Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 03:01 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 03:01 | SYDNEY

The many faces of Pakistan

6 August 2008 12:45

Guest blogger: David Knoll researches US foreign policy in Washington, DC, and served as research assistant for former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s last book, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West.’

The CIA recently accused Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence of having ties to militant groups in Afghanistan, possibly including those responsible for the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The Pakistani spy agency, always at the center of any intrigue, has had a tumultuous relationship with the CIA, and the most recent accusations serve as a good illustration of one of Pakistan's central problems: conflicted national identity. 

Having just returned from a week long wedding in Karachi, I saw how longstanding questions of identity, first raised during the Indian independence movement from Britain, remain firmly entrenched.  Pakistan is at once South Asian, Muslim, traditional, modern, worldly and parochial. During my first night in Karachi I was surprised to see women and men dancing together to the latest Hindi, Urdu and American tunes. While the wedding I attended was technically dry, scotch was never more than a flask, a car trunk or a wink and a nod away. As a student of South Asia and the Middle East, it was easy to place Pakistan in the 'South Asia' box after that first night.

Yet as my trip continued, I found it more difficult to ascribe one single identity to Pakistan. I saw women in burkhas and copies of Brokeback Mountain in a DVD shop. I danced to Hindi music all night long and then heard a blistering critique of all things Indian from the same party-goers the next day. I saw people proud of the new drive-through American fast food restaurants in Karachi, yet disgusted with the perceived arrogance of America. 

These contrasts continued throughout my stay in Karachi and made me realize why Pakistan scholars focus so much attention on Pakistan's identity problem. Pakistan helps to fight a war in its borderlands (an effort that is hugely unpopular with its populace), and uses the aid money it gains from this war to buy weapons for a possible war with India, which has the nuclear potential to destroy them both. 

Perhaps if Pakistan was seen as South Asian enough, it could find a solution to its border dispute with India. Perhaps if Pakistan was seen as Muslim enough, it would not have to fight its own people (some of whom demand sharia law) on the border with Afghanistan. Perhaps if Pakistan was economically developed enough, the West would see it as more than a convenient war tool to be used in times of need.

For Pakistan to progress politically and strategically, it needs to first answer its questions of identity. Surely Pakistan does not have to place itself squarely in one slot or another, but without a national consensus on what Pakistan represents and what is truly in Pakistan’s national interest, independent actors, agencies and the government itself will continue to pursue incoherent and contradictory policies that do the state and its people much more harm than good.