60-Second Expert: Pakistan’s Identity Crisis

On the surface, it appears that Pakistan’s greatest internal threats stem from the dangerously autonomous Swat Valley and Southern Waziristan. Look deeper and you’ll see that the country’s ailment is rooted in a crisis of national identity.

From Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to Baluchistan to Buner, Pakistan’s military has been fighting domestic insurgencies since the country’s tumultuous birth just over a half-century ago. Under intense pressure from the United States in the last two years, it has fought a series of offensives against a growing Taliban presence in the northwestern regions. Historically primed to excel in counterinsurgency, the army has been surprisingly ineffective against the relentless Taliban militia. Why? In facing a serious Islamist threat for the first time, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan must take on a monster of its own creation.

The impetus for Pakistan’s Islamization came during the 1970s, when the country became a strategic ally in the U.S. Cold War crusade against communism. In launching an anti-Soviet jihad, Pakistan and its Western supporters strengthened militant Islamist forces and encouraged the growth of a radical, drug-smuggling, Kalashnikov-wielding warlord elite.

Political Islam, however, has played a crucial role in unifying and centralizing the Pakistani state since its creation in 1947. Shared religion has been the only — if tenuous — commonality in an otherwise ethnically and linguistically diverse country. It has been utilized to undercut regional and communal loyalties and to consolidate political power at the center.

The state’s reliance on Islam as a tool for domestic and foreign policy hampers its ability to take effective action against the Taliban. By aligning political fealties with religious ones, the government now finds itself in an ideological morass. It has discredited secular and progressive institutions while legitimizing Islamist groups that work within the state’s ideological framework.

A military response in the AfPak region will not enjoy popular support for long. The Pakistani state must reevaluate its ideological underpinnings and reimagine its national identity to regain the legitimacy it needs to succeed.

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Shibil Siddiqi is a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor and a Gordon Global Fellow with the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation in Toronto.