This week’s DRI Asia Review looks at Pakistan, specifically the latest revelations of widespread financial malfeasance among members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet and those of the country’s hallowed and all-powerful military establishment. It delves into how voices across the border—in India—are viewing how the return of the Taliban to Kabul stands to affect Pakistan and Kashmir, and recaps some of the key conclusions from a September The Diplomat/DRI webinar on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. And it leaves you contemplating an evolutionary theory of national honor, and the role of “sacred spaces” in geopolitics.
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DRI Asia Review
October 15,
Pakistan: Neither Sink nor Swim?
Pakistan’s military and the Pandora Papers
Archenemy India on Pakistan’s woes and Kashmir
Pakistan and the Taliban: towards frenemity?
The evolutionary theory of national honor

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s DRI Asia Review looks at Pakistan, specifically the latest revelations of widespread financial malfeasance among members of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet and those of the country’s hallowed and all-powerful military establishment. It delves into how voices across the border—in India—are viewing how the return of the Taliban to Kabul stands to affect Pakistan and Kashmir, and recaps some of the key conclusions from a September The Diplomat/DRI webinar on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. And it leaves you contemplating an evolutionary theory of national honor, and the role of “sacred spaces” in geopolitics.


Pindi, Pandora, and “Naya” Pakistan
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan discusses developments in his nation, July 23, 2019, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.
— Flickr, U.S. Institute of Peace

In 2007, political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa in her book “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy” coined the term “Milbus,” which she used to refer to the “military capital that is used for personal benefit of the military fraternity.” The book provides an in-depth coverage on the Pakistani army’s penetration of the national economy at the cost of public economy. Sadly and quite predictably, Siddiqa faced a lot of hurdles including blocking of the book's launch and receiving threats of treason. Nevertheless, the book sold out its first edition within 24 hours of its release.

The recently released Pandora Papers, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, names over 700 Pakistanis with hidden wealth and secret offshore assets which includes serving ministers in the current Imran Khan administration and members of the military elite. It has once again reignited questions about the military’s outsized privilege and illicit wealth in Pakistan.

Corruption, unfortunately, thrives in Asia, with Pakistan being just one example. The latest survey by Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer—which surveys public perceptions of corruption in countries—found that 74 percent of its 20,000 respondents in Asia believe that government corruption is a big problem in their country, and one out of five people who used public services in the previous 12 months paid a bride. Milbus prevails in most militaries around Asia, with its strength and extent determined by the civil-military relations and strength of political institutions in the country. In this context, given the complex political landscape of Pakistan—where the military establishment has an outsized political role, and corruption is pervasive throughout the country, both among the military and society at large— the nexus between military, politics and corruption is undoubtedly a cause of particular concern, whose implications stretch from being “merely” economic to bearing national security ramifications.

A close look at the particularly volatile history of Pakistan reveals that, not only has no Pakistani prime minister ever completed a full five-year term, but also that most of them have been involved in corruption scandals. The most visible example is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who in 2017 was disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on charges of corruption following the 2016 release of the Panama Papers. Even Benazir Bhutto—the first ever woman to become the head of a Muslim government—in both her terms in office had faced corruption charges. Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, who served as prime minister from 2008 until his ouster by the Supreme Court in 2012, was involved in several corruption cases, and a fresh corruption case was filed against him by Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog National Accountability Bureau (NAB) last year.

Interestingly, none of the serving military generals in the country have been tried for corruption. In a rare move in 2015, an army court in Pakistan did punish two former generals on corruption charges. In 2016, six military officers, including two high-ranking generals, were sent into early retirement, which some termed a “political move” that failed to address the root cause of the military’s massive financial corruption. Back in 2011, for the first time since the national chapter of Transparency International Pakistan started conducting the National Corruption Perception Survey in 2002, the military was included and it was shown as amongst the least corrupt. Conspicuously, since 2011 the organization stopped conducting the survey, and neither do their annual reports since 2011 mention anything about perception of corruption within the military.

Yet corruption has continued unabated in Pakistan—as indicated by the latest Corruption Perception Index, released by Transparency International earlier this year, where Islamabad ranked 124 out of 180 countries. The revelations made by the Pandora Papers further substantiate claims of rampant corruption in the country, which has roiled Pakistan’s politics. In 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan drove the wave of widespread dissatisfaction against his predecessor Nawaz Sharif’s history of corruption and centered his election campaign around an anti-corruption narrative, promising a Naya Pakistan (“New Pakistan”) free of graft. Now with the newly-released documents, which don’t name Khan but include a significant number of his allies, there is immense pressure on him to act fast as calls for his resignation grow within the country.

