The international community wants to help Pakistan overcome these crises. However, its help will be of no use if Pakistani society and state institutions do not articulate a pluralist and moderate vision of Pakistan domestically and internationally
The Mumbai terror attacks have resulted in several crises for Pakistan, both in its relations with India as well as its domestic context. Pakistan’s response to these crises will go a long way in determining South Asia’s security profile and the future direction of Pakistani state and society.
Within an hour of the Mumbai attacks, the Indian media accused the Pakistani state as well as a Pakistan-based militant group of engineering the attacks. The initial statements of the Indian prime minister and external affairs minister were carefully worded, but they pointed a finger at Pakistan as well.
Most political analysts in Pakistan expected this response because there is an established pattern of Indian reaction to terrorist attacks on its territory, i.e. expression of varying degrees of anger at Pakistan, ranging from troop mobilisation (2001-02) to diplomatic censure to suspension of bilateral dialogue. The post-Mumbai reaction was not very different from the reaction to the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. A massive propaganda campaign against Pakistan was launched following both campaigns, perhaps to justify troop mobilisation and suspension of normal interaction with Pakistan.
The latest crisis raises a fundamental question about the reality of Pakistan-India relations: is there an atmosphere of cordiality and normalisation, as initiated in 2004, or is there a continuation of the traditional hostility and negativity?
Traditionally, the dialogue process has been a victim of such incidents of terrorism, and is either suspended or slowed down. This time, it has been suspended, and official, semi-official and non-official statements have exposed the fragility of the Indo-Pak friendship. The deep-rooted distrust and hostility between both countries has also been highlighted.
Incidents like Mumbai are a product of domestic and external factors in the age of transnational terrorism. However, the Indians have refused to acknowledge that there could be some domestic sources of and support for terrorism in India. Nor have they acknowledged that more people have been killed in Pakistan by terrorists in 2007-08 than in India since December 2001.
Given the enormity of the problem, Pakistan and India cannot cope with religious extremism and terrorism by quarrelling with each other. By venting anger, both countries play into the hands of the extremists who do not want normal interaction between the two countries.
There are many in both India and Pakistan that overplay narrow nationalist political discourses, backed up by the selective use of history, to argue that conflict rather than cooperation is the normal state, and that the two countries cannot be friends as they represent diametrically opposed nationalisms and worldviews. If such political discourses are to be neutralised, leaders on both sides have to show statesmanship and a long-term worldview.
Military brinkmanship will accentuate the problems between India and Pakistan. There are people in India who advocate dangerous ‘surgical airstrikes’ on specific targets in Pakistan, based on the false assumption that Pakistan’s conventional defence, especially air defence, cannot withstand Indian onslaught. Similarly, Indian notions of ‘limited war’ and ‘Cold Start’ are misleading and dangerous courses of action as both countries possess nuclear weapons.
The other side of the present crisis pertains to the domestic situation in Pakistan, with three major sets of problems.
The first domestic crisis is the denial of the threat posed by religious extremism and militancy to internal order and stability. Though most would oppose violence against innocent people, and some would be critical of religious intolerance, they do not always connect this opposition with the activities of militant Islamic groups.
The government’s ability to control religious extremism and militancy is adversely affected by the polarisation between sympathisers of militant groups and those who favour tough action against them. The government is finding it difficult to convince the ordinary people that the punitive measures adopted against some militant groups post-Mumbai are justified and serve Pakistan’s interests. The task of the government becomes more difficult by repeated Indian statements that express dissatisfaction with Pakistani efforts to control militant groups and demand action — a la the United States.
As long as sections of the Pakistani populace, especially Islamist political parties and groups, continue to deny Pakistan’s drift towards extremism and militancy, Pakistani society will continue to face problems rediscovering its tolerant and moderate character. If Pakistan wants to maintain strong links with the international community, it will have to pay heed to what the international community, especially its friends and allies, are advising.
Pakistan does not have the option of defying the United Nations or isolating itself from the international system. Pakistan needs international support to put its economic house in order, as well as to cope with the difficult internal and external security situation.
The lack of consensus among political forces is the second internal crisis. Political forces diverge not only on how to cope with the Taliban challenge in the tribal areas and Swat, but also disagree on a host of domestic political issues. Though leaders of the two major political parties — the PPP and the PMLN — maintain that they would pursue their agendas in a manner that the on-going democratic experiment is not derailed, they periodically engage in dangerous political manoeuvring.
Nawaz Sharif’s strident statement in a TV interview on December 18 indicates that he wants to exploit the government’s predicament caused by international pressure regarding terrorism to force the government to accept his political demands. This is an unusual move, which does not fit into Nawaz Sharif’s known political style. If this becomes his new political profile, Pakistan is likely to drift towards confrontation between the two major parties, which will have a negative impact on the government’s efforts to cope with external pressures.
If the major political parties cannot sustain working relations, the future of the democratic experiment can be jeopardised. The internal political balance will then shift in favour of non-democratic forces.
The third major crisis pertains to the direction of the Pakistani state and society. It is important to develop consensus on the nature and direction of the Pakistani political system. If Pakistan is to become a modern democratic state that believes in equal citizenship for all irrespective of religion, caste or gender, and derives its ethical inspiration from Islam as envisaged by the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, it will have to control the groups that use force to enforce their vision of Islam. It also cannot allow militant groups to pursue their international agendas from Pakistani territory. Their activities force Pakistan into an extremely embarrassing diplomatic situation, raise doubts about the viability of Pakistan as an effective state and a responsible member of the international community.
The international community wants to help Pakistan overcome these crises. However, its help will be of no use if Pakistani society and state institutions do not articulate a pluralist and moderate vision of Pakistan domestically and internationally.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst