Pakistan on Fire

Violence and unpredictably court Pakistan like a loyal and persistent stalker–or spurned lover. Over the past year, nearly a thousand Pakistanis have died as a direct result of suicide bombings, roadside blasts and conflicts with militants and extremists operating within its borders. Alongside the violence, Pakistan elected the PPP [Bhutto’s party] with a clear majority, however Musharaff still retains his role as President with U.S. support and backing. Asif Zardari, Benazir’s husband also affectionately known as “Mr. Ten Percent” for his illustrious career in corruption, was recently acquitted of all criminal charges, thus making him a candidate for Prime Minister. And, before one forgets, there’s also the dramatic rise of “the Pakistan Taliban” and insurgent leftovers from the Afghan-Soviet war. Veteran Pakistani journalist, Zahid Hussain, clearly analyzes the forces leading to Pakistan’s sudden surge of violence and militancy in his celebrated book, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, which was praised by both Seymour Hersh and Taliban author, Ahmed Rashid. Here’s an exclusive conversation with Hussain that took place just this week.

ALI: A Bomb blast just happened in Pakistan [March 11th, twin suicide bombs killing nearly 24 in Lahore.] You’re there and you’re on the scene. Tell us in America what we don’t see on CNN or FOX News. Who did it? Why did it happen? What the reality on the ground?

HUSSAIN: This is the latest in the series of suicide bombings which has shaken Pakistan over the last few months. There has been a marked intensification in these terrorist attacks. The latest attack was at FIA–The Federal Investigation Agency building. It definitely looks like the work of Islamic militants. This building was particularly targeted, since it has a counter terrorism unit, which was trained by the U.S. That could be major reason for it being targeted.

In the last few months, we’ve seen that the terrorists have increasingly targeted the security institutions and army installations. Nobody ever claimed responsibility for these attacks, but what the police and intelligence agencies suspect that it is all emanating from the [Northern] Tribal Regions. And, possibly, could be the work of Al Qaeda.

ALI: So, you say the Waziristan and Northern Tribal regions of Pakistan could possibly be connected to these attacks on security bases, but the ISI [Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency], which you described in your book as a “state within the state” and the “Big Brother” of Pakistan, has tangential and direct connections to extremist groups. So, why are these extremist militants now turning around and attacking the same intelligence agencies, arguably, that have nurtured them for the past 20 years?

HUSSAIN: Certainly, they helped these militant organizations, because [the militants] were helping and serving Pakistan’s regional policy. They were used as instruments of policy for over 20 years, but definitely things changed after 9-11. First, there was pressure from the United States. The Pakistan and American government suspended the support of the Taliban government. Despite the fact the ISI had helped prop up the Taliban government in Afghanistan- which also helped America as well. Obviously, then there was suspicion that the part of the ISI had still–if not directly patronizing the militant organizations–continued to have that link.

Over the past 2 years, this is no longer the situation. Until December 2006, we had not seen the army or military organizations targeted by the militants. But this changes after 2 or 3 incidents. Particularly, about 80 so-called militants, or people say, madrassa students, were killed. That was the turning point I suppose. The attack was supposedly carried out by the U.S., but the Pakistani government owned it.

After that, we had seen – for the first time- militants had targeted the army outside the tribal areas. A suicide bomb attack on the training ground in Northern province killed about 40 soldiers. It increased further in July 2007, after the raid on the Red Mosque [Pakistani commando units killed nearly 173 radical students, when overtaking the besieged Red Mosque.] After that, we’ve seen a large rise in suicide bomb attacks. The army and intelligence service agencies then became the prime target of those attacks. That would be the turning point. There have been at least 7 to 8 attacks in Rawalpindi [District of Pakistan in Northern Punjab province] alone.

ALI: You’ve traveled to Afghanistan. You’ve been to Waziristan and crossed the border. You’ve seen the most dangerous places close hand. Before we discuss extremism and militant Islam, I want you to give me your definition and characteristic traits of militancy existing within Pakistan today. What aspects of Pakistani society today do you consider as the militant extremists?

HUSSAIN: The militants are those forces, who at one point, formed an organization to wage so-called jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. We saw those organizations, in particular, in the 1990’s. All those organizations had come up and were formed by the leaders who had fought in Afghanistan, those who had fought with the Afghan mujaheddin, in the 1980’s. But, later, after the end of Soviet control over Afghanistan, these same people formed militant organizations that first fought in Kashmir, and also, some of them supported the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In 1990’s, when they were formed, they all had tacit support from the Pakistani intelligence agencies. At that time, the jihad militancy was used as a part of Pakistan’s’ policy.

