Pakistan won't collapse - But it is in trouble

Category: Asia, World Affairs Topics: Pakistan, Taliban Views: 4836

Pakistan's future is uncertain. But a few things can be said with something approaching certainty about what will not happen. The country will not break up; there will not be another military coup; the Taliban will not seize the presidency; Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not go astray; and the Islamic sharia will not become the law of the land.

That's the good news. It conflicts with opinions in the establishment media in some western countries, as well as with some in the Barack Obama administration. David Kilcullen, a top adviser to General David Petraeus, said in March 2009 that state collapse could occur within six months. This was and remains highly improbable.

Now, the bad news: the clouds over the future of Pakistan's state and society are getting darker. The speed of social decline has accelerated, surprising even many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring the country.

The path to Islamabad

Here is how it happened. The United States invasion of Afghanistan devastated the Taliban. Many fighters were products of madrasas in Pakistan, and their trauma was in part shared by their erstwhile benefactors in Pakistan's military and intelligence. The army, recognising that this force would remain important for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan - and to keep the low-intensity war in Kashmir going - secretly welcomed them onto Pakistani soil. The process of rebuilding and rearming was quick, especially as after initial success the US campaign in Afghanistan went awry. The then president Pervez Musharraf's strategy of playing both sides against each other worked for a time. But Washington's demands to dump the Taliban became more insistent, and the Taliban also grew angry at this double-game. As the army's goals and tactics lost coherence, the Taliban advanced.

In 2007, the movement of Pakistani Taliban - Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - formally announced its existence. The movement's blitzkrieg of merciless beheadings of soldiers and suicide-bombings drove out the army from much of the frontier province. By early 2009, it held about 10% of Pakistan's territory.

Even then, few Pakistanis saw the Taliban as the enemy. There were even many apologists for the Taliban, for example among opinion-forming local TV anchors that whitewashed their atrocities and and insisted that they shouldn't be resisted by force. Others supported them as fighters against US imperial might. The government, beset by ideological confusion and with no effective propaganda response, had no cogent response to the claim that Pakistan was made for Islam and that the Taliban were Islamic fighters.

An immense price was paid for the government's prevarication. A cowardly state allowed fanatics to devastate hitherto peaceful Swat, once an idyllic tourist-friendly valley. Citizens were deprived of their fundamental rights. Women were lashed in public, hundreds of girls' schools were blown up, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax (jizya), and every form of art and music was forbidden. Policemen deserted en masse, and institutions of the state crumbled. The Taliban, thrilled by their success, violated the Nizam-e-Adl regulation in April 2009 only days after it was negotiated. They quickly moved to capture more territory in the adjacent area of Buner - barely 120 kilometres from Islamabad. The movement's spokesman, Muslim Khan, boasted that the capital would be captured soon. The army and government still dithered, while the public remained largely opposed to the use of military force.

At this point, a miracle of sorts happened. Sufi Mohammed, the illiterate and aging leader of the Swat sharia movement, lost his good sense to excessive exuberance. While addressing a huge victory rally in early May, he declared that democracy and Islam were incompatible; rejected Pakistan's Islamic constitution and courts; and accused Pakistan's fanatically right-wing Islamic parties of mild heresy. Mohammed's comments - even for a Pakistani public enamoured by the call to sharia - were a bit too much. The army, now with public support for the first time since the birth of the insurgency, finally mustered the will to fight.

The Taliban's game

Today, that fight is on. A major displacement of population, estimated at 3 million, is in process. This tragedy could have been avoided if the army hadn't nurtured extremists earlier. For the moment, the Taliban are retreating - and even being assailed by local tribesmen in parts of the Upper Dir district. But it will be a long haul to eliminate them from the complex mountainous terrain of Swat and Malakand. To wrest North and South Waziristan from their grasp will cost even more. Army actions in the tribal areas, and retaliatory suicide-bombings by the Taliban in the cities, are likely to extend into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the cancerous offshoots of extremist ideology continue to spread. Another TTP has established itself - Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. That could mean major conflict eventually shifting from Pakistan's tribal peripheries to the heartland: southern Punjab. Indeed, the Punjabi Taliban are busy increasing their operations, including an attack on the police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore on 27 May.

What exactly do the Pakistani Taliban want? They share with their Afghan counterparts the goal of fighting the United States. But still more important is the wish to replace secular and traditional law and customs in Pakistan's tribal areas with their version of the sharia. The logic of this aim (shared with religious political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami) is a total transformation of society. It entails the elimination of music, art, entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and westernism. The accessory goals include destroying the Shi'a - whom the Sunni Taliban regard as heretics - and expelling the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus from the frontier province. While extremist leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah derive support from excluded social groups, they don't demand employment, land-reform, better healthcare, or more social services. This isn't a liberation movement by a long shot, although some marginalised Pakistani leftists embrace this delusion.

