April 28, 2009

Will Pakistan be able to save itself from itself?

:: OP-ED The Asian Age April 29, 2009

Vikram Sood

April 28: It was in November 1994 that the first group of Taliban emerged in Kandahar to take control of the city. By the end of the month this mysterious group had taken control of Lashkargah and Helmand provinces as well.

Less than two years later, aided by an eager Pakistani establishment and various other Pashtun groups it supported, the Taliban captured Kabul on September 26, 1996, and in another show of brutality hanged President Najibullah. Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masood retreated and the Pakistanis presumed they had attained strategic depth.

Fifteen years later, the Taliban, be they Afghans sitting in Quetta or the Pakistani Taliban with total control in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and partial control in many parts of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), only confirms that the Pakistani state has retreated from parts of its own territory.

Terrorist attacks attributed to the Taliban have been common even in Punjab province. If the latest reports are to be believed, the Taliban have entered southern and western Punjab with assistance from groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who have been the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) favourites.

Pakistan’s best known sociologist and political thinker, Dr Eqbal Ahmad, had anticipated this in his essay, What After Strategic Depth (Dawn, August 23, 1998). In a very perceptive analysis, he had said: "The costs of Islamabad’s Afghan policy have been augmenting since 1980 when Muhammad Zia-ul Haq proudly declared Pakistan a ‘frontline state’ in the Cold War. Those costs — already unbearable in proliferation of guns, heroin and armed fanatics — are likely now to multiply in myriad ways".

He had added: "The domestic costs of Pakistan’s friendly proximity to the Taliban are incalculable and potentially catastrophic... More importantly, the Taliban is the most retrograde political movement in the history of Islam". Today, that elusive strategic depth seems to have become Pakistan’s obscurantist black hole.

Others had given similar warnings. Jessica Stern ended her essay, Pakistan’s Jihad Culture (Foreign Affairs, November-December 2000), with this caution: "...Pakistan must recognise the militant groups for what they are ...dangerous gangs whose resources and reach continue to grow, threatening to destabilise the entire region. Pakistan’s continued support of religious-militant groups suggests that it does not recognise its own susceptibility to the culture of violence it has helped create. It should think again". Pakistan did get that chance after September 11, 2001; but its khaki grandees assumed that duplicity would help them win in the end.

Dr Hassan-Askari Rizvi, another one of Pakistan’s well-known defence and political analysts, had a few questions in an article, Military and Islamic Militancy (Daily Times, May 31, 2004). He asked: "How far has Islamic militancy penetrated the Army? Do some senior officers share the Taliban-type Islamic worldview and support Islamic militancy? Is there any threat of a coup led by an Islamist general? Another set of concerns pertain to the safety and security of nuclear weapons and fissile and radioactive material, against the backdrop of the recent disclosure about nuclear leakages from Khan Research Laboratory. Previously, most analysts dismissed these concerns on the assumption that Islamic extremists have not been able to penetrate the military".

Dr Rizvi made another very ominous but after ignored observation he wrote: "The long years of ISI-directed Islamic militancy were bound to have implications for Pakistani society and the military. In the case of the Army, its personnel were directly exposed to Islamic militancy and propaganda by Islamic groups in support of militancy, and a genuinely Islamic order for Pakistan. The Pakistani state openly identified with Islamic orthodoxy and militancy and it became fashionable to publicly support the militant groups engaged in insurgency in Kashmir".

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (The Saudi-isation of Pakistan) and Rubina Saigol (Myths versus Facts about Fundamentalism) are two other Pakistanis who, in recent weeks, have been brave and forthright enough to express their concern about Pakistan’s future in their aforementioned articles.

Dr Hoodbhoy’s worry is that "in the long term we will have to see how the larger political battle works out between those who want an Islamic theocratic state and those who want a modern Islamic republic".

Ms Saigol pointed out what we in India have been saying for some time: "The reign of terror had Pakistan’s official support, while the rest of the world remained incredulous. The policy of ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’... had state sponsorship. Going into Afghanistan in return for dollars was also a state decision".

Pakistan is still playing the same game, only for more dollars. It continues to raise different bogies in order to win American sympathy. But judging from some recent remarks from Washington, Pakistan’s Indian bogey does not seem to be selling well any longer.

Now that Nizam-e-Adl has officially been promulgated in Swat for implementation of Taliban-style Sharia, it is going to be exceedingly difficult for the state to prevent similar demands from other parts or to describe the Taliban as "anti-state". They have been legitimised. The NWFP governor had claimed that the state had responded to the aspirations of the people.

Responding to the people’s aspirations is laudable, but in this case the government of Pakistan signed a deal with an insurgent force it had not defeated or even overpowered. It was pure appeasement.

Pakistan’s so-called civil society, which had campaigned for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry (who had been deposed by Pervez Musharraf) has all but disappeared, and many of its members are quietly looking for safe havens abroad.

The mainstream political parties, except for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), have acquiesced in the Nizam-e-Adl.

The Pakistan Army, the strongest force in Pakistan today, did not intervene to prevent what could be a cascading effect.

The point, therefore, is whether what happened in Fata NWFP and in Malakand, is an unimpeded march of the Taliban, just a march of folly by the state or an elaborate policy of cultivating hatred that has become a scourge visiting its creators.

Questions will always be raised whether the Pakistan Army was unable, unwilling or complicit in all this. If the Pakistan Army does not reassert itself soon enough, the Taliban, along with elements of the Punjabi LeT and JeM jihadis in their ranks, will become unstoppable. The Taliban’s vacation of Buner was almost as smooth as the takeover; they remain active in the hills of northern Pakistan. They could move into Gilgit and Baltistan.

One should be prepared for renewed efforts to infiltrate terrorists into India as the Pakistani establishment scurries to try and remain relevant in Kashmir.

The Pakistan Army’s future course of action will thus depend on whether or not it is convinced that it must take action against its surrogates, both among the Pashtuns and Punjabis; and if this action will cause multiple ruptures within the Army. The third factor, of course, is the amount of pressure the United States is able to sustain on the Pakistan Army.

Can Pakistan manage to save itself from itself?

Vikram Sood is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency

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