Ghost of Militancy Haunts Pakistan

Gulf News, July 18, 2007

The military operation against Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) has brought into focus the price Pakistan is paying for its past sponsorship and tolerance of Islamist militants as an instrument of foreign policy.

When Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, moved the capital to Islamabad he envisaged a quiet city inhabited by diplomats and government servants and untouched by the political upheavals in the rest of the country.

For most of its history, Islamabad has lived up to that expectation. During the 1990s, for example, when Sindh was torn by ethnic violence, one hardly felt its reverberations in Islamabad.

In that context, the very fact that the first major urban clash between Islamist militants and Pakistan’s military has taken place in Islamabad indicates the depth of Pakistan’s extremism problem.

For his part, General Pervez Musharraf has described the operation as part of a war on extremists. But he made similar assertions soon after taking power in 1999, then immediately after 9/11 and subsequently in his famous speech of January 12, 2002.

Then, Musharraf had declared, “Whoever is involved with such [terrorist] acts in the future will be dealt with strongly whether they come from inside or outside the country.”

Five and a half years since that declaration, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have reached an all-time high. If Musharraf has been waging a war against terrorism for the last several years, Pakistan is clearly losing it.

Now US intelligence assessments indicate that Al Qaida has reconstituted itself and is planning attacks around the world from its new base in Pakistan. Optimists say that the Lal Masjid operation reflects renewed resolve within the Musharraf regime to root out terrorism.

Pessimists point out that there have been several similar turning points in the past and the overall picture has not changed.

If Musharraf could not tackle the problem when he was relatively new to the job, how can he be expected to crack down effectively against militants at a time when his lack of domestic political support is widespread?

Islamist extremism, nurtured by the Pakistani state especially since the days of General Zia ul Haq, cannot be eliminated by the use of force alone though military action would have to be part of any strategy to deal with trained terrorists.

Political rivalry

Until now, Musharraf and his associates simply did not seem to see the threat of militancy and terrorism the same way as they considered their civilian political opponents a threat.

Assuming that Pakistan’s interest is their prime motivation, the ruling generals failed to treat the jihadis as a force inimical to Pakistan’s interest notwithstanding statements to the contrary since 2001.

Almost every action that was taken against the jihadis was taken reluctantly and in response to international pressure.

As it is, the standing of the Pakistan army in the eyes of Pakistan’s citizenry is at its lowest in 60 years. Critics are pointing out that Pakistan’s military has conducted more military operations inside Pakistan in the last five decades than it has fought wars against external enemies.

No army can afford to alienate several segments of its population and hope to succeed in its mission of ensuring national security.

Only by accepting to work under civilian direction, in accordance with Pakistan’s constitution, can the Pakistan army regain the stature it needs to have before it can successfully prosecute a war against Islamist extremists within the country.