After 9-11, what happened is that President Musharaff banned some of the organizations, and some of them disintegrated and turned into a small cell that had already operated in Pakistan. After 2001, they started attacking the foreign consulates. We have seen the attack on the American consulate 3 times. They were not happy with Pakistan’s policy, but initially, their target was foreign installations. They did not target the Pakistani military understanding, ultimately, that the military would eventually be their supporters.

Some of these groups have been waging jihad against the Pakistani government–against the government of Musharaff – thinking that he had collaborated with the Americans. So, anyone who had collaborated with Americans had to become their target. There is also a perception that the Pakistan military is pursuing the American agenda. This is the change we have seen in Pakistan over the past one and a half years.

ALI: Let’s build a foundation. Let’s talk about Kashmir, which for some reason no one discusses here in the American press. Here is a small, sliver of land, most would argue is hardly worth fighting over, yet it has caused 2 wars and is a prime catalyst for mutually assured destruction between India and Pakistan. Why is Kashmir so significant, and how has it, if at all, been used and abused as a proxy for political gain?

HUSSAIN: Well, I wouldn’t say that it is just a small piece of land. Definitely, this has been a root cause of problems between both countries since their inception as independent states. It has been the major cause of conflict between the two countries. It goes back to 1989, there was an indigenous uprising by Kashmiris against Indian policy. And, definitely, Pakistan did support this uprising. Initially, what we had seen was that the people who were fighting against the Indian army were the Kashmiris themselves, who might have got some training from Pakistan. But after the early 1990’s, we saw a large number of Pakistani fighters going inside Kashmir and fighting. So, in a way, that is what has kept that struggle alive.

But, in fact, it has had huge consequences in that it has damaged the Kashmiri’s struggle and it has definitely harmed them. It showed India that it was nothing else but support from Pakistan for the Pakistan militants fighting there. The military did not realize the long-term consequences of doing this. The 2 major effects is that number one: it harms Kashmiri’s political struggle for independence. The second thing they didn’t realize is that by supporting these militant Islamic units supposedly waging jihad against India and to liberate Kashmir, they didn’t realize this would come back and haunt them.

ALI: Blowback.

HUSSAIN: Yeah, a blowblack. And then when the Pakistan government tried to stop them, the militants turned the jihad inwards, and that’s what we’re facing today in Pakistan.

ALI: The decision and political machinations to declare Pakistan’s Prime Minister were discussed this week on the cover of the New York Times. To observers, Pakistan looks like Monty Pythons flying circus. We have twice deposed, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s convict husband Asif Zadari, affectionately know as “Mr. 10%” for his history of corruption, and Musharaff, a man who exiled Nawaz Sharif since the latter tried to assassinate him. With all these selfish, political players in power, one must ask: does this represent a return to democracy for Pakistan or is this just a front for feudal power-sharing like we’ve seen before?

HUSSAIN: I don’t think so. The people of Pakistan have given a clear verdict. The past is certainly not enviable, but it is a political process. I don’t agree with the people who malign everything; those who say that Pakistan isn’t fit for democracy. I think it’s wrong. Even in democracies, we have seen cases of corruption. In India, we have seen that the whole system, the politicians, almost every big politician has been accused of something or another. Rajiv Ghadni, when he was Prime Minister, he was accused of getting commissions on transactions. I’m not saying that all politicians there are not clean. But, India has come through a process.

As far as Nawaz Sharif and others are concerned, look, they have made many mistakes, but still actually they represent people here. People have voted for them here, and one must respect that. These kinds of articles that are printed about Pakistan, they do not see the whole picture. This is a typical thing which says, “Pakistan is not fit for democracy. It cannot run the government itself.” And I don’t agree with that.

ALI: The United States, as you know, has been very timid in its recent relations and approach with Pakistan specifically about the restoration of the Justices who were sacked by Musharaff last year. Yet, at the same time, they gave Musharaff nearly $10 billion dollars, who now seems like a lame duck, and billions of dollars to former dictator General Zia. So, how is this a microcosm of United States’ overall policy towards Pakistan in the past 20 years? And why are they still supporting Musharaff?

HUSSAIN: It is basically a very narrow policy. They always try to rely on military rulers thinking they can best help their interests in the long-term. What I think is when you say, “They gave $10 billion to Musharaff”–they didn’t give it to one person, but basically since Pakistan is strategically very important to the U.S., that’s why they get military aid. Most of this aid has come in the form military hardware. That basically shows the paradox in American policy. On one hand, they keep talking about democracy, yet they keep supporting military rulers. I’m not much concerned about the judiciary issue. I don’t want America to interfere in any way, and I don’t think they can help restore democracy. I’m not one of those people who says look America should support this person or that person–no. You must really have faith in democracy; if you do, you must allow that to operate and function. Allow that process to continue. This is the best option Pakistan now has to return to democracy. Every democracy loving country should support that process.

WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com





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