Features | Politics | South Asia

Urgent: Pakistan

Never have the effects of terrorism been so directly felt in the heartland of the Pakistan establishment, and never have the challenges for the Government of Pakistan in crafting a response been so difficult.

By William Maley for

“If they don’t rise to this challenge, they are finished,” stated the Pakistani defence analyst Talat Masood of the country’s political elites, in response to the horrific bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 20, 2008, as guests were celebrating the end of a day of fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. Never have the effects of terrorism been so directly felt in the heartland of the Pakistan establishment, and never have the challenges for the Government of Pakistan in crafting a response been so difficult. The Marriott bombing came at a time when Pakistan’s own position as a frontline state in the Bush Administration’s War on Terror appeared increasingly shaky, both because of mounting anti-Americanism in Pakistan, and because of Pakistan’s own perverse involvement in hosting terrorist groups, which had led to a number of US military strikes against targets in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Unfortunately, the situation is already so dire that the available options are all beset with significant problems of their own. The global economic crisis has also engulfed Pakistan, pushing its economy to the precipice of bankruptcy.

Furthermore, the crisis in Pakistan, with all its implications for the wider region, comes at a time when the NATO mission in neighbouring Afghanistan seems increasingly under stress, when major powers are entangled in managing the effects of a daunting economic crisis, and when the United States is in the process of putting in place a new president, who will not, however, take up office until January 2009.
Historic Crisis
The roots of Pakistan’s problems can be traced to the 1970s. The loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971 set off a chain of events that culminated in the seizure of power by General Zia ul-Haq in 1977. In contrast to many of his peers in the Pakistan military establishment, Zia was a devoutly religious figure, and took the fateful step of permitting two religious groups, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat, to proselytise within the ranks of the military.

While Zia was briefly an international pariah following the 1979 execution of the former leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 brought him back to international respectability; Pakistan became the frontline state through which international assistance, principally from the United States, was channelled to the Afghan resistance (known as the Mujahideen). However, there was a lethal twist to this as well. Pakistan had long had poor relations with Afghanistan, as a result of an 1893 boundary demarcation between Afghanistan and British India which had split the Pushtun ethnic group, and Zia was resolute that this dispute should not be revived.

As a result, Pakistan was determined that aid for the Mujahideen supplied through its own Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) should go less to nationalist groups or to Mujahideen commanders with strong bases of support such as Ahmad Shah Massoud in northern Afghanistan, and more to radical religious parties, such as the Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, that were very much the clients of Pakistani patrons and therefore unlikely to deal amicably with Pakistan’s arch-enemy, India. This philosophy ultimately led Pakistan to promote the Taliban as successor-client to Hekmatyar’s Hezb once it became clear after 1992 that Hekmatyar was incapable of seizing and occupying significant territory and could only act as a “spoiler”.

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The Taliban, capitalising on their support from Pakistan and the exhaustion of other Afghan forces, succeeded in occupying Kabul in September 1996, but remained international outcasts, largely because of their ultraconservative approach to gender issues. Their “support” substantially collapsed after September 2001, as soon as it became clear to ordinary Afghans, who had suffered under Taliban rule, that the Taliban could be overthrown.

However, while the Taliban regime was obliterated by Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban themselves managed to make their escape. As Ahmed Rashid has brilliantly documented in his recent book Descent into Chaos, the top leadership headed for the Pakistani city of Quetta, and many foot-soldiers followed; some were even evacuated in a Pakistani airlift from the besieged pocket of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, which the Bush Administration naively allowed to proceed.

This set the scene for a revival of the Taliban in the future, and from 2003, Taliban activities began to mount, although it was only in 2007 and 2008 that the seriousness of the problem of Taliban resurgence began to register in Western capitals, given the huge distraction created by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Even President Musharraf admitted Pakistan’s role: in a speech in Kabul in August 2007, he candidly stated: “There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistani soil. The problem that you have in your region is because support is provided from our side.”

