First, the bottom line: Pakistan 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 mainstream U.S. press, as well as with some in the Obama administration. For example, in March, David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, declared that state collapse could occur within six months. This is highly improbable.
Now, the bad news: The clouds hanging over the future of Pakistan’s state and society are getting darker. Collapse isn’t impending, but there is a slow-burning fuse. While timescales cannot be mathematically forecast, the speed of societal decline has surprised many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring Pakistan.
Here is how it all went down the hill: The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan devastated the Taliban. Many fighters were products of madrassas in Pakistan, and their trauma was partly shared by their erstwhile benefactors in the Pakistan military and intelligence. Recognizing that this force would remain important for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan–and keep the low-intensity war in Kashmir going–the army secretly welcomed them on Pakistani soil. Rebuilding and rearming was quick, especially as the United States tripped up in Afghanistan after a successful initial victory. Former President Pervez Musharraf’s strategy of running with the hares and hunting with hounds worked initially. But then U.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 Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, the movement of Pakistani Taliban, formally announced its existence. With a blitzkrieg of merciless beheadings of soldiers and suicide bombings, the TTP drove out the army from much of the frontier province. By early this year, it held about 10 percent of Pakistan’s territory.
Even then, few Pakistanis saw the Taliban as the enemy. Apologists for the Taliban abounded, particularly among opinion-forming local TV anchors that whitewashed their atrocities, and insisted that they shouldn’t be resisted by force. Others supported them as fighters against U.S. imperial might. The government’s massive propaganda apparatus lay rusting. Beset by ideological confusion, it had no cogent response to the claim that Pakistan was made for Islam and that the Taliban were Islamic fighters.
The price paid for the government’s prevarication was immense. A weak-kneed 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 girl’s 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. Thrilled by their success, the Taliban violated the Nizam-e-Adl Swat deal just days after it was negotiated in April. They quickly moved to capture more territory in the adjacent area of Buner. Barely 80 miles from Islamabad (as the crow flies), their spokesman, Muslim Khan, boasted the capital would be captured soon. The army and government still dithered, and the public remained largely opposed to the use of military force.
And then a miracle of sorts happened. Sufi Mohammed, the illiterate, aging leader of the Swat sharia movement, while addressing a huge victory rally in early May, lost his good sense to excessive exuberance. 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. Even for a Pakistani public enamored by the call to sharia, Mohammed’s comments 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.
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. But it will be a long haul to eliminate them from the complex mountainous terrain of Swat and Malakand. Wresting North and South Waziristan, hundreds of miles away, 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 recently established itself–Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. So one expects that major conflict will eventually shift from Pakistan’s tribal peripheries to the heartland, southern Punjab. Indeed, the Punjabi Taliban are now busy ramping up their operations, with a successful suicide attack on the police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore in May.
What exactly do the Pakistani Taliban want? As with their Afghan counterparts, fighting the United States in Afghanistan is certainly one goal. But still more important is replacing secular and traditional law and customs in Pakistan’s tribal areas with their version of the sharia. This goal, which they share with religious political parties such as Jamat-e-Islami, is working for a total transformation of society. It calls for elimination of music, art, entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and Westernism. Side goals include destroying the Shias–who the Sunni Taliban regard as heretics–and chasing away 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 marginalized social groups, they don’t demand employment, land reform, better health care, or more social services. This isn’t a liberation movement by a long shot, although some marginalized Pakistani leftists labor under this delusion.
As for the future: Tribal insurgents cannot overrun Islamabad and Pakistan’s main cities, which are protected by thousands of heavily armed military and paramilitary troops. Rogue elements within the military and intelligence agencies have instigated or organized suicide attacks against their own colleagues. Now, dazed by the brutality of these attacks, the officer corps finally appears 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, 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 haven’t needed it to achieve considerable success. 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.
Coeducational 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. As such, a sterile Saudi-style Wahabism is beginning to impact upon Pakistan’s once-vibrant culture and society.
It could be far worse. One could imagine that Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is overthrown in a coup by radical Islamist officers who seize control of the country’s nuclear weapons, making intervention by outside forces impossible. Jihad for liberating Kashmir is subsequently declared as Pakistan’s highest priority and earlier policies for crossing the Line of Control are revived; Shias are expelled into Iran, and Hindus are forced into India; ethnic and religious minorities in the Northern Areas flee Pashtun invaders; anti-Taliban forces such as the ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Baluch nationalists are decisively crushed by Islamists; and sharia is declared across the country. Fortunately, this seems improbable–as long as the army stays together.
What can the United States, which is still the world’s preeminent power, do to turn the situation around? Amazingly little.
In spite of being on the U.S. dole, 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 U.S. ally in the 1980s. Once at the cutting edge of the U.S. organized jihad against the Soviet Union, Pakistan was dumped once the war was over and left to deal with numerous toxic consequences. Although much delayed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent acceptance of blame is welcome. But festering resentments 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 had many who thought that the Taliban are U.S. 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 here.
Nevertheless, the United States isn’t powerless. Chances of engaging with Pakistan positively have improved under the Obama administration. Real progress toward a Palestinian state and dealing with Muslims globally would have enormous resonance in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s political leadership and army must squarely face the extremist threat, enact major reforms in income and land distribution, revamp the education and legal systems, and address the real needs of citizens. Most importantly, Pakistan will have to clamp down on the fiery mullahs who spout hatred from mosques and stop suicide bomber production in madrassas. For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how to handle this.
PERVEZ HOODBHOY is chairman of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.