In the wake of 9/11, many moderate Pakistanis had hoped that in the process of ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, the Americans would also help Pakistan roll back the forces of extremism that were threatening to tear the country apart. Over seven years later, the Taliban are resurgent, and their Pakistani clones have tightened their grip on the country’s jugular.
So what went wrong? First, Iraq diverted the West’s military might and focus. And in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf’s need for support from Islamic groups gave extremists political space as well as protection. Since the rigged elections of 2002 until recently, mutations of the Wahabi/Salafi Islamic militias have become stronger and better organised in the tribal areas.
Financed largely by Pakistani and Gulf businessmen, these groups trained their volunteers – largely drawn from Pakistan’s mushrooming madrasas – in bomb-making, as well as other ways of creating mayhem.
A number of hard-line Islamists drawn from the ranks of retired army and intelligence agency officers served as trainers, and the graduates of this Terror Academy became increasingly active in the region. But Pakistan was the biggest victim of this campaign, with over 50 suicide attacks claiming nearly a thousand lives (including that of Benazir Bhutto) last year alone.
This, then, was the situation Asif Zardari inherited when he was elected President. Always suspect in the eyes of the army for being a Sindhi, as well as a member of the PPP who was married to a Bhutto, his grip on power is tenuous at best. The reality of the power equation in Pakistan is that the army is the most organised and powerful party around. And although the present military leadership would prefer to stay out of the limelight after nine years of Musharraf’s high-profile rule, it still calls the shots where Pakistan’s regional policy is concerned.
In at least two recent episodes, the generals have shown the political leadership exactly where power resides. When the government announced a couple of months ago that the ISI would henceforth report to the Interior Ministry, it took barely six hours for this notification to be withdrawn.
More recently, when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Director General of the ISI, would go to India to help in the investigations of the November 26 Mumbai attacks, he was forced to retract his offer within hours.
Given this reality, it is difficult to see how terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed can be reined in. Both have received official blessings and support in the past. Even if formal links with the ISI have been severed, training camps are difficult to shut down permanently, given the sympathy these groups enjoy in sections of the military, the police and the judiciary.
Since Zia’s poisonous rule in the 80s, extremism has seeped into every level of the bureaucracy. Many Pakistanis are in denial about the extent to which their country has been infected by this plague. Under these circumstances, the arrest of an individual like Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a commander in the LeT, is meaningless. In the past, too, top terror suspects like Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba have been scooped up in the wake of terrorist outrages, only to be released a few weeks later.
One major reason the army is unwilling to completely sever its links with extremists is that it fears an alliance between India and Afghanistan that would see Pakistan encircled. Having an army of proxy warriors is an insurance policy military planners are reluctant to surrender.
Years ago, a general said to a colleague: “By supporting the mujahideen in Kashmir, we have tied down at least four Indian divisions there. What could be a more cost effective strategy?” Now, this same strategy has come to haunt Pakistan and the region.
Irfan Husain is a columnist for Dawn.