The general’s labyrinth

Pakistan has moved from being an international 'basket case' to 'frontline state' in just a month. The change has been stunningly quick. For two years, Musharraf was hectored by the West for Pakistan's lack of democracy. Since 11 September, no one has talked about democracy. They just want a reliable friend and it appears they have one now. But these are not happy days for Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. Though his dramatic U-turn on most long-standing foreign and domestic policies of Pakistan makes him as popular abroad as Mikhail Gorbachev came to be, he is also turning out to be as unpopular at home as the last Soviet leader was. The world that derided him for toppling an elected government is now desperate for him to be firmly in the saddle but the man who seized power two years ago to domestic acclaim now sees his effigy burnt in the streets. The self-appointed president who favoured the Taliban and spoke some weeks ago of the strategic depth of 2,300 km that they provided his armed forces has not only had to turn his back on the Muslim neighbour but was also compelled to say that his gem about strategic depth is "an old theory".

After mollycoddling religious extremists for two years, he has come down hard on them for protesting against his surrender to Western allies who had shunned Pakistan till now. Musharraf's supporters, however, have chosen to see in this development signs of promise, claiming that the fast pace of events has given him the leverage to curb extremists at home. It is certainly true that he has started to reign in groups and leaders who hope Pakistan will disregard the West and create an Islamic alliance that stretches from Saudi Arabia into Central Asia.

So far he has got away unscathed in the struggle to neutralise his extremist opponents. On the night the US strikes on Afghanistan began, he removed three key pro­Taliban generals known for their hardline religious views, among them the hawkish and powerful intelligence chief. But prevailing circumstances cannot permit him or his supporters to take too sanguine a view of the future, particularly since the trajectory of Pakistan's domestic politics is likely to be influenced, if  not  actually  deter­ mined, by what the West chooses to do in Afghanistan. The signals, however, are not too promising. For one, Washington's claim that the ongoing war on Afghanistan is directed at terrorists and not Mus­lims finds few takers in Pakistan. Even Muslims with liberal political views believe that the repeated pounding of a prostrate Afghanistan can only strengthen the Taliban rulers and their Pakistani supporters, while eroding sympathy for the US.

Musharraf's discomfiture with the US attacks on neighbouring Afghanistan is apparent but so is his eagerness for better relations with the West at a time when hard­ pressed Pakistan can use wealthy friends. Musharraf may be determined to hold back the extremists but the longer the US pounds Afghanistan with Islamabad's backing and the more civilian casualties are reported, the more difficult it will become for his security forces to restrain the fundamentalists. Musharraf realises this, which is why he has been pressing for an end to hostilities before the onset of the Muslim month of fasting-Ramzan-which begins mid-November. The crucial question is whether he can rally Pakistanis behind him if and when events get out of hand. Or will he lose out to fundamentalism?

Fundamentalist bonfires

Islamic extremism may have limited institutional clout, but it is an active force in society. In the absence of mainstream political activity, it is the only force that can mobilise civil society and articulate opposition to the aggression in Afghanistan. Consequently, today many Pakistanis are extremely susceptible to its rhetoric. The growing appeal of fundamentalist activity is evident in the anti-government and anti-US protests that have now become a regular feature of everyday life in parts of Pakistan. While these protests are noticeably absent in the Punjab and Sindh-provinces bordering India-they are frequent and militant in Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP)­ both bordering Afghanistan.

There is perhaps good reason for this. It is among Pashtoons that the rioting has been most serious-a cinema was attacked, a United Nations compound and a bazaar burnt down in Quetta, four people shot dead in a village. Significantly, the local Balochs have played virtually no part in ·the riots. It is a purely Pashtoon phenomenon. Worse still, in the NWFP, which is dominated by Pashtoons who be­ long to the same tribes as their cousins across the border in Afghanistan, Peshawar has disappeared behind a cloud of tear gas. Police firing is a common occurrence and has left at least half a dozen dead.

Machismo is the most conspicuous aspect of Pakistan's rugged Frontier Province. Bandoliers hanging on shoulders is a common enough sight. It is a land where men nonchalantly tuck grenades into their pockets. The Pashtoons, or Pathans as they are called in Pakistan, have never been completely conquered, at least not since the time of Alexander the Great. They have seen off centuries of invaders, and this has given them the mixture of self-confidence, independence and suspicion that is their hallmark. Beyond the checkpoints on the edge of Peshawar, tribal law— based on the tribal council and blood feud—rules unchallenged. Even in normal circumstances it takes very little for the latent discontent of the Pashtoons with the Pakistani government to erupt. Today, conditions are far from normal and the latest wave of riots is on a scale different from anything Pakistan has witness since Partition.

