Miracle at Dunkirk? May / June 1940

The escape of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 was largely due to Hitler’s personal intervention. After his tanks had overrun the north of France and cut off the British army from its base, Hitler held them up just as they were about to sweep into Dunkirk – which was the last remaining port of escape left open to the British. At that moment the bulk of the B.E.F. was still many miles distant from the port. But Hitler kept his tanks halted for three days.
His action preserved the British forces when nothing else could have saved them. By making it possible for them to escape he enabled them to rally in England, continue the war, and man the coasts to defy the threat of invasion. Thereby he produced his own ultimate downfall, and Germany’s five years later. Acutely aware of the narrowness of the escape but ignorant of its cause, the British people spoke of the miracle of Dunkirk.
After cutting the lines of supply to the Allied left wing in Belgium, Guderian’s panzer corps had reached the sea near Abbeville on the 20th. Then he wheeled north, heading for the Channel ports and the rear of the British army – which was still in Belgium, facing the frontal advance of Bock’s infantry forces. On Guderian’s right in this northward drive was Reinhardt’s panzer corps, which was also part of the Kleist’s group.


On the 22nd, Boulogne was isolated by his advance, and on the next day Calais. This stride brought him to Gravelines, barely ten miles from Dunkirk – the British Expeditionary Force’s last remaining port of escape. Reinhardt’s panzer corps also arrived on the canal line Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. But there the continuation of the drive was stopped by orders from above. The panzer leaders were told to hold their forces back behind the line of the canal. They bombarded their superiors with urgent queries and protests, but were told that it was the Fuhrer’s personal order.

Before probing deeper into the roots of that saving intervention let us see what was happening on the British side, and follow the course of that grand-scale escape.
On the 16th General Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief, brought the B.E.F. a step back from its advanced line in front of Brussels. But before it arrived in its new position on the Scheldt, that position had been undermined by Guderian cutting the B.E.F.’s communications far to the south. On the 19th the Cabinet heard that Gort was examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk if that were forced upon him. The Cabinet, however, sent him orders to march south into France and force his way through the German net that had been flung across his rear – though they were told that he had only four days’ supplies and ammunition sufficient for one battle.

These instructions accorded with the new plan which Gamelin, the French Commander-in-Chief, had belatedly made and issued that morning. In the evening Gamelin was sacked and replaced by Weygand, whose first act was to cancel Gamelin’s order, while he studied the situation. After three days’ further delay he produced a plan similar to his predecessor’s. It proved no more than a paper plan.

Meanwhile Gort, though arguing that the Cabinet’s instructions were impracticable, had tried an attack southward from Arras with two of his thirteen divisions and the only tank brigade that had been sent to France. When this counterstrike was launched on the 21st it had boiled down to an advance by two weak tank battalions followed by two infantry battalions. The tanks made some progress but were not backed up, the infantry being shaken by dive-bombing. The neighbouring French First Army was to have cooperated with two of its thirteen divisions, but its actual contribution was slight. During these days the French were repeatedly paralysed by the moral effect of the German dive-bombers and the swift manoeuvring tanks.

It is remarkable, however, what a disturbing effect this little armoured counterstroke had on some of the German higher commanders. For a moment it led them to think of stopping the advance of their own tank spearheads. Rundstedt himself described it as a critical moment, saying:
For a short time, it was feared that our armoured divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them.
Such an effect showed what a vital difference to the issue might have been made if this British riposte had been made with two armoured divisions instead of merely two tank battalions.


After the flash-in-the-pan at Arras the Allied armies in the north made no further effort to break out of the trap, while the belated offensive from the south that Weygand planned was so feeble as to be almost farcical. It was easily baulked by the barricade which the German motorised divisions had quickly built up along the Somme, to keep out interference, while the panzer divisions drove northward to close the trap. With such slow-motion forces as Weygand commanded, his grandiloquent orders had no more chance of practical effect than Churchill’s adjurations to the armies to cast away the idea of resisting attack behind concrete lines or natural obstacles and regain the mastery by furious, unrelenting assault.

Whilst the highest circles continued to debate impracticable plans, the cut-off armies in the north were falling back on a slant closer to the coast. They were under increasing frontal pressure from Bock’s infantry armies – though they were spared a deadly stab in the back from the panzer forces.

On the 24th Weygand bitterly complained that the British Army had carried out, on its own initiative, a retreat of twenty-five miles towards the ports at a time when our troops moving up from the south are gaining ground towards the north, where they were to meet their allies. In fact, the French troops from the south had made no perceptible progress and the British were not yet retreating – Weygand’s words merely showed the state of unreality in which he was living.

But on the evening of the 25th Gort took the definite decision to retreat to the sea, at Dunkirk. Forty-eight hours earlier, the German panzer forces had already arrived on the canal line only ten miles from the port. On the 26th the British Cabinet allowed the War Office to send him a telegram approving his step and authorised him to carry out such a retirement. Next day a further telegram told him to evacuate his force by sea.

That same day the Belgian Army’s line cracked in the centre under Bock’s attack, and no reserves were left at hand to fill the gap. King Leopold had already sent repeated warnings to Churchill through Admiral Keyes, that the situation was becoming hopeless. Now, at a stroke, it was so. Most of Belgium had already been overrun and the army had its back close to the sea, penned in a narrow strip of land that was packed with civilian refugees. So, in the late afternoon the King decided to sue for armistice- and ceasefire was sounded early the next morning.

The Belgians’ surrender increased the danger that the B.E.F. would be cut off before it could reach Dunkirk. Churchill had just sent King Leopold an appeal to hold on, which he privately described to Gort as asking them to sacrifice themselves for us. It is understandable that the encircled Belgians already aware that the B.E.F. was preparing to evacuate, did not see that appeal in the same light as Churchill. Nor was King Leopold willing to follow Churchill’s advice that he should himself escape by aeroplane before too late. The King felt that he must stay with his Army and people. His decision may have been unwise in the long view, but in the circumstances of the time it was an honourable choice. Churchill’s subsequent criticisms of it were hardly fair, while the violent denunciations made by the French Prime Minister and press were grossly unjust – considering the way that the Belgian downfall had been produced by the collapse of the French defence on the Meuse.

The British retreat to the coast now became a race to re-embark before the German trap closed – notwithstanding bitter French protests and reproaches. It was fortunate that preparatory measures had begun in England a week before – although on a different assumption. On the 20th Churchill had approved steps to assemble a large number of small vessels in readiness to proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast, with the idea that they might help in rescuing bits of the B.E.F. that might be cut off as it tried to push south into France, under the existing plan. The Admiralty lost no time in preparing. Admiral Ramsay, commanding at Dover, had been placed in operational control on the previous day, the 19th. A number of ferry-craft, naval drifters and small coasters were at once collected for what was called Operation Dynamo. From Harwich round to Weymouth, sea transport officers were directed to list all ships up to a thousand tons.
In the days that followed the situation became rapidly worse, and it was soon clear to the Admiralty that Dunkirk would be the only possible route of evacuation. Dynamo was put into operation on the afternoon of the 26th – twenty-four hours before the Belgian appeal for an armistice, and also before the Cabinet had authorised the evacuation.

