The war our security forces are fighting is our war, a war for the future of Pakistan. The alternative of allowing mini religious fiefdoms would be self-destructive. This message has been lost to the public and the politicians due to the strong anti-Musharraf sentiment in the country
Our security forces have been fighting a war against the Taliban in the tribal areas that has now extended beyond that troubled zone into some of the settled regions. The latest district to join the list of strife-stricken areas is Swat where fierce clashes have occurred along with gruesome beheadings and suicide bombings. What do the insurgents want and why have they taken up arms against the state?
These questions generally produce confused answers that don’t stand the test of any logic or reason. For instance, the Taliban and their supporters portray themselves as holy warriors fighting for the enforcement of Islamic law and defenders of Pakistan against foreign interference while they are actually attempting to de-legitimise the state by appropriating concepts of nationalism, sovereignty and Islam. Taliban elements throughout the country have similar views.
Sadly, what is happening in the periphery is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a larger more complex project of capturing the state by eliminating its authority, starting with regions where its presence has been weak. Religious groups throughout the country extend support to the militants in many ways such as attacking the state in the media for “provoking” trouble.
If that is not the case, why have religious groups, religious political parties and their spokesmen who are vocal on every other issue not said a word against the insurgents and their brutalities against our security forces? Their silence is a political statement of latent support to the religious insurgency. In a convoluted logic, they often blame security forces and the government for the conflict situation more than the violent armed groups that have committed and continue to commit unspeakably cruel acts against anyone they can capture and label as a state employee or sympathiser.
It is not difficult to understand this silent, latent support of religious groups to the insurgents, but what is hard to grasp is the silence of some of the mainstream political parties, intelligentsia and other opinion-making sectors. With the exception of the Pakistan People’s Party and its chairperson, other parties, like the PMLN and regional parties, are ambivalent on the issue of religious violence. They appear to be taking perverse pleasure in watching the Musharraf regime being challenged by religious extremists and their armed fronts.
If these parties were in power, their politics and their response to the Taliban insurgency would not have been any different, and they would adopt the same policies as the ones in force right now. It is not hard to see how political opportunism clouds their judgement on the issue of religious violence and Talibanisation. Their political tunnel vision does not allow them to see beyond their immediate political interests. These opposition parties want Musharraf to face the music alone because of their belief that the president has created this mess by supporting the US-led War on Terror.
Is it true that religious violence in Pakistan started after the Americans intervened in Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power? Not really. The sectarian conflict, perhaps the worst in our history, that continues to simmer and burst out occasionally, started in the early 1980s. The sectarian militias are still with us, lying low, camouflaged. There has never been a careful social or policy analysis of the origin of the militant sectarian mindset. In the usual conspiratorial analyses, “hidden forces” and “external powers” are blamed. And as the security forces, with their logistical and administrative limitations, face the terrorists, society at large remains unmoved.
There seems to be a similar attitude towards Talibanisation and the growing insurgency. Nothing can be more distorted than the view that the war our security forces are fighting is not our war but one undertaken to safeguard American interests. This view is put forward only by elements whose interests are tied with the religious extremists and the Taliban, as the latter do no renounce war against the state if it is sanctioned by their religious beliefs. What they do not understand is that armed conflict against the state, no matter what the nature of grievances, is not justifiable under law, reason or even religion. The principle of the just cause does not apply against the nation-state.
It would be unrealistic to assume that states do not commit wrongs against their own people; they do in many ways. But there are universally accepted, lawful and civilised means of registering protest and defying unjust laws through civil disobedience.
The armed struggles that religious groups in Pakistan want to engage in are things of the past, as they have proven destructive for societies. Lessons need to be learnt from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. Destruction of the state in these countries has resulted in terrible conditions with millions slaughtered and even more driven out of their homes and jobs. Most Pakistanis are not alive to the dangers posed by ethnic and religious militancy, whatever the roots and causes. Has any group or political party organised a public demonstration against the beheading of women, security personnel and opponents of the Taliban? None. This is a sad state of affairs that speaks volumes about the complacency of Pakistani society.
The general public and more responsible sectors of the Pakistani society do not understand the long-term, and even immediate, ramifications of the rise of Talibanisation for the state and society. If these groups carve out territories to enforce their religious vision or intimidate people to submit to their religious and political will, the state and its jurisdiction would diminish. The success of one religious or political group would create many that would mirror its tactics in undermining the state.
Pakistan faces a grim challenge from religious groups trying to act like the state in some regions of the country.
What should the state do?
It must reassert its authority and regain its sovereign control through whatever means necessary, starting with political negotiations. But negotiations must be held with a clear purpose in mind i.e. the disarmament and disbanding of these groups and nothing else. If they were allowed to have their way and end up creating and running mini-states within the Pakistani state, the country could become a very dangerous place. Many observers believe that the situation has already reached this unpleasant point.
The war our security forces are fighting is our war, a war for the future of Pakistan. The alternative of allowing mini religious fiefdoms would be self-destructive. This message has been lost to the public and the politicians due to the strong anti-Musharraf sentiment in the country, and because divisions within the regime are persistently holding the government back from effectively responding to the threat. The state is already late with too little in its hands to counter growing Talibanisation that presents a grave threat to national security.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.