March 2020: Understanding Pakistan – Politics, Extremism, and Foreign Policy

March 2020: Understanding Pakistan – Politics, Extremism, and Foreign Policy

March 5, 2020

Speaker: Madiha Afzal

   About the Speaker:   

Dr. Madiha Afzal is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. She is the author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State”(2018).

Dr. Afzal has also written for publications including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Lawfare, and Dawn, and published several journal articles, book chapters, policy reports, and essays. She is regularly interviewed by media outlets including BBC, NPR, and PBS. In addition, she has consulted for international organizations including the World Bank and UK’s Department for International Development.

For her writing on education in Pakistan, Dr. Afzal was named to Lo Spazio della Politica’s list of “Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013.” She previously worked as an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Afzal holds a PhD in economics from Yale University.

   Program Recording:   

An audio recording of this program is available here.

   News Article:    

VCU’s Journalism Graduate Student Patricia Cason attended this program and offers her synopsis here:

Scholar offers insights on Pakistan’s extremism, foreign policy

Photo: Afzal addresses the crowd at Jefferson Hotel.

   Event Review:    

Key Quotes:

  • “Pakistan, as it stands in 2020, has an image as a ‘hot bed’ of extremism.”
  • “The number of terrorism incidents has gone down from a high of 3,917 in 2013 to 285 in 2019.”
  • “Pakistan in 2020, to the world at least, is defined more by its foreign policy than its domestic affairs.”
  • “Pakistan in 2020 really cares about its image.”
  • “While there is a lid on terrorism, it may resurface.”

“Understanding Pakistan”

by Mana Soroush

On March 5th, members of the Richmond World Affairs Council along with various students and faculty gathered to hear about the current state of Pakistan from Dr. Madiha Afzal. With many people in the West seeing Pakistan in a state of turmoil due to what is displayed by mainstream media, this event was crucial in sharing facts and collected data to question current stereotypes.

Afzal shared that Pakistan, as it stands in 2020, has developed then image of a “hot bed” of extremism from 2001 to 2015. However, the levels of violence in the country have reduced dramatically. According to Afzal, the number of terrorism incidents has gone down from a high of 3,917 in 2013 to 285 in 2019. This is due to the Pakistani military’s kinetic action that it has taken since 2014 against the Pakistani Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan Taliban.

Afzal touched on the fact that Pakistan has a new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, whose party is in power for the first time. She spoke of their “teething” troubles, with the Pakistani economy being in quite dire straits at this time, undergoing its “umteenth” IMF program. 

Further, Afzal pointed out that Pakistan in 2020, to the world at least, is defined more by its foreign policy than its domestic affairs. Notably, she stated, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked non-state militants to not attack India because that would worsen the situation.

In regards to Afghanistan, Afzal discussed how Pakistan has greatly helped the US in bringing the Taliban to the table, getting the negotiations going, and bringing the negotiations to a close. Pakistan says that it has delivered on what it promised to do, and with the US-Taliban deal, this has meant that the relationship between the US and Pakistan has improved quite a bit in the last year. 

China, according to Afzal, is known by Pakistanis as Pakistan’s “all-weather” friend, and the relationship with China seems to be very strong at this point in time. China is investing 62 billion dollars in Pakistan under the CPEC, a flagship program of the “one belt one road” program. Pakistanis describe Pakistan’s relationship with China as “higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest ocean, and sweeter than honey.” Afzal stated that Pakistan is very skillful at balancing its relationships with both the US and China.

“Something new I didn’t know about was that China was helping Pakistan, and I think that’s a good thing,” stated Mary, an audience member. “I am very hopeful for the future.”

Afzal mentioned that, just a couple of weeks ago, when Trump conducted the “Namaste Trump” rally in India, the only point in which the stadium of 110,000 people went silent is when Trump said, “We have a very good relationship with Pakistan.” This is an example of how Pakistan’s anxieties are heightened whenever the US-India embrace is shown. 

