Open Conversation

‘My advice to Pakistan: Stop inventing history,’ says Husain Haqqani

Rohit Chawla
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Open conversation with Husain Haqqani, Pakistani diplomat and former ambassador to the United States and Sri Lanka

Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State | Husain Haqqani | Harper Collins, 2018

HUSAIN HAQQANI WAS Pakistan’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011, when he was ousted from his position by the country’s powerful military and intelligence establishment. A leading public intellectual of his country, he is a powerful voice for sanity in a nuclear-armed South Asia. Haqqani has written several notable books, including Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (2005), which explores Pakistan’s dalliance with Islamist groups, something that has haunted his country for long. In Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State (Harper Collins, 2018), his latest book, he retraces the missteps of India’s restive neighbour and tells a story of what went wrong in his homeland. In an interview with Open, he answers questions about Pakistani’s folly in trying to wrest Kashmir from India, the possibilities and limitations of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the measures that India ought to take for sustainable peace in South Asia.

In three months, Pakistan has a general election. On the eve of these polls, what’s your assessment of the health of democracy there?

I think democracy in Pakistan has not recovered from the multiple shocks it has been given over the years. Right now, basically it is on life support. We will go through the motions of democracy. But unless and until Pakistan’s military establishment lets the civilians make the choices…. First of all, let them present the choices to the people on a whole range of issues—not just distribution of patronage at the local level but the overall vision for the country—and then let them execute it once they are elected. Unless that happens, I don’t think Pakistani democracy will move forward.

In your book you have pre-dated Pakistan’s problems by almost a decade from 1958 when the first coup took place—to perhaps even before 1947. Historians tend to date those problems to 1958, but you differ. Why is that?

My argument is that the terms of Partition which gave Pakistan 19 per cent of British India’s population, 17 per cent of its revenue resources and 33 per cent of the army set the stage for what happened later. It is time to start understanding how the lack of preparation for a new country by the Muslim League led to the circumstances that made the Pakistani army the central institution of the country. In my book, I have detailed through declassified papers and documents how Muslim League leaders as well as some British officials were only thinking about Pakistan being the home of a very large section of the British Indian army. Pakistan inherited the Northern Command of that army, but it did not inherit a functioning capital city—like Delhi was for India—and it did not inherit a functioning civil service because very few of the Indian Civil Service officers were Muslim and were willing to serve in Pakistan. This is why Pakistan ended up having British officers for almost a decade after Independence, both in the military and the civil service. So it is important to try and understand where the seed lies for the sapling that started growing in 1958.

To address more contemporary concerns, how would understanding those foundational problems—or the seed of the problem, as you say—help in the present time?

It will help us understand that the circumstances of 1947 created an environment which resulted in policy choices and decisions that have brought Pakistan where it is today. And if we are going to undo those choices, it is important to understand how this started. So in 1947, you only have a military and your biggest concern is to pay for that military. That makes you join international alliances and [America was] the choice. Unlike other countries that raise a military to fight a threat, you already have a military, so therefore you have to raise the threat proportionate to the size of the military. If we understand that these were circumstances that were peculiar to Pakistan’s birth, then we can actually think about undoing them. We can then think of Pakistan as a territorial state as opposed to being an ideological state. Now there are many countries in the world that came about because of historical circumstances that did not make them nation-states in the classical sense of the word. I give the example of Belgium in my book. Belgium now thinks of itself as a nation-state and not as the sole possessor of French or Dutch culture. It is a territorial state that plays a very important role in Europe. Where Pakistan is today is where Belgium was in the year 1900. Think about it: If Belgians had made the policy choices that Pakistanis have made, of just going ahead and building military capability, pursuing a constant state of competition with a much larger neighbour, insisting on reinventing history to say that this country was made because of inherent incompatibility with the majority community of our neighbour, then Belgium would not be the land of peace that it is today. What I am saying to Pakistanis is, ‘Understand the circumstances of your origin, stop inventing history, stop trying to describe yourself as an ideological state and be content with the fact that you have a country. Now make it work.’

For 70 years, religion has continually been injected into Pakistan’s public life. How would you rate its chances of becoming a ‘normal’ state in, say, a decade or two?

