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. Some more pragmatic forces believe that Pakistan should accommodate the world but without directly confronting the jihadist groups. There are also the cynical strategists. Only very recently, on a popular TV program, a former chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI advocated that Pakistan secretly support and protect the Pakistani Taliban to confront NATO forces and counter the increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan. He suggested that Pakistan deny such support in public.
A brutal confidence underlies Pakistan’s continuing commitment to a strategy of waging war by proxy: the attendant defiant face to the world and the denial of the terrible violence within. This confidence is founded on two pillars. The first is the belief in the Pakistan Army’s ability to crush any insurgency if it really decides to do so. This is, after all, an army that has ruled the country for half its life and has warred against its own people more than once and without mercy. This conviction was expressed most clearly in General Musharraf’s statement in 2005 to the insurgents in Balochistan that he would “sort them out,” and that “They won’t know what hit them.” This iron fist was evident in the ferocious army action in Bajaur, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, earlier this year, where the army used artillery and helicopter gunships to turn the town of Loe Sam into what The New York Times described as a “heap of gray rubble.” The intense violence in Bajaur forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
The second source of confidence is Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Many in Pakistan’s army and political leadership believe that these weapons protect Pakistan from the outside world. Indian restraint during both the 1999 Kargil War, in which Pakistan sent militants and troops into Jammu & Kashmir, and during the 2001-2002 stand-off after the militant attack on India’s parliament, is held up as evidence of the power of Pakistan’s nuclear shield. This was evident again after the Bombay attacks. Many in Pakistan expected and braced themselves for some kind of punitive strike from India on “terrorist” targets, and a possible reaction from Pakistan. Policy analysts speculated that a military strike on militant training camps would engender an immediate military response from Pakistan, which could lead to heightened tensions and perhaps war. But they were comforting themselves with the belief that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would deter India from an all-out war.
India’s moves to mobilize international demands to force Pakistan to act, rather than launching an attack itself, offers little solace for the Pakistani establishment. The United Nations has placed sanctions against the top leadership of LeT. Pakistan will be obliged to seal Lashkar offices, arrest its leadership, and freeze their assets. The UN has also required these actions against the Jamaatud-Dawa. Pakistan has acted against JD by storming one of its camps, arresting a few leaders, and locking up its offices. But LeT, as an organization, has in fact been banned in Pakistan for some years. The leaders of LeT/JD, including the chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, were arrested at the time of the ban, but were later released without charge. The recent arrest of Hafiz Saeed suggests that this pattern will continue. The New York Times described a local Pakistani police commander announcing that Hafiz Saeed was under house arrest, confined to his home, and banned from going outside: “Mr. Saeed emerged moments later from the mosque across the street.” The police commander then claimed, “I’m just following instructions.”
Confronting the Challenge
Pakistan may be facing the most crucial moment of its existence. But its policymakers even now seem unwilling to fully recognize the dangers and are reluctant to confront them. The struggle becomes more difficult with each delay, prevarication, and subterfuge.
To truly confront the threat, the first challenge is for Pakistanis to agree that they want to live in a modern, democratic, and plural society. To achieve this goal, Pakistanis must face and overcome the jihadi movement. However, the resort to indiscriminate and overwhelming force will only make things worse. It will require instead what Eqbal Ahmad described as “a carefully planned and methodically executed programme of reform aimed at removing the root causes of the proliferation of violence in society, and improvement in the investigative, preventive, and prosecution capabilities of security and intelligence agencies, and the administration of justice.”
Put simply, to effectively meet the Islamist challenge, the Pakistani state must finally accept and fully exercise its responsibility to maintain peace, provide justice, foster democracy and participation, and make available in an equitable manner the resources necessary for economic and social development.
Pakistan’s neighbors and the world will need to help rather than compound the problem. The threat of use of military force by India, yet more U.S. missile attacks or commando raids into Pakistan’s tribal areas, and deepening or widening the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as U.S. military leaders and President-elect Obama have proposed, will only make things worse.
A.H. Nayyar is a senior research fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, and the president of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, a national network of peace and justice organizations. Zia Mian directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.
This essay was published by Foreign Policy In Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org). An earlier version first appeared as "Violence without limits and Pakistan's challenge," in Himal Southasian (www.himalmag.org), January 2009 and