Zardari Candor: Beginning of a Military-Mullah Penitence?
The US missile attack that killed up to 27 suspected neo-Taliban militants in Ladha, South Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is testimony to the determination of the Obama administration to sustain the current military operations against terrorist hideouts and safe houses where the top Taliban leadership is understood to be ensconced. This attack comes at a time when the Pakistani President Asif Zardari conceded in an interview to CBS news channel that "We're fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We're not fighting for the survival of anybody else."
In the course of the interview, a wistful Zardari recalled that his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was killed by the same extremist constituency and that the Taliban was determined to change "our living style", a euphemism for the inflexible socio-cultural norms ostensibly derived from the 'sharia' - Islamic jurisprudence - that the group has already imposed in large tracts of Pakistan. Consequently, girls are forbidden from going to school and simple pleasures like music and dance are completely outlawed.
Since Zardari was speaking to an American audience, the message appears to have been aimed as much at the Washington Beltway and the new Obama team. Hence the sub-text drew attention to the consensus between the civilian government, which Zardari heads, and the Pakistani military. Noting that the military was backing the government in its war against terrorism along the restive border with Afghanistan, Zardari added that but for this GHQ resolve, the Taliban would have overrun Islamabad.
This is no exaggeration, for in mid 2007, then president Pervez Musharraf who was also the army chief was severely tested by Islamic extremist elements who had taken hostages and holed up in a mosque (Lal Masjid ) in the centre of capital Islamabad. Ultimately, it was determined action by the military that cleared the mosque - but it may be averred that this was the beginning of the end of the long Musharraf reign.
Popular sentiment in Pakistan is now virulently anti-American and the continuing missile attacks will only exacerbate the situation. The Zardari government has been pilloried by the street for allowing Pakistani sovereignty to be trampled in this manner and kowtowing to the US. The military is reported to have had deep reservations about conducting robust operations against the militants/terrorists and till recently there was a facile view that if the US stopped its military strikes, the Islamist right-wing would be assuaged and the situation within the country would soon return to normal.
The Zardari interview puts paid to this kind of reasoning and has unambiguously identified the nature of the threat that Pakistan is now facing. It is the very survival of the state - and this is an assertion of very grave significance. How did the situation in Pakistan come to such a pass, that the head of state has to make this candid admission of extreme vulnerability to a foreign media outlet? It is pertinent that Zardari dwells on 'collective denial' as a metaphor for how the Taliban turned out to be the macro-threat that is has now become.
Here President Zardari is walking a fine line, for he is also aware that the Pakistan military had entered into a Faustian bargain with the religious right-wing and helped create groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba among others. The blow-back from Afghanistan and its permeation into the Pashtun belt was not contained by the military when this was possible, for General Musharraf had entered into an opportunistic alliance with the Islamist parties to ensure his own political survival. So the denial syndrome was pursued by the state and the distortion of 'jihad' as a tenet of Islam was encouraged. The Pakistani state had become complicit in endorsing such militant fervour and it was erroneously believed that this could be directed at will against arch adversary India. The denial syndrome was at play again.
However after the Lal Masjid episode, it was obvious to all but those mired in obdurate denial that the extremist forces had reached deep into the very heart of Pakistan. Yet the Pakistani establishment dithered -despite the intense protestations of civil society - and the kind of resolute political consensus that was needed to contain this jihadi fervor remained elusive. The Zardari interview - coming as it does when Islamabad has just admitted that the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008 has linkages with Pakistan - may be the beginning of the much awaited mea culpa that the Pakistani state has to embark upon.
Military under General Zia ul Haq (1976-88) consciously encouraged the Islamisation of the state and progressively the army became not just the guardian of the territorial integrity of the state but the defender of the Islamic faith. Thus, a variety of transgressions were tacitly supported, so much so that the deviant became the norm. Yet the state as subsumed by the military perpetuated the denial syndrome - and nowhere is this more stark than in the A.Q. Khan charade. Here again, faith has been subtly invoked and in many of his statements, the disgraced scientist who is revered as a national hero casts the Pakistani nuclear bomb as an 'Islamic bomb'.
Elliptically, supporting the US policy of using overwhelming force, President Zardari adds: "It is indispensable (but) to halt rising influence of Taliban by using force ....". However, at best this reliance on the military option can be a tactical response. The Pakistani-Afghan cadres who have been so motivated to take up the cause of jihad are inexhaustible. It is the software and the motivational ideology that is to be addressed and here a reputed Pakistani scholar makes a seminal observation.
Noted academic, Professor Ayesha Jalal, in her latest book on jihad states unambiguously: "If Pakistan is to adopt a moderate and enlightened view of Islam, it cannot avoid an open debate on the ethical basis of the Quranic concept of jehad. The military-dominated state has used jehad, which is intrinsic to faith and ethics in Islam, to advance its strategic, economic, and political ends. Such a shrewd strategic vision, backed by political denial and policies of economic exclusion, violates elementary Islamic principles of equity and justice. The army has capitalized on the jehadi industry to further ensconce itself in the power structure. If Pakistan is to turn over a new leaf, the army will have to drastically modify its strategic vision."
The much-needed mea culpa of the Pakistani power-matrix goes beyond the politico-military contour of ending state support to terrorism. It is about the deeper theological transgression of cynically distorting the tenets of Islam and leading the populace on an apostate path by the very institution that cast itself as the defender of the faith. One hopes that the Zardari interview is the beginning of Pakistan's military-mullah penitence.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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