TTP is allied with an alphabet soup of Islamic extremist groups with varying agendas. Some are determined to “eliminate” religious minorities, others to wage “jihad” against India, others have extended jihad to include the United States and western countries in general. All want to purge Pakistan of what they view as non-Islamic and Western accretions.

The Islamic radicals initially received a sympathetic hearing from many Pakistanis. They capitalized on many Pakistanis’ long-held antipathy against India, and a growing wave of anti-Americanism. They raised the cry of “Islam in danger,” and painted themselves as defenders of the faith. Some Pakistanis viewed the radicals as heroes. However, the inherent radicalism of these movements has run into the inherent conservatism of Pakistani society. Lots of the initial sympathy has dried up, and the radicals are finding it increasingly difficult to convince skeptical Pakistanis of the inherent rightness of their program. They have had a hard time in Pakistan and have not been embraced by the people at large.

Disappointed by their poor reception, the Islamic radicals decided to terrorize Pakistanis into submission. They unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks on innocent Pakistanis that grows more violent and widespread with each passing day. The radicals have long targeted Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyas4, denouncing both groups as heretics. They then turned their attention to Pakistani Christians. Now they have begun to target the Pakistani population at large. Distressed that most Pakistanis remain heavily influenced by Sufism and Pakistani folk practices (often loosely organized within the predominant Barelvi sect5), Islamic radicals expanded their target list to include highly revered Sufi shrines, Sufi saints, liberal and westernized Pakistanis, women, and Sunni Muslims who reject their extreme doctrines.

The Pathans
As Lieven and others have pointed out, the TTP has found its greatest following among members of the Pathan ethnic group living in the wild “frontier” region encompassing the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). The Pathans living in this area are culturally different in many ways from Pakistanis living in other regions. They live in a remote area and are not urbanized. They have remained largely outside the purview of the government. They have not received many of the services provided to other Pakistanis. This is particularly true of education. The culture of this region is extremely patriarchal and the role of women is high restricted. The general literacy rate is very low (30 percent for males, and only 3 percent for females).6

This region has internalized rebellion against outside authority. The inhabitants resent the presence of the government. During the British era Pathans routinely revolted against British rule, most often under the guise of an Islamic jihad, aimed at “saving Islam from danger.” This pattern continued after the British departed. The government of the new state of Pakistan naively assumed that tribal revolts would cease after the British departed, as the new government would be Islamic and indigenous. The change of rulers made no difference and the rebellions continued. The Pathan code of “Pashtunwali” incorporates a profound regard for personal honor and charisma. Under the Pashtunwali code, Pathan leaders, unlike elsewhere in Pakistan, must first demonstrate personal charisma before being acknowledged. There is no concept of purely hereditary leadership as is the case in much of the rest of Pakistan.

The government of Pakistan tried to mollify this region of Pakistan by maintaining the system devised by the British. Tribal leaders ruled over these areas, while “Political agents,” appointed by the government, provided advice and tried to prevent outbreaks of violent rebellion. The Pakistan Army did not operate in the region. The “Frontier Force,” a paramilitary group of locally recruited enlisted men and NCOs officered by the Pakistani Army, loosely enforced the governmental writ.

This system prevented widespread violence and rebellion until the outside world intervened. Previously, much of the violence in FATA was ritualized. The Pathans were lightly armed with often out of date weapons that were not terribly lethal, and used them sparingly to settle matters of honor. This changed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American decision to support a “mujahidin” rebellion. The United States and its allies from Interservices Intelligence (ISI), the overarching Pakistan Army intelligence agency, flooded this region with modern weaponry. WWII era Enfield rifles and single shot muskets have been replaced by fully automatic Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy machine guns. Ritualized violence has become far more lethal.

In addition, the covert war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan brought violent, largely Arab Muslim “volunteers,” to join the jihad. These imported jihadis viewed indigenous Pakistani Islam with disdain. The volunteers joined the ongoing jihad by Afghan and Pakistani Pathans against the Soviets and their Afghan allies, but were not content to accept Afghan leadership and to simply provide manpower, weapons and money. They hoped to influence the Pathans to “purify” their local Islam to bring it closer to the Wahhabi Islam found in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Middle East. Once they had cleansed the local Islam of what they viewed as foreign accretions, they hoped to enlist the Pathans into an expanded jihad aimed at India, the United States and other countries they viewed as enemies of Islam.

This latest band of Arab revolutionaries follows on a centuries old tradition. Islamic radicals from outside the region have long viewed the Pathans as potential jihadis to be recruited and manipulated. The current jihad spreading from the Pathan region into Afghanistan and Pakistan is only the latest of a series of such movements.

