Peace deals with the Taliban are by their very nature condemned to fall by the wayside. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has found out the hard way after his ratification of a regulation for enforcing Islamic Sharia laws in the Swat Valley as part of a peace deal with the Taliban militants paid no dividends at all. Does one discover some amount of naivete in President Zardari first signing the Swat deal and then, as the Taliban were challenging the government’s writ, ordering fighter jets and helicopter gunships to pound Taliban positions in North Western Frontier Province’s (NWFP) Buner district all in a matter of just two weeks?
Is the military offensive due to an epiphanic realisation that the Taliban would eat into Pakistan and eventually overrun it? Or is it due to the more pressing need of gobbling up the conditional aid from the Obama administration, contingent upon Pakistani military action against the Taliban? The trouble is that Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is ambiguous, as it considers the Taliban a lever against India. And if the Taliban is
a totem of the radicalisation of Islam, Pakistan has a venerable tradition, both as a matter of faith and the ulterior ‘strategy’ of hobnobbing with them.
In 2002, General Pervez Musharraf embarked upon a military-mullah alliance thinking that he could separate the Taliban in Afghanistan from the jihad in Kashmir. He thought he could separate sectarian Islam from political Islam. He was touted as the best bet against Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan because he clamped down on the Taliban and the al-Qaeda outfits under extenuating circumstances.
In the first 25 years of its existence, the role of Islam in the politics of Pakistan was somewhat ‘ambiguous’. Nowhere in the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan was it stated that Islam should be the official religion of the State.
At a time of turmoil in October, 1958, President Sikander Mirza proclaimed martial law throughout Pakistan and abrogated the constitution. The first important step by him was dropping the descriptive phrase ‘Islamic Republic’ tagged to ‘Pakistan’. Under Pakistan’s first uniformed ruler, General Ayub Khan, the 1962 constitution gave little importance to religious affairs. Z.A. Bhutto, after having lifted martial law, set in motion an interim constitution in 1973 that more or less stuck to the spirit of the 1949 constitution and there, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, Islam was declared the State religion of Pakistan.
But it was in General Zia-ul-Haq’s time that Pakistan’s drift towards Islamisation took concrete shape. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has seen Afghanistan as a source of what General Zia called ‘strategic depth’ in the event of a war with India. In the 1990s, the ISI functioned as the major supporter of the Taliban, who came to rule Afghanistan with the backing of Pakistan and the tacit consent of the US.
Benazir Bhutto backed the Taliban rather than supporting a wider peace process in Afghanistan to create a new trade and pipeline route from Turkmenistan through southern Afghanistan to Pakistan, for which the Taliban would provide security. It was her minister of the interior, General Naseerullah Babar, who, with the ISI, devised the plan to set up the Taliban as a politico-military force that could penetrate Afghanistan, a move half-heartedly approved by the US Embassy.
Vilifying Zardari makes little sense if we keep in mind that from 1979 until 1988 when Afghanistan was the focal point of the Cold War, millions of refugees crossed the Durand Line and settled in camps and cities in the NWFP. Weapons and money, as well as jihadis from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt, flooded into Pakistan. Almost every civilian and military leadership of Pakistan had a hand in talibanising Pakistan.
Experts like Stephen P. Cohen think that Pakistan became a laboratory of the Islam after independence. The impediment to Islamic democracy is not Islam but the anti-democratic forces in the Pakistani government and society. Islam in Pakistan, as an American scholar rightly observes, now is neither a force for democratisation nor a force against it, but is merely one ingredient, surely potent, in a volatile mix. Extricating from this complicated warp needs the precision of a surgeon.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based writer