This raises fundamental questions about the very future of Pakistan. There is a possibility that the Pashtoons will be willing to chart out a destiny separate from that of Pakistan's. There have in the past been incipient if ineffective movements for a union with the Pashtoons in Afghanistan to form "Pakhtunistan", straddling the Durand Line—the hated frontier drawn up by the British in 1893, which broke the tribal homeland into two. It must surely be a matter of concern to both Islamabad and Washington that if Afghanistan breaks up in the aftermath of the American assault, with the multiethnic Northern Alliance controlling the north, and a Pashtoon post- Taliban successor state taking the south, then demands for the creation of Pakhtunistan can only gain momentum. For the present that remains a distant possibility largely because Pashtoon nationalism in Pakistan has over the years mutated into a primarily Islamist form under a variety of Taliban-like groups like the radical Jamiat-Ulema-Islam.

An additional source of worry for the government is that because these Islamist groups have taken up the Afghan cause in the name of religion, they have gained considerable public sympathy despite the official crackdown on them, and support for them could come from sections of the population not normally part of their constituency.

Serious civilian casualties in Afghanistan or heavy-handed action against protestors by Pakistani security forces—both of which are inevitable if the war is protracted—can only further radicalise the population in Pakistan in the coming days. Even before the war, Pakistan was steadily drifting in a more-strict Islamic direction. The military, the judiciary, and the street have become more fundamentalist. After nearly a decade of Talibanisation, Pakistan has never been closer to an Islamic revolution, or at least an Islamist coup. Such a coup, the West worries, will put nuclear weapons into Islamist hands. Musharraf has publicly tried to allay these fears, saying the country's "strategic assets," a euphemism for nuclear weapons, are in "safe hands" and that no fundamentalist can get to them.

Caught in a bind, the Musharraf regime has been forced to intensify its crackdown on the Islamic groups. In a recent speech, he told the nation, "When there is a crisis situation, the path of wisdom is better than the path of emotion". And just to make sure the message went across clearly, he added, speaking of the radicals, "There is no reason why this minority should hold the majority as hostage." That certainly is a sentiment no Pakistani leader has ever dared articulate in the past. And to back these words with action the government has placed at least three high-ranking leaders of hardline Islamic groups under house arrest. Officials have also warned they will not hesitate to arrest other senior members of hardline groups in the event that more attempts are made to organise violent protests.

While all this represents a major shift in policy, senior officials in the military government also admit that religious groups, which were the main beneficiaries of the earlier policy, will not give in without a fight. A senior functionary of Pakistan's biggest religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami describes the government offensive as a "well calculated American plan to suppress the Islamic movement in this region. So our protest campaign is not just in support of the Taliban, it is for the survival of the Islamic movement in Pakistan as well."

A new partnership?

But while the dangers for Musharraf inherent in the events that were sparked off after 11 September are all too visible, so are the opportunities he has before him to alter the course of Pakistan's politics. He has a historic chance to eradicate the roots of extremism in the country. But, tragically, how this opportunity is used does not depend only on him. It also depends on the conduct of his Western allies, particularly the US, who, unfortunately, have so far not shown themselves to be particularly reasonable or pragmatic as far as Pakistan's compulsions and interests are concerned. Thus, for instance, how Pakistan shapes out in the coming months will depend a great deal on the scale and kind of aid that the US can deliver in the immediate future. That is an open question and the experience of the past is not very inspiring.

In the 1980s too, the US had supported a military government in Pakistan in the fight against the Soviet occupation army in Afghanistan. The US aid of that period went to the Pakistani intelligence and military services, the Afghan resistance, and Afghan refugees. It did not benefit Pakistan's people. And by supporting a military regime, Washington was seen as an obstacle to Pakistani aspirations for democracy. When the Soviet forces vacated Afghanistan, the US abandoned Pakistan and this contributed substantially to shaping Pakistani perceptions of the West in general. This was where US diplomacy failed significantly and continuously. Even in the aftermath of Pakistan's nuclear tests it was still possible for Washington to have fashioned a diplomatic and aid strategy that did not alienate the US government from the people of Pakistan. Diplomacy and pragmatism were sacrificed at the altar of rhetoric and expediency.

If such errors are not to be repeated Washington will have to provide assistance to Pakistan on a scale and of a type that demonstrates that the basic aspirations of the Pakistani people for democracy and development are best fulfilled by associating with the US and by rejecting extremism. Pakistan once offered the hope of becoming the model of a modern and progressive Report Muslim nation. That is today a receding hope and much of the appeal of political extremism has grown in the economic deterioration and hopelessness of the vast majority of its 140 million people. US aid, directed to the benefit of ordinary Pakistanis, will not only reverse the trend but also restore some of the enormous goodwill that the US once enjoyed in the country. Since aid will also serve the interests of Musharraf government, the US can insist that he honour his commitment to restore democracy next year. Musharraf and US now have a shared interest in this.

What is happening in Pakistan today is essentially a struggle for the soul of the country. Musharraf has taken a decision to try and stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. He is either going to win big or lose big. And winning or losing with Musharraf will be Pakistan.

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