At first it was not expected that more than a small fraction of the B.E.F. could be saved. The Admiralty told Ramsay to aim at bringing away 45,000 within two days, and that it was probable the enemy would by then have made further evacuation impossible. Actually, only 25,000 were landed in England by the night of the 28th. It was fortunate that the period of grace proved considerably longer.
For the first five days the rate of evacuation was restricted by an insufficiency of small boats to carry troops from the beaches to the ships waiting offshore. This need, though pointed out by Ramsay originally, had not been adequately met. But the Admiralty now made more extensive efforts to provide them and to man them, the naval personnel being reinforced by a host of civilian volunteers – fishermen, lifeboatmen, yachtsmen, and others who had some experience in handling boats. Ramsay recorded that one of the best performances was that of the crew of e fire-float Massey Shaw from the London Fire Brigade.

At first, too, there was much confusion on the beaches, owing to the disorganised state of the troops waiting to embark – at that time largely base personnel. Ramsay considered that it was aggravated by the fact that Army officers’ uniform is indistinguishable from that of other ranks, and found that the appearance of Naval officers in their unmistakable uniforms, helped to restore order . . . Later on, when troops of fighting formations reached the beaches these difficulties disappeared.
The first heavy air attack came on the evening of the 29th and it was only by good fortune that the vital Dunkirk Harbour channel was not blocked by sinking ships at this early date. Its preservation was the more important because the majority of the troops were embarked from the harbour and less than one-third from the beaches.

In the next three days the air attacks increased and on June 2 daylight evacuation had to be suspended. The fighters of the R.A.F. from airfields in southern England, did their utmost to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, but, being outnumbered and unable to stay long over the area because of the distance, they could not maintain anything like adequate cover. The oft-repeated bombing attacks were a severe strain on the troops waiting on the beaches though the soft sand blanketed the effects. Far more material damage was done over the sea where the losses included six destroyers, eight personnel ships, and over two hundred small craft- out of a total 860 British and Allied vessels of all sizes employed in the evacuation. It was very lucky that the German Navy made very little attempt to interfere, either with U-boats or E-boats. Happily, too, the evacuation was favoured by extremely good weather.

By May 30, 126,000 troops had been evacuated, while all the rest of the B.E.F. had arrived in the Dunkirk bridgehead – except for fragments that were cut off during the retreat. The defence of the bridgehead against the enemy’s encircling advance on land now became much firmer in consequence. The Germans had missed their opportunity.
Unhappily the French higher commanders in Belgium, still conforming to Weygand’s impossible plan, had hesitated to retreat to the sea and to do so as quickly as possible along with the British. As a result of that delay nearly half of what left of the French First Army had been cut off on the 28th near Lille and were forced to surrender on the 31st. Their gallant three-day stand, however, helped the escape of the remainder, as well as the British.

By midnight on June 2 the British rear-guard embarked and the evacuation of the B.E.F. was complete-224,000 men had been safely brought away, and only some 2,000 were lost in ships sunk en-route to England. Some 95,000 Allied troops, mainly French, had also been evacuated. On the next night every effort was made to bring away the remaining Frenchmen, despite increasing difficulties, and 26,000 more were saved. Unfortunately, a few thousand of the rear guard were left – and this left sore feelings in France.
By morning of the 4th when the operation was broken off, a total of 338,000 British and Allied troops had been landed in England. It was an amazing result compared with earlier expectations, and a grand performance on the part of the Navy.

At the same time, it is evident that the preservation of the B.E, F. to fight another day would have been impossible without Hitler’s action in halting Kleist’s panzer forces outside Dunkirk twelve days before, on May 24.

At that moment there was only one British battalion covering the twenty-mile stretch of the Aa between Gravelines and St Omer, and for a further sixty miles inland the canal line was little better defended. Many of the bridges were not yet blown up, or even prepared for demolition. Thus, the German panzer troops had no difficulty in gaining bridgeheads over the canal at a number of places on May 23 – and it was as Gort said in his Despatch, the only anti-tank obstacle on this flank. Having crossed it, there was nothing to hold them up – and stop them establishing themselves astride the B.E.F. lines of retreat to Dunkirk- except the halt that Hitler imposed.

It is clear, however, that Hitler had been in a highly strung and jumpy state ever since the breakthrough into France. The extraordinary easiness of their advance, the lack of resistance his armies had met, had made him uneasy – it seemed too good to be true. The effects can be followed in the diary that was kept by Halder, the Chief of the General Staff. On the 17th, the day after the French defence behind the Meuse had dramatically collapsed, Halder noted:

Rather unpleasant day. The Fuhrer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would pull the reins on us.

That was the day when Guderian was suddenly pulled up when in full stride for the sea.

Next day, Halder noted: Every hour is precious . . .Fuhrer HQ sees it quite differently . . . Unaccountably keeps worrying about the south flank. He rages and screams that we are on the best way to ruin the whole campaign.
Not until late that evening, when Halder was able to assure him that, follow-up infantry was wheeling into line along the Aisne as a flank shield, did Hitler agree to let the panzer forces sweep on.

Two days later these reached the coast, cutting the communications of the Allied armies in Belgium. That brilliant success seems to have temporarily drowned Hitler’s doubts. But they revived as his panzer forces swung northward, especially after the momentary alarm caused by the British tank counterattack from Arras, slight as this was. His panzer forces, which he regarded as so precious, were now heading towards the zone occupied by the British, whom he looked on as particularly tough opponents. At the same time, he was uneasy as to what the French in the south might be planning.

On the surface it appears to have been unlucky for Hitler that he chose to visit Rundstedt’s headquarters on the morning of May 24, a crucial moment. For Rundstedt was a wary strategist, careful to take full account of unfavourable factors and avoid erring on the side of optimism. For that reason, he was often a good corrective to Hitler, by providing a coolly balanced estimate – but it did not benefit German chances on this occasion. In his review of the situation he dwelt on the way that the tank strength had been reduced in the long and rapid drive, and pointed out the possibility of having to meet attacks from the north and south, particularly the latter.

Since he had, the night before, received orders from Brauchitsch, the Army Commander-in-Chief, that the completion of the encirclement in the north was to be handed over to Bock, it was the more natural that he should be thinking of the next phase in the south.
Moreover, Rundstedt’s headquarters were still at Charleville, near Sedan – close behind the Aisne, and in the centre of the German front facing south. That location fostered a tendency to focus on what was in front and give less attention by what was happening on the extreme right flank, where victory seemed to be assured. Dunkirk came only into the corner of his eye.

Hitler agreed entirely with Rundstedt’s reservations and went on to emphasise the paramount necessity of conserving the panzer force for future operations,
On his return to his own headquarters in the afternoon, he sent for the Commander-in-Chief. It was a very unpleasant interview, and ended in Hitler giving a definite halt order –

Halder that evening mournfully summarised its effect in his diary:
The left wing, consisting of armoured and motorised forces, which has no enemy before it, will thus be stopped in its tracks upon direct orders of the Fuhrer, finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Luftwaffe!

Was Hitler’s order inspired by Rundstedt? If Hitler had felt that his halt order was due to Rundstedt’s influence, he would almost certainly have mentioned it, after the British escape, among the excuses he gave for his decision, for he was very apt to blame others for any mistakes. Yet in this case there is no trace of his ever having mentioned, in the course of his subsequent explanations, Rundstedt’s opinion as a factor. Such negative evidence is as significant as any.

