Pakistan has been characterized by scholars as, among other things, an “ideological state” (like Israel), because of the political reinterpretation of Islam by its founding fathers, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah; a “garrison state,” because of the key role of the military; and as a “terror state,” because of the rise of radical Islamic movements in its midst. But its trajectory may be best captured by another, encompassing, feature not contradictory with the qualifications mentioned above: its ability to navigate at the interface of domestic and external dynamics, which makes relevant two other formulas –that of “client state” and “pivotal state.”

Every country strategizes at the crossroads of the national and the international – to say nothing of the transnational – to maximize its resources. But in the case of Pakistan, this interaction has reached uncommon proportions, given its geographic size, its population (almost 200 million people), and its nuclear status. Countries of the same league are generally less dependent on outside support and less porous to foreign influences – be they religious, cultural, or economic.

The root cause of this extraversion lays in the Pakistani feeling of vulnerability that crystallized vis-à-vis India as early as 1947 – a sentiment that was reinforced by the then hostile attitude of Afghanistan. Subjected to encirclement, Pakistan looked immediately for external support. The United States was the first country Pakistan turned to, but it also made overtures to China and Middle Eastern countries, especially when Washington distances itself from Islamabad.

Although this policy was associated primarily with the army, whose quest for foreign, sophisticated military equipment knew almost no limit, civilian politicians rallied around the same strategy, and not only for security reasons. Among other things, the political personnel – which drew mostly from a tiny elite group – found that financial support from the outside was a convenient way to obviate a modern taxation policy, one which their milieu and key supporters would have resented. The political economy rationale of the army’s extraversion cannot be ignored either, as the Pakistani military does not pay taxes either and has developed business activities. The Pakistani army, therefore, enjoys a much better lifestyle than most of the rest of society.

Civilians and military officers also converged in the use of (sometimes foreign) mujahideen in the waging of jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir – the favorite tactic of the army over the last three decades. ZA Bhutto supported Hekmatyar and Rabbani against the Kabul regime as early as the 1970s. This strategy gained momentum under Zia during the war against the Soviets. But Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan when the army supported the Taliban and when Islamabad recognized the Taliban regime in 1996. And neither Benazir nor Nawaz Sharif had objections toward the support of foreign mujahideen in Kashmir.

The promotion of external ties by the military and civilians for security and socioeconomic reasons reflects the growing commonality of their worldview and (more or less illicit) interests. Their elite groups form a closely knit establishment comprising a few hundreds of families. Indeed, the difference between the most authoritarian phases of civilian rules and the most moderate forms of military dictatorship has tended to differ in degrees more than in nature over the last twenty years.

As a result, Pakistanis may look for alternatives to their rulers of the day not among the usual suspects any more (the dominant opposition party or a new chief of army staff) but out of this circle entirely. They may turn more to the judiciary, parties that have not been tried yet and the Islamist forces that do not articulate a discourse of social justice inadvertently. Are these developments the indications of even more domestic tensions in a country already on the verge of civil war in regions like Baluchistan and Karachi? And what part can external variables play in this context? These are some of the questions this volume tries to explore.

Christophe Jaffrelot is research director at the Centre de recherches internationales and Centre national de la recherche scientifique.

Pakistan at the Crossroads: Domestic Dynamics and External Pressures, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot (Random House India).