Pakistan has no choice but to become a normal state at some point. Does it turn into one as a result of some aggravated circumstances? Or does it do by choice? That is the real question. What I am proposing is that if debate in Pakistan opens up and at least some people who make arguments—such as the kind I am making— are allowed to speak up, we may actually have some potential for people to say that ‘Maybe this is a choice we can make or should make.’ Japan before World War II ended up becoming a highly militarist state. That state ended up collapsing at the end of the War and had no intention of reforming itself even after defeats in South-East Asia. The Japanese would not have surrendered if the Americans had not used nuclear weapons. Does Pakistan want to be a state that takes its extremist ideology to a point where others ‘solve’ the ‘Pakistan Problem’? Or does Pakistan want to say, ‘No, we are not a problem, we are a nation and we can make a choice’? Henry Kissinger had once remarked that Iran has to make the choice whether it is a country or a cause. If it’s a country, then its interests can be accommodated by the rest of the world. But if it is a cause, then causes have no choice but to either win or be vanquished. Pakistan also has to make a choice. It should see itself as a country—and that’s what I am recommending—and not see itself as a cause with an unending agenda. As a country, Pakistan’s interests can definitely be accommodated by Afghanistan, by India, by the US and by the rest of the world. But if it is a cause and says ‘We have to have all of this because we believe this is what we are entitled to’, then there is no room for compromise and negotiation. And that is not a very good scenario, going forward.

Pakistan has no choice but to become a normal state at some point. Does it turn into one as a result of some aggravated circumstances? Or does it do by choice?

Pakistan imagines itself as a national security state. But such states cannot exist in a vacuum without strong economic foundations. Has Pakistan’s ‘establishment’ thought about this problem?

In economic terms, 200 million Pakistanis account for less productivity than a handful of million people in Singapore, to give an example. That is a cause for concern. Pakistan is the sixth-largest country in the world by population and it has the sixth-largest army in the world, but it is the 26th largest economy in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms. It is ranked 42nd in terms of nominal GDP. That is not a healthy picture. Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex sees the economic picture only in terms of managing the economy because they are not willing to look beyond their ideological paradigm. I believe Pakistan can be a very prosperous and successful country. Pakistanis have all the tools to be able to accomplish that, but Pakistan has to invest in its people. Education and healthcare have to receive higher priority. Human capital development has to improve. Economic circumstances have to become different from what they have been. There has to be an end to this business of anti- corruption purges every few years that destroys the existing business atmosphere. There has to be an end to national security related decisions undermining economic choices. To give one famous example, a contract for copper and gold mines in Balochistan was cancelled because of so-called national security considerations and all it resulted in was a huge fine for Pakistan from an international court as well as huge losses, as the mines are not being exploited. All of that has to end. Do Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders understand that? I am not so sure. The reason being economics is not something that is taught in the military academy.

Do you think the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is going to take Pakistan’s economy in a more positive direction?

I have argued Chinese investment is no panacea for Pakistan. The reason is very simple: At the end of the day, Pakistan has to have the fundamentals of its economy correct, and the building of infrastructure, which is what China is doing through high-interest loans, is not necessarily a recipe for making Pakistan productive. Infrastructure is useful if you already have economic activity. An airport is good if you have lots of flights landing. A port is good when you have many ships coming. Railroads and highways are useful if there is traffic for moving goods. If Pakistan is only going to be used as a dumping ground for cheap Chinese products, I don’t think its economy will necessarily take off. And Pakistan certainly does not need a huge debt burden. Can Pakistan make use of CPEC positively? Absolutely, but for that Pakistan will have to make certain economic choices as well and even more fundamental choices about improving its human development, which it has not done so far.

The scale of China’s investment in CPEC is qualitatively different from that in any other project—say, in a port or a railroad. Is Pakistan’s government aware of the dangers that accompany such heavy debts and their political consequences later?

People have debated this in Pakistan, which is very positive. There has been a debate on the potential for a debt burden and many have said we do not want to end up as a Chinese colony. But at the same time I think the need for something to ‘feel good’ has been so strong that Pakistan’s decision-makers would rather have some activity than no activity for fear of huge debt. It is a kind of attitude that says, ‘We’ll deal with the debt problem later, let’s have the building done now.’ That said, CPEC can be transformative if Pakistan’s economy as a whole is re- oriented. The real fear here is that Pakistan ends up with the debt, with the infrastructure, but with no connectivity which is productive. If it is all about a North-to-South connection and no East-to-West connectivity, then Pakistan will not necessarily be able to take economic advantage. CPEC will become much more useful if it comes with East-West connectivity as well and Pakistan gets connected to India, Afghanistan and subsequently to Central Asia and Iran as well. Is anybody thinking about it? I don’t think so. Investment decisions should always be based on sound economic calculations. When you turn them into strategic decisions, you do not get the returns that an investment should bring. The strategic gains are also very short-lived. The port of Gwadar will eventually have to have ships come on call. Why would that happen unless there is a lot of import or export activity? The way it can all work is if Gwadar and the two ports near Karachi, Karachi and Port Kasim, become not only ports for Pakistan but also for neighbours. India already has a high growth rate, needs more stuff coming in and going out. If western India can start using Pakistani ports and the railway network, they become productive. But that is something that has not been spoken of so far. The mantra in Pakistan is ‘We first need to resolve Kashmir before we will even consider trading with India.’ That limits Pakistan’s options of doing business.