It seems more likely that Hitler went to Rundstedt’s headquarters in the hope of finding further justification for his own doubts and for the change of plan he wanted to impose on Brauchitsch and Halder. In so far as it was prompted by anyone else, the initial influence probably came from Keitel and Jodl, the two chief military members of his own staff. There is particular significance in the evidence of General Warlimont, who was in close touch with Jodl at the time. Astonished on hearing a rumour of the halt order, he went to ask Jodl about it:

Jodl confirmed that the order had been given, showing himself rather impatient about my enquiries. He himself took the same stand as Hitler, emphasising that the personal experience that not only Hitler but also Keitel and himself had in Flanders during the First World War proved beyond doubt that armour could not operate in the Flanders marshes, or at any rate not without heavy losses – and such losses could be borne in view of the already reduced strength of the panzer corps and their tasks in the impending second stage of the offensive in France.

Warlimont added that if the initiative for the halt order had come from Rundstedt, he and the others at O.K.W. would have heard of it; and that Jodl, who was on the defensive about the decision, certainly would not have failed to point out to Field Marshall von Rundstedt as the one who had initiated or at least supported the order – as that would have silenced criticism because of Rundstedt’s undisputed authority in operational matters among all senior general staff officers’:

One other reason, however, for the halt order was revealed to me at the time- that Goring appeared and reassured the Fuhrer that his air force would accomplish the rest of the encirclement by closing the sea side of the pocket from the air. He certainly overrated the effectiveness of his own branch.

This statement of Warlimont’s gains significance when related to the last sentence in Hallder’s diary note of the 24th, already quoted. Moreover, Guderian stated that the order came down to him from Kleist, with the words:

Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe. If the conquest of Calais should raise difficulties that fortress likewise is to be left to the Luftwaffe.

Guderian remarked: I think that it was the vanity of Goring which caused that fateful decision of Hitler’s.

At the same time there is evidence that even the Luftwaffe was not used as fully or as vigorously as it could have been – and some of the air chiefs say that Hitler put the brake on again here.

All this caused the higher circles to suspect a political motive behind Hitler’s military reasons. Blumentritt, who was Rundstedt’s operations planner, connected it with the surprising way that Hitler had talked when visiting their headquarters:

Hitler was in very good humour, he admitted the course of the campaign had been a decided miracle, and gave us the opinion that the war would be finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain.
He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilisation that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh but ‘where there is planning, there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church – saying they were both essential, elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the Continent. The return of Germany’s lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer support to Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics.

He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.

In subsequent reflection on the course of events, Blumentritt’s thoughts often reverted to this conversation. He felt that the halt had been called for more than military reasons, and that it was part of a political scheme to make peace easier to reach. If the B.E.F. had been captured at Dunkirk, the British might have felt that their honour had suffered a stain which they must wipe out. By letting it escape Hitler hoped to conciliate them.

Since this account comes from generals who were highly critical of Hitler, and admit that they themselves wanted to finish off the British Army, it is of the more significance. Their account of Hitler’s talks at the time of Dunkirk fits in with much that he himself wrote earlier in Mein Kampf-and it is remarkable how closely he followed his own testament in other respects. There were elements in his make-up which suggest that he had a mixed love-hate feeling towards Britain. The trend of his talk about Britain at this time is also recorded in the diaries of Ciano and Halder.

Hitler’s character was of such complexity that no simple explanation is likely to be true. It is far more probable that his decision was woven of several threads. Three are visible- his desire to conserve tank strength for the next stroke; his long-standing fear of marshy Flanders; and Goring’s claims for the Luftwaffe. But it is likely that some political thread was interwoven with these military ones in the mind of a man who has a bent for political strategy and so many twists in his thought.

By courtesy: History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddell Hart, G.P. Putnam’s Sons


Pakistan Language, Population, Migration

Language and Identity

Tariq Rahman has engagingly traced the history of the ‘upstart’ Urdu language, involving its gradual displacement of Persian from the middle of the nineteenth century to its blossoming as a ‘badge of identity, a mark of sophistication and refinement’ for elite Muslims. Its journey was to culminate in it being accorded the status of Pakistan’s national language, although at the time of independence only around 7% of the population spoke it as a mother tongue. The initial refusal to accord a similar status to Bengali, the language spoken by most Pakistanis in 1947, was a factor in the growing tensions between the country’s eastern and western wings.

From the 1900 foundation of the Urdu Defence Association onwards, Urdu was a major symbol of Muslim political identity in colonial India. The association owed its birth to the success of partisans of Hindi, securing its recognition alongside Urdu as an official language in the United Provinces (UP). Urdu had been adopted as the official language of UP in 1858, but Hindi language activists mounted increasingly vociferous public campaigns to change this government decision. Altogether 118 memorials signed by 67,000 persons submitted in favour of Hindi as the medium of instruction when the Commission on National Education sat in 1882. The Hindi-Urdu controversy really intensified, however, at the beginning of the next century, arising from the anti-Urdu stance of the Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces, Sir A.P. MacDonnell. During its course, both Urdu and Hindi became identified as the language of essentialized ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ religious communities. In this respect language advocacy intersected with the growing impact of socio-religious reform in North India.

Urdu was not only the mother tongue of the UP Muslim elite, but was spoken by members of the Muslim upper classes throughout India. The mass of the Muslim population, however, spoke a variety of other languages, with Punjabi and Bengali having the greatest number of users. The British had made Urdu, however, the official vernacular language in Punjab from 1854 onwards, thereby marginalizing the Punjabi mother tongue. The decision, partly taken for administrative convenience and resting on official prejudices against the ‘rustic’ Punjabi language, possessed profound long-term significance.

Attachment to Urdu became a key component of the Muslim separatist platform in colonial India. Nonetheless, Urdu has proved much less effective in promoting a national Pakistani identity than have regional languages in articulating ethnic identity. Centralization around one language has strengthened the role of regional languages in identity politics. This is especially marked in Sindh, where the language movement emerged in resistance to the local influx of Urdu-speaking Mohajirs as well as to the national domination by the ruling Mohajir and later Punjabi elites. It is present in most parts of Pakistan, although it is muted in Punjab, outside of its Seraiki-speaking belt. This arises from the colonial tradition of subsuming Punjabi to Urdu. It also reflects the fact that the Punjab has been the core of the Pakistan state. Influentials segments of its inhabitants have largely been prepared to eschew cultural nationalism in favour of physical control of state political and economic power.

The rapid social mobility arising from internal migration has certainly strengthened Urdu as a common lingua franca. The process has its limitations, however, because of the politicization of language in smaller provinces of Pakistan. Urdu itself became the focus of an ethnic identity, rather than of Pakistan nationalism with the emergence of a Mohajir political identity in urban Sindh early in the 1980s.

Sindhi has long been an important element in identity politics along with other community markers relating to dress (wearing of the ajrak shawl), poetry and Sufism. Indeed, it was Sufi poems (kafi) which helped to establish Sindhi linguistic traditions, despite their ancient origins. The nationalist politician and writer G.M. Syed drew on these ancient cultural traditions to support the demand for an independent Sindhi homeland, Sindhu Desh, in the 1970s, although the driving force of his separatist stance was the ‘Punjabi-‘ political domination. Syed had warned even in the early 1940s that Pakistan was likely to be a Punjabi-dominated state. There was considerable resentment the influx of Punjabi agriculturists following the completion of the Sukkur Barrage irrigation scheme in 1932. This was nothing compared with the flood of Urdu-speaking refugees from India in 1947.

