When General Musharraf decided in September 2001 to drop militancy as the primary instrument of foreign policy, he found that militancy had sunk its roots so deep into the psyche of civilian and military officials that the shift he desired would be very difficult to achieve
The shocking March 3 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore worsened Pakistan’s image further, and while there was unanimous condemnation of the incident across political and societal divides, there was lack of consensus on many aspects of the attack: who launched the attack; who was responsible for the security failure; and how could all the attackers escape unhurt?
The divergent explanations for 3/3 were due to the absence of unity of mind in Pakistan on terrorism, in turn due to the varied religio-political orientations of the people and the current political polarisation.
The government was defensive, and expressed its determination to capture the terrorists and root out their sources of support. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, President Asif Zardari declared that “Pakistan’s fight against terrorism is relentless”.
The major opposition parties, especially the PMLN, used the incident to advance their agenda by suggesting that the disqualification of the Sharif brothers and the resultant termination of Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government in Punjab created an administrative vacuum that encouraged terrorists to act. Some PMLN leaders asked the Governor Punjab and the PM’s Interior Advisor to resign.
Most Islamist groups either blamed the ‘unidentified’ enemies of Pakistan or Indian agents for the attack. Others thought that as long as Pakistan continued with military action in the tribal areas, such incidents will continue to take place. Still others with Islamist orientations thought that the Taliban or their affiliates could not have carried out this attack because Pakistan was negotiating peace deals with some of them and the tribal areas were relatively peaceful.
These divergent views also make sense if one takes into account the efforts of the military and intelligence agencies in the 1980s to strengthen the religious orthodoxy and militancy for the resistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan. These relentless efforts of the Pakistan state, backed by the United States, transformed the overall orientation of society, politics, institutions and processes in the country.
Today’s Pakistan is very different from the Pakistan of the late 1970s. Those that experienced the 1970s Pakistan know that this was a moderate and tolerant society with a lot of cultural and literary activities and entertainment. Islam was integral to Pakistani society, but there was no organised attempt to impose religion on the people, and religious hard-liners functioned at the margins of society.
This grand transformation, or degeneration as some would describe it, began in the early 1980s as the military government led by General Zia-ul Haq socialised the youth into the religious orthodoxy and militancy through the state media, the education system and the apparatus of the state. The socio-cultural profile of Pakistani society was altered as a result.
These trends continued even after the death of General Zia and the establishment of a civilian democratic government. Benazir Bhutto’s two governments were so bogged down with questions of their own survival that they could not change the state’s orientation. Nawaz Sharif’s two premierships shared General Zia’s Islamist legacy and worldview.
The Pakistani state viewed Islamic militancy as a policy instrument in Afghanistan and in Indian-administered Kashmir. However, Islamist groups treated militancy as an article of faith. A good number of civilian and military officials developed strong sympathies for the militants’ cause as a result of working closely with these groups. They then tried to replicate the 1980s’ Afghan experience elsewhere.
When General Pervez Musharraf decided in September 2001 to drop militancy as the primary instrument of foreign policy, he found that militancy had sunk its roots so deep into the psyche of civilian and military officials that the shift he desired would be very difficult to achieve.
The Pakistani state’s efforts to socialise people into the religious orthodoxy and into a militant mindset caused polarisation in the country. Not everyone was convinced about the genuineness of General Zia’s Islamic policies. Some were perturbed by the growing power and influence of Islamist groups, including the militants within the state apparatus. Sceptics also questioned the rationale of closely identifying with the Taliban regime in Kabul from 1996-2001.
However, these counter-views were challenged by a large number of intellectuals and leaders, including members of the civilian and military establishments, who openly sympathised with the Taliban and other Islamists, and did not view them as a threat to Pakistan. Further, the violent activities of these groups post-9/11 were described as a ‘reaction’ to Pakistan’s active role in the US-led war on terror. It was also argued that the Taliban would again become friendly to Pakistan if the government stopped supporting the US and withdrew its military from the tribal areas.
This divide runs deep in Pakistani society — in both official and non-official circles — and it has thus been difficult to develop consensus on religious extremism and terrorism. This has led to incoherence in Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy; pro-militancy elements have been often successful in moderating Pakistan’s response to terrorism.
And this divided opinion became obvious once again after the March 3 attack in Lahore — some blamed the government for its pro-US policy, some blamed Governor’s Rule, while some pointed to the militant elements.
The government has not categorically accused any particular group or country, and is pursuing several leads. However, official and non-official circles are freely speculating on the source of the Lahore incident, and are pointing to several actors: Al Qaeda, which has declared war on Pakistan; Taliban groups with Al Qaeda linkages; militants based in mainland Pakistan; the groups involved in the Mumbai attacks, trying to exact revenge for Pakistan’s crackdown on their activities and leaders; the Tamil Tigers, who may have conducted this directly or collaborated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban; Indian intelligence agencies or extremists; or one of the several Baloch dissident groups.
The threat of terrorism has become so serious that the government should remove ambiguities from its counterterrorism policy and political exigencies should not restrict its strategy. A dispassionate, professional and comprehensive approach is needed to deal with terrorism.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Reproduced by permission of Daily Times