Pakistan, according to Afzal, has a good relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has offered to mediate between the two countries while also refusing to take sides. However, if push comes to shove, Afzal predicts that Pakistan would take Saudi Arabia’s side. In regards to the US and Iran, Pakistan offered to mediate between the two countries following the killing of General Qasem Soleimani ordered by the US. 

Other aspects that define Pakistan in 2020 include greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force (an intergovernmental body that polices terrorist financing) and the domestic policy being polarized. Giving a brief history of Pakistani politics, Afzal described it as characterized by instability and by the dominance of its military, with the military being in control behind the scenes and power switching between military governments and civilian governments. 

Since 2008, Pakistan has been a full democracy in terms of a full electoral procedural democracy, with civilian governments having completed their full terms in office. Imran Khan stated that he and his government are on the same page, which Afzal believes could be a new equilibrium that could inspire some stability. Yet, it is still quite tenuous because there is a great degree of political dealing behind the scenes, along with protests by Islamic parties. 

Dr. Afzal’s book, Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State, is focused on the years 1947 to around 2016 to 2017, and answers the question of how Pakistan came to the state of violence that it came to. The book takes a bottom-up approach in which Afzal seeks to understand extremism as it manifests in ordinary Pakistanis. Information in the book was compiled from quantitative data and Afzal’s own fieldwork/interviews. 

Stated in the book, the vast majority of Pakistanis are against violence if you ask them about it– they do not believe that it is justified nor do they favor any terrorist group, including Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

Underlying everything, Afzal states, is the way Pakistan has defined itself within two dimensions: one being an Islamic state, and one being the fact that it faces a threat from India. These two dimensions have led to the dominance of Pakistan’s military (which has been dominant throughout the country’s 70-year history), and the use of the notion of Jihad in its wars with India. 

In regards to Pakistan’s laws, Afzal stated that the legal system in Pakistan has encouraged the fostering of intolerance. The blasphemy law in Pakistan makes offenses against the Prophet Mohammad or the Quran punishable by imprisonment for life or death. Offenses are very subjectively defined, and the law has been misused since it has been put in place in Pakistan’s penal code. Yet, 75% of respondents, according to Afzal’s data, said that blasphemy laws are “necessary to protect Islam” in Pakistan. 

Afzal stated that Pakistan’s education system has been a key method through which the state has pushed intolerance, the notion that the Pakistani ideology is Islam, and victimhood from India and the West, being biased and one-sided. Students must read textbooks, memorize them, regurgitate them, and cannot question them. Afzal’s argument is not that these textbooks are setting up a framework that makes people extremists, but that it makes people vulnerable in that they cannot question them. 

Pakistan in 2020 is projecting a new image that it is turning over a new leaf, and is displaying a new foreign policy posture. However, none of the fundamentals in policy have really changed, for example, Islamists are still strong in terms of street power and their influence on the education system and laws, the blasphemy laws and curriculum have not changed, and the military which stands behind those pillars is stronger than ever. 

On a sober note, Afzal stated that while extremism in Pakistan has tampered down right now, there is a lid on it, and it could rise again. “I think she made a lot of good points, especially about the fact that Pakistan can fall back into extremism,” stated Urwa, another audience member. She continued, “All of the ingredients are still there, and the government needs to take immediate action in order to quell the problem that might occur.”

Pakistan in 2020 cares greatly about its image, and while it has been unable to improve for a long time, they have been seeking it in higher stakes since India’s image has been able to improve. To improve its image, Pakistan might actually take some action against its own terrorist groups, Afzal says, which is the “ray of light” that she sees. 

While mainstream media displays seemingly never-ending violence and tension within Pakistan, Afzal showed us that there are actually many reasons to be hopeful. As long as fundamentals in policy begin to change, we will be able to see tangible evidence that Pakistan is “turning over a new leaf”, as they are attempting to display to the rest of the world. However, we must keep aware of Afzal’s cautionary note that, while there is a lid on terrorism, it may resurface.

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