Since the country’s founding in 1947, the Pakistani military has used corruption and ineptitude of civilian politicians to overthrow elected governments. However, the Pandora Papers, which name at least three retired military officers with offshore accounts and point out notable offshore holdings of close relatives of three senior military figures, are the latest proof of rampant corruption even within the military echelons.

The politically privileged position of the army in Pakistani politics however makes it almost impossible for civilian authorities to take action against these leaders. Ample evidence and voices within the country accept that NAB, established through a Presidential Ordinance in 1999 by military leader Pervez Musharraf, is controlled by military officers who are themselves exempted from its purview. Currently Khan’s government has more than a dozen former and current military officials in prominent governmental roles, which has led to some critics calling him a “military stooge.” It remains unclear what the real impact of Pandora Papers will be on Khan’s political future, but it is clear as day that the military’s privilege will continue in the country as it has for the past decades.


Indian Newspapers on Taliban, Pakistan— and Kashmir
Aradhana, right, wife of Deepak Chand, a school teacher who was killed in Kashmir, mourns next to the body of her husband, in Jammu, India, Friday, October 8, 2021
— AP Photo, Channi Anand

On October 9, a Pakistan journalist Mariana Babur writing for Amar Ujala, a leading Indian Hindi newspaper, wrote that with the return of the Taliban regime to Kabul, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP)—an extremist group that has long targeted the Pakistani state—has also been strengthened. Expressing her shock at Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s professed willingness to negotiate with “sections” of the TPP (as expressed by Khan in an interview to a Turkish television channel), she claimed out that his decision was not taken in consultation with the rest of the Pakistani cabinet nor the parliament. (Without adjudicating this particular point, it is highly unlikely that Khan would have not at least broached the topic with Pakistan’s powerful army beforehand.)

Meanwhile Indian analysts worry that the recent uptick of violence in India-administered Kashmir is related to the return of the Taliban to Kabul, even if the Pakistani establishment may not have directly greenlighted it. Established scholars maintain that there is a germ of truth: Prominent analysts DRI interviewed for a two-part project on Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban have maintained that, at the very least, extremist groups operating in the Kashmir Valley may now be emboldened by what they perceive as the Taliban’s “victory” against a military behemoth. That said, others argue that broad-spectrum political engagement with mainstream political parties may indeed be the only way forward for New Delhi.

However, one writer, Divya Kumar Soti, in another Hindi newspaper, Dainik Jagran, again writing on October 9, claimed Kashmir’s festering three-decade long insurgency could not be tackled merely by political rearrangements or constitutional changes. (Note that India had revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutionally guaranteed autonomous status in August 2019 with the view that the move will help the central government get a stronger grip on militancy and Islamist extremism in the region, a strategy that is increasingly looking tenuous.) Instead, the Dainik Jagran writer—with less than scant evidence—laid part of the blame on Kashmir’s problems on mainstream regional political leaders like Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti who he described as Taliban sympathizers. Soti also expressed a refrain not uncommon in Hindi-language opinion columns: that should the situation in Kashmir continue to deteriorate, another mass exodus of Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities from Kashmir—just as the one in the 1990s—could now be in the offing. Soti concluded on an omnious note, that what the world is witnessing in Kashmir right now is a mere “trailer” to a much more large-scale of violence to come.


The Soundless Wailing Water, Climate Change, and Security Risks in the Asia-Pacific

In the context of national and international security, climate change acts as a threat multiplier and exacerbates existing issues and geopolitical conflicts such as conflicts between states over natural resources (most commonly, water), migration due to scarcity/sudden extreme weather events (floods, droughts) causing undesirable/illegal influx of “climate refugees,” and conflicts over territories with abundant natural resources (for example, conflicts over upper riparian regions). Climate change will also give rise to new, unprecedented situations which could potentially lead to competition and conflicts among nations. In this edition of DRI Trendlines, we analyze multiple streams of data to show security in the Asia-Pacific stands to be transformed by climate change.

