Extremism in Pakistan: The Way Ahead

Pakistan has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic radicalism and terrorism in the world. Most of the recent terror attacks in the world have had a Pakistan link. The West believes that both the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaderships may be ensconced in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban has been challenging the writ of the state in Waziristan for years, but the fire from South and North Waziristan is now spreading.

It has not only engulfed all the seven tribal agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) but what is more alarming is that the fire has spread to the settled areas. The ease with which militants overran the Swat Valley indicated the overwhelming fundamentalist influence in the region.

The surrender of security personnel to the militants with arms shows their ideological affinity with the cause of the militants and their reluctance to fight them. The militants behead "collaborators" with the regime with ease.

The radical influence is not only spreading but also increasing in intensity. So emboldened are the militants that they feel confident enough to take on the security forces in open combat.

They have attacked the security forces and have even succeeded in capturing well-fortified positions. At the same time, their suicide attacks on security forces and other such targets across the entire North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Punjab show the growing influence in Pakistan's heartland.

The militants eliminated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto because she had the potential to erode their support base considerably. If unchecked, the fundamentalism will engulf the entire Pakistan -- and threaten the world.

Fundamentalism has grown in Pakistan because successive governments in Pakistan encouraged it. In the past they encouraged Islamic political parties so that an all-inclusive Islamic identity could emerge in Pakistan and bridge the existing ethno-linguistic cleavages. After 1971, when Pakistan split, Islam was used to dilute ethnic identities. Many regimes used fundamentalism as a vehicle to provide legitimacy to their rule.

The current military dispensation initially encouraged the fundamentalist forces to keep the popular opposition at bay and subsequently used its growing influence to project to the world, especially the West, that it was the sole bulwark against the unfettered march of extremism. As part of this strategy, the regime looked the other way when clerics in Lal Masjid and their students enforced their Talibanised moral code right in the heart of Islamabad.

But when the students kidnapped the 'friendly' Chinese, the regime was forced to storm the Lal Masjid and confront the radical elements head on. After that the military was forced to crack down on the extremists. This led to the militants taking on the military; as a result, for the first time, ordinary soldiers were targeted.

In the ensuing clashes, a large number of security personnel surrendered to the militants, at times with arms and ammunition, without firing a shot. This led to the realisation in the West that the current military dispensation led by Pervez Musharraf was incapable of keeping the genie of extremism bottled up.

It was felt that the secular opposition was needed to move the masses disillusioned with Musharraf away from the fundamentalists. So the West brokered a deal between Benazir and Musharraf. Her assassination upstaged the planned transition to democracy.

There is no other popular leader of requisite moderate credentials acceptable to the West to take on the mantle from Benazir. Nawaz Sharif is considered close to the fundamentalists. Benazir's successors in her party are not as popular. So is the onward march of fundamentalism in Pakistan inevitable? Probably not!

There are still political groups that can halt the onward march of radicalism in Pakistan though they may not have nation-wide presence. These are the nationalist parties representing the ethno-linguistic groups that comprise Pakistan, forces that have traditionally sought regional autonomy and a more federal structure but have traditionally been hounded by the establishment.

Due to the machinations of the government, these groups have splintered into numerous smaller groups and their support base has eroded considerably although the cause they propound still evokes a strong response among the masses.

All these groups -- like the Baloch National Party (BNP) and its splinter groups in Balochistan, the Awami National Party (ANP) in NWFP and FATA, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in urban Sindh and the Sindh National Front (SNF) in rural Sindh -- have been Left-leaning secularists who have been traditionally opposed to the Islamic hardliners.

Pakistan's military establishment and intelligence agencies had encouraged fundamentalist forces in different regions to counter these nationalist forces. The last elections in Pakistan saw the nationalist forces perform abysmally. The religious parties emerged as a major force.

However, since then, the Baloch nationalists have regained the lost ground and fundamentalist forces have virtually been wiped out of southern Balochistan, which is dominated by Baloch tribes. Similarly, the MQM has halted the growing influence of fundamentalist forces in urban Sindh. Rural Sindh is relatively free from fundamentalist influence, yet there is a need to strengthen the Sindhi nationalist forces to check the slow but steady rise of fundamentalism.

The main arena of the fundamentalist forces has been the region dominated by Pakhtoons - FATA, NWFP as well as northern Balochistan. It is this region where the influence of the fundamentalist forces needs to be checked. Unfortunately, the only party with grassroot support among the populace - the ANP - has lost considerable clout due to the onslaught of successive regimes.

However, the party in its previous incarnations like the NAP has been immensely popular and most Pakhtoons have at some time or the other been its supporters. It is essential that the Pakistan government and the international community must back the forces represented by the ANP to fight the menace of terrorism.

The international community must pressurise Pakistan to accept a more federal structure and concede some of the demands of the ANP - the most important being naming the NWFP (a legacy of the British) as Pakhtoonkhwa.

These steps would bolster the ANP and enable it to take on the fundamentalist forces. The global community must understand that the global war on terror will be lost or won in this region. An ANP electoral triumph in the next elections presents the best chance for a victory in the global war on terror.

(Alok Bansal is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be reached at alokbansal_nda@yahoo.co.in) 


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