• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Pakistan in Peril

In his new book, Rashid is particularly perceptive in his examination of the causes of terrorism in the region, and the way that the Bush administration sought to silence real scrutiny of what was actually causing so many people in South and Central Asia violently to resist American influence. Serious analysis was swept under the carpet, making impossible

any discussion or understanding of the “root causes” of terrorism—the growing poverty, repression, and sense of injustice that many Muslims felt at the hands of their US-backed governments, which in turn boosted anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism…. Bush did more to keep Americans blind to world affairs than any American leader in recent history.

Instead, terrorism was presented by the administration as a result of a “sudden worldwide anti-Americanism rather than a result of past American policy failures.” Bush’s speech to Congress, claiming that the world hated America because “they hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote,” ignored the political elephant standing in the middle of the living room—US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, with its long history of unpopular interventions in the Islamic world and its uncritical support for Israel’s steady colonization of the West Bank and violent repression of the Palestinians. As the Department of Defense Science Board rightly pointed out in response to Bush’s speech: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies.”

It was partly the intense hostility to Islam emanating from both the press and the government of the United States that made it so difficult for moderates in the Islamic world to counter the propaganda of the extremists. How could the moderates dispute the notion that America was engaged in a civilizational war against Islam when this was clearly something many in the administration, and their supporters in the press, did indeed believe? It also had a strongly negative effect on policy decisions. By building up public hysteria and presenting a vision of an Islamic world eaten up with irrational hatred of America, an unspoken feeling was generated among Americans that, as Rashid puts it,

if they hated us, then Americans should hate Muslims back and retaliate not just against the terrorists but against Islam in general. By generating such fears it was virtually impossible to gain American public attention and support for long-term nation building.

It also made possible the comprehensive pattern of human rights abuses that the administration presided over—the torture and “rendition” program—that Rashid describes here with shocking and uncompromising clarity. As well as the damage this did to the image of the US abroad, it also encouraged repression among its regional allies: “By following America’s lead in promoting or condoning disappearances, torture, and secret jails, these countries found their path to democracy and their struggle against Islamic extremism set back by decades,” Rashid writes.

But while laying part of the blame for the current disaster on the “arrogance and ignorance” of the American administration, Rashid is also well aware of the large share of responsibility that must be put at the door of Pakistan’s army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI. For more than twenty years, the ISI has, for its own purposes, deliberately and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamist groups, including in particular Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Since the days of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, the Pakistani army saw the jihadis as an ingenious and cost-effective means of both dominating Afghanistan—something they finally achieved with the retreat of the Soviets in 1987—and bogging down the Indian army in Kashmir—something they succeeded in achieving from 1990 onward.

As Hamid Gul, the director of the ISI who was largely responsible for developing this strategy, once explained to me, if the ISI “encourages the Kashmiris it’s understandable.” He said, “The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?” Next to him in his Islamabad living room lay a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the people of Berlin for “delivering the first blow” to the Soviet Empire through his use of jihadis in the 1980s.

For Gul the usefulness of the jihadis was self-evident, and in this view he had plenty of company. As Steve Coll put it in Ghost Wars :

Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten, flummox, and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking guerrillas. What more could Pakistan ask?2

It is for this reason that many in the army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defense against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons. For them, supporting a range of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir is not an ideological or religious whim so much as a practical and patriotic imperative—a vital survival strategy for a Pakistani state that they perceive to be threatened by India’s ever-growing power and its alliance with the hostile Karzai regime in Kabul.

The army’s senior military brass were convinced until recently that they could control the militants whom they had fostered. In a taped conversation between then General Pervez Musharraf and Muhammad Aziz Khan, his chief of general staff, which India released in 1999, Aziz said that the army had the jihadis by their ” tooti ” (their privates). Yet while some in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed their own agendas, sending suicide bombers to attack not just members of Pakistan’s religious minorities and political leaders, but even the ISI headquarters at Camp Hamza itself, in apparent revenge for the army’s declared support for America’s war on terror and attacks made by the Pakistani military on Taliban strongholds in FATA. Ironically, as Rashid makes clear, it was exactly groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were originally created by the ISI, that have now turned their guns on their creators, as well as brazenly launching well-equipped and well-trained teams of jihadis into Indian territory. In doing so they are severely damaging Pakistani interests abroad, and bringing Pakistan to the brink of a war it cannot possibly win.

