Pakistan: Caught between military rule and radical Islam

As Pakistan marks its 60th anniversary, the country finds itself chafing under military rule with its identity and very existence threatened by a rising tide of Islamic extremism.

Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and its Taliban allies plot insurrection and global terror from bases in Pakistan’s northern tribal zones, and military ruler Pervez Musharraf is under intense pressure to strike hard against them.

But security experts say the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is the product of military rule—and only a return to democracy can help to bring it to an end.

The Pakistani military has ruled the country for more than half of its existence and its influence is pervasive. It has its own economic empire, running industries, banks and housing estates.

“The country is fighting two last battles which will decide the soul of Pakistan—first is the fight against extremism and second is the rise of a people’s movement for genuine democratic rule,” political writer Najam Sethi told Agence France-Presse.

“The establishment of civilian supremacy is the one at the heart of the country’s soul while the fight against extremism is an international concern which we have to address.”

Pakistan has sent 90 000 troops to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who found shelter in its lawless tribal regions after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.

The military government says it is doing what it can to combat the militancy, which it blames on the 1979 to 1989 Soviet occupation of neighbouring Afghanistan.

For ten years, Pakistan, along with the United States and Arab countries, backed a fierce and protracted guerrilla war, funnelling funds and arms worth billions of dollars to radical Islamic groups fighting the Soviets.

Thousands of fighters from the Middle East arrived in Pakistan’s north-west cities bordering Afghanistan. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan joined hands to train these men.

The latest US weaponry was dumped in Pakistan. Islamic schools were set up, particularly in the poor and vulnerable regions of the country, to recruit young men to fight as volunteers in Afghanistan.

Books highlighting the virtues of jihad, or holy war, against infidels were printed and distributed in the markets of the Hindu Kush tribal regions.

It was the beginning of the collapse of the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a British-educated lawyer who dreamed of a moderate Muslim state when British rule on the Indian subcontinent ended on August 15 1947.

Pakistan became a haven for Islamic militants and the state began enforcing Islamic sharia law under the 1977 to 1988 regime of military ruler General Zia ul-Haq.

Education was segregated on the basis of religion and mullahs who had been at the lowest strata of society suddenly became some of the most powerful players in the state.

The 1989 Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the abrupt US withdrawal from the region opened a new phase of jihadi culture leading to the rise of the Taliban movement from the refugee camps spread throughout Pakistan, and the creation of al-Qaeda.

Political analyst Shafqat Mahmood said that in the six years since the Taliban was ousted from power in November 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan had become a pivotal US ally but that its problems had only multiplied.

“Any strategy to fight extremism and terrorism would have to be multi-pronged,” he said, referring to the violent unrest in the tribal districts.

“Some tactics would be short term, especially military ones, but the real strategy has to cover years, even decades,” he said, adding that huge investment would be needed to spread education, bring economic development and wean tribesmen away from the jihadi culture.

Hasan Askari, former head of the political science department at Punjab University, believes Pakistan can no longer be described as a moderate and tolerant society.

“Pakistani society has been brutalised by religious extremism and intolerance preached and practiced by hard-line Islamic groups. This has also adversely affected the search for knowledge and the quest for objective inquiry, thereby making it difficult for the people to realise their full potential.”

Commentators said the lack of consistent democracy has not only allowed extremism to flourish, but has stunted the development of Pakistan.

However Askari says he has hope in Pakistan’s silent majority.

“A liberal, moderate and pluralist Pakistan is in the interests of all and its revival will be the greatest tribute to those who sacrificed their material resources or life for its creation,” Askari said.

Analyst Sethi said the upcoming general elections, slated for early next year, and Musharraf’s own election later this year, could decide the direction the country would go.

Musharraf has so far rejected calls to stand down as head of the armed forces and hand over authority to a democratically elected government.

“If we do not establish people’s supremacy we will go the path of Algeria and succumb to the religious forces. We will become inward looking, parochial, anarchist, divided, fissured and plagued by sectarianism,” Sethi said.—AFP



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