Kashmir has become a cause instead of a policy. All policies have a cost-benefit ratio and have an end date. Seventy years of pursuing Kashmir, and we are still where we were in 1948

Is Kashmir now subject to some kind of ‘sunk cost fallacy’ in Pakistan? That having invested so much political capital in it, you cannot withdraw from the present course of action?

Kashmir has become a cause instead of being a policy. All policies have a cost-benefit ratio and have an end date. You realise that we will do such and such thing up to this point, and if it does not work, then we end it. Seventy years of pursuing Kashmir and we are still where we were in 1948. Let’s be honest: what is today the Line of Control is the Ceasefire Line of 1948. Nothing has changed. Several times there have been some adjustments in territorial control during a war, and then, as part of the settlement after the war, they have always gone back to where things were before. Now that doesn’t mean there’s no need for India to solve its problems with its people in Jammu & Kashmir. That doesn’t mean that human rights violations do not take place in J&K, something that needs to be dealt with. It also does not mean that Pakistanis don’t have a tremendous sense of grievance over not getting Kashmir when they should have because it was a contiguous Muslim-majority territory. But the pragmatic conclusion should be that maybe this is one of those claims that we cannot immediately pursue or successfully gain. China believes that Taiwan is an integral part of its territory, but it knows it cannot get Taiwan through military means and that trying to get Taiwan will provoke the US. So China has realised that the status quo is the best course. It has not given up its claim nor has it pursued it. Why can’t Pakistan have a pragmatic approach like that? And just start normalising relations with India and maybe normal relations with India will someday result in a resolution of the Kashmir dispute as well. Insisting on resolving the dispute first and continuing to invest in solving the dispute one way or another is undermining Pakistan’s potential in so many other areas. That is something Pakistan’s leaders need to think about. Ironically, I think of a quote of Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he came to Pakistan and said to parliament that when a dispute cannot be solved it is best to set it aside and move forward on other issues. What was he talking about? He was definitely talking about Kashmir. But such is the myopia in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that nobody paid attention to his remarks.

Last year, you issued a report along with Lisa Curtis, then a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, that recommended strong steps in dealing with Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. For a country that is so prickly to any criticism, can such an approach work?

Being thin-skinned about criticism or being unwilling to look at policy options is never good for countries. A nation must be prepared to look at a range of policy options. That is how good decisions are made. Pakistan has not been served well by denying space to contradictory policy recommendations. The report you talk about was not written for Pakistan. It was written for American policymakers. And very frankly, I think elements of it are being implemented by the Donald Trump administration. So whether Pakistan likes it or not and whether Pakistan accepts it or not, America will do what it will do. To the extent that American support has been useful for Pakistan in maintaining what I consider to be wrongful policies, it will be a good thing that America will now stop supporting those policies. Will that necessarily change the Pakistani calculus? Perhaps not in the short-term, but eventually Pakistan has to come to terms with the fact that it is part of the world. Pakistan has lot of discussion about Kashmir, but it does not have the international support that it had in 1957 that it can even bring a resolution on Kashmir at the United Nations today. Pakistan’s own media may never acknowledge that. If I say that, I may come under a lot of criticism and abuse, but it does remain a reality. The same is the case with all other harsh, tough, policy measures that other countries will bring or are considering in relation to Pakistan. Those policies will affect Pakistan whether it allows people like me to debate it within the country or not.

What can New Delhi do to change the way Pakistan deals with India? Are there realistic choices here for Indian policymakers?

I think Indians should, and will, pursue policies that are in their national interest. One thing they must understand is that talking about the breakup of Pakistan or the undoing of Pakistan is no longer in India’s interest. It is in India’s interest to have a stable, democratic and federal Pakistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbours. To encourage that, perhaps the best course for Indians is to make it clear that no grievance or anger is towards the people of Pakistan. In a way, this requires diminishing the capacity of Pakistan’s establishment to keep its people in a permanent state of anger towards India.