By Dr. Niaz Murtaza
Salman Taseer’s murder is shocking and condemnable, as is the subsequent celebratory reaction among certain circles. However, is Pakistan really suffering from the terminally incurable cancer of extremism, as many people, even well-wishers, are consequently concluding globally? Are extremists poised to take over? We must trace the trajectory of extremism in Pakistan to answer this question.
The birth of extremism in Pakistan obviously occurred under Zia. However, orphaned early by the death of its ideological father, violent extremism reduced significantly by mid-1990s, though the propagation of extremist ideology continued unchecked in Madrassahs and elsewhere. Zia’s orphans were subsequently adopted and nurtured by his military successor, Musharraf, though his guardianship extended solely for pragmatic reasons, unlike Zia’s pragmatic-cum-ideological linkages. In order to defeat the PPP and PML-N in the 2002 elections, Musharraf orchestrated victory for the PML-Q and MMA. The rigging in favor of MMA re-ignited nationalist rebellion in Balochistan and religious extremism in KPK.
With the active support of MMA’s KPK government and the benefit of willful neglect by Musharraf, extremists had acquired three fearsome capacities by 2007, in addition to their continuing capacity to indoctrinate people. Most fearsome was their capacity to capture territory. As Musharraf deferred serious military action to coddle religious allies, FATA fell early, followed by Swat. Militant-held areas soon reached within 60 kms of Islamabad, sending shockwaves globally. Next in seriousness was their capacity to pass extremist legislation based on rigged parliamentary numeracy. Thus, the Hasba bill’s implementation was only thwarted by Supreme Court action. The third capacity related to undertaking random violent attacks throughout Pakistan. While this third capacity inflicted serious damage, it still gave extremists much less strategic ability to mold the country in their image than the other capacities.
What is the trajectory of these capacities since Musharraf’s departure? Given that the present government and army leadership are less beholden to religious parties, military operations have picked up and most lost territory has been recaptured, though strong pockets still exist. Following free elections, religious parties have lost their ability to pass extremist legislation. In fact, with the JUI’s exit, the government now includes only secular parties unlikely to pass such legislation, though admittedly they are too afraid to fight for secularism. Neither capacity is likely to re-emerge soon.
Progress on eliminating the militants’ capacity to undertake random violent attacks has been slower. Suicide attack casualties have decreased and their radius is shrinking closer to FATA. Attacks on music shops, co-educational schools etc. have reduced. However, the disruptive power of extremists remains strong enough to keep the country unstable. Salman Taseer’s murder represents a flare-up on this capacity. However, the most ferocious displays of this capacity occur in defense of past territorial and legislative gains (e.g., when the blasphemy law and remaining FATA strongholds are attacked) rather than for new gains. The ability to indoctrinate people also remains strong. Beyond enhancing their disruptive capacities, this may also help extremists win elections or take over key institutions stealthily, especially the military. Neither scenario is impossible but nor easy given the polycentric nature of Pakistan. Winning elections especially would require enormous social mobilization by extremists to nullify existing patronage politics. Even if either happens, it will be gradually over 5-10 years.
Given this status of different capacities, it is clear that Pakistan today is not a country slipping into an extremist abyss rapidly but one slowly clawing out from it, with extremist violent capacities largely focused on defending past victories. Nevertheless, even these remaining capacities represent Pakistan’s biggest challenge since 1971. Clearly, hate factories, extremist legislation, illegal weapons and militant strongholds must be eliminated, among other things, to achieve economic and political stability and the moderation dictated by true Islamic teachings and traditional Pakistani culture.
Unfortunately, neither politicians nor generals seem willing or capable of doing so until Afghanistan stabilizes given their fears of the disruptive capacities of extremists. Thus, the army is in a stalemate in FATA. However, the same is true in Afghanistan for the more mighty and motivated Americans. This is happening primarily because Pakistan and America are not on the same page. The USA is pursuing a military solution but Pakistan a compromise whereby pro-Pakistan militants can dominate Afghanistan. Until both parties operate from the same page, the stalemates will persist.
Pakistan could fully pursue the military solution demanded by the US under strong American pressure. However, the success of this strategy is uncertain given the failed history of external military forays in the region. It will also likely cause serious strife within Pakistan as extremists unleash their disruptive capacities to protect remaining gains. Abandoning the war unilaterally, as is sometimes suggested, is inadvisable given that Pakistan must maintain international goodwill and given its past complicity in encouraging extremism on both sides of the border. Thus, the most feasible option is that, forgoing narrow aims, Pakistan must convince America and the Taliban to pursue peace whereby Taliban elements willing to respect human rights join a broadly-based, ethnically decentralized Afghan government that is neutral towards all external stakeholders.
This option will optimize the interests of not only domestic and regional stakeholders but also America. America’s real rival, Al-Qaeda, barely exists in Afghanistan anymore but has spread globally. In fighting heavily in Afghanistan, the US is chasing ghosts, getting distracted from new Al-Qaeda sanctuaries and fanning instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. By weaning away the Taliban, the USA will increase Pakistan’s capacity and willingness to tackle remaining Al-Qaeda-allied and domestic extremists through carrot and stick and enhance Pakistan’s stability. Will the US learn the lessons that the UK and USSR learnt earlier about Afghanistan? It probably will, but closer to its withdrawal timeline of 2014. So, barring military miracles, Pakistan will remain unstable until then (though without collapsing). However, this will reflect the follies not just of its generals and politicians but also America, as throughout Pakistan’s history.
Dr. Niaz Murtaza is a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley, email@example.com. This article recently appeared in Dawn.