The flood of new weaponry and the introduction of a harsh, intolerant and violent interpretation of Islam unleashed a wave of violence in Pakistan. Lieven and others have attributed the Pathan character of the TTP to the remoteness of the Pathans living in FATA7, who have been out of the Islamic mainstream due to physical isolation. The Pathans’ lower level of education, including formal education regarding the tenets of Islam, has worked to increase this isolation and make the FATA Pathans more susceptible to radical ideology.

The largely Pathan recruits into the TTP and its allied groups, have a limited conception of Islam. It can be argued that their knowledge of the Islamic faith is rudimentary, heavily influenced by local practices, and often wrong. This is particularly true of their interpretation of Islamic Law (Sharia) and their views regarding the treatment of women. The Pathans have long enforced extreme prohibitions against the active participation of women in daily life that are not found in other Muslim cultures and countries. Many of these customs and practices are pre-Islamic and are actually antithetical to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Existential Threat
Since the founding of Pakistan, many Pakistanis have viewed India as an “existential threat.” Many in Pakistan, most particularly within the Pakistan Army, and the state of Punjab, which bore the brunt of the violence and horror of partition, contend that despite its repeated denials, India remains bent on the destruction of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army has always viewed its principal duty to be to assure the survival of the nation against this existential threat.

In her March 19 article “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden,” veteran South Asia reporter Carlotta Gall contends that she has confirmed what observers have long suspected, namely that ISI has been long engaged in a double game, telling the Americans that it is going after Al Qaeda and its jihadi supporters, while actually supporting them. She dismisses Pakistani assertions that ISI involvement is the work of “rogue agents” acting without Army knowledge or approval. She writes that “a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.”8 The article alleges that former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf authorized bin Laden’s settlement in Abbottabad, that ISI had its own desk officer dedicated to looking after bin Laden, and that,

As (Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir) Bhutto had long warned, a conglomeration of opponents wanted her dead and were all linked in some way. They were the same forces behind the insurgency in Afghanistan: Taliban and Pakistani militant groups and Al Qaeda, as well as the Pakistani military establishment, which included the top generals, Musharraf and Kayani.9

The Pakistan Army’s attempt to use violent Islamic extremists to pursue their own ends has backfired. In 2007, the Pakistan Army was forced to intervene to violently shut down the Red Mosque after its vigilantes abducted Chinese citizens and angered Pakistan’s principal ally. In the resulting carnage 10 Pakistani commandos, over one hundred Islamic extremists, and one of the leaders of the mosque were killed. As a result, the jihadi clients of the Pakistan Army turned on their handlers, attacking and killing Pakistani soldiers and mounting attacks on the headquarters of both the Pakistan Army and ISI.

These deadly attacks on the Pakistan Army coincided with an upsurge in TTP attacks against innocent civilians. The TTP extended these terror attacks outside the Pathan areas.  The TTP attack against Swat was perhaps the most dramatic. From 2007-2009 Swat, an idyllic and long isolated part of Pakistan was ruled intermittently by the TTP. The TTP capture of Swat served as a wake up call to many in Pakistan. Swat is only about 150 miles from Islamabad, the nation’s capital, and Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistan Army.

TTP aggressiveness in Swat led many in Pakistan to conclude that it would not be satisfied until it had pushed its jihad to Islamabad itself and threatened the existence of the Pakistani state. This forced the Pakistan Army to undertake two successive military campaigns to reconquer Swat, at great expense in lives and treasure. After the Army’s first victory in 2007, the government of Pakistan tried to negotiate a peace settlement with the TTP, which promptly reneged on its agreement, forcing the Army to conduct a second campaign.10

The Pakistan Army victory in Swat did not put the matter to rest. The TTP retreated to its sanctuary in Waziristan, which has remained off limits to the Pakistani military. From Waziristan, the TTP has continued its terror campaign, which has now spread to Karachi, Lahore, and other areas throughout Pakistan. Pakistan’s inability to rid itself of the TTP challenge or to contain it within FATA, has led to a change of attitude within Pakistan. With Pakistanis dying every day in terror attacks, and larger areas of the country becoming ungovernable, many are asking whether India still constitutes the existential threat, or has it been replaced by an indigenous group of radical and violent extremists bent on destroying the Pakistani state?

Decision Time
Pakistan is again facing grave decisions that could determine the future viability of the Pakistani state. The Pakistan Army remains the premier institution within Pakistan and its reading of the current situation is critical to its resolution. When the Pakistan Army initially recruited jihadi clients, it never envisioned that it would have to go to war against them. The Pakistani Army has suffered thousands of casualties in its ongoing fight against the TTP and its allies.

The Pakistani Army and most particularly the ISI has a long history of support for Islamic extremism and terrorism. As long as the terrorist attacks were targeted at India and the United States, the Army seemed happy with this arrangement and remained determined to back its clients. Even when the terrorism became rampant in the Pathan inhabited areas of Khyber Patunkhwa, the Army hesitated. Its clients are now out of control and are pursuing an agenda aimed at transforming Pakistan itself.

