Fight for Pakistan’s Soul
As its army confronts, ever more bloodily, the Taleban in the Swat Valley, Pakistan is fighting for its very soul. The army appears to be winning this time around, in marked contrast to its recent half-hearted confrontations with Taleban forces in neighboring tribal areas.
For now, the Taleban are on the run, some with shaved beards and some in burqas, to avoid being recognised and thrashed. The reason is simple: increasingly, people across Pakistan support the army’s action. This support persists despite the terrible humanitarian cost: more than 1.5 million internal refugees.
This round of fighting was preceded by a negotiated calm, as the government sought to quell militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas by striking a deal with the Taleban leader, Sufi Mohammad. The deal, which instituted a version of Shariah law in the region in exchange for a commitment that militants would lay down their weapons, was blessed by the comparatively liberal Awami National Party (ANP), which governs the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Swat is located.
But the Taleban’s assurances of a lower profile were upended by two incidents that exposed its real face. First, private news channels broadcast across the country a video clip recorded on a cell phone of the public flogging of a 17-year-old Swat girl. This gave the public a stark sense of what Taleban justice really meant.
Then, Mohammad was interviewed on GEO TV, where he explained his political views. According to Mohammad, democracy is un-Islamic, as are Pakistan’s constitution and judiciary, and Islam bars women from getting an education or leaving their homes except to perform the Haj in Makkah.
Religious conservatives were stunned. Leaders of the religious parties rushed to denounce Mohammad’s views. The Pakistani media revisited a famous comment by Mohammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher who devised the idea of an independent Muslim state in Pakistan. “The religion of the mullah,” he said, “is anarchy in the name of Allah.” Still, it’s not over until it’s over — and in the short term a lot depends on the state’s capacity to hold the Swat area and re-establish civilian institutions there. And, even if the state succeeds, re-asserting control over Swat will only be the first step. The Taleban is spread throughout the NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. “Punjabi Taleban” militants from the fighting in Kashmir against India continue to shuttle between the Punjab heartland and the Northwest Territories, posing another serious challenge to government authority.
In the long-term, however, what really matters is whether the Muslims of South Asia will be able to roll back the spread of Talebanisation altogether. The answer to that question lies within the various Muslim communities of the region, not just in Pakistan.
Afghanistan faces an election later this year. A clear and transparent vote will make a real difference in establishing the credibility of the Afghan government. In Pakistan, the democratic transition, after years of military rule, is still not complete. There is much hope, though, in the vibrancy of the Pakistani media, as well as in the energy that the legal community generated last March in restoring deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to his seat on the Supreme Court.
Then there is the Pakistani army, the country’s “super political party.” To a large degree, Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan, and the United States depend on the military. Army commander Ashfaq Kiyani has shown no interest in taking over the state, as his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, did. But the army must accept its subservience to Pakistan’s political leadership. The army command must finally recognise that repeated military interventions have not served the country well.
Most significantly, in the face of martial law and political assassination, Pakistanis have not given up their dream of democracy. A living example of this is Afzal Lala, a Pashtun politician associated with the Awami National Party who, despite all the threats from the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan, remained in Swat through the recent fighting.
Democracy will be decisive because it generates investments in education, health, and economic empowerment that reward ordinary voters. Talebanisation gains ground when people lose faith in the capacity of the modern state to improve their lives.
While poor law enforcement needs urgent attention, counter-terrorism is never solely a military affair. Financial pledges from the US and the “Friends of Pakistan” consortium (the European Union, China, and Japan) are important, but when it comes to investing wisely in development projects, Pakistan’s track record is nothing to be proud of. Effective oversight from donors and Pakistan’s private sector will be critical. Only one condition should be imposed on aid for Pakistan: the first money should be spent on rebuilding all the bombed-out girls’ schools in Swat. If need be, the army should guard these schools round the clock.
Hassan Abbas, a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, is the author of a recent ISPU report, Pakistan Can Defy the Odds: How to Rescue a Failing State
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