The September 20 suicide attack in Islamabad was the deadliest so far by Islamic militants based in the tribal areas. It was a carefully planned and executed operation, on a day when the Pakistani leadership was in Islamabad for President Asif Zardari’s first address to parliament. It seems that the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda want to undermine the government to further their political and ideological agenda in Pakistan, Afghanistan and, if possible, elsewhere.
Such a massive act of terrorism has not unified Pakistan on the need to counter terrorism. All are not convinced that the Taliban constitute a threat to Pakistan’s internal order and stability. There is a clear divergence in the responses of different groups, influenced by their partisan political considerations, ideological blindness, affinity with Islamic militancy and disposition towards the United States. The various responses to the blast include:
1. The ongoing war on terrorism is Pakistan’s war because its survival as a political and constitutional entity is threatened.
2. It is America’s war thrust on Pakistan and it hardly serves Pakistan’s national interests.
3. Pakistan is playing America’s game in the region, acting as a mercenary.
4. Pakistan should stop all military operations in the tribal areas. Why should Pakistan’s security forces kill their own people?
5. Suicide bombings are a reaction to Pakistan’s military operation and periodic US attacks in the tribal areas.
6. The Taliban are not against Pakistan; they are fighting against American troops that have occupied Afghanistan. They retaliate against Pakistan for its support to American troops across the border.
There is a problem of ownership of the war on terrorism in Pakistan. The present elected government is the first to publicly own counter-terrorism and declare that it serves Pakistan’s national interests. The key leaders — the president, the prime minister and cabinet members — have openly defended Pakistan’s role in countering terrorism and have repeatedly vowed to meet the challenge with full determination.
The NWFP government, led by the ANP has also publicly vowed to counter the insurgency. Similarly, the MQM has taken an unambiguous stand against religious extremism and violence.
The present government’s policy is different from the days of General Pervez Musharraf. He owned the war on terrorism but his PMLQ government shied away from publicly supporting the effort. Some in Musharraf’s official circles sympathised with, if not supported, the Taliban and other Islamic hardliners. Despite Musharraf’s strong rhetoric against terrorism, his civilian and security personnel gave enough space to extremists to carry on with their activities despite periodic military action.
However, they face difficulties in defending the war on terrorism because this strategy conflicts with the general orientation of Pakistani society, which is pro-Islamic orthodoxy for a host of reasons, to be discussed later. Islamist parties, including the JUIF (one of the PPP’s coalition partners), have not categorically condemned the suicide bombing in Islamabad, and most religious groups view Pakistan’s current predicament as a consequence of its pro-US policy.
The Jama’at-e Islami holds similar views and some of its leaders consider the US agenda in the region to be the real threat to Pakistan instead of the Taliban. A number of other parties on the political right extend varying degrees of support to the Taliban and other hardliners.
Partisan political agendas shape the orientations of the PMLQ and the PMLN; both seem to derive a grudging satisfaction from the government’s problems caused by increased internal security pressures and American demands to do more. The leader of opposition in the National Assembly, belonging to PMLN, described counter-terrorism as a war thrust on Pakistan by the US. The PMLN chief, Nawaz Sharif, declared that the dream of “liberation” from the US has not been realised.
The PMLN’s refusal to support the government on counterterrorism is shaped mainly by its on-going political wrangling with the PPP. The PMLN is annoyed by the PPP’s refusal to reinstate all deposed judges of the superior courts to their pre-Nov 3, 2007 position. Further, the PMLN’s refusal to support military action in the tribal areas aims at winning over conservative voters who often vote for Islamist parties.
The softer disposition of the Pakistani society towards Islamic militancy can be traced back to the days of General Zia-ul Haq. In the 1980s, the Pakistani civil and military establishment projected religious orthodoxy and militancy as the favoured political discourse. This process continued even after the death of General Zia because the military and the intelligence agencies continued to use militancy as an instrument of foreign policy in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir.
Starting from the junior and high school levels in the state education system, the government shifted the emphasis from the concept of Pakistan as a nation-state to Islamic orthodoxy, militancy and a universal Islamic identity that recognised armed struggle as a legitimate method to advance Islamic causes. There was no effort to inculcate the notion of Pakistani citizenship among children. They were taught the features of an Islamic society rather than features of Pakistani society or responsibilities of a Pakistani citizen. This generation was also influenced by the veterans of the Afghan war whose thought process was frozen in the Afghan experience, and who wanted to replicate that experience elsewhere.
The generation entering professional life towards the mid and late 1990s was uni-focal on Islam and conversant only with Islamic discourse on politics, society and global affairs. They had a natural affinity with Islamic radical elements like the Taliban and Al Qaeda and entertained anti-India and anti-US dispositions against the backdrop of the American decision to withdraw support for Islamic militancy in the 1990s.
Such a skewed orientation and an emphasis on Islamic discourse continued during the Musharraf years because he developed a reluctant partnership with Islamist parties to sustain him in power and deflect the political pressure generated by the PPP and the PMLN. Further, MMA rule in the NWFP made it easy for the Taliban to extend their influence in the settled districts as they shared the MMA’s vision of an orthodox Islamic society.
These people express sympathy for the Taliban and endeavour to defend them by blaming the US or India (at times the Zionists as well!) for Pakistan’s current troubles, especially terrorism. Even the suicide bombing in Islamabad is attributed to the presence of foreigners (read Americans) and their equipment in the hotel.
The government faces an uphill task to re-orient Pakistani society. Any comprehensive approach to counter terrorism must include re-orientation of the agents of socialisation in Pakistan, especially the state educational system. Young people should be socialised into multiple and plural discourses on socio-political and cultural issues and an earnest effort should be made to revive the moderate and tolerant vision of Islam that characterised Pakistani society up to the mid-seventies.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Source: Daily Times, 28/9/2008