by Beena Sarwar
- Pakistan -
President Pervez Musharraf's resignation from office on August 18th under intense pressure has raised questions, particularly in the West, about the future of Pakistan's "war on terror". The following article takes a historic and political look at the background and possible future of this war. - Ed.
When the British colonizers left India in August 1947, they granted India independence, dividing it along religious lines which saw Hindus and Muslims as two different nations. Pakistan, conceived as a nation-state for Indian Muslims, consisted of the Muslim-majority provinces or states, including two states with nearly equal Hindu and Muslim populations - Punjab and Bengal on India’s eastern border, situated a thousand miles away from the other four Pakistani provinces. Two other Muslim-majority states ended up in India’s control: Kashmir to the northwest (which Pakistan also laid claim to), and Hyderabad in central India.
The two-nation theory bypassed the reality of the multinational, multi-faith and multilingual communities that make up India and Pakistan. Attempting to develop a homogenous national identity (largely to counter India), successive Pakistani governments tended to focus on Islam as the unifying factor. They also continued the authoritarian and colonist policies of the British, resulting in religious, ethnic or linguistic groups feeling excluded and discriminated against. For most of its existence, Pakistan has been governed by military rulers who have prioritized weapons and military training over education and social welfare, resulting in a sense of injustice and deprivation, and divisions along religious, sectarian, class and ethnic lines.
Successive Pakistani governments have paid lip service to the politics of religion. Even Bhutto tried to salvage political power by attempting to appease religious elements, getting Parliament to declare the Ahmedis as non-Muslims, making Friday the weekly holiday, banning alcohol and gambling, and espousing a pan-Islamic vision (he hosted the second Islamic Summit in Lahore in 1974 and initiated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, known as the ‘Islamic bomb’). In 1977, popular discontent against Bhutto, led by the religious parties, gave his military commander General Ziaul Haq the impetus to overthrow him, promising to introduce Shariah, or Islamic Law, and make Pakistan a truly Islamic state. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed politics in the region forever.
America’s involvement in the war precipitated the strategy of using religion to motivate Muslims against the Communist Soviet Union. The Afghan jihad (a term popularized as “holy war” although the word in Arabic literally means “to struggle”) now propped up Pakistan’s military ruler allowing the country to be used as a conduit for providing money, weapons and military training to the mujahideen, with CIA agents recruiting Muslims from around the world.
Pakistan’s tribal areas became the launching pad for their incursions across the porous Afghan border. The lack of development as successive governments ignored the necessity of infrastructure, and the easy availability of weapons and drugs have contributed to growing lawlessness.
Sectarian violence escalated after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as Iran and Saudi Arabia fought proxy wars on Pakistani soil. The world forgot about Afghanistan – until September 11, 2001. After 9/11, Pakistan again became a front line for America and the tribal areas became sanctuaries for the mujahideen’s successors. During the past decade or so, and particularly since 9/11, all these factors have converged – as have Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Kashmir jihadists. Pakistan has emerged as a center of the “war on terror”.
Pakistan’s identity has been largely projected as Islamic, a construction supported by religion-based social and political organizations and one that now threatens the nation-state itself, as the adherents of ‘Islamization’ do not believe in national boundaries. The Pakistani Taliban have merged traditional customs with their version of an Islamic identity, based on warped notions far removed from principles of justice. The traditional notions of honor in the tribal areas have become corrupted with concepts hitherto unheard of in Pakistan: suicide bombings, public executions, beheadings, mutilation and stonings.
The increase in terrorist activities overshadows the issue of violence against women, which is on the rise. Traditionally, men would only punish women in their own family if they brought them shame, but “religious” extremism has strengthened existing male domination. Wherever the Taliban are in control, they set up their own jirga, or tribal council. Their ‘anti-vice’ vigilante squads attack unarmed civilians as well as security forces, targeting drug dens, alleged prostitutes, video and music shops, internet cafes, hair dressing salons, and even girls’ schools and teachers in the tribal areas.
The war on terror has only strengthened these elements. General Pervez Musharraf’s regime allowed US military forces to use Pakistani territory and air bases, committing the military to combat terrorist elements. But their actions had no political sanction, which is why the Pakistani people saw the conflict as “America’s war”.