It is impossible for tribal insurgents to overrun Islamabad and Pakistan's main cities, which are protected by thousands of heavily armed military and paramilitary troops. But rogue elements within the military and intelligence agencies have instigated or organised suicide-attacks against their own colleagues. Now, dazed by the brutality of these attacks, the officer-corps appears at last to be moving away from its earlier sympathy and support for extremism. This makes a seizure of the nuclear arsenal improbable. But Pakistan's "urban Taliban", rather than illiterate tribal fighters, do pose a nuclear risk. There are indeed more than a few scientists and engineers in the nuclear establishment with extreme religious views.

While they aspire to state power, the Taliban have been able to achieve considerable success without it. Through terror tactics and suicide-bombings they have made fear ubiquitous. Women are being forced into burqas, and anxious private employers and government departments have advised their male employees in Peshawar and other cities to wear shalwar-kameez rather than trousers. Co-educational schools across Pakistan are increasingly fearful of attacks; some are converting to girls-only or boys-only schools. Video-shops are going out of business, and native musicians and dancers have fled or changed their profession. A sterile Saudi-style Wahhabism is beginning to impact upon Pakistan's once-vibrant culture and society.

It could be far worse. If, for example, General Ashfaq Kayani were overthrown in a coup by radical Islamist officers who seize control of the country's nuclear weapons, making intervention by outside forces impossible; and if jihad for liberating Kashmir is subsequently declared as Pakistan's highest priority and earlier policies for crossing the "line of control" (LoC) are revived; if Shi'a are expelled to Iran, and Hindus forced into India; if ethnic and religious minorities in the northern areas flee Pashtun invaders; if anti-Taliban forces such as the ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Baluch (Baloch) nationalists are decisively crushed by Islamists; and if sharia is declared across the country. All this still seems improbable - as long as the army stays together.

The way forward

What can the United States, which is still the world's pre-eminent power, do to turn the situation around? Amazingly little.

In spite of being on US life-support, Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world. It has a long litany of grievances. Some are pan-Islamic, but others derive from its bitter experiences of being a US ally in the 1980s. Pakistan, once at the cutting-edge of the US-organised jihad against the Soviet Union, was dumped once the war was over and left to deal with numerous toxic consequences.

The festering resentments in Pakistan produced a paranoid mindset that blames Washington for all of Pakistan's ills - old and new. A meeting of young people that I addressed in Islamabad recently included many who thought that the Taliban are composed of US agents paid to create instability so that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be seized by Washington. Other such absurd conspiracy theories also enjoy huge currency.

Nevertheless, the United States isn't powerless. The chances of engaging with Pakistan positively have improved under the Barack Obama administration. Any real progress toward a Palestinian state and dealing with Muslims globally would have enormous resonance in Pakistan. The US president's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009, announcing a "new beginning" with the Muslim world, is a promising step in this regard.

Pakistan's financial support must not be cut, or economic collapse (and certain Taliban victory) would follow in a matter of months. The government and army must be kept afloat until Pakistan is fully ready to take on extremism by itself (although better financial monitoring is needed). The United States also should initiate a conference that brings Iran, India, and China together. Each of these countries must recognise that extremism represents a regional as well as global danger, and they must formulate an action-plan aimed at squeezing the extremists.

Pakistan's political leadership and army have a key responsibility in all this. They must face the extremist threat, accept the United States and India as partners rather than adversaries, enact major reforms in income and land distribution, revamp the education and legal systems, and address the real needs of citizens. Most important, Pakistan will have to clamp down on the fiery mullahs who spout hatred from mosques, and stop suicide-bomber production in madrasas. For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan 

  Category: Asia, World Affairs
  Topics: Pakistan, Taliban
Views: 4836

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Older Comments:
Thank you for a great article about what I suspected about Pakistan. I pray that God will see it in His plan to turn it around for the Pakistani people.

Assalam brothers,
Islam is based upon Logic and reasoning.
Quran emphasises on reasoning behing everything - religion , tragedy and then try to accept whatever is the true path..

Having said that, considering the exponential rise in turmoil, the entire world is expecting each and every pakistani to come up with
FACTS rather than contradictiory conspirational theories and then work upon them...

I dont appreciate the way we start terming anyone (e.g. Hoodbhoy) as anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan without any evidence for the same, just becoz the person happens to write facts about pakistan , despite he been the most knowledgeble and experienced person for Pakistan. This is called pessimism, and the habit of thinking always negative, and blaming others for one's distress.

Till date Pak Govt have been doing the WILD GOOSE Chase, ignoring the true enemy inside ( fanatics / home-grown terrorists) and blaming on neighboring countries (India)
becoz unless the Pakistanis identifies the right enemy, these events will go on affecting the normal lives of all innocents.....You never know when these events fall at your own doorstep., inshallah not..

and FYI, India is more concerned when pak is in instability, becoz instability of the neighbouring country affects us in security as well as economic aspects. Plus Indian ruling govt comprises lots of Muslims as well muslim favouring schemes...Its inconceievable to think of them plotting anything against Islam until we dont have evidence...