But in the meantime, trouble was brewing in Pakistan as well. The risks of promoting a group such as the Taliban were always high. In 1999, not long before the coup in Pakistan that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power, a senior Western official spoke bluntly to then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saying: “You are sending these young men into Afghanistan telling them that Ahmad Shah Massoud is not a good Muslim. What makes you think that they will not come back here saying that you are not a good Muslim?” Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda agents on September 9, 2001. Benazir Bhutto, whose administration had backed the Taliban in 1994, met a similar fate in the Liaqat Bagh in Rawalpindi in December 2007. The prime suspects in her murder were the Pakistani offshoots of the Taliban.

The slaying of Benazir Bhutto was one of the most dramatic events in a slide which began with the move by Musharraf on March 9, 2007, to remove the highly-respected Chief Justice of Pakistan, and culminated in Musharraf’s own resignation on August 18, 2008, followed by the installation of Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, as president.

The intervening months saw a popular middle-class movement of lawyers and intellectuals take to the streets to challenge the assault on a judiciary that was finally moving to give meaning to the rule of law. They also saw a crisis in July 2007 as force was used to evict militants from the so-called “Red Mosque” (Lal Masjid) in downtown Islamabad; and a rolling crisis as militant Pakistanis and sundry other extremists associated with the Pakistani Tereekh-e-Taliban hit targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and increasingly in settled parts of the Northwest Frontier Province, driving many thousands from their homes. Finally, elections on February 18, 2008, delivered a crushing defeat to Musharraf’s supporters, setting the scene for the slow death of his regime. But through this period, one other phenomenon of note occurred: a steady climb in popular anti-Americanism, as the Bush Administration sought to stand by Musharraf as Pakistanis increasingly abandoned him in disgust. This has left the United States in the post-Musharraf era with a significant burden of past failure to overcome.
What next?
Radicalism is not deeply grounded in the general population in Pakistan, as the February 2008 election clearly showed. It is nonetheless a very serious threat to stability, since Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state and a number of key institutions such as ISI have been deeply penetrated, something which the recent appointment of the reputedly-moderate Major-General Shuja Pasha as ISI Director-General can only begin to correct. The terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008, in which US agencies reportedly concluded the ISI was implicated, highlights the seriousness of this problem.

With its key intelligence agencies compromised, Pakistan is not only a suspected partner in a struggle against the Afghan Taliban, but poorly placed to deal with its own Taliban problem. In Washington and other capitals, this has spawned an important but as yet unresolved debate about how both Pakistan and Afghanistan should be handled. Increasingly, policymakers are disposed to see the situations in the two countries as inextricably intertwined, but where that leads in policy terms remains contested.

How, then, might Pakistan proceed? The sharp rise in anti-Americanism in the recent past has somewhat changed the context in which outside powers must deal with Pakistan. The risk it creates is that public pressure on the new authorities under President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to move promptly against the terrorists and their sanctuaries in the FATA may prove counterproductive, simply weakening the new rulers’ positions.

However, the story does not end there, because across the border in Afghanistan, ordinary people are increasingly frustrated that they run the risk of being killed as collateral damage in attacks on the Taliban, while Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are left largely untouched. There is therefore a limit to the freedom that the US and its allies can safely leave to Pakistan to sort out its problems – for “its” problems are grave problems for the wider world as well.

The best way to proceed is in the form of discreet but intense pressure on Pakistan, perhaps through a process of engagement that seeks to mobilise the support of Pakistan’s longstanding friend China to arrest the Afghan Taliban leaders and their supporters in Quetta. This would not end the insurgency in Afghanistan, but it would send a strong signal that the winds of change were beginning to blow through the region, and it would also position Pakistan’s authorities to address their own Taliban problem from a position of greater perceived strength.

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In the longer run, there is much to be said for the pursuit of an integrated approach to the interlocking security dilemmas in South and West Asia that have so long been overlooked by key actors in the wider world. But most of all, it is necessary to appreciate the seriousness of the challenge that the deteriorating situation in Pakistan poses. It is the first nuclear-armed state that is also a threshold failed state, and in a profoundly stressed region. Given its parlous condition, merely hoping that things will improve is not going to avert what could be a disaster of catastrophic proportions.