11/11/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Understanding Pakistani Geopolitics

Pakistan continually draws world attention. The Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Malala Yousafzai, the ban on NATO supplies for nearly six months, armed Pakistanis invading Mumbai, the Sufi songs of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, the Burka Avenger, Ms. Marvel, these and other stories offer a perplexing picture of Pakistan -- the sixth largest nation in the world and owning a stockpile of nuclear weapons possibly exceeding that of the United Kingdom and France. Pakistan, an ancient land baked with layers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam, is a complex and intriguing nation preparing to play a more assertive geopolitical role in the coming decades.

Composed of distinct peoples who have lived in separate enclaves for centuries, including Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, and Balochis, Pakistan is striving hard, though unsuccessfully, to forge a new national identity. However, inter-ethnic dissensions linger. Few Punjabis would ever marry Sindhis, Pashtuns, or Balochis, and vice versa. Each ethnic group is proud of its history and traditions. The Pashtuns celebrate themselves as indomitable warriors. The Balochis find roots with Iranians and Arabs. The Sindhis are the first Muslims in the subcontinent. The Punjabis, constituting the majority of the population, profess intellectual superiority over others and dominate federal bureaucracy, politics, and the armed forces.

Partly because of ethnic diversity and partly because of a robust oral culture, Pakistanis have a keen sense of regional geopolitics. Much like Iranians, though not as much, Pakistanis are a poetic people. Most Pakistanis are multilingual, speaking at least two languages. The educated Pakistanis may know five to six languages, including Arabic, Persian, and English. Urdu, the national language, is itself a composite language that draws its vocabulary from at least fifteen other languages. Pakistanis are enigmatic in social attitudes, scientific in the day and superstitious at night, chivalrous but erratic in combat, charitable even when impoverished, continuously oscillating between haughty self-confidence and panic-stricken inferiority complex. Pakistanis claim to be the heirs to a thousand years of Muslim rule in India. Yet in folk stories and TV shows, Pakistanis ridicule the memories of Moghul Emperors. They adore cricket and yet make the cruelest jokes about the British Raj.

Pakistanis are nervous neighbors. They have no desire whatsoever to merge with India or live under the same flag with Hindus and Sikhs. The Pakistani soul is incorrigibly puritan and prejudiced. Pakistanis do not even miss losing Bangladesh, once East Pakistan, on the dubious theory that the Bangladeshis did not deserve to be Pakistanis. The China-Pakistan friendship, claimed as "taller than the mountains and deeper than the oceans," bears an eerie halo of reality but it is frequently deployed to cause commotion in the minds of American policymakers whenever Pakistan is cornered or bullied. Because of many material benefits received from the Gulf States, Pakistanis ingratiate Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as benefactors. Culturally, though, Pakistanis have little amity for the Middle East. Because of the Shia theocracy in Iran, Pakistanis hesitate from forming closer ties with Iran. In their gilded dreams, Pakistanis wish to colonize Afghanistan, one way or the other, to expand their influence over Central Asia. To that end, Pakistanis created the Taliban.


The Burka-Avenger, a Pakistani animation character who fights anti-education militants with books and pens.

Pakistanis have a schizophrenic relationship with the United States. They admire the U.S. material achievements, its people, its inventions, and its cultural freedoms. They have been receiving U.S. financial assistance ever since Pakistan came into being. During the cold war, Pakistan stood with the United States. For the most part, American generals admire Pakistani generals and defer to their geopolitical judgments.

However, there have been rough spots over military strategies in Afghanistan. When Pakistanis disagree with their American counterparts, Pakistanis play a highly convoluted game that befuddles American policymakers who tend to be linear, forceful, and prosaic. For example, Pakistanis continue to allow drone attacks in tribal areas and sometimes solicit drone attacks for hitting certain targets. The CIA thankfully accommodates Pakistani demands. Yet Pakistani policymakers have launched a vigorous international campaign to argue that drone attacks are unlawful. Most legal experts, the United Nations, geopolitical tacticians, and even ordinary Americans condemn and criticize drone attacks.

Profoundly paranoid, Pakistanis believe that the United States is determined to take away their nuclear bombs. Many Pakistanis fear that after taking the chemical weapons away from Libya and Syria and after imposing draconian sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambition, the United States and its allies are bound to come after their country too. While fears linger and the chronic electricity shortage aggravates their days and nights, Pakistanis continue to cherish the dreams of defeating India in Kashmir, the dreams of colonizing Afghanistan, the dreams of defeating the world in Cricket, and the dreams of seeking sovereign equality with the United States.