During the colonial era, Sindhi was standardized in the Arabic script, formerly having also been written in Nagri and Gurumukhi. Since independence, Sindhi language activists have been engaged in clashes with the state. A strong sense of Sindhi cultural identity lay behind the resistance to the centralizing and Islamizing policies of Zia, as can be glimpsed in such poems as Naz Hamayooni’s ‘Love for Homeland’. G.M. Syed, despite his long-term resistance to the Pakistan state, stood aloof from this movement, however, in the main because of his hostility to the PPP. Ironically, Karachi’s Urdu-speakers celebrated the veteran Sindhi nationalist 81st birthday in January 1984.

Pashto from the colonial era onwards has become an important component of Pakhtun ethnic identity, although before this Persian was the ‘language of sophisticated discourse’ and the moral code of Pakhtunwali undergirded identity. The British imposition of Urdu as the official vernacular language encouraged the promotion of Pashto as a symbol of anti-colonial resistance by Red Shirt movement of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Whilst the use of Pashto thereafter became central to the Pakhtun identity, along with Pakhtunwali and Islam, it met with resistance from both Hindko-speaking Muslims and the Hindu-Sikh population. The Pakistan state viewed Pashto with similar suspicion as did their colonial forebears, because of Afghanistan’s irredentist claims and the Afghan state’s promotion of Pashto over Dari as symbol of Pakhtun domination. During the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of Pashto was central to the aspirations of Pakhtunistan secessionists. More recently, the integration of Pakhtuns into the Pakistan state has seen the rise in Urdu use, although Pashto retains its symbolic significance in identity politics and demands for greater autonomy, which culminated in the renaming of the North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Tribal social structures have been more important in framing Baloch political identity than language, as Balochistan’s multilingualism has limited such possibilities. Its linguistic mix resulted not only from the presence of a sizeable Pashto-speaking Pakhtun population in such areas as Sibi, Zhob and Pishin, but also from the prevalence of a Brahvi-speaking Baloch ethnic group. Indeed, the Khan of Kalat’s family were Brahvi-speaking, but inspite of this Baloch nationalists have looked to Mir Nisar Khan, who had forged the Kalat state in the second half of the eighteenth century, as an inspiration for independent statehood. Seraiki-speaking tribes such as the Jamalis also identify themselves as Baloch. Urdu was the recognised vernacular language of the British administered Balochistan. Since independence, the Pakistan state has promoted Urdu as a vehicle for national integration. Its prevalence among the Baloch elite, the underdeveloped nature of Balochi as a written language and the divide between it and Brahvi have led to tribal loyalties and economic and political grievances, rather than language driving nationalist resistance to the Pakistan state.

Modernising states’ reactions to ‘sub-national’ political identities based on ethnicity, language and religion have been a major factor in encouraging authoritarianism not only in South Asia but throughout the developing world. Superficially, Pakistan’s limited range of politically-conscious ethnic groups in comparison with India’s appear less of a threat to democratic consolidation. A number of scholars have argued conversely, however, that India’s complex ethnic structure has worked as an enabling factor for democracy by for example preventing the state from being captured by a single dominant ethnic group.


In any other region of the world, a state of Pakistan’s size with a population of around 175 million, an army of around 500,000 and a GDP of over $160 billion would be a significant power. India, however, with its 1 billion plus population, 1 million of which are in arms, and GDP eight times higher than Pakistan’s, dwarfs it and in doing so perpetuates the sense of insecurity which has dogged Pakistan’s history.

While Pakistan cannot match India’s size, military and economic might, its population and economy have grown rapidly since 1947. According to the 1951 census the population for what now includes Bangladesh as well as Pakistan was just 73 million. Today’s truncated Pakistan, with an estimated population of 185 million, is the sixth largest country in the world in terms of its population. The rate of increase is still around 2.2% per annum; this compares with 1.4% and 0.6% respectively for its Indian and Chinese neighbours. Around half of Pakistan’s people are under the age of 15. Some estimates put the population under the age of 25 as high as 100 million, making this one of the largest youth populations in the world. This youthful dynamism is a factor in the state’s resilience. The youth bulge could either prove a demographic dividend, helping to drive forward economic growth, or it could prove to be a time-bomb, if the state is unable to educate and utilize it.

Rapid population has been a contributory factor to Pakistan’s poor achievements in educational provision for its citizens, although they are primarily a result of the state’s historically low tax levels and the privileging of defence expenditure over that on both health and education. Literacy stands at around 55% of the population, although this masks significant regional and gender imbalances. Only around a third of adult women are literate, while little more than a fifth participate in the labour force. Women made up only 10.96 million out of a total labour force 51.78 million in 2007-8. Pakistan in 2007-8 stood 125 out of 138 countries in terms of the Gender-related Development Index, and ranked 82 out of 93 in the Gender Empowerment Measure. The following year, the increasing security crisis in the Malakand division and parts of the NWFP kept girls especially from education. According to one report perhaps as many as 80,000 girls in Swat were deprived of education. Scandalously high rates of female illiteracy in the more conservative areas of Pakistan such as the Frontier and the Tribal Areas (with just 18% female literacy in the former and 3% in the latter) have exacerbated the failures of half-hearted government programmes of family planning. A recent report revealed that only 18% of the women in the countryside use the modern method of family planning. Around 200,000 women are admitted to hospital each year because of unsafe abortions, at a conservatively estimated cost of $22 million. A dramatic expansion of female education is essential, not only in terms of addressing gender inequalities, but because if its historical connection with the slowing of population increase. Bangladesh’s better record than Pakistan in reducing fertility rates is directly attributable not only to its more effective family planning policies, which have been largely provided by NGO (in Pakistan they account for around 13% of family planning services), but to its policies designed to educate and economically empower women. According to some accounts, there is a gap of 25% between the demand and supply of contraceptive services in Pakistan. Its consequences are revealed by the slow pace in the decline if fertility and the chilling statistic that 1 in 7 pregnancies end in induced abortion.

Population growth continuing at its current rate of over 2% per annum could in future reach crisis proportions. Some demographers project that this will result in a population of around 335 million by the mid twenty-first century, this would make Pakistan the fourth populous country in the world. More immediate high levels of population increase poverty in the absence of policies of economic redistribution; around 1 in 5 Pakistanis continue to live beneath the poverty line. About 60% of Pakistan’s population subsist on less than $2 a day.

There are again marked regional differences in this exposure to poverty, with the poorest populations being found in the Tribal Areas, the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. It is significant to note that the areas which were most developed in the colonial era have retained their advantage since independence. There are parallels with India with respect to the former Princely States, in that there were pockets of deep poverty in some of the Princely States which acceded, while other states were ‘progressive’ (e.g. Mysore in the Indian context) and had similar standards of living to those of neighbouring British India districts. Khairpur and Bahawalpur were the most developed states that acceded to Pakistan, as they shared in the irrigation (the Sutlej Valley Project) and communication developments of the adjacent British provinces. The Frontier Princely States of Amb, Chitral and Dir lagged far behind the settled districts of the Frontier. Swat had a literacy rate of just 1.75% in 1951. Education was banned by the Nawab of Dir in case it undermined his autocratic rule by which he owned all the land in his state. However, the Balochistan states with their poor communications and nomadic inhabitants were the most backward of all the states that acceded to Pakistan. Kharan and Lasbela had only one middle school each for boys by 1949. The disparity of socio-economic development between the Princely States and the former British provinces, together with their strategic location, complicated their integration in Pakistan. With the notable exception of Kalat, extremely low levels of political consciousness accompanied the poor social development indicators.

