Pakistan Destination Terror Or Tolerance?
In the wake of Salman Taseer’s assassination earlier this month, Pakistan’s precarious position as a partner in the global war on terror is laid bare. It is time for Pakistani leaders and international partners to move decisively against this atmosphere of terror and desperation. Only by standing up to forces of extremism that seek to bring Pakistani society to its knees can regional, and indeed global, stability be assured, writes Salma M Siddiqui
In early January the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer was shot dead in broad daylight in Islamabad. The assailant was a member of the Elite Force, a special police unit designed to provide security to VIPs. When questioned, Mumtaz Qadri said he murdered Taseer because he had made a statement against the blasphemy law in support of Asia Bibi, an accused Christian woman.
What is even more disturbing than the act itself is the unprecedented support it has garnered across the socioeconomic spectrum, including the educated middle class: many lawyers, some journalists and even some segments of the police. Nawa-e-Waqt, the second most read Urdu-language newspaper in the country, approved and advertised the 500,000 rupee bounty that a pro-Taliban cleric put on Bibi’s head just a few days before Taseer’s murder. In the aftermath, anti- Bibi/Taseer sentiment mushroomed, and local media interviewed a group of lawyers who pledged a provision of 100,000 rupees to Qadri’s family every month for the rest of the year, in honor of his ‘heroic’ act. As for the police, there are reports indicating that the rest of the Elite Force units (16 officers) present the day of the murder were complicit in Qadri’s ploy. Apparently Qadri informed the Elite team of his planned action three days prior to the murder and requested that they not shoot him in retaliation. And these are just reported incidents of implicit or explicit support; millions of others support Qadri. “He did what he had to,” said one of his neighbors, with a deeply disturbing sense of pride.
The killing highlights an ideological question that has been haunting Pakistanis (and the international community) for the last decade: Is Pakistan a predominantly fanatic or tolerant nation? After ten years on the frontlines of the war on terror (WoT), and as a key US ally, the answer, one would hope, would be clear and obvious. Yet the reality is that Qadri brutally murdered a government official he was hired to protect because he perceived him to be anti-Islam. Even more alarmingly, Qadri belongs to a mainstream Barelvi sect traditionally opposed to the Taliban, and so his actions are not even tied to the traditional fault-lines of extremism in the country. In this scenario, Taliban involvement would have been (almost) reassuring because it would fit in with patterns of radicalization against which a defense mechanism has already been mobilized; indeed a whole war is being waged on this basis.
The arbitrary nature of this act is far more dangerous because it shows that the Taliban’s extreme ideas of intolerance and ‘justice’ have spread and infiltrated unprecedented cleavages in Pakistani society. The divide between Qadri’s supporters and detractors is indicative of a deeply fragmented society; divided along fault lines which show no potential of cohesion but a rapidly growing propensity to splinter violently. And after ten years of wars to ‘cleanse’ the region and to promote stability, that’s hardly a promising reflection.
As Pakistan, the US and other allies enter the tenth year in the WoT, they are faced with collapsing morale both at home and abroad, a perilous state of affairs, potentially more damaging than the exhaustion of tangible resources. In this respect, it is important to take a step back and reflect: Where did this war go wrong, and perhaps more importantly, when did they get it right?
From the US perspective Pakistan is indeed “the hardest part of this problem”. With the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal, a tendency towards anarchy, a myriad of ethnicities and a perpetually unstable government, it is an extraordinarily difficult place. However, some hard-won victories have been achieved in these past ten years.
One of the main milestones was the successful campaign against the Taliban in July 2009. Although not a joint exercise (conducted exclusively by the Pakistani military), ‘Rah-e Rahst’ (Operation Thunder) was a vital victory for all WoT allies because the Taliban occupation of key regions in the North West Frontier Province posed the most serious existential threat to Pakistan thus far, and a defeat would have resulted not just in a civil war of epic proportions, but an international disaster jeopardizing the war effort in Afghanistan. Of course, compared to the remote but possible Taliban takeover of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, all other possible outcomes seem almost irrelevant.
