Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Given the central role of the Wahhabi tradition in inspiring the Taliban and al Qaeda, it’s worth looking behind the scenes at the news that al Qaeda wanted revenge for the killing of Abu Laith al-Libi in Pakistan — in particular what exactly al Qaeda said about his death.
According to our Dubai correspondent Firouz Sedarat, al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri presented an eulogy for Libi in a 9:58 minute video, congratulating him for achieving martyrdom. He spoke of his death as a natural course in jihad. ”Every time a martyr falls, another martyr grabs the banner from him, and every time a chief goes down in blood, another chief completes the march after him,” he says. These martyrs, Zawahiri declared to America and its “agents”, are the “pioneers of the coming advance”.
In his speech, Zawahiri accused “the enemy” of trying to weaken the resolve of Muslims. He referred to a response he had written to a document for the guidance of jihad by Sayyed Imam al-Sherif , who reportedly fell out with him over the use of violence. This document, he said, presented an Islam desired by America and the West – helpless and submissive – and was an insult to Muslims.
His comment appeared meant to scotch arguments, as seen in this report by Global Terrorism Analysis, that Islamist ideologues are reviewing the role of violence in Salafism, the fundamentalist views propagated by the 18th century Sunni reformer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab and inspiration for al Qaeda. The Nefa Foundation has a transcript.
The killing of the Pakistan army’s top medical officer this week was another reminder of the price being paid by the military in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Lieutenant-General Mushtaq Ahmed Baig was the most senior army officer killed by militants to date.
From my own experience of covering the armies of Pakistan and India, the loss of such a high-ranking officer would be a huge blow to morale, all the more so given the years of training and experience it takes to make someone of the rank of Lieutenant-General. So it’s curious there has been surprisingly little public comment about it on the blogosphere.
Geert Wilders doesn't do things by halves. The anti-Koran film that this far-right politician has been working on in recent months will be finished very soon. He doesn't know if any Dutch broadcaster will touch it because of the controversy it has already stirred up. So he has arranged to have "Fitna" put out as a webcast as well. That should ensure that the film can be seen all around the world and not just in the Netherlands.
"It is very good news," Wilders told us , adding that the film would "definitely be finished this week." After that, he has to negotiate with Dutch television programmes to see who -- if any -- will broadcast it. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende appealed last month for restraint over the film and Iran has urged the Netherlands to prevent this "provocative and satanic act on the basis of European Convention on Human Rights."
One of the most influential Islamic seminaries in one of the world's most populous Muslim states has issued an important statement denouncing terrorism as un-Islamic. The statement is all the more interesting for the fact that it comes from an institution often linked in the media to the Taliban. But the seminary is hardly known to non-Muslims and the country is not an Arab state, not even a real "Muslim country" as such. So the statement, which was backed by several thousand Islamic scholars, looks like it will end up like the tree that falls in the forest with nobody around to hear it. It got some good coverage in its home country (like here and here and here) , but little anywhere else.
The seminary is Darul Uloom Deoband, a 150-year old institution in northern India that is the spiritual home for the arch-conservative Deobandi school of Islam. Its influence spreads across the subcontinent, into Afghanistan and into Muslim communities abroad, such as in Britain. Its link to Afghanistan's radical Islamists goes through the madrassas in Pakistan that are considered to be "Taliban nurseries." Most of them are Deobandi schools. Many of the pro-Taliban Islamist parties in Pakistan are Deobandi. General Zia-ul-Haq, who began Pakistan's Islamisation drive in the 1980s that helped spread those madrassas, was Deobandi. Etc, etc, etc. Darul Uloom Deoband has always denied any connection with the Taliban and there is no reason to think it had any direct links. Its denunciation of terrorism will probably not influence the men with guns along the Afghan frontier, but it might carry some weight with the Islamist parties and madrassa directors further inland in Pakistan.
Reports last week in the New York Times and the Washington Post about CIA operations against al Qaeda inside Pakistan — with or without the permission of the Pakistan government — have got everybody asking what exactly is going on. Let’s rewind and look at what the United States asked for immediately after 9/11 when it demanded President Pervez Musharraf’s cooperation in hunting down al Qaeda.
In his book “In the Line of Fire”, Musharraf says the Americans presented him with a list of demands on Sept. 13, 2001 which included a requirement Pakistan “provide the United States with blanket overflight and landing rights to conduct all neccessary military and intelligence operations”. Musharraf says that though he agreed to cooperate with the United States, this particular request was turned down.
An interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most "Talibanised" part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party -- the Awami National Party -- emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey's "post-Islamist" AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.
We expected the Islamists to lose but that doesn't make the result any less interesting. The Islamist parties won only about 1 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, a precipitous drop from the 17 percent they scored in the 2002 vote. One crucial factor here is that opposition parties like the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League were allowed to run, in contrast to the 2002 poll that the then soldier-president Pervez Musharraf restricted to"friendly" parties. The conspiracy theory in Pakistan was that Musharraf made sure the Islamists advanced in order to make himself indispensable to the United States, the argument being "if you drop me, they'll take my place".
The terms have became synonymous in the West with "holy war" and "holy warrior" against the West, and al Qaeda itself has used it in that sense. But for most Muslims, as our Security Correspondent Mark Trevelyan points out, it originally means a spiritual struggle and they don't want it hijacked anymore.
Five Rupees predicts confidently that the two frontrunners in Monday’s election – the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif — will be unable to bury their traditional rivalry to form an alliance. It then goes on to forecast that the PPP led by Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari will join forces with the PML-Q, the defeated party allied to President Pervez Musharraf.
Scanning the U.S. media for reaction to the Pakistan election, two themes stand out. One is a U.S. desire to reach out to the newly elected political leaders in Pakistan and bolster a return to civilian-led democracy. The other is the U.S. need to shore up the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban – even if it means pursuing them aggressively inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. One may turn out to contradict the other.
The New York Times says in an op-ed that the United States must invest in Pakistan’s people – its schools, courts and political parties — to build popular support for tackling al Qaeda and the Taliban. Reuters Washington-based Asia Correspondent Paul Eckert quotes Barack Obama, among others, as saying a democratic Pakistan will make “a better ally in the fight against terror and extremism.”
President Pervez Musharraf could hardly have found a better way of convincing the world about his commitment to holding a “free and fair” election in Pakistan – by letting his own allies in the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) be defeated at the polls.
Commentators are already trying to work out whether the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup — can muster enough seats between them in parliament for the two-thirds majority needed to impeach him.