Despite pleas of the new pro-Western regime, Afghanistan is still being bombed. Innocent people die every day. Osama bin Laden is still at large, but attention has already shifted to Pakistan. The destabilising effects of the war in Afghanistan were always likely to be felt here first. The reasons are obvious.
The Pashtun population in Pakistan’s North-Western Frontier Province shares linguistic and ethnic ties with the region that formed the principal base of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The same brand of Deobandi Islam is strong on both sides of the border. It is worth stressing that there was less actual fighting on the ground in the last three months than there has been over the last quarter century. The bearded ones chose not to fight. A sizeable section of the Taliban forces simply came back home to Pakistan. Some of them are undoubtedly demoralised and happy to be alive, but there is probably a large minority that is angered by Islamabad’s betrayal and is eager to link up with the armed fundamentalist groups already in the country.
The leaders of the most virulent jihadi sects have been arrested, but who will disarm their militants? Until late last year some of the Islamist leaders were boasting that they had chosen 20 cities on which Islamic laws would be imposed. The unstated threat was clear. If any authority attempted to interfere, they would unleash a civil war. When the latest Afghan war began, Washington made no secret of its fear that a massive Western intervention in Afghanistan that overtly used Pakistan as a launching-pad might trigger major unrest or even a coup against a collaborationist regime. The US did everything to maintain decorous appearances for General Musharraf, Pakistan’s ruler, while making sure of the practical compliance of Islamabad. In return for this, sanctions were lifted and money and the latest weaponry began to flow into Pakistan once again.
But now that the Taliban have been defeated, can anyone be sure that the various fig-leaves will really insulate Pakistan from the indignation of the faithful? Everything depends on the unity of the officer corps. To some degree, if one difficult to gauge, Sunni fundamentalism has also penetrated the ranks of the armed forces. Across the country, radical Islamism of one kind or another is a vocal, if minority, force. General Musharraf’s military regime itself is, moreover, a very recent and none-too-strong creation, with little positive civilian support.
The abandonment of its own creation in Afghanistan will be a bitter pill for many in the army, especially at junior levels of command, where religious influence is strongest. However, even more secular-minded officers are not pleased at the outcome. The Taliban takeover in Kabul was the Pakistan army’s only victory. Privately the ruling elite–officers, bureaucrats and politicians–congratulated each other for having gained a new province. It almost made up for the 1971 defection of Bangladesh. As if to rub salt into the wounds, the Northern Alliance and its Washington-selected Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai, have just declared their intention of forging close relations with India, as was the case from 1947-89. This has further weakened the position of the general ruling Pakistan.
It is true that, at more senior levels, the American crusade against the Taliban has been seen as a godsend. For at a stroke it has allowed the Pakistani generals to recover their traditional regional priority for Washington, assured them of credits they desperately need and lifted opposition to their nuclear arsenal. Unlike its Arab counterparts, the Pakistani army has never seen a coup mounted by captains, majors or colonels–when it has seized power, as so often, it has always done so without splits, at the initiative and under the control of its generals (a tradition of discipline inherited from the Raj).
At all events, short of a break in this long-established pattern, it seems unlikely that the top-brass of the Pakistani regime will suffer much from the pieces of silver with which they have been showered. However, the scale of the Pakistani defeat is such that, once the flow of money and weapons ceases, General Musharraf might well be toppled from within. Power-hungry generals have never been a rare commodity in Pakistan.
This is what makes the tension with India potentially dangerous. The irony is that Pakistan is led by a secular general and India by a fundamentalist Hindu politician: an ideal combination to make peace. Yet on one level it would suit both sides to have a small war. General Musharraf could prove that he was not a total pawn. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s Prime Minster, could win an election. The Kashmiris would continue to suffer. But who could guarantee a small war?
The fact is that Pakistan’s infiltration of jihadi groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, into Indian-occupied Kashmir has created an alternative military apparatus that Islamabad funds and supplies but can’t fully control–just like the Taliban. It’s obvious that the attack on the Indian Parliament was carried out by one of these groups to provoke a more serious conflict. Some of the jihadis don’t much care for Pakistan as an entity. Their aim is to restore Muslim rule in India. Crazy? Yes, but armed and capable of wreaking havoc in both countries. If General Musharraf won’t deal with the menace, Mr Vajpayee will.
If Washington can wage its “war on terrorism”, why can’t Delhi? Just because it can’t get retrospective sanction from the UN? But as any Second World politician will tell you, for UN read US. The threat of an Indo-Pak war has concentrated minds in Washington: how to give the Indians their pound of flesh without destabilising Pakistan? Perhaps the time is coming when General Musharraf can be sacrificed in the name of a return to democracy in Pakistan. The problem is that no civilian politician in Pakistan is strong enough to challenge the army, which has ruled the country longer than any political party.
The real solution lies in Kashmir, the cause of a dispute that could lead to nuclear conflict. Kashmiris have suffered long enough. The brutality of the Indian occupation made many of them turn to Pakistan, but the behaviour of the jihadi infiltrators has shocked most Kashmiris. The very thought of Talibanisation has led many educated professionals, male and female, to flee. They would like to be rid of both sides.
An autonomous Kashmir, which shares sovereignty with both India and Pakistan, and even China, could become a haven of peace in the region. Sooner or later the situation will require some such solution, but do we have to wait for a war to bring politicians to their senses?
Tariq Ali is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He is the author of The Stone Woman. Verso will publish the his new book, ‘Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity’ in April.