On the edge of chaos?

11 Feb 2011


SALMAN Taseer’s murder last month was shocking and condemnable, as was the subsequent celebratory reaction among certain circles.

However, is Pakistan really suffering from the incurable cancer of extremism, as many people — even well-wishers — conclude? Are extremists poised to take over? We must trace the trajectory of extremism in Pakistan to answer that.

The birth of extremism in Pakistan obviously occurred under the Ziaul Haq regime. However, orphaned by the death of its ideological father, violent extremism had decreased significantly by the mid-1990s, even though the propagation of extremist ideology continued unchecked in madressahs and elsewhere.

Zia’s orphans were adopted and nurtured by his military successor, Pervez Musharraf, though his guardianship existed solely for pragmatic reasons, unlike Zia’s pragmatic-cum-ideological linkages.

In order to defeat the PPP and the PML-N in the 2002 elections, Musharraf orchestrated victory for the PML-Q and MMA. The alleged rigging in favour of the MMA re-ignited nationalist rebellion in Balochistan and religious extremism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. With the active support of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s MMA government and the benefit of wilful neglect by Musharraf, extremists had, in addition to their continuing capacity to indoctrinate people, acquired three fearsome capacities by 2007. Most significant was their capacity to capture territory.

As Musharraf deferred serious military action to coddle religious allies, Fata fell early, followed by Swat. Next in seriousness was their capacity to pass extremist legislation based on rigged parliamentary numeracy. Thus, the Hasba bill’s implementation was only thwarted by Supreme Court action. The third capacity related to undertaking violent attacks throughout Pakistan. While this third capacity inflicted serious damage, it nevertheless provided lesser strategic ability than the other capacities to mould the country in the extremists’ image.

What has been the trajectory of these capacities since Musharraf’s departure? Given that the present government and army leadership are less beholden to religious parties, military operations have picked up and most lost territory has been recaptured (though strong pockets still exist).

Following free elections, religious parties have lost their ability to pass extremist legislation. In fact, with the JUI’s exit, the government is now comprised of parties that are unlikely to pass such legislation, though admittedly they are afraid to fight for secularism. Neither capacity is likely to re-emerge soon.

Progress on eliminating the militants’ capacity to undertake violent attacks has been slower. Suicide attack casualties have decreased and the radius of the extremists’ operations is shrinking. However, the disruptive power of extremists remains strong enough to keep the country unstable. Taseer’s murder represents a flare-up in this capacity. But, the most ferocious displays of this capacity occur in defence of past territorial and legislative gains (for example, when proposed changes to the blasphemy law and remaining Fata strongholds are attacked) rather than for new gains.

The ability to indoctrinate people also remains strong. Beyond enhancing their disruptive capacities, this may also help extremists win elections or take over key institutions stealthily, especially the military. Neither scenario is impossible but nor is it easy, given Pakistan’s polycentric nature. Winning elections, in particular, would require enormous social mobilisation by the extremists to nullify existing patronage politics. Even if either happens, it will happen gradually, over years.

Given this status of different capacities, it is clear that Pakistan today is not a country slipping rapidly into an extremist abyss but one slowly clawing its way out of it, with extremist violent capacities largely focused on defending past victories.Nevertheless, even these remaining capacities represent Pakistan’s biggest challenge since 1971. Clearly, hate factories, extremist legislation, illegal weapons and militant strongholds must be eliminated to, amongst other things, achieve economic and political stability.

Unfortunately, neither the politicians nor the generals seem willing or capable of doing this until Afghanistan stabilises, given their fears of the extremists’ disruptive capacities. Thus, the army is in a stalemate in Fata. However, the same is true in Afghanistan for the mightier and more motivated Americans.

This is happening primarily because Pakistan and America are not on the same page. The US is pursuing a military solution but Pakistan a compromise whereby pro-Pakistan militants can dominate Afghanistan. Until both parties operate from the same page, the stalemates will persist.

Pakistan could fully pursue the military solution demanded by the US under strong American pressure. However, the success of this strategy is uncertain given the failed history of external military forays in the region. It is also likely to cause serious strife within Pakistan as extremists unleash their disruptive capacities to protect remaining gains.

Abandoning the war unilaterally, as is sometimes suggested, is inadvisable given that Pakistan must maintain international goodwill, and its past complicity in encouraging extremism on both sides of the border.Thus, the most feasible option is that, foregoing narrow aims, Pakistan must convince America and the Taliban to pursue peace whereby Taliban elements willing to respect human rights join a broadly based, ethnically decentralised Afghan government that is neutral towards all external stakeholders.

This option will optimise the interests of not only domestic and regional stakeholders but also America. America’s real rival, Al Qaeda, barely exists in Afghanistan any more but has spread globally.

In being heavily involved in Afghanistan, the US is chasing ghosts — getting distracted from new Al Qaeda sanctuaries and fanning instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. By weaning away the Taliban, the US will increase Pakistan’s capacity and willingness to tackle remaining Al Qaeda-allied and domestic extremists through a carrot-and-stick policy, and enhance Pakistan’s stability.

Will the US learn the lessons that the UK and USSR learnt earlier about Afghanistan? It probably will, but closer to its withdrawal timeline of 2014. So, barring military miracles, Pakistan will remain unstable until then (though without collapsing). However, this will reflect the follies not just of its generals and politicians but also America, as has been the case throughout Pakistan’s history.

The writer is a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley.