Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Will Pakistan look into the mirror?

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 1st January 2008

Pakistani editor, Najam Sethi told NDTV, after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, that the former prime minister’s legacy could be to “force Pakistan to stare into its soul.” Sethi, it would seem, is being extraordinarily optimistic. Psychologists describe a stage of obesity when one shuns mirrors because of the hopelessness of what one sees. It’s easier is to just look away and reach for another Mars bar. For Pakistan, the image in the mirror may already be too chilling to confront. 

The sheer complexity of Pakistan’s problems defies the tidy prescriptions on offer. From the liberal standpoint --- both in the west and within Pakistan --- free elections are the route to deliverance. Observers who are preoccupied with security see salvation in an immediate crackdown on religious radicalism --- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, radical madrasas and the myriad jehadi outfits scattered across Pakistan. Advice from those inclined to sociology centres on refurbishing the education system to tackle the growing religious bigotry within the population at large. Meanwhile, most Pakistanis, including the government and large sections of the liberal media, complain that everything was just fine until American and NATO forces entered the region; the departure of these forces would starve the jehadis of their major grievance.

The problem with these panaceas is that none of them deals with the reality of contemporary Pakistan. Six decades of short-sighted policies have transformed a state based on religious homogeneity into a bewildering zigzag of political, ethnic, religious and ideological fault-lines, much like a fallow field in a drought. 

Common to every constituency is radicalism, with radical Islam being only the best recognised. This is buttressed by radical anti-Americanism, which manages to bring together liberal and radical Pakistani on a common platform. Both Al Qaeda and liberal columnists (Ayaz Amir of the newspaper, Dawn, to cite just one) suggest that if the United States, and its local quisling, Pervez Musharraf, were thrown out together, Pakistan would return to peace and prosperity. Equally uncompromising is radical liberalism, now on a collision course with the military establishment as well as the religious right. Radical sectarianism continues to let blood, with Shia and Sunni lashkars targeting each other continually. Radical anti-Indianism is currently out of the spotlight, but will inevitably be dusted out when the current preoccupations lose steam. 

Confusing the matrix further is the opportunism with which natural enemies come together for immediate gains. Imran Khan dallies with the lovelies in Mumbai, and propagates the sharia in Peshawar. Nawaz Sharif plays footsie with the Islamist fringe while keeping his back channels open with the military. Benazir, now the patron saint of democracy, found it perfectly acceptable to strike a deal with Musharraf to become a toothless prime minister in an army-controlled democracy. She knows the ballgame; journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, in their recent book, Deception, describe how Benazir agreed to Musharraf’s suggestion to ramp up the Kashmir jehad in October 1993 by recruiting 10,000 jehadis from Sunni extremist groups. Having been thrown out by the army during her first tenure as PM, Benazir explained, “Second time around I did not want to rock the boat.”

In this snake pit of radicalism, Islamabad’s soul searching will have to confront the daunting reality that only a full court press that involves every department of government can arrest Pakistan’s free fall. An all out military offensive will be needed against the tribal militias in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP); a police and intelligence offensive against the jehadis in Pakistan’s heartland; a reorganisation of education to de-radicalise thousands of madrasas and liberalise even mainstream education; and a gradual strengthening of civil society and democratic institutions without creating a backlash from the military establishment.

This self-realisation, unrealistically, will be required from a country that has historically deflected blame. At the birth of Pakistan, an aggressive and expansionist India was blamed for the expanding role of the military. East Pakistani perfidy was blamed for the partition of the country. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was blamed for the growth of radical Islam in Pakistan. Also blamed was a global conspiracy against Islam, a Judeo-Christian-Hindu conspiracy playing out in places like Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. And then it was America’s war on terror. 

If Pakistan can bring itself to identify its problems, it must then muster up the national will to tackle them. Cracking down on religious extremism will be dramatically complicated by the extent to which Islamist beliefs have spread through government machinery. The Pakistan military will be required to physically combat terrorist and insurgent groups, but the surrender of over 150 army soldiers, along with their officers, to a militant group is a worrying portent. The Pakistan Army has often demonstrated that it is capable of fighting; it is now demonstrating that it is unwilling to. The intelligence agencies are in even worse condition, their personnel compromised by earlier links to radical groups.

The one group that has comprehensively demonstrated that it is ready for the fight is the Islamist radicals. They have a clear ideology, a global network, sources of supply, manpower and weaponry and, increasingly, a political front. And with every day that the Pakistan government tarries in bringing order to that country, the radicals will look attractive by comparison.

Will Pakistan stare into its soul in 2008? The answer will directly impact on India.

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