The bitter fruits of strategic alliance

October 5, 2001

The radical Islamic sects that threaten to derail Pakistan's commitment to the war on terrorism are a result of the country's efforts to counter India's regional supremacy, writes Ian Talbot.

On September 14, after a seven-hour meeting with his generals, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, pledged full cooperation with the war on terrorism declared by the United States, whose first target was Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident "guest" of the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. A week later, a visibly tense Musharraf tried to justify the decision in a national broadcast. He had cause for anxiety as it had not only aroused angry street protests, but also threatened the unity of the intelligence and military establishment. A doomsday image of the Pakistani state imploding as dramatically as the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the fateful morning of September 11 was discussed.

The reasons for and implications of this momentous decision to cede to US wishes can be understood only with reference to the changes in Pakistan since Zia ul-Haq assumed power as a military ruler in 1977.

Zia used the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to secure massive economic and military aid from the US - which, under President Ronald Reagan, saw Pakistan as a frontline state in the war against the "evil empire" of communism. It is possible to date the growing Pakistani military and security ties with radical Muslim groups in Afghanistan from this period. The goal was conceived of establishing a client regime in Kabul that would at last provide strategic depth in the greater struggle with India.

The influx of up to 3 million Afghan refugees coincided with Zia's Islamisation process. One aspect of this was the mushrooming of mosque schools that preached a radical Islamic message. By the beginning of the 1990s, these numbered more than 30,000. Students from these schools were later to form the Taliban army through which Pakistan sought to end the civil war in Afghanistan. Others joined jihad (holy war) groups fighting in Kashmir or swelled the ranks of armed religio-political groups that thrived in the sectarian atmosphere of Zia's state-sponsored Islamisation.

The legacy of Zia's 11 years in power was growing intolerance, sectarian violence and a militarisation of society, as weapons leaked from the supply lines to Afghanistan, creating a Kalashnikov culture.

After democracy was restored in 1988, the links with Islamic militants continued as the military kept control of key aspects of security and regional foreign policy. The Taliban were given logistical and combat support, and support was provided for jihad groups fighting in Kashmir. Liberals fruitlessly argued that this policy was leading to increased militancy and lawlessness in Pakistan, but the military regarded these links as crucial to its foreign policy goals. Musharraf's reversal of policy is likely to have sent shock waves through the Pakistani establishment and infuriated the religious parties outside the halls of power.

Because of their power at street level, the main religious parties have great political influence, although they failed miserably at the ballot box in the 1990s. Benazir Bhutto would not remove discriminatory Islamic ordinances introduced in 1979 because she felt vulnerable to popular protests. Recently, Musharraf himself backed away from reform of the blasphemy ordinance in the face of opposition from the religious parties, which have traditionally been regarded as allies of the military. Musharraf now faces the uncomfortable situation of the largest "fundamentalist" party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Jamiat-ul-ulema-e-Islam, which runs many of the Islamic schools in northern Pakistan, playing the leading roles in orchestrating nationwide protests against his decision to extend support to the US.

Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan rose sharply at the end of the anti-Communist Afghan war in 1992. This was manifested dramatically in the killing in broad daylight of two US consular staff in Karachi in March 1995.

US foreign policy elsewhere in the Muslim world, as well as the US's apparent dumping of Pakistan once the Afghan war had ceased, helped fuel growing resentment. It also led to more poverty, which by the end of the 1990s affected almost a third of Pakistan's population of 140 million. As a result of pressure to contain fiscal deficits, development expenditure, primarily education and health, had fallen to just 3 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of the decade.

The economy partly explains Musharraf's risky policy reversal regarding the Taliban and Islamic militant groups. Spurning Washington could have led to ruin. The ailing economy, with debts of $38 billion (£26 billion) and foreign exchange reserves of just $1.5 billion, would no longer get the International Monetary Fund cash it needs to stay afloat. Joining the international coalition could bring economic benefits. The US has moved swiftly to end the sanctions it placed on Pakistan and India after their nuclear explosions of May 1998. Pakistan also hopes that the US may write off its bilateral $3 billion debt, as it did with Jordan and Egypt. Financial aid from Japan, a big lender to Pakistan, may also be part of the country's "reward". Canada and Europe have already announced financial aid for Pakistan.

The India factor was equally compelling in Musharraf's decision-making. Indo-Pakistani rivalry, with Kashmir at its heart, drives Islamabad's security, military and diplomatic strategies. Pakistan's attempts to determine Afghanistan's politics have been part of a wider goal of countering India's regional predominance. The speedy offer of support for the US from the government in New Delhi raised the prospect of Indian forces going into Afghanistan and Indian fighters flying over Pakistan's airspace. In the longer term, a successful military campaign in which Pakistan was sidelined would not only result in unprecedentedly close Indo-US military ties, it would marginalise Pakistan's regional influence.

The Northern Alliance is increasingly seen as an ally of the West in Afghanistan. This group - a loose coalition of minority ethnic groups, Shiite Muslims supported by Iran, and former tribal powerholders in the 1992-96 civil war - has long been seen by Pakistan as being opposed to its interests. A pro-western government in Kabul would further tilt the scales in India's favour.

There is, of course, a risk that this will happen anyway, even with Islamabad's involvement, and that the US will walk away from Pakistan as it did at the end of the Afghan conflict and leave the country in domestic chaos. For decision-makers, this was a risk that had to be taken in the hope of minimising the shift in India's favour.

Musharraf's predicament was the culmination of 20 years of military and security strategy and socioeconomic change that had locked Pakistan into the deadly embrace of Islamic extremism. The challenges in the weeks ahead are likely to increase as armed militants slip over the porous 2,400km border with Afghanistan and as popular protests intensify in the wake of military action against not just bin Laden's al-Qaida, but the Taliban too. The Musharraf regime will be forced to further distance itself from its own jihad groups by cracking down on their training camps in Pakistan and ending its logistical support for their fighting units in Kashmir. The realisation that a military solution to the Kashmir dispute is finally rendered impossible may be too much to bear for sections of the security services that have invested years of effort in this cause.

The personal consolation for Musharraf is that if he can ride out the storm, the Americans may fold up the road map to national elections in October 2002. Ironically, Afghanistan may prolong his tenure of power, just as, in very different circumstances, it did Zia's. Such an undemocratic outcome would bode ill for Pakistan's long-term stability. The country's turmoil is the direct result of years of authoritarian rule. Democracy has not failed, but it has never been able to function unfettered. Elections by themselves will be insufficient. Only empowerment of the dispossessed and the alleviation of poverty will bring peace to this volatile region.

Ian Talbot is director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Coventry University and the author of Pakistan: A Modern History , published by Hurst, price £17.50.

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