The big question that remains unanswered is “Does the Army want to be drawn into a protracted internal conflict with its own clients that will bleed it for years to come?” As long as the Pakistani government refuses to deprive the TTP of its Waziristan sanctuaries, the extremists will continue to carry out their campaign. However, if the Army mounts an offensive into Waziristan to deprive the jihadi groups of this sanctuary, it will sever the longstanding Army/Jihadi ties. The Pakistan Army has long viewed jihadi terrorists as a useful tool to carry out their policy of fighting a “war by other means,” against India (and the Karzai government in Afghanistan).

When it came to the United States, the Pakistan Army has been more ambivalent. It seemed unconcerned when the Taliban and other Islamist groups launched attacks against American soldiers in Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in Pakistan and at times even provided active fire support for the infiltrating militants. The Army has, however, drawn the line when it comes to terrorist attacks against the United States and the American population.

The nominal civilian rulers of Pakistan are forced to negotiate a deadly minefield. The PML (N) government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is under growing pressure from the Pakistani population that is increasingly calling for determined action to end the terrorist attacks. The PML (N) claims to be a moderate Islamic political party, and has tried to maintain an ambivalent policy towards the TTP.  The Nawaz administration is reluctant to authorize what could prove to be a costly and bloody military operation against the TTP that could call the PML (N)’s Islamist credentials into question. The Nawaz administration therefore opened negotiations with the TTP on February 4.11

Given the TTP’s track record, most expect any agreements initialed by the Government of Pakistan and the TTP to collapse. This is because the TTP has demonstrated that it feels no obligation to honor any commitments it makes. The TTP has demanded the immediate adoption of its own interpretation of Sharia as the law of the land, further restrictions on Pakistani women throughout the nation, and the immediate release of all TTP prisoners held by the government. In exchange, it claims it will stop its terror campaign and not take over any part of Pakistan outside of the Pathan areas.

The TTP signaled its true intentions on February 17, when it announced that it had beheaded 23 soldiers from the Frontier Force that it captured in 2010,12 and posted a video of the murders on the Internet.  The killing of Pakistani soldiers has caused a wave of anger within the Pakistani Army. Will it convince the Army leadership that their long association with terrorism is no longer viable? For now, the government of Pakistan and the TTP are maintaining an uneasy “cease-fire.” Few in Pakistan believe that the violent conflict between the jihadi forces and the government of Pakistan has ended. Many Pakistanis have come to conclude that an all-out war between the Army and the TTP is inevitable, and that it is not a question of if but when.

Many within the Pakistan Army may have concluded that it is best to “get it over with,” in one hard-fought campaign rather than to prolong the agony of the country by holding repeated rounds of fruitless negotiations with a feckless enemy who has no intention of honoring its commitments. It is not now apparent whether the Army is prepared to abandon military adventurism and move against its own clients. In her article Carlotta Gall asserts that even after terrorist violence has wracked the Pakistani population and the ranks of the Army itself, it remains unwilling or incapable of renouncing its long-standing ties to terrorism. She points to press reports that Pakistani militants are already massing in preparation for a Taliban offensive aimed at overthrowing the government of Afghanistan and placing the Taliban in power after American and NATO troops depart at the end of the year.

How Should the International Community Respond?
The international community is undergoing rapid change. Liberals are committed to what they view as progress and evolution, but have begun to modify their once firm commitment to multiculturalism. Cultural relativism is at the foundation of the modern social sciences and underlies multiculturalism. However, the trend is shifting.

Liberals are now propounding a doctrine of the “right to protect.” Under this doctrine, the international community has a right to intervene to protect populations anywhere threatened by incontrovertibly proven and massive human rights abuse.13  International world opinion is shifting in regard to the United Nations, which is increasingly viewed as the agency best suited to implement a right to protect doctrine. In a 2007 worldwide poll 64% of the respondents favored the creation of a permanent UN military force. An equal number supported the right of the UN to investigate any country accused of human rights abuse, while 73% said the UN should be authorized to conduct military interventions to stop human rights abuse, and 69% said they would support a UN military intervention to stop state support for terrorist groups.14

This data should serve as a wake-up call to countries around the world, that it will not be too far in the future when they will no longer be able to claim that state sovereignty protects them from international intervention to stop widespread human rights abuse and support for terrorism. The UN’s recent release of a report detailing the systematic human rights abuse conducted by the government of North Korea and the UN’s call for the possible prosecution of the North Korean leadership by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is an indicator of how far this trend has advanced since the poll was undertaken.

The TTP continues to use its FATA safe havens to conduct widespread terrorist attacks against the people of Pakistan. The TTP continues to practice widespread human rights abuse, especially against the status of women, within areas it administers. This phenomenon cannot long escape the attention of the international community, and if not addressed will invariably lead to calls for international action.

