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No matter what combination of groups comes to power after Pakistan elections, it will have no option but to fight the jehadis head on, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Oct 03, 2007 20:03 IST

Indians are watching the developing crisis in Pakistan with mixed feelings. But for the majority, it is a drama being played out on a stage. They can commiserate with the victims, enjoy the end and go home, because it does not affect their lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Pakistan is not in Latin America. Not only is it next door to us, not only do we share almost 1,000 km of a common, porous border, but we also share a common geopolitical space. The natural ramparts of the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Indian Ocean have protected us. But this is being breached by a new kind of enemy against whom neither country has adequate defences. This enemy is international terrorism.

Indians claim that they are the oldest and severest victims of terrorism in the post-Cold War world. This is technically true. But lumping all the attacks on the Indian State and civilians indiscriminately together only obscures the specific, and deadly, threat that this new brand of terrorism poses. This is the threat from Al-Qaeda terrorism, which is, really, a rebellion by Islamists against globalisation and its ongoing effort to reshape the world into a Western- dominated political and cultural empire. Pakistan was coerced into joining this effort in 2001 in Afghanistan. Today it is paying the price, for it is in the grip of a civil war.

The civil war had been simmering for more than a year. But it burst into full flame after the attack on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad on July 11. Suicide bombings ripped through major cities and killed at least 200 civilians, soldiers and policemen. On July 15, the Taliban formally reneged on the Miranshah agreement of a year earlier and began attacking Pakistani policemen and soldiers. Between July 15 and August 24, they killed 52 soldiers. Since then 49 more have lost their lives. These figures are probably underestimates. Pakistani journalists put the number of deaths in July and August at almost 800. That is nothing if not a civil war.

But figures of casualties tell less than half the story. It is who gets killed and why, that tells the greater half. Recent writings by Pakistani analysts harp on the way that their country is becoming ungovernable. The Taliban began by taking shelter in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), but have graduated to destroying the tribal hierarchy by killings its leaders, and making an example of school teachers, civil servants and anyone else they suspected to have links with Islamabad and modernism. They have threatened journalists in order to discourage adverse reporting.

All this while their strength has been growing. Responsible Pakistani journalists estimate that the maulvis have raised a private army of more than 100,000, and extended their control into peaceful areas such as upper Dir, Chitral and Malakand. The spectre that stalks Islamabad is of a complete loss of control of Fata and, in time, parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The Lal Masjid operation was not, therefore, an end but a beginning. After the military operation in July it was estimated that at least 600 students of the Jamia Hafsa and the Jamia Fareedi had taken shelter in other mosques in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Their ideologues claim that the majority are trained to be suicide bombers. It is easy to see how these ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ could act as a magnet and role model to the ill-educated and unemployed in Pakistan’s several thousand madrasas.

The source of the poison is, of course, Afghanistan. Since the goal of the 2001 attack was not to defeat the Taliban but to destroy it, and since the Taliban are not a building or a bridge but a self-renewing association of human beings, the war there has no end. On the contrary it has been steadily intensifying. According to a recent UN report, suicide bombings, unknown before the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud in 2001, skyrocketed to 123 in 2006. This year there have already been 103 till end- August. The rise in their number is a frightening yardstick of the mindless rage against the West and its allies that distinguishes al-Qaeda.

However, flames are not being fanned by religious fanaticism alone. A more potent fuel is rage against the killing, without purpose and without end, that the US in particular has indulged in for the last six years. In one recent, memorably bloody, period that drew stinging rebuke from Karzai himself, 90 per cent of the Afghans killed by them were civilians.

While data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan are not available with me, those in neighbouring Fata tell the tale. According to the database maintained by Satporg (South Asia Terrorism Portal), 285 people lost their lives in Waziristan in 165 incidents in 2005. In 248 incidents in 2006, the death toll was 590, including 109 civilians, 144 soldiers and 337 terrorists. In 2007, till August 24, approximately 746 people had been killed. These included 94 civilians, 96 soldiers and 556 terrorists or supposed terrorists. What is significant about 2007 is that these 746 were killed in only 162 incidents, almost the same number as in 2005. Either the Taliban are attacking in much greater strength, or the Pakistani counter-attack is becoming less discriminating.

Facing this rising civil war is a tired President heading an eight year-old regime, beset by jehadis who have branded him a kafir and facing a hostile judiciary. Together these have led to a dramatic weakening of the executive just when Pakistan can least afford it. The answer to this is not martial law, and Musharraf has resisted the temptation to impose it. It lies in all actors recognising the danger that Pakistan faces and coming together to deal with it.

No matter what combination of groups comes to power after the October-November elections, it will have no option but to fight the jehadis head on. Islamabad stands no chance of success so long as the bloodletting in Afghanistan continues.

The escalation of conflict shows that neither Nato nor Pakistan are in any position to win a military victory. The road to peace, if it still exists, lies through negotiation and reconciliation. That requires bringing the Taliban, or at least its nationalist elements, to the conference table.

Nato has forfeited its right to convene such a conference. Pakistan, which may still have vestigial influence with the Taliban, cannot do it alone. But India, Pakistan and Iran acting together, might just be able to do so. It is time for New Delhi to use its influence with the West to back off from brandishing threats against Iran, and to approach Musharraf with such a plan. The alternative, if the killing continues — Afghanistan a haven for Al-Qaeda, and Pakistan a failing State slipping into its grip — is too terrible to contemplate.

First Published: Sep 20, 2007 23:14 IST