It was the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, between 1978 and 1988, who was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative Pakistani military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Pakistan’s Islamic radicals in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Their recruitment was always controlled by the ISI, but was originally jointly funded by the CIA and Saudi intelligence. Militant mosques such as the Lal Masjid near the ISI headquarters in the center of Islamabad were turned into recruiting centers for potential Mujahideen, and places where the intelligence services could be in touch with young radicals.

This vital period under Zia, when the jihadis were first harnessed to the use of the Pakistani state, is brilliantly described in a history of the Pakistani army by Shuja Nawaz, the Washington-based brother of a former Pakistani army chief of general staff. One of the most telling passages in the book describes the “strange non-military atmosphere” in the ISI in the early 1990s at the end of the reign of one of the most overtly Islamist directors of the agency, the Zia-appointed Lieutenant General Javed Nasir. When his successor turned up to take over, he found that “the corridors were filled with bearded civilians in shalwar kameez,” the pajama-like traditional dress, “many of them with their shalwar hitched up above the ankle, a signature practice of the [ultra-orthodox] Tablighi Jamaat to which Nasir belonged.”

He was shown a strong room that once had “currency stacked to the ceiling” but was now empty as adventurist ISI officers had taken “suitcases filled with cash” to the field, including to the newly independent Central Asian republics, ostensibly to set up safe houses and operations there in support of Islamic causes. There were no accounts or any receipts to these money transfers….Most officers were absent from their offices for extended periods, often away for “prayers.”3

Rashid’s book takes up the story where Shuja Nawaz leaves off. Descent into Chaos breaks entirely new ground in making explicit, in strikingly well-researched detail, the degree to which the army and ISI continued this duplicitous and risky policy of supporting radical Islamic groups after September 11, 2001, despite President Musharraf’s many public promises to the contrary. The speed with which the US lost interest in Afghanistan after its successful invasion and embarked on plans to invade Iraq, which clearly had no link with al-Qaeda, convinced Pakistan’s military leaders that the US was not serious about a long-term commitment to Karzai’s regime. This in turn led to them keeping the Taliban in reserve to be used to reinstall a pro-Pakistani regime in Afghanistan once the Americans’ attention had been turned elsewhere and the Karzai regime had been left to crumble.

So it was, only months after Septem-ber 11, that the ISI was giving refuge to the entire Taliban leadership after it fled from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was kept in an ISI safehouse in the town of Quetta, just south of the tribal areas in Baluchistan, near the Afghan border, while his militia was lodged in Pashtunabad, a sprawling Quetta suburb. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the leader of the radical Mujahideen militia Hizb-e- Islami, was lured back from exile in Iran and allowed to operate freely outside Peshawar, while Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most violent Taliban commanders, was given sanctuary by the ISI in north Waziristan, a part of FATA.

In order to keep contact with such groups beyond the radar of Western intelligence, the ISI created a new clandestine organization, staffed by former ISI trainers and retired Pashtun officers from the army, who armed, trained, and supported the Taliban in camps around Quetta. In view of the high level of military training of the Lashkar jihadis who attacked Bombay, it may well be that some similar arrangement involving former ISI officers was used to prepare the Bombay terrorists for their mission too.

By 2004, the US had filmed Pakistani army trucks delivering Taliban fighters to the Afghan border and taking them back a few days later, while wireless monitoring at the US base at Bagram picked up Taliban commanders arranging with Pakistani army officers at the border for safe passage as they came in and out of Afghanistan. By 2005 the Taliban, with covert Pakistani support, was launching a full-scale assault on NATO troops in Afghanistan. As Rashid notes in his conclusion:

Today, seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Baluchistan province. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders live on further north, in FATA, as do the militias of Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. Al Qaeda has a safe haven in FATA, and along with them reside a plethora of Asian and Arab terrorist groups who are now expanding their reach into Europe and the United States.