Even in the most prosperous areas of Pakistan such as the Punjab, the rural areas lag behind their urban counterparts. The absence of amenities and life chances in rural Pakistan has contributed to another marked feature of the country’s economic profile: that of high levels of migration. Rural-urban migration has resulted in Karachi and to a lesser extent Lahore as emerging mega cities. Future migration trends will increase their size and those of other urban combinations, so that by 2030 it is estimated that half of the population will live in urban centres. Nonetheless, Pakistan continues at present to have a large rural population. Agriculture still accounts for around 20% of the annual GDP and provides employment for over 40% of the country’s labour force. The extensive production of rice and wheat is possible because of the existence of one of the largest irrigation networks in the world, which waters around 16 million hectares of land.


Pakistan is a society on the move. Its birth was accompanied by by the Partition of the subcontinent and the division of the two Muslim major priory provinces of Punjab and Bengal. The Partition-related violence sparked the largest uprooting people in the twentieth century. While the two way transfer of 9 million Punjabis in the short period of August-December 1947 forms the iconic representation of this upheaval, migration of Muslims into Sindh continued well into the1950s. By 1951, the Urdu-speaking UP migrants (mohajirs) numbered around 50% of Karachi’s population. The creation of a UP Urdu speaking enclave in the sands if Sindh was to have profound consequences for Pakistan’s politics. The cultural and political assimilation of Punjabi-speaking migrants, unlike their Urdu counterparts in Sindh, has obscured the fact that the greatest number of migrants from India (over 5 million) came from East Punjab. They settled on the agricultural land abandoned by the outgoing Sikh farmers in the Canal Colony areas and in the towns and cities of West Punjab, where they frequently accounted for over 50% of the population. The Punjabi migrants have formed a constituency for Islamists and extremist sectarian movements as well as for the mainstream factions of e Muslim League. They are also staunch upholders of the Kashmir cause, reflecting the fact that there was not only a significant influx of Kashmiri refugees into Pakistan in 1947, but the experiences of upheaval by ethnic Punjabis led them to an anti-Indian stance. The Punjabi refugee element in Pakistan’s politics has been overlooked, but in fact has formed another of the longer-term shaping factors which are not always recognized in contemporary security driven analyses.

Since independence, internal migration has formed an important feature of Pakistan’s experience and helped shape its political developments. There has been outright rural-urban migration, but also movement from countryside to small towns, sometimes as a staging post in the migration process, while the overall population increased by 250% in the period 1947-81, urban population growth was close to 400%. Karachi’s population had risen from under half a million in 1947 to 13 million in 2007. Lahore’s population stood at 5 million, with six other cities having a population of over 1 million. By 2025 it is projected that Pakistan’s urban population will total over 100 million, with Karachi and Lahore, both forming mega-cities of around 19 and 10 million respectively. The presence of large migrant communities in towns and cities has sustained outlooks and community networks from the rural setting rather than resulting in the emergence of a new ‘modern’ urban class. Small towns especially represent more of a village environment than is expected by the Western conception of an urban society. The migration of Pakhtuns throughout Pakistan, alongside the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, may be seen as a factor in introducing tribal cultural mores and norms into a growing ‘orthodox’ expression of Islam.

It is impossible to understand Karachi’s political turmoil in the 1990s (which by 2010 had shown dangerous signs of resurgence) without acknowledging the fact that this is not only the city of Indian migrants (mohajirs) but is the third largest Pakhtun city in the world and has a greater Baloch population than Quetta. Ethnic struggles for power and control over resources, in which criminal mafias play a role, have been contributory factors in the city’s reputation for violence. While Karachi is the melting pot par excellence, no area of Pakistan is homogenous, although provincial politics are frequently discussed in these terms. Around 40% of e population of Balochistan is, for example Pakhtun. There are significant Kashmiri populations in such Punjabi cities as Lahore and Sialkot. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought an influx of 3 million Afghans. Internal displacement of populations has been a feature of the military operations in the Tribal Areas. Indeed one aspect behind the resurgence of violence in Karachi in 2010 was the growing number of Pakhtuns who had moved to the city from the Tribal Areas. Alongside economic migrants and victims of military conflict, the natural disaster of the 2010 floods was another factor in internal displacement. Finally, there is little reported movement of perhaps as many 100,000 Punjabi settlers from Balochistan as a result of the growing number of targeted killings of Punjabis in the current phase of insurgency in the province.

Overseas migration has also impacted both on Pakistan’s economy and its international image. During the colonial era there was considerable migration from the Punjab future heartland of Pakistan; this included Muslim Rajputs from the poorer northern areas of the province as well as Sikh Jats from its central districts. Military service was a common feature for both areas, providing exposure to lands well beyond the native home (Desh) and creating a culture of international migration. There was also a tradition of migration from the Sylhet region of Assam ( now part of Bangladesh) based on the poorer sections of its population turning to careers as lascars (sailors) which led them to life overseas. Independence continued the earlier pattern of migration in that most international migrations were from Punjab and East Bengal. One discontinuity was provided by the push to overseas migration for the population of Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, following the displacement created by the construction of the Mangla Dam.

North America, Europe and the UK were the main centres of permanent migration, although large number of workers also moved for short-term contracts to the Middle-East from the 1970s and 1980s. This has undoubtedly increased the size and scale of middle-class wealth in Pakistan. The psychological reactions arising from the frustrations of newly enriched returnees has been dubbed the Dubai chalo (Let’s go to Dubai) theme in Pakistani society. Overseas Pakistanis in UAE and Saudi Arabia provide the largest inflows of remittances. In the period July 2010 to January 2011, for example, almost half of the $5.3 billion in remittances came from Pakistanis in these two areas.

However, Pakistanis living permanently in the West also provide large sums for their homeland’s foreign exchange reserves. The cultural impact of overseas migration is much less quantifiable than its economic consequences. The growing religious orthodoxy coincided with the increase of labour migration to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Assessments of the ‘Arabization’ of Pakistani Islam tend to focus on the Saudi export of Wahhabism in the political context of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In doing so, they overlook the influence of growing numbers of migrant oil and construction workers who returned home to Pakistan,not only with increased prosperity, but commitment to a scriptural Islam in opposition to popular ‘folk Islam’.

The UK received the largest number of migrants, with the 2001 Census revealing a population of over 1 million persons with Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins. The growing South Asian diaspora in the US from 1965 onwards was dominated by Indian migrants, although there also the emergence of a professional Pakistani class, comprising engineers, academics, and especially medical practitioners. The size of the Pakistani population in the US is disputed, as US Census figures which put it around 200,000 do not include college students or second and third generation members, if they are accounted the numbers can increase to 700,000. While the Pakistani diaspora has not played a pivotal role in national politics as have, for example, overseas Tamils through their support for LTTE, all parties have overseas branches. London and Dubai were twin poles of the PPP during the years of exile of its leader Benazir Bhutto. London has also been the residence of Baloch nationalists. The MQM is run by Altaf Hussain from its London Secretariat. Former President Musharraf launched his All Pakistan Muslim League in London at the beginning of October 2010. Within the UK, , Birmingham because of its large diaspora community is another centre of intense political activity.