The military regime also used the war on terror as a pretext to crush political dissent. In Pakistan’s western province Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, some 5,000 persons are missing, presumed to be in the custody of the secret agencies. President Musharraf himself wrote in his memoirs, In the Line of Fire, that Pakistan captured 689 Al Qaeda fighters who fled into Pakistan from Afghanistan, and handed 369 over to the United States. The whereabouts of just a few hundred or so of these disappeared people have been made known, most of them in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. This lack of transparency arouses skepticism about the claims that they are Al Qaeda. Many of the disappeared are secular, nationalist, political dissidents. Several have been released from American or Pakistani custody without being charged after years of deprivation and torture.
America’s double standards and inconsistent official approach to terrorism has worsened the situation. The US overlooks the terrorism of friendly governments and allies; state terrorism involving covert operations and low-intensity warfare breeds terror and drugs; and little attention is paid to causes and problem solving. “Do not seek military solutions,” cautioned Pakistani scholar, Dr Eqbal Ahmad in his prophetic 1998 talk. “Terrorism is a political problem. Seek political solutions. Diplomacy works.”
The focus on military solutions to what is essentially a political problem - with historical, post-colonial and economic roots - has intensified the spiral of violence. The militants thrive on it: the more violence they are dealt, the more adherents they gather.
Although the Pakistan government officially gave up its previous policy of supporting the Mujahideen/Taliban after 9/11, elements within the state have continued covert support. It avoids taking action against their illegal activities and allows known militants to roam free.
Over the last few years, terrorist attacks have killed, maimed and wounded thousands across Pakistan, causing losses of billions of rupees. Last year saw a sharp increase in suicide bombings and attacks on security establishments and personnel, culminating with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December. Over 1,400 terrorist attacks, including 60 suicide attacks, claimed 3,400 lives and injured 5,300 people during 2007. The suicide attacks, aimed mostly at security forces, claimed 770 lives and injured over 1,500.
In February, Pakistan held general elections after nearly a decade of military rule, including the last five years of military-controlled quasi-democracy. Despite terrorist threats, the people turned out in large numbers to vote. The results overwhelmingly rejected the parties that favored military rule and religious politics.
Since the elections there has been a decline in the number and intensity of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. However, the situation along the border with Afghanistan remains tense and there is increasing pressure on the new government to counter the Taliban with military might. But the new government has owned terrorism as Pakistan’s problem rather than “America’s war”. With an elected political leadership in place, dialog, as well as firmness in dealing with the militants, is more likely and necessary for the people to own the struggle and support the government in its moves against the Taliban. However, there are fears that if the government does not strike militarily, American or NATO forces may be called in. While firmness without appeasement is necessary, the door to dialog must remain open.
Despite the hopeful results of February’s elections, religiously-oriented political parties are making a comeback. Having joined forces with the opposition, they have taken up various issues that are causing unrest, like the restoration of judges, rising inflation and lawlessness. Some analysts fear a similar situation to that which toppled Z.A. Bhutto in 1977, when the religious parties used Bhutto’s rising unpopularity to gain political momentum and create a crisis, providing an opening for the army to step in.
The policies of the past continue to haunt the present, testing the democratic process. The international community needs to be patient and support Pakistan in staying the course. We need to keep our sights on the long-term vision of continuing the democratic political process, even if there is a short-term rise in violence. The genie of ‘religious militancy’ may not go back into the bottle in the near future, but a democratic political process can eventually contain it. Empower the people and give them something to live for, and they will not die in the path of what they have been brainwashed into believing is religion.
Beena recently returned from Jakarta, Indonesia, where she was a featured speaker on the topic "Islam and Nation State: Threat or Solution?" on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program that also hosted the Asia Calling Forum: Islam and Democracy in South Asia, in cooperation with independent radio news agency KBR68H, and the Indonesian Association for Media Development (PPMN). Click here for the podcast. This article is adapted from her background paper circulated at the Jakarta event.
About the Author
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, writer, documentary filmmaker and artist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She started out as assistant editor for The Star Weekend, joined The Frontier Post as Features Editor, was Editor of weekly The News on Sunday, a weekly paper that she launched in Pakistan for The News International and has worked as an OpEd Editor for The News International. She has a Masters in Television Documentary (Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2001) and was a news and features producer at Geo TV before going to Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow (2005-06) and a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (2006-07).
Beena freelances for various publications in Pakistan and abroad, including InterPress Service, and is on the editorial board for monthly Himal Southasian, Kathmandu. Her volunteer work and activism includes involvement with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the War Against Rape and the Women’s Action Forum as well as the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.