Read excerpt

Access report here


Pakistan and the Taliban: An Uneasy Entente?
In this photo released by Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, right, holds meeting with Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, second left, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, October 8, 2021.
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP

When the Taliban returned to power in Kabul exactly two months ago, Indian commentors—and not a few Western ones—interpreted it as an alloyed victory of the Pakistani deep state which had finally succeed in installing a Pashtun government in Afghanistan that is, at a fundamental level, inimical to the Indian state. This, commentators argued, was not the least because the Taliban had supported (and by many accounts, continues to support) a plethora of terrorist groups that have targeted the Indian state, often at the behest of the Pakistani security establishment. Others, however, cautioned against the extent to which this patron-client relationship—between the Taliban regime and Pakistan—could be sustained in the future, especially as the Taliban continues on (what still looks like a quixotic) quest for a modicum of international recognition.

Speaking at the first panel of “9/11 and Asia: Two Decades Later” on September 13, Elizabeth Threlkeld, Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, delved into the nuances of the Pakistan-Taliban relationship, and the role of third actors—including India and Iran—in how it could potentially shape up in the long run. While acknowledging that the Taliban has long enjoyed support from Pakistan—including through shelter for key leaders in Quetta---Threlkeld pointed out the fundamentally transactional nature of the relationship between the two, noting Pakistan leveraged the “Global War on Terror” for its own interests, just as it backed the covert U.S. fight against the Soviet Union during the Cold War (with India looming large over both). That said, she also pointed out that this was not a matter of simple elite politics, and that sections of the Pakistani population continue to support the Taliban—and since the fall of Kabul two months ago, we have already seen evidence of this.

For the Taliban, however, the challenge remains simple, as Threlkeld explains: On one hand, Pakistan continues to hold considerable leverage over the regime—the least of which is physical access—but at the same time, the new regime in Kabul is unlikely to be happy about being viewed as puppet of Islamabad by the public. To add to her analysis: An added complication remains TTP, with neither the Pakistan state (which has suffered considerable losses because of it) nor the Taliban (which has provided it significant material and ideological support) not knowing quite what to do about it. At the same time, modest indications have emerged since August 15 that the “Taliban 2.0” may be interested in diversifying its relations with India—at least to be point of aloof coexistence in place of active hostility. That, in turn, is unlikely to sit very well with Islamabad. Finally, for Pakistan, a principal concern remains that of a large refugee inflow from Afghanistan should the economic situation in that country continue to plummet in absence of inflow of foreign aid funds.

Watch the webinar

DRI Report

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 Political Drivers, Taliban Strategies, and Domestic Implications

Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, the report looks at the domestic and international drivers behind the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 and the return of the Taliban to power two decades after they were ousted. The report also probes Taliban 2.0, the group’s possible economic strategies, as well as the social implications of their return to Kabul.

View Report


Sacred Games
— Flickr, Achim Voss

Writing for Aeon on April 14, 2014—soon after the Russian invasion of Crimea—evolutionary biologist and historian Peter Turchin advanced what he called an “evolutionary theory of national honor,” in which countries, due to a plethora of historical and cultural reasons, hold that certain territories (that either they have once lost but will either try to regain, or have already done so by force) are not subject to any utility-maximizing negotiations or bargaining with actual or potential adversaries, and but instead are ones that must be held at a very cost, possibly through war.

For him, the evolutionary basis of this behavior lies in rough and tumble of “kill-or-be-killed” of lawless frontiers where those who did not exhibit extreme ruthlessness in face of even relatively small transgressors—“men without honor,” as Turchin calls them—soon become extinct. Of course, the flip side to this is that would be transgressors too devise strategies to push back against the defenders locking both sides into a “spiral of violence in which all parties run a high risk of extermination.”

Turchin argues—mostly by drawing on Crimea’s very special place in Russian history and culture as well as a broad evolutionary theory including a “bourgeois” variant of the familiar “hawk/dove game”—that “…most states, historical and modern, also put some territory into a special category, one that is not subject to rational geopolitical calculation. Such land is ‘sacred’. It must be held at all costs.” Strikingly, he concludes, countries that are willing to go to any lengths to defend their sacred territories have much greater chance of surviving in an anarchic international system.

Equally interestingly, Turchin ascribes the “sanctity” of these “sacred territories” both as the result of elite machinations—that drum up public fervor for their own gains—as well as “bedrock” public attitudes that has evolved and solidified over the years, through popular culture, stylized telling of history, and other cultural memes, to the effect that “it isn’t always the elites who manipulate the wider population; popular attitudes also constrain elite choices and actions.”

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej, DRI Research Analysts Malvika Rajeev and Rushali Saha contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translation of Hindi media articles were provided by an in-house linguist.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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