The diaspora represents an important economic resource through remittances, support for the major parties and for humanitarian aid, as at the time of the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods. The US community is the wealthiest Pakistani diaspora and provides the most in remittances (around $1.73 billion p.a.by 2007-8). Indeed periods of Pakistan’s rapid economic growth in the early 1980 and again two decades later appear to have been driven in part by overseas remittances which increased consumer demand for housing and transport. The involvement in the 7 July 2005 London bombings of the British-born young Muslims of Pakistani descent who had visited radical mosques in Pakistan, followed by the failed Times Square bombing in New York in May 2010, represented a more disturbing element in the ongoing diaspora-homeland connection. Further evidence came from the fact that the grey-bearded Swat Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, was a returned former painter and decorator from the Boston area.

Courtesy of:

Pakistan: Social Structure and Organization

Pakistani society is marked by vast disparities of wealth and access to basic goods and services, such as health, education and sanitation. These remain limited in an environment in which just 1% of the population is directly taxed. Western donors in the wake of the 2010 floods have urged that Pakistan address this issue and mobilize more of its own resources. Much of the funding for social welfare programmes is at present dependent on international aid. To provide just one example, US AID provides around $45 million for family planning programmes which have been chronically underfunded from government sources. The political power of big landowners continues to block the introduction of an agricultural income tax and thereby improve Pakistan’s woeful tax to GDP ratio of 9%. In a country of some 190 million people, there are only 2.7 million registered tax payers. Significantly, agriculture, which accounts for nearly a quarter of Pakistan’s GDP, provides only 1% of its tax revenues. Its favouring is to the detriment of industry, which has a tax share three times its contribution to GDP.

The failure to bring the wealthy into the tax net has undermined the consolidation of democracy and is a factor in encouraging the notion that Islamization would bring greater social justice in its wake. State-sponsored Islamization in the 1980s concentrated, however, on the punitive aspects of Islamic law rather than on the encouragement of egalitarianism. Periods of rapid economic growth in the 1980s and in the early years of the twenty-first century have seen some trickle down effects, with a concomitant rise in life expectancy and lifting of sections of the population out of poverty. Nonetheless, grinding poverty affects rural populations in Sindh and Balochistan.

Estimates of the incidence of poverty in Pakistan are difficult not only because of faulty survey design, but inaccuracies in the raw official data. The World Bank estimated that 28.3% of the population were living below the poverty line in 2004-5. This global figure masks trends across the provinces and between urban and rural settings. The Social Policy Development Centre produced the breakdown for 2001-2 shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Poverty incidence by province (%)

province overall/rural/provincial capital/large cities/small cities and towns

Punjab: 26/24/18/22/43

Sindh: 31/38/10/23/40

NWFP: 29/27/28-41

Balochistan: 48/51/14-44

Source: Safiya Aftab, Journal of Conflict and Peace Studies 1, 1 (October-December 2008) p.70.

We shall be noting later the extent to which uneven development has played a role in undermining nation-building. Certainly, the sense of Punjabi domination of Pakistan has been generated not only by the region’s association with the military, but because it is more highly developed than elsewhere, with the exception of Karachi. More recently attention has been turned to the link between poverty and Islamic militancy. Attention has been drawn to the fact that FATA, which is the most backward region of Pakistan with 60% of the population living below the poverty line, a literacy rate of only 17% and a per capita public expenditure of a third of the national average, have been the focus of insurgencies. Another major area of militant recruitment, however, is southern Punjab. While its poorest districts, such as Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh, lag far behind its richest, the incidence of poverty is not as great as in for example the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. Yet neither of these areas are centres for radicalization and militancy. Muzaffargarh, the lowest ranked Punjabi district in terms of human development index, still in 2003, stood only at 59 out of 91 districts in Pakistan. While poverty and unemployment may feed militancy, this can only be fully understood in terms of a complex mix of religious, sectarian, social and historical factors.

Despite the existence of much poverty and inequality, it would nevertheless be wrong to portray Pakistan as an unchanging society. Despite major failings of governance, economic growth during the past decade has resulted in the emergence of a youthful and dynamic middle-class. According to some assessments there are now as many as 35 million people with a per capita income of up to $1,900. There is no monolithic middle stratum of society; it is differentiated by

• occupation,

• income,

• family antecedents,

• language and

• gender.

The middle classes contain both modernist and traditionalist elements and are as a result not necessarily more Westernized in outlook and lifestyle than the urban younger generation drawn from feudal elites. Indeed, one if the most striking developments of the past decade has been the spread of the orthodox Al-Huda movement amongst educated middle-class Pakistani women. This has promoted the Arab dress code of the full-size abaya. Perhaps the most unifying element of the middle classes is consumerism, as seen in the surge in sales of cars, televisions and mobile phones. One in two Pakistanis is a mobile phone subscriber, one of the highest rates in the region. Civil society groups have established a telemedicine network (Jaroka Telehealthcare) that enables health workers in remote areas to connect to connect with doctors in major cities. In addition to expenditure on electronic durables, the middle classes have become the main users of the burgeoning private educational establishments and privately run poly clinics which have become a marked feature of the urban landscape. According to one estimate, around three-quarters of all health care is provided by the private sector.

The rise of the middle class has also contributed to the growth of electronic media transmissions, which is another marked feature of contemporary Pakistan. The days have long passed when recourse to the BBC World Service and grainy images from the Indian Doordarshan television network were the only alternatives to the strictly controlled state broadcasting. Ease in dealing with an increasingly independent and intrusive media is becoming as much a political requirement in Pakistan as elsewhere in the media-driven world. The new cable networks have, however, strengthened existing orthodoxies in many instances, rather than interrogating them, and in the eyes of some critics have contributed to the powerful anti-Western discourse in contemporary Pakistan. Increased media access has in fact provided new opportunities for the spread of conspiracy theories, which are a marked feature of Pakistani public life. According to some commentators, they reflect a widespread national malaise which, by denying the root causes of Pakistan’s problems, prevent any attempts to address them. Symptomatic of the delusional world of conspiracy theories in Pakistan was the revelation by an international opinion pollster that two-thirds of Pakistanis surveyed believed that the person killed in the US operation in Abbotabad was not Osama bin Laden but a double. The former army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg not only concurred with this view, but maintained that Osama had been killed sometime before in Afghanistan and the 2 May 2011 episode was a US plot to defame Pakistan. Another widely believed conspiracy theory was that the raid on bin Laden was a practice run for the US seizure of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. When Hilary Clinton visited Pakistan towards the end of the month, she pointedly remarked that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear.

With respect to politics, the inchoate character of the middle classes mean that no single party has benefited from their development. In Lahore, middle-class voters are likely to support the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). In Karachi, they divide on ethnic lines, with Pakhtun businessmen, for example, supporting the Awami National Party (ANP), and mohajirs the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) or United National Movement), formerly the Mohajir Qaumi Movement. More traditionalist members of the middle classes throughout Pakistan are likely to vote for the Islamist Party Jamaat-i-Islami (JI or Islamic Society) or the Deobandi party the Jamiat-ulUlama-e-Islam (JUI). Although tiny by Indian standards, the middle classes in Pakistan are beginning to become an important social and economic actor, even if they lack national political power because of the continued grip of the feudal elites and biraderi (kinship group) heads.

