Politics of consensus —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

The Islamist discourse on terrorism attracts attention because until few years ago, Pakistan’s security and intelligence apparatus consciously cultivated a pro-Islamic orthodoxy and a militant state of mind in the country

The security briefing by the military to a joint session of parliament on October 8-9 addressed the demand of the parliamentarians, the media and political circles to take the elected representatives into confidence on the situation in the tribal areas and its fallout on mainland Pakistan. The federal government invited special guests like party leaders, provincial governors and chief ministers to attend the briefing as well.

Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani held several meetings with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani during the last five weeks on security issues. The Army and intelligence establishment gave detailed security briefings to the prime minister and leaders of the ruling coalition soon after formation of the new government.

The disappointment expressed by some PMLN members on the latest briefing reflects their inability to recognise that the army and intelligence agencies cannot address political and diplomatic issues pertaining to counterterrorism. This is the domain of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which should provide briefings on Pakistan’s interaction with the international community on terrorism-related issues.

Pakistan is facing the most formidable security challenge since 1971. There are two dimensions to this threat: first, the insurgency in the tribal areas where some militant groups want to establish their authority at the expense of Pakistan; and second, the threat to Pakistan’s civic order and stability by the surge in suicide attacks and bombings.

These threats are so complex that neither the military nor the civilian government can cope with them individually in a compartmentalised manner. A challenge of such magnitude can be met only through greater civil-military/intelligence coordination.

The parliamentary session is not expected to create unanimity of views on insurgency and terrorism. All are not going to support the on-going counterinsurgency and counterterrorism measures for reasons discussed later in this article. The session is expected to produce a broad-based consensus that would include a substantial majority of parliamentarians, political parties and societal groups favouring tough action against those challenging the writ of the state.

Political parties in Pakistan have a weak tradition of working together on a consensus-agenda in a sustained manner. Dominated by personalities in the absence of internal democracy, most parties find it difficult to rise above their partisan outlook, narrow ideological considerations and the desire to outmanoeuvre each other. At times, they agree on abstract principles but diverge when these principles are applied to concrete situations.

For example, most political parties would agree that suicide bombings are inhuman and un-Islamic. However, some of them will not condemn militant groups even if they own a suicide attack.

The disposition of the parties towards insurgency and terrorism is shaped by their relations with the PPP-led government. Some opposition parties will not take a firm stand against insurgency and terrorism, thinking that this might strengthen the government in the domestic context. For them, the issue is what do they get in return for supporting the government.

The three parties in the coalition openly oppose religious extremism and terrorism. The ruling PPP has always been categorical in opposing Islamic extremism and militancy. This goes back to the days of Benazir Bhutto who viewed extremism as a major threat to internal stability. The MQM minces no words in condemning these trends and supports the government policy of countering terrorism. Its chief, Altaf Hussain, has repeatedly warned against the threat of Talibanisation to Pakistan in general and Karachi in particular.

The ANP, whose chief, Asfandyar Wali Khan, survived a terrorist attack on October 2, is opposed to the Taliban policy of using violence to pursue their religious and political agenda. It is willing to explore the dialogue option provided the Taliban give up violence. However, ANP leaders are also critical of American policies in the region.

The PMLN pursues an ambiguous policy on terrorism, and its members have been most vocal in expressing disappointment over these briefings. It maintains that it is opposed to terrorism but does not support military operations in the tribal areas and criticises the government for not strengthening internal security. Its leadership did not categorically condemn the Marriott incident but PMLN Chief Minister of the Punjab vowed to fight terrorism after the Bhakkar suicide attack that targeted a PMLN parliamentarian.

The PMLN’s reluctance to support counterterrorism efforts of the government is influenced by its differences with the PPP on the restoration of the judges and their decision to quit the federal cabinet. PMLN leaders feel that the PPP has secured all key government positions and is applying pressure on the PMLN government in the Punjab. Therefore, they are not expected to endorse the government’s counterterrorism policy, including military operations in the tribal areas. Further, the PMLN hopes to win over religiously inclined voters that often vote for Islamist parties.

Islamist parties take a pro-Taliban and anti-military operation stand mainly due to partisan considerations, ideology and Islamic-denominational pressures. Their political discourse is dominated by anti-American sentiments, and they maintain that the Taliban are not against Pakistan but target it in retaliation to its pro-US policies.

The JUIF faces a dilemma. The expansion of Taliban influence in the settled districts of the NWFP has weakened its support base. However, it cannot afford to publicly oppose the Taliban because of overlapping loyalties of its members and supporters as well as the shared Islamic-denominational orientations.

The Jama’at-e Islami is more open in its support to the Taliban and opposes military operations in the tribal areas. It argues that the US, India and Afghanistan are conspiring to destabilise Pakistan and their agents engage in violence in Pakistan to defame the Taliban, who are friends of Pakistan. The Jama’at chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, has asked the present PPP-led government to resign.

The Islamist discourse on terrorism attracts attention because until few years ago, Pakistan’s security and intelligence apparatus consciously cultivated a pro-Islamic orthodoxy and a militant state of mind in the country. Such people are now holding mid-level and junior jobs in the civil and military establishments as well as in the private sector, including media and education. They have natural inclinations towards Islamist political discourse, anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories to undermine Pakistan. This state of mind is the major obstacle to cultivating support for counterterrorism measures, including military operations against the Pakistani Taliban.

Further, frequent missile attacks by American drones in the tribal areas also make it easy for Islamist parties and groups to argue that the US wants to destabilise Pakistan and that Pakistan’s military operations in the tribal areas serve the American agenda.

Pakistan’s Islamic elements have another concern. They feel that Pakistan’s current policies to confront Islamic militancy threaten their privileged position, which was acquired after Pakistan adopted militancy as an instrument of foreign and security policy in the eighties and the nineties.

The policy of neutralising the Pakistani Taliban threat will continue to face varying degrees of opposition from Islamic parties and the political right. However, the government will have substantial support inside and outside parliament to pursue its counterterrorism policies. The government can dilute the PMLN opposition by dissuading PPP-Punjab from destabilising the PMLN government in the province.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 12/10/2008

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