Although far more controversial than Rah-e-Rahst, the Red Mosque Operation (June 2007) could be labeled a success as well. The crisis started when activists, backed by armed militants, occupied a children’s library attached to the mosque in response to government moves to demolish illegally constructed mosques in Islamabad. Militants launched a campaign to “cleanse Islamabad of vice”, arresting an alleged brothel madam, raiding video and music shops to destroy “immoral” materials, and kidnapping policemen from the streets of Islamabad in response to arrests made. After offering people in the compound monetary rewards to surrender, then-President Pervez Musharraf sent in troops to put an end to the siege. Although support for the Islamists stood only at an estimated 15 per cent, that still meant that 25 million people in Pakistan supported their actions. Many criticized the government for storming the mosque and claimed that a more ‘peaceful’ strategy could have averted the problem. Yet, clearly, with the stability of the country in mind, a militant sanctuary in the midst of the capital could simply not be tolerated.
Another crucial victory was achieved by the Special Services Group (SSG) that undertook a ‘storm’ operation after a team of terrorists led by a rogue ex-army medical nurse attacked the Army General Head Quarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi and ended up taking hostages in an intelligence office around the corner in October 2009, yet another example of the alarming and extreme lengths to which the Taliban were, and still are, willing to go to secure their victory in this conflict.
Most importantly in assessing the ‘high points’ of the WoT in Pakistan, one cannot discount the defeat of Behtullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik I Taliban (Pakistan). Although the Taliban showed a resilient capacity to regroup after his death, the victory was symbolic as a joint operation which was celebrated as much in Pakistan as in the US.
These examples illustrate that Pakistan is salvageable—but only with the right kind of coordinated and sustained initiatives. Taseer’s statement in support of Bibi is in itself evidence of the continuing strength of voices calling for tolerance in opposition to the tide of fanaticism and intolerance that Quadri represents. These voices, however, have to be heralded as heroes and the cause embraced as their own by Pakistanis. Strong leadership is required: the ‘silent’ majority will no longer do in a war that has embedded itself in the crevices of Pakistan’s national character. Yet, as a local student pointed out to me: “Who can help people that condone murder, when most of the politicians themselves are not taking a stand and [are] cowering in fear? I guess it will have to be the army, again.”
A striking feature of the milestones discussed above is that the majority of these successful operations against terrorist or extremist factions were conducted by Pakistani forces. Although there is no question about the importance of US assistance, the value of Pakistani military presence and supervision cannot be overstated. A key challenge in the years to come remains the ‘trust deficit’ in the Pak-US alliance that can only be overcome if the US supports operations launched by Pakistani ground forces, instead of trying to impose on them. Drone attacks will only be successful in the short term, and in the long term the collateral damage will simply feed anti-American and pro-extremist sentiments. The danger inherent in the increasingly common perception that the US, not the Taliban, is the enemy in a country where local extremists strike frequently and engender fear among vulnerable populations should not be taken lightly.
It is significant to note that there is also a gaping ‘trust-deficit’ between the people and the government. There is a distinct lack of credibility and the democratic government so keenly welcomed, is now seen as corrupt and failing. This challenge must also be addressed seriously because it is an aspect which the Taliban easily exploits. Although Pakistan is beset by an unstable government [one of the main coalition members (MQM) switched to the opposition and then back again within a few days], and continuously rising inflation, the real crux of the WoT is that it transcends the military or economic dimensions, penetrating the deeply divisive arena of ideas. Unless the ideological battle is prioritized, both on the US and Pakistani sides, the rest of war will have been fought in vain.
Pakistan stands at a decisive junction, and the popular reaction to Taseer’s murder demonstrates just how precarious the situation is. With this horrific event, the country and its people threaten to fall even deeper into an abyss. Pakistani politicians and the Pakistani people, as well as allies in the WoT need to move decisively against this atmosphere of terror and seek ways in which positive and constructive sentiments of tolerance can be expressed and cultivated without fear. If this does not work, the Taliban will, sooner rather than later, succeed, and terror will trump tolerance in this battle of ideas. (ISN)