Feb 14, 2009

Pakistan and the Islamist challenge

The murderous assault on Bombay by Islamist militants, at least some of whom were from Pakistan, has exposed once again the grave danger that radical Islamist movements pose to Pakistan, its neighbors, and the world. The urgent challenge now is for Pakistan and its neighbors, together with the international community, to work together to confront the risk of Pakistan spiraling into chaos and collapse. Ten years ago, the political thinker and activist Eqbal Ahmad wrote that “conditions for revolutionary violence have been gathering in Pakistan since the start in 1980 of the internationally sponsored Jihad in Afghanistan.” He argued that “revolutionary violence in Pakistan is likely to be employed by religious and right-wing organizations which have not set theoretical or practical limits on their use of violence.” He then warned that Pakistan “is moving perilously toward a critical zone from where it will take the state and society generations to return to a semblance of normal existence. When such a critical point of hard return is reached, the viability of statehood depends more on external than internal factors.” Pakistan’s leaders have failed for a decade to heed this warning. Sadly, the recognition of the need to act against the Islamist violence that now imperils Pakistan has come not from the terrible war that jihadi groups have unleashed on state and society, wreaking havoc from remote border areas to the heart of the capital city, targeting both the powerful and the powerless. It has come from external pressure. The Americans demanded action against the Islamists following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, and the military crisis that followed, generated new demands for action. The 2005 attacks on London’s underground system and buses triggered further pressure. The list is long. The assault by Islamist militants on the people of Bombay in December 2008 is only the most recent, and it is unlikely to be the last. Pakistan’s western neighbors have also suffered. The Afghan Taliban who fled the U.S. invasion found sanctuary in the border areas of Pakistan. They now organize their resistance against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from the tribal areas and the province of Balochistan. The Afghan government has demanded Pakistan do more to halt these attacks. Iran also sees itself threatened by Pakistan based militants. Islamist militants of the radical Sunni group Jundallah, based in Balochistan, are said to be involved in attacks on Iran, including a recent suicide bombing. Seymour Hersh has claimed that Jundallah is supported by the United States as part of its covert war against Iran. Iranian officials have complained that Pakistan has not been cooperating in efforts to counter Jundallah. All these indicators point in the same direction: Pakistan’s failure to confront Islamic militants is a threat to itself, its neighbors, and the world.The threat facing Pakistan is broad and deep. There is on the one hand the armed Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), its parent organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD), and similar Pakistani groups, many originating in the Punjab, but with a presence in towns and cities across the country. They are radical Islamist nationalists with the goal of turning Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state. They are opposed to the democratic process. Created by the Pakistani state as a proxy army to wage war with India over Kashmir, these groups oppose any peace process with India and seek to heighten the conflict. They see the United States and its allies as a threat to their ambitions.Then there are the Taliban militants in the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These are essentially local religious warlords who have established theocratic rule in their respective areas of influence, with unheard of brutalities and barbarism. While each Pakistani Taliban group has its own base in the respective tribal agency, they have organized themselves into the Tehrik-e- Taliban-e-Pakistan (the Taliban Movement of Pakistan). They are inspired by the Afghan Taliban, who were created by Pakistan in the 1990s as a proxy army to achieve Pakistani military and political ambitions in Afghanistan.These groups have given sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda forces that fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion. They now fight alongside them against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. They too consider themselves Pakistani nationalists. In the midst of the crisis triggered by the attacks on Bombay, Baitullah Masud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan offered to have his men “fight alongside the army,” even under Pakistan army command, if India were to attack. The Pakistani Taliban militants offered a ceasefire in the tribal areas, and a Pakistani military spokesman described the militants as “patriotic.” These two movements, which Pakistan now needs to confront, are not necessarily separate. They represent two heads of the same monster. Many fighters in both groups were spawned in the madrassas and have been nurtured and sheltered by Pakistan’s mainstream Islamist political parties and missionary orders. The first generation of these groups – from the key leaders and activists to the model for their organization, strategy and tactics, their politics, and vision of success – were nurtured by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in the war against the Soviet Union. In recent years, the Punjabi groups have taken shelter with and provided training to their Taliban brothers in the tribal areas as well as access to their networks in the towns and cities of Pakistan. Both groups are part of an even larger network that includes the Islamist sectarian militias in the country, hard-line activists in Pakistan’s mainstream Islamist political parties and organizations, and sympathizers in government institutions and across social classes.Pakistan’s leadership has talked about the danger of the jihadi groups for a long time. As prime minister in 1999, Nawaz Sharif escaped an assassination attempt, Pervez Musharraf survived at least three attacks, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz survived at least one, and Benazir Bhutto was not that fortunate. And thousands of ordinary people have been killed, their names never reported. Regardless, the jihadi groups have endured and their leaders have flourished. The government of Asif Ali Zardari claims that the war against the jihadis is now Pakistan’s war (and, for Zardari, a personal war), and he has promised to wage this war with all the capacities of the state. But even today, not all in Pakistan seem convinced that confronting the jihadist movement is an urgent need for Pakistan’s survival as a democratic country. Some hardline nationalists, and even some on the left who are concerned more about defying the imperialist agenda, are resisting the external pressure to defeat the Islamists. A H Nayyar & Zia Mian

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