Pakistan – a list too long

October 19, 2010

childPakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi had a good post up last week attempting to frame the many different challenges Pakistan faces in trying to deal with terrorism.  Definitely worth a read as a counter-balance to the vague “do more” mantra, and as a reminder of how little serious public debate there is out there about the exact nature of the threat posed to a nuclear-armed country of some 180 million people, whose collapse would destabilise the entire region and beyond.

Zaidi has divided the challenges into counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

Counter-insurgency is focused on targeting militants holed up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan, with attention directed most recently on U.S. pressure to tackle militant hideouts in North Waziristan.  Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to move faster in launching military operations in North Waziristan, in part because it says it needs time to consolidate gains made elsewhere in FATA — itself possible only if adequate governance can be introduced into areas cleared by the army.

“Thus far, Pakistan has fought the insurgency in FATA and earlier, last year, in Swat, using two instruments: negotiation, and conventional military warfare, including ground troops and aerial strikes. This is not how you fight an insurgency. That is how you fight India. To use a hackneyed and tired metaphor in Islamabad, you can’t keep using a jack hammer to try and kill agile, determined and poisonous flies. The approach to the FATA insurgency is all wrong,” writes Zaidi.

Counter-terrorism covers action to prevent attacks across Pakistan including in its heartland Punjab province. ”Repeated and sustained terrorist attacks in Pakistan suggest that the terrorist enterprise in Pakistan enjoys freedom of movement, freedom of procurement, freedom of training, freedom of information and communication, and, quite disturbingly, freedom from the course of law,” he says.

“The third challenge is an obvious and unchallenged problem of religious extremism. The epicentre of religious extremism is the institution of the political articulation of faith in Pakistan. This means that physically there is no epicentre here. Religious extremism is a national problem, transcending demographics, class and ethnicity. Of the three problems, religious extremism is the one that has been around the longest, the one that has the deepest roots in Pakistani culture, the one that has enjoyed the patronage of the state, the one that has the demonstrated ability to undermine linear and rational public policy, and the one that will – because of all the aforesaid factors, take the longest to unpack and resolve.”

Zaidi’s framework is a strong one to use when trying to understand what is going on in Pakistan.

And it also inspired me to write a list of the many different influences buffeting Pakistan, many of which either fit into these three categories or intersect with them. I should have done this years ago, but here are those I can think of so far:

- The international environment (war in Afghanistan, hostility with India) which has underpinned allegations, denied by Pakistan, that its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency continues to support militant groups it sees as strategic assets

- A perceived desire on the part of the ISI to play one group off against the other in order to keep them under control

- The role of poverty and/or unemployment in encouraging people to support militants (are the dynamics the same in FATA and Punjab?)

- The role of civilian casualties in FATA, particularly from U.S. drone bombings, in radicalising Pakistanis at home and in the diaspora

- A lack of empowerment whereby many people feel they have been unable to change their situation in any other way than through terrorism, because real democracy has been stifled by either military dictatorships or civilian rule dominated by the feudal elite

-  The role of the media and national discourse which tends to favour populist street rage and domestic political intrigue 

- Modern interpretations of Islam – heavily influenced by a shift in the balance of power towards Arab monarchies and dictatorships after the 1973 oil crisis, and by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran (both of which suppressed an tradition of “ijtehad” - very loosely translated as a spirit of inquiry)

- Radicalisation of some Muslims overseas, including in the Pakistani diaspora, and especially after 9/11, who contribute to a positive feedback loop between the militancy of those inside and outside Pakistan

- The history of Pakistan and the painful partition from British India which set it up as a new country without a clear identity or strong geography, a “moth-eaten” state divided between West and East Pakistan, deprived, as its early founders saw it, of the contiguous Muslim state of Kashmir

- The scars of the 1971 war with India which led to the creation of Bangladesh, deprived Pakistan of its identity as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, and has left its military in particular deeply anxious about the perceived threat from its much bigger neighbour

- The rise of hardline Islam as a reaction to colonial rule in British India.  (The original Deobandi madrasa was set up in response to the collapse of  Mughal rule after the 1857 Mutiny; Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was equally very much a product of British India)

-Ethnic diversity in Pakistan – the military operations in FATA have challenged a traditional Pashtun identity; Baluch separatists complain about Punjabi dominance; Sindhis (the wellspring of support for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party) struggle to assert themselves on the national stage

OK. That’s enough for now (and I am sure there is more to add/refine -I haven’t even mentioned organised crime and drug trafficking). What I have realised in trying to write this list is how little serious research I have seen which gives a properly disciplined weighting to all the different issues confronting Pakistan, and how much people (myself included) look for simple answers by focusing on only one or two of them. If anyone can point to research which does so, please post the links.

And here is a thought to end with. Al Qaeda, or its affiliates, have been remarkably intelligent about analysing and exploiting the weaknesses of history, society and geography.  We have seen a certain method in the madness in the way bombings in Pakistan have challenged every minority or majority religious tradition which does not comply with the religious teachings of al Qaeda or its supporters.  It is also quite cleverly set up to damage Pakistan further by launching attacks overseas, either in the United States or India, which in turn could bring such retribution on Pakistan as to destabilise it completely.

Being scared of al Qaeda is silly in most countries where statistically you have more reason to worry about being killed in a road accident. Being scared of al Qaeda in Pakistan is also an insult to a country which is far more resilient than it is given credit for. But being stupid about the risks to Pakistan by thinking that all we need is one over-arching solution is well … just stupid.






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