It is widely argued in Pakistan that the feudals’ political influence has been a major factor in undermining democracy. The term feudal is used loosely to include the landed and tribal elites, many of whom may have interests not only in capitalist farming, but in agri-businesses and urban real estate development. Moreover, not all feudals’ can rely on the coercive localism described by critics to ensure the votes of their tenants. Socio-economic changes in parts of Punjab, for example, have created circumstances not that dissimilar from India, where elites must constantly rejuvenate their ties with their clients through the provision of patronage, and voters can remove incumbents in order to maximize the benefits they receive from political elites.

The Sindhi waderos symbolize Pakistan’s feudal class. They are seen as using their power to veto socio-economic reforms, including education in their localities. They are also blamed for blocking land reform and rural taxation and for cornering development aid. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s foes argued that he had never outgrown the arbitrariness and cruelty (zulm) of his Sindhi feudal background. Concentration on the waderos ignores the fact that a new landholding class has emerged in parts of Sindh as well as in Punjab in recent decades, drawn from the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and the army. It is also important to recognize that landowning alone is not the sole basis of political power in the countryside. In order to be really effective it needs to be combined with tribal and biraderi (kinship group) leadership and with the notion of reputation. This helps to explain why controls on female sexuality which could bring family dishonour are frequently so savage in tribal communities. Religious sanctity is another source of rural power. The connection between Sufi shrines and power has been traced in the colonial era in the works of such writers as David Gilmartin and Sarah Ansari. At the outset of the post-2008 PPP-led government both the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi hailed from leading Sufi families of Multan. Recent studies have pointed to the fact that Islamists are increasingly challenging the pirs‘ influence not just on the long-established grounds of orthodox resistance to shrine worship, but by presenting themselves as opponents of the feudal structures in which the Sufi order are enmeshed.

Two points need to be made regarding tribal and biraderi leadership. It is well known that the tribal heads (sardars) in Balochistan wield far more power than their counterparts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There are large tribal heads in south Punjab who are originally of Baloch descent: the Legharis represent a good example. Outside Balochistan, the greatest tribal influence is wielded by the waderos of the interior of Sindh. The strongest biraderi networks are found amongst the smaller-scale land holding communities of the central Punjab. Biraderi networks are also important in some towns and cities. Politics in Lahore for example are dominated by the factional struggles amongst members the Arian and Kashmiri biraderis.

Four major impacts of Pakistani feudalism which have encouraged political authoritarianism have been identified by the critics.

1. First, the vast economic and social gulf between the landholding elite and the rural masses has effectively depoliticized the latter. Votes are sought in an atmosphere of coercive localism. The rural poor dare not oppose their landlord patrons.

2. Second, the perpetuation of feudal power relations has contributed to a political culture of violence and combativeness rather than cooperation.

3. Third, the parochial and personalized character of Pakistan politics is rooted in the landlords’ predominance; this is a factor in the weak political institutionalization which has hindered democratic consolidation.

4. Fourth, the landlords are concerned primarily with bolstering the local prestige rather than with pursuing a political agenda. This means that a significant fraction of the rural elite will always be prepared to lend legitimacy ton authoritarian rulers. Along with a section of the ulama, landlords are on hand to join what has been derisively termed the Martial Law B Team.

Mohammad Waseem has recently argued, however, that it is the rightist middle class rather than the feudals who undermine democracy. He maintains that the absolute majority of the middle class is rightist, although lawyers, writers and intellectuals comprise a small pro-democracy element within it. The rightist element is made up of military officers and bureaucrats, engineers, architects, corporate managers, information technologists and businessmen, all of whom are intensely conservative in outlook. While he acknowledges the combative and patronage-driven characteristics of the feudals’ political involvement, he sees traditional landed elites as more reflective of plural ethnolinguistic ties and as being prepared to build alliances across communities and regions. This class is attached to the Islam of pir and shrine, rather than that of the mosque and madrasa. The middle class on the other hand is driven by the twin ideologies of Pakistan nationalism, with its strong anti-Indian sentiment, and scriptural Islam, which is Pan-Islamic and anti-Western sentiment. The rightist middle class shares the state-centric, rather than people-centred vision held by the military and bureaucrat establishment. With the exception of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Waseem maintains that Pakistan’s authoritarian rulers have been drawn from the middle classes. Their stock in trade is that democracy has been hijacked by the feudals, politicians are corrupt and Pakistan society is not yet fit for democracy. Waseem’s views provide a useful counterpoint to the more widely held belief that the rise of the middle class in Pakistan will go hand in hand with democratization and liberalism. Indeed it could be argued that Wahhabi and Deobandi puritanical interpretations of Islam especially appeal to an emerging middle class locked out of power by feudals with their rhetoric of equality, brotherhood of Muslims, and claim that the implementation of the shari’ah will ensure social justice. As Mathew Nelson has so expertly revealed, for the landholding classes, however, a major preoccupation has been to use a combination of coercion, legal delay and political influence to circumvent the shari’ah’s impact on patrilineal customs of female disinheritance. For Nelson, political influence in the Punjabi rural setting lies in the ability to to circumvent existing post-colonial laws which have undermined the British enhancement of tribal custom. He sees the resulting informal patterns of extra-legal political accountability as possessing deleterious consequences for democratic consolidation. His understanding not only challenges Waseem’s, but those who adopt a less nuanced understanding of the lack of efficiency of the district courts and sees the colonial legacies for contemporary Pakistan only in narrow institutional inheritances.

Pakistan: the Geo-Political Context

Pakistan’s sensitive geo-political situation to the east of the Persian Gulf and in close proximity to Russia, China and India has given rise to it being termed a garrison state in which the military role is inevitably over-developed. Critics of militarism have seen the army as turning to its advantage enmity with India and regional Western strategic concerns, firstly derived from the Cold War and latterly the War on Terror to transform Pakistan into a permanent insecurity state. The cost of the army’s positioning and repositioning itself as the state’s predominant institution has been Pakistan’s neo-vassal status.

The fact that Pakistan was carved out of the British Indian Empire has meant that its history has been profoundly influenced by relations with its mighty neighbour Indian attitudes have been coloured by the fact that Pakistan is seen as a secessionist state; while in Pakistan there has been the abiding fear that India will seek to undo the 1947 Partition. This intensified with the breakaway of its eastern wing to form Bangladesh in 1971.

Pakistan had emerged in 1947 with its eastern and western wings divided by over 1,000 miles of Indian territory. While this geographical absurdity by no means condemned it to division, the remoteness of Dhaka from the federal capital, first in Karachi and then later in Islamabad intensified the sense of marginality of the Bengali political elites. I feel a peculiar sensation when I come from Dacca to Karachi, the Bengal Chief Minister Ataur Rahman Khan declared early in 1956; I feel physically, apart from mental feeling, that I am living here in a foreign country. I did not feel as much when I went to Zurich, to Geneva . . . or London as much as I feel here in my own country that I am in a foreign land. This perception was materially based in the different topographies, landholding structures and population densities of the two wings and the fact that over 1 in 5 of East Pakistan’s population was non-Muslim, whereas the figures for West Pakistan were less than 1 in 30. The loss of the eastern wing profoundly transformed Pakistan in terms of its demography. It also encouraged the country to look more to the Middle-East than to South Asia as its neighbourhood region in cultural and economic terms. It was not fully recognised at the time but the federal government’s use of Islamic irregulars (Razakars) drawn from the Urdu-speaking Bihari population in East Pakistan in 1971 encouraged notions of Islamic militants’ value as strategic assets in the enduring rivalry with India. Pakistan was greatly weakened in relation to India by the loss of its eastern wing, but this did not abate their enduring rivalry, which was rooted in the Kashmir issue.

