Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Loose Cannon in the Middle East - Immanuel Wallerstein

"The Loose Cannon in the Middle East"

Commentary No. 193, Sept. 15, 2006

Everyone's attention is in the wrong place. Most analysts, journalists, and political leaders worry about some government doing something truly destabilizing in the Middle East that will launch widespread regional havoc. The standard culprits - differing according to one's political persuasions - are Iraq, Iran, Israel, and the United States. But in fact, for different reasons, none of these countries is likely, now or in the near future, to provoke a scenario that could lead to generalized warfare. Iraq is too engrossed in its civil war and in its attempts to end the U.S. presence to be able to start anything serious. Iran has a quite stable regime and is only trying to make sure that the United States cannot clip its wings. Israel is huffing and puffing about Iran but, after the Lebanon fiasco, is in no position to start anything serious. And the U.S. government is licking its Middle East wounds and seeking primarily to minimize the damage it has already caused to its own interests.

The loose cannon in the Middle East is Pakistan. Reflect on its history. There was a highly secular, highly "modern" political movement in British India, which sought, successfully, to have a largely Muslim zone carved out from British India and be recognized as an independent state. Immediately after the independence of India and Pakistan in 1948, they went to war, killed each other in large numbers, and engaged in a massive population exchange. Ever since there has been continuing tension between the two states, especially since they in effect partitioned the large border area of Kashmir, without either side recognizing the legitimacy of the partition.

In the more than half century since then, several important changes have taken place. Pakistan, which was a geographical monstrosity, itself broke in two. Its geographically separated eastern half becoming the independent state of Bangladesh (with the encouragement of India). India and Pakistan engaged in more wars, which basically changed nothing. (And China and India also had a border war.) During the Cold War, India became a leader of the non-aligned movement, entertaining rather friendly relations with the Soviet Union. As a result, two countries were particularly unhappy with India's foreign policy: the United States and China. Hence, both pursued close relations with Pakistan.

Neither India nor Pakistan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the only other non-signatory being Israel). They both developed nuclear weapons. India has had a turbulent and complicated internal political history since 1948. But fundamentally it has remained politically stable, despite its seeming potential for disintegration. For one thing, India has survived multiple changes of government without any sign that the army would step in. The story in Pakistan is quite different. It has had multiple changes in regime, and the army has been responsible for a large number of them. The present regime came into existence as the result of a military coup.

Religion has played a different role in the two countries. In India, Hindu fundamentalism has been very strong and prone to violence, but ultimately it has expressed itself via a political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has largely played by parliamentary rules, in and out of power. And there remains in India a very large Muslim population, one whose votes matter. In Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalists have pursued multiple paths at once. They have created parties to be sure, which have been in and out of power. But they have also created guerilla movements, which (at least initially) were largely active in Kashmir. Even more to the point, they have infiltrated the once purely secular armed forces, and especially its intelligence operations. And they have established de facto autonomous regimes in the so-called Northwest frontier.

Pakistani governments have had to struggle to keep their heads above water. They have been trying to satisfy two different clienteles at the same time: the "modernizing" (that is, Westernizing) strata (professionals, businessmen, academics) on the one hand: and the much more "popular" Islamist groups. This has not been an easy political ball to juggle. One of their key techniques has been to develop an ambiguous but close relationship with the United States, trying to get as much U.S. financial and politico-military support as they could while giving the least possible in return.

One of Osama bin Laden's chief objectives has been to knock the props from under this game of ambiguity. He hoped, with the 9/11 attack, to get the United States to put pressure on Pakistan to be a much more fully-committed ally. And to some extent Osama bin Laden achieved this (due to the crass lack of geopolitical sophistication in the Bush regime). This brought about a clear reaction in Pakistan. The army's attempt to bring "order" to the northwest provinces (and thereby capture Osama bin Laden) has failed and the army has now had to draw back. Meanwhile India has been successful in getting the United States to legitimate their further nuclear development, and the United States refused to do the same for Pakistan, lest it upset the applecart in the improved U.S.-India relationship. So Pakistan has turned to its other old ally, China, to fill in the gap.

Still, President Musharref of Pakistan looks increasingly like a political failure. His army has furtively renewed its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan (of whom Pakistan had been the principal sponsor in the 1990s), and the United States is getting increasingly irritated. If Musharref totters, Pakistan could well next have a truly Islamist regime quite hostile to the United States - this time in a militarily powerful country with nuclear weapons, and one in which Osama bin Laden resides with impunity.

Then what?

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, and contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write:

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

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