The foot-dragging response of Zardari to the attacks on Bombay last November shows the degree to which the two-faced dual-track policy of courting both the US and the various jihadi groups remains effectively in place with the Pakistani military. For the last decade Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been allowed to operate from Muridke, near Lahore. Although, in reaction to US pressure after September 11, Lashkar has officially been banned, in reality it continues to function under the name of Jamaat-ud Daawa, while Saeed continues openly to incite attacks on India and Western targets. The speeches quoted by Rashid show how easily such attacks could have been anticipated, and how they should have been stopped: “The powerful Western world is terrorizing Muslims,” Saeed told an Islamabad conference in 2003. “We are being invaded, humiliated, manipulated and looted…. We must fight against the evil trio, America, Israel and India. Suicide missions are in accordance with Islam. In fact a suicide attack is the best form of jihad.”

Even now, after the mass murder in Bombay, although Saeed is himself now under house arrest for masterminding the attacks (an accusation that he denies), his organization’s madrasas and facilities remain open and appear to benefit from patronage offered by Pakistan’s authorities. Only this year the Zardari government cleared the purchase of a bulletproof Land Cruiser for him. Zardari does indeed seem to be in what the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, calls “a state of denial” about the involvement of Pakistani jihadi groups in the Bombay massacres.

Yet viewed in the light of Pakistani power politics, Zardari’s position has a certain dangerous logic. Army insiders say that General Ashfaq Kiyani, the current chief of staff, who is already involved in a full-scale conflict with the Pakistani Taliban in the frontier tribal areas, does not feel sufficiently strong to open a second front with the jihadis in the Punjab; while Zardari, even though he may wish to be rid of Lashkar and the Punjabi jihadis, cannot afford to be seen to cave in to Indian pressure. It is a classic South Asian catch-22, which allows Lashkar to continue functioning with only cosmetic restrictions, whose main function is to impress the US. Yet the fact remains that until firm action is taken against all such groups, and training camps are closed down, the slow collapse of the Pakistani state will continue, and with it the safety of Western interests in the region.

Several factors will determine the future. Rashid makes it clear that only a radically changed policy by the United States under Barack Obama can hope to begin turning things around. He writes:

South and Central Asia will not see stability unless there is a new global compact among the leading players…to help this region solve its problems, which range from settling the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan to funding a massive education and job-creation program in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan and along their borders with Central Asia.

As Obama has hinted, such an approach could be coupled with negotiations with some elements of the Afghan Taliban.

The second factor, of course, has to be reform of the ISI and the Pakistani military. The top Pakistani army officers must end their obsession with bleeding India by using an Islamist strategic doctrine entailing support of jihadists, and realize that such a policy is deeply damaging to Pakistan itself, threatening to turn Pakistan into a clone of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan rather than a potential partner of a future Indian superpower.

A third factor, which Rashid does not discuss in this book, is somehow finding a way to stop the madrasa- inspired and Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam, which is directly linked to the spread of anti-Western radicalization. On my last visit to Pakistan, it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh, which currently is quieter and safer than it has been for some time. Here in southern Pakistan, on the Indian border, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful defense against the puritanical fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs, which supports intolerance of all other faiths.

Visiting the popular Sufi shrine of Sehwan in Sindh last month, I was astonished by the strength of feeling expressed against the mullahs by the Sindhis who look to their great saints such a Lal Shabaz Qalander for guidance, and hate the Wahhabis who criticize the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as a form of shirk, or heresy: “All these mullahs should be damned,” said one old Sufi I talked to in the shrine. “They read their books but they never understand the true message of love that the prophet preached. Men so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun.” A friend who visited shortly before me met a young man from Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, who said he had considered joining the militants, but their anti-Sufi attitude had put him off: “No one can deny us our respected saints of God,” he said.

The Saudis have invested intensively in Wahhabi madrasas in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. The politically moderating effect of Sufism was recently described in a RAND Corporation report recommending support for Sufism as an “open, intellectual interpretation of Islam.” Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Could it have a political effect in a country still dominated by military forces that continue to fund and train jihadi groups? It is one of the few sources of hope left in the increasingly bleak political landscape of this strategically crucial country.4

—January 15, 2009

Letters

Thanks! May 14, 2009

  1. 2

    Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA , Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, 2004), p. 495. See also the review in these pages by Ahmed Rashid, May 27, 2004.

  2. 3

    Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the War Within (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 46–48. This is by far the fullest and most authoritative analysis yet published of Pakistan and its army and intelligence services.

  3. 4

    We gratefully acknowledge that the Nation Institute Investigative Fund provided assistance to William Dalrymple for this article.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print