For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how.

What is going on in Pakistain today is really sad. The fight Muslim against Muslim is a terrible thing. With millions displaced, and having to ask others for help, its just sad. I could never ever kill another muslim for no amount of money. The real winner in this bloody battle is the Shayatan, no one else. Shaytan is having a ball sitting back laughing at mankind. The powers that be in the West are really having a ball.
I often wonder that if Muslims keep killing eachother in these so called muslim countries, then who will protect these countries in case of foreign invaders? What people do not see is that these countries are becoming weaker and weaker. I will never understand how Muslims can slaughter one another, and then sleep well at night. Truely, they do not know Allah and his Last Messenger. May Allah keep the true Muslims on the Mustakeen. Surely, there are some of us that are really lost.

I just want to know how many US Dollars or Indian Rupees have the writer earned to say that Pakistan should consider India and USA as 'partners' against terrorism? Why this writer has not mentioned that it is these two countries which are infact behind the so called Pakistani Talibans and secretly supporting them to carry out these terrorist acts within Pakistan?

Yes i agree that Pakistan is going to stay because it is written in heaven and will of God and also i like to say that Pakistan will long long enough to see the destruction of all those countries as well as individuals who are dreaming to see it finish ! God save my beautiful Pakistan....Insha Allah !

In response to Mr. Qazu, I think I made my point very clear. You said the author was "trying to say that Pakistan will not fall under the misguided Talibani laws". At one point, islamabad's Laws are not 100% islamic either. Is mix with human opinion or laws just like any other nations. But how have we to know Taliban Laws or form of Sharia is not right? If Taliban insist on eradicating musics and prevent women from going out lonely, is anythig wrong with that?. Let's take New York for instance: A new Law was passed few years back with mandatory dicsiplinary action against anyone who touches someone on the train, regardless of croud is considered violation. Also, American girl will tell you she cant go out unless her brother follows her especially at night. So is anything wrong with Taliban form of Shariah now? doesnt islam itself encourages separation of sex? doesnt islam forbids musics and musical instruments and all these forbidden things that attract both young and old muslims now?, Should the muslims turn agaisnt muslims brother(Taliban) because of their form of Shariah and ally with Kufar?. Honestly, I dont trust muslim Ummah of today that's why am free of sectarianism. My only guidance are Quran and Sunna. Even if Taliban is not 100% correct in its form of islamic Law, does that warrant their bombings? an order given by Kuffar to muslims puppet regimes against muslim brothers?
O i remember ibn Abduallah's word that "a worst muslim is better than kuffar"

All I pray for in Kalifah under the banner of Lailaha ilallahu.

Salam alaikun

To James Cohen: That is not the point of the article. I believe that ordinary Pakistanis are conservative in nature, and see faith as an important parts of their lives. You are right that we should take some things that the Western Media says w/ skepticism. That's also why the majority of Pakistanis are not wholly secular. I think Mr. Hoodbouy was trying to say that Pakistan will not fall under the misguided Talibani laws.

The author Pervez Hoodbhoy that call himself a professor of somewhere sounds islamic by identification but looks hypocrite by word. The notion that "the Islamic sharia will not become the law of the land". Is a joke. If pakistanis are mostly muslims, why Shariah impossible? whats the purppose or dignity of muslims and islam?
One thing is very clear, Islam has terrible problems within it followers like many who happen to be muslims or claim to be. I hate to believe in propaganda either by western media or eastern media. My media is only Quran and Hadith. If Taliban claims to implement Shariah, i'd take it word for it and embrace it. I'd also quickly condenm anyone be it muslim or not who opposes Shariah Law. If the author sees lashing a woman for illegal sexual act is considered human right violation, then i'd say what's it islam's stand on this judgement? Well, I remind the author of Quran's verse " Ye are the people ever raised for mankind, enjoing what's right, forbidding what's evil......." Is this author and his allies want anyone that commit illegal intercourse scout free? I guess he wants pakimerica?

What exactly do the Pakistani Taliban want? They share with
their Afghan counterparts the goal of fighting the United States.
But still more important is the wish to replace secular and
traditional law and customs in Pakistan's tribal areas with their
version of the sharia. The logic of this aim (shared with religious
political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami) is a total
transformation of society. It entails the elimination of music, art,
entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and
westernism. The accessory goals include destroying the Shi'a -
whom the Sunni Taliban regard as heretics - and expelling the
few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus from the
frontier province.
this guy wants to add fuel to fire,create more problems,
he thinks displcement of 3 millions is ok as long as it is poor
muslims not him who is sitting in islamabad.
thats why he is a traitor ,i dont know why he is invited on tv

The author Pervez Hoodbhoy and other secular
people can only see one side of a coin. They see
with one eye and want to see what western secular
people show them. Currently Pakistan is a battle
field of super powers and agencies but Inshallah
Pakistan has bright future and will become most
respectable nation in world. Inclination will
start soon inshallah.