While Pakistan’s territorial dispute with India over Kashmir has symbolised the distrust between the two countries over the past six decades, it also inherited another disputed border with Afghanistan. In July 1949 the Afghan parliament formally renounced the Durand Line border which the British had negotiated with Amir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893 to demarcate the frontier of the Raj. Kabul laid claim to the territories it had lost to Pakistan. This was a serious threat because of Pakistan’s immediate post-Partition weakness and because it occurred in the context of Afghanistan’s support for ethnic Pakhtun nationalists across the Durand Line in Pakistan, who sought to create their own Pakhtunistan state. The date of 31 August was earmarked in Afghanistan as the official annual celebration of a Greater Pakhtunistan Day. The goal of a Greater Pakhtunistan was designed not only to increase the power of the Afghan state, by absorbing a Pakhtunistan area carved out of Pakistan, but to cement the ethnic dominance of Pakhtuns within it at the expense of the Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks, Kabul’s posture exacerbated Pakistan’s insecurity, which was already fevered by the 1947-8 clash with India over Kashmir. The geo-political imperative for a strong military received further encouragement. Within less than a decade of independence, Pakistan and Afghanistan became part of competing Cold War alliance systems within the region. Pakistan became a member of the US Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Although India and Afghanistan retained the fiction of non-alignment, they received increasing amounts of aid from the USSR. Soviet assistance encouraged closer ties between Kabul and New Delhi, adding a further antagonistic element to Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.

During the Cold War and the post 9/11 War on Terror,  Pakistan has found itself in the front line of an international conflict because of its geo-strategic location. Pakistan’s support was vital in the October 2001 war which removed the Taliban regime from power. It also became an important ally as NATO battled to contain the Taliban-led insurgency from 2006 onwards. By 2010-11, around 40% of all fuel and 80% of all containerised cargo for Western forces was passing through the country.

 Some authors have gone so far as to declare that Pakistan has been a prisoner of its geography. The region’s geo-politics since the 1980s have brought Pakistan economic benefits, but high costs in terms of internal instability arising from the ‘blowback effects’ of weaponization, the influx of Afghan refugees and the support afforded to militant and sectarian expressions of Islam. The US strategy of encouraging jihad in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the early 1980s did not initiate the Pakistan state’s alliances with Islamic proxies, but it profoundly influenced their development:

  • firstly, by introducing large numbers of foreign fighters into the region;
  • secondly by flooding weapons into the country;
  • thirdly by increasing the power and influence of Pakistan’s ISI and its links with militant groups;
  • fourthly by providing a template which Pakistan was to adopt in its strategic aims to dominate post-Soviet Afghanistan and to wear down India in Kashmir.

Since 9/11 Pakistan has feared encirclement as a result of growing Indian development assistance to Afghanistan, which it had hoped to dominate itself. By the end of 2007, India was second only to the US in the provision of aid. Moreover, non-Pakhtun minorities which have traditionally looked to India for support had gained a measure of power in Hamid Karzai’s regime. The resentment this generated, fuelled the growing Taliban insurgency, for since the foundation of the modern Afghan state in the mid-eighteenth century it has been ruled by Pakhtuns, with the exception of the brief Tajik hold on power during the reign of Habibullah II and the post-Soviet presidency of Burhanuddin Rabbani. Pakistan has seen the Pakhtuns as its natural allies in Afghanistan following the decline of an irredentist Pakhtunistan threat. The policy of securing influence in Afghanistan through the backing of Pakhtun Islamic militants pre-dates the 1979 Soviet invasion, but received major Western and Saudi backing at that juncture. It has persisted to the present day with Islamabad seeing its strategic interests being served through successive Pakhtun groups of Islamist and Deobandi militant clients, ranging from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Mullah Omar and the Taliban to the Haqqanis at the time of the post-2005 Taliban insurgency against the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The Tribal Areas which comprise the seven protected agencies of

  • Bajaur,
  • Khyber,
  • Khurram,
  • Mohmand,
  • Orakzai 
  • North Waziristan and
  • South Waziristan,

form a 280 mile wedge of mountainous land along this sensitive western border with Afghanistan. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have frequently been uneasy in this region. Contemporary Afghanistan presents itself as the victim of repeated cross-border incursions by Islamic militants based in this region, but it has not always been the case of one-way traffic. The Pakistan army for example had to repel major Afghan incursions into Bajaur in 1961.

Pakistan has continued the colonial strategy of regarding the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan as a buffer zone in which rule was indirect, with stability being provided by the Political Agent working through tribal jirgas. Further legacies were the provision for the imposition of collective punishments under the Frontier Crimes Regulations and the absence of a permanent military presence in the tribal heartland. Another historical inheritance which pre-dated the colonial era was the raising of tribal revolt by charismatic Muslim leaders in the Pakhtun tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. This tradition can be linked as far back as the jihad against the Sikh rule led by Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi (1786-1831). The Hadda Mullah’s jihads against the British in 1893 and 1897 were in response to colonial encroachment into the region. Hadda Mullah and his successors fused religious revivalism with the allegiances arising from the traditional Sufi ties between pirs and their murids.

The unanticipated ramifications of inducting Pakistani troops into the area in pursuit of foreign militants linked with Al-Qaeda will be discussed later in the volume. Suffice it to say here that home-grown militancy directed increasingly not against the Afghanistan state, but Pakistan itself, can be explained in part by the region’s continued isolation from political and socio-economic change elsewhere in the country, the sixth Five Year Plan declared the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to be the least developed area of Pakistan, with an adult literacy rate of just 15%. This has perpetuated extreme social conservatism and a history of sporadic uprisings against state encroachments led by unifying Islamic leaders. Despite a dramatic increase in educational expenditure from 2005, militancy and state counter-insurgency measures, with their attendant population displacement, resulted in the FATA annual school census report for 2009-10 revealing a dropout rate in government primary schools of 63% among boys and 77% among girls.

 Pakistan’s geo-political location provides economic possibilities as well as strategic dangers. Pakistan could form an important hub for trade and energy transmission if regional relations were improved, with the country providing interconnecting links between Iran, Afghanistan and India. New Delhi has pulled out of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project because of US disquiet, which became institutionalised in the June 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Disinvestment Act. It is signed up however to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project which was agreed at Ashgabat in December 2010. This could eventually supply 30 billion cubic metres of gas a year from the Caspian Sea region. The pipeline would have to cross strategically sensitive areas of south-eastern Afghanistan, including Helmand and  Balochistan. It would however not only provide transit route fees of up to $160 million a year, equivalent to half of its national revenue and jobs for Afghanistan, but clean fuel for both Pakistan and India. US state department officials have termed TAPI’s route as a stabilising corridor which would link regional neighbours together in economic growth and prosperity. This has been echoed by an eminent Pakistani expert, who sees TAPI as having the potential for reshaping the security discourse in South Asia’ away from conflicting geo-political rivalries to mutually beneficial ‘geo-economics.

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