These international developments have increased pressure on the government of Pakistan to take decisive action to end the TTP reign of terror and stop TTP human rights abuse. With negotiations unlikely to bear fruit, the Nawaz Sharif government may soon conclude that it must authorize an offensive by the Pakistan Army into Waziristan to stop the bloodshed. This falls within the purview of the Pakistan government, as it is required to provide security to its citizens. It now appears that concerted action against the TTP may be the only way to provide this guarantee of security. In addition, the TTP has made the Army of Pakistan a target of its attacks and atrocities. The Army has the right to respond by bringing the perpetrators of these attacks to justice.

As the country long identified by many Pakistanis as an existential threat to Pakistan’s very existence, it behooves India to reassure Pakistan that it has no aggressive intentions against Pakistan and has no intention of taking advantage of Pakistan’s current problems to “fish in troubled waters.”

The best thing India can do in this instance is act with ultimate restraint. A military offensive by the Pakistan Army in Waziristan would be a very difficult and bloody affair. It would be a severe test for the Army and for Pakistan and would not be easy or painless. Pakistan would not be able to keep the bulk of its armed forces tied down on the Indian border and conduct a major offensive in Waziristan.  India must reassure Pakistan (perhaps privately using covert or confidential channels) that it poses no threat and has not intention of moving against Pakistan as Pakistani troop strength is diminished along the India/Pakistan border and the line of control (LOC) in Kashmir. Perhaps India can express its willingness to negotiate a mutual drawdown of forces from the border/LOC as a concrete manifestation of its good intentions.

India does not wish to see Pakistan destabilized. It is in India’s best interests to support the establishment of an effective government in Pakistan, which can provide essential security to Pakistani citizens.

India should not publicly comment on Pakistani policy regarding the TTP, although it likely understands that the TTP is an aberration that must be eliminated. This is an internal Pakistani matter. If India demonstrates restraint and understanding during this difficult period, it could perhaps serve as an incentive to future normalization of India Pakistan relations, and provide an impetus for permanent troop reductions along the India/Pakistan border and the LOC.

The United States
Pakistanis increasing identify the USA as the country posing the greatest threat to Pakistan. This severely limits American options. Like India, the USA must exhibit a light hand during this time of crisis. Any Pakistani operation would be very expensive for a country facing extreme economic hardship. The United States would likely have to provide financial support to pay for fuel, rations, equipment losses, and ammunition. It could prove to be yet another expensive bill for the United States to pay. It should pay these expenses quietly and without fanfare.

If Pakistan succeeds in making inroads against the TTP and its extremist allies, it could provide Pakistan with a wider array of policy options. A renunciation of support for terrorism and extremism could potentially free Pakistan from widespread internal violence and terrorism. It could then redirect its efforts to economic development and poverty alleviation. The USA should support these efforts.

The International Community
Should Pakistan move against the TTP, the International Community should applaud Islamabad for doing the right thing. In this instance, the Pakistani government will have demonstrated to the world that it has the resolve to manage its own affairs and address challenging human rights concerns at great cost. Any military offensive in Waziristan will displace many residents and cause considerable damage to local infrastructure. The United Nations should be prepared to work with the government of Pakistan to provide relief and reconstruction assistance. This will demonstrate to the world that Pakistan and the world community are committed to jointly meeting severe challenges.bluestar


1. Pakistan: A Hard Country, Public Affairs, New York, 2011

2. Pakistan: A Hard Country, page 4

3. Ibid, page 10

4. Ahmadiya Islam is a recent sect founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (1835-1908). Some Muslims consider some of its tenets heretical and it has been declared a non-Muslim sect in Pakistan.

5. The Deobandi movement is aligned with Wahhabism and advances an equally harsh, puritanical interpretation of Islam. The Barelvi movement, in contrast, defends a more traditional South Asian version of the faith centered on the practices of Sufi mysticism


6. Pakistan: A Hard Country, page 383

7. It would be unfair to generalize about the Pathan group in general. The FATA Pathans are viewed as “backward” and unsophisticated by Pathans living in Khyber Pakhtunkwa, who are more integrated into the Pakistani mainstream.

8. Carlotta Gall, “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden,” The New York Times Magazine, March 19 2014

9. Ibid.

10. You can read a firsthand account of what it was like for the population of Swat to live under TTP occupation in I am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Little Brown and Company, New Yor2013, part two and three, pages 111-244

11. “Pakistani Government to Open Preliminary Talks with Pakistani Taliban,” The Washington Post, February 3

12. “Day After Ceasefire Hint, Taliban Behead 23 Troops,” Press Trust of India, February 18, 2014,

13. Global Issues (Selections from CQ Researcher), CQ Press (an imprint of Sage Publications), Los Angeles, 2014, pages 15-17.

14. “World Publics Favor New Powers for the U.N.” World Public, May 2007,

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.


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