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Martin Parsons: Post bin Laden - Which way will Pakistan slide in the fight against Islamist terrorism?

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”, so wrote Mark Twain to the New York Journal after the newspaper had published his obituary. The same is very much true in relation to the Taliban and other expressions of violent Islamism. Osama bin Laden’s death will not signal its end. In fact one of the key issues that governments on both sides of the Atlantic should now be  on is whether the death of bin Laden will impede or exacerbate Pakistan’s slide towards radical Islamism?

The simple fact is that the events of the last few days have the potential to make Pakistan even more unstable.

The problem goes back to both the nature and the extent of the influence that the military has had over successive Pakistani governments since independence. While in some Muslim majority countries, such as Turkey, the military has historically acted as the guardian of a secular state, in Pakistan the military has played a very different role by deliberately sponsoring Islamism.

The reason for this is that within the Pakistani army there is an endemic belief that main role of the Pakistani government is to protect the country against India. In the eyes of the army particularly, this takes precedence over what other countries would see as the normal functions of government, such as maintaining the institutions of a functioning democracy, law and order, education and development etc., i.e. what is sometimes called ‘nation building’. 

This mind set – that the primary function of the Pakistan government is to defend the country against India - led the army and more particularly its all powerful Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency to sponsor Islamist terrorists engaged in ‘jihad’ against India in Kashmir. In the early nineties it is reputed to have supported the creation of Harkat al Ansar, a radical terrorist group that kidnapped and murdered westerners  in Indian Kashmir and developed strong links with al Qaeda. At about the same time the ISI’s  sponsorship of Islamist terrorist groups was extended to the Afghan Taliban, whom the ISI are also widely reportedly to have played a key in establishing among the madrassas along Pakistan’s North West frontier with Afghanistan. Sponsorship of the Taliban fulfilled the twin aims of seeking to neutralise Indian influence in Afghanistan by creating a pro Pakistani government there and also provided training camps which could be utilised by the ISI to train Kashmiri Islamist terrorists. The ISI thus supported Islamist terrorist organisations that in turn themselves directly aided al Qaeda and bin Laden. Illustrative of the extent of this support was the fact that when the Clinton administration responded to al Qaeda’s bombings of its the East African embassies by firing cruise missiles at camps in Afghanistan where bin Laden had been living, these were actually Harkat al Ansar camps and alongside the terrorists at least five ISI instructors were killed.

There is in fact a remarkable degree of schizophrenia within the Pakistan army, and particularly the ISI. Many officers who are otherwise largely secularised and liberal and may even have trained at western military academies, nonetheless support Islamist terrorist groups because this is seen as a tactical bulwark against India. Musharraf was a classic example of this.

Pakistani ISI’s support for the Taliban pre 9/11 has been extensively documented. It was one of the reasons that in 1993 President Clinton placed Pakistan on a watch list of state sponsors of terrorism.

After 9/11 under intense US pressure the Pakistani military claimed to have to have joined the US led coalition in fighting al Qaeda. However, the double think within the Pakistani military appears to have led the Pakistani army to think that they could one the one hand work with the US in fighting al Qaeda, while at the same time still sponsor Kashmiri Islamist terrorists.  Moreover, because  the ISI, the most powerful part of the Pakistani military and a law unto itself, had been deeply involved for years with the Taliban, it appears to have continued covertly to help the Taliban even while the Pakistani army was receiving huge amounts of western military aid because of its commitment to hunting down al Qaeda. In short the Pakistan army and more particularly the ISI played a double game, getting the USA to deliver its shopping list of desired military hardware, while at the same time continuing its support for Islamist terrorist groups. This double think in the Pakistani army was encouraged by an over emphasis on the part of the USA on the hunt for al Qaeda and bin Laden, relative to the importance of combating other Islamist terrorist threats in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. For anyone who wants a more detailed account of this, I highly recommend Ahmed Rashid’s excellent volume Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security (Penguin,2008) which provides an accessible account of this.

So what impact will the death of bin Laden have on Pakistan? On the one hand if it leads to a lessening of al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan or even a relocation of its main leadership to elsewhere, it could force the Pakistani military leadership to make a choice. No longer could they hide behind the smokescreen of fighting al Qaeda while still supporting other Islamist terrorists. However, the real question is which way would it choose to go?

One of determining factors may be cultural. Honour (izzat) and shame are hugely important in Pakistan. The fact that the US military felt it necessary to not only violate Pakistani national sovereignty in the raid on bin Laden, but to actually keep the Pakistani government and intelligence service in the dark brings huge shame on a very proud country, where personal, let alone national honour is hugely important.

There are now two particular dangers

  1. Most Pakistani Muslims are traditionalist Muslims, not radical Islamists. However, in most countries traditionalists can be swayed either towards the west or towards radical Islam by what they see happening in terms of western foreign policy in the Islamic world. Pakistan is embarrassed, even the ISI has publicly said that they are embarrassed. The question is will this in the medium term swing Pakistan both at military and governmental level and at a more popular level in a pro western or radical Islamist direction?The British and US governments need to use enormous amounts of wisdom, tenacity and diplomacy in how they address this. Firey public statements of condemnation by politicians that are geared for domestic consumption could actually tip Pakistan in the wrong direction.
  2. Academic studies have shown that when Islamic countries, including Pakistan have faced national crises, many people react in one of two ways. Either they decide that Islamism is not working and that they need to look at alternatives or alternatively they conclude that these disasters have hit their country as a form of retribution because they are not being radically Islamic enough and so react by becoming more radicalised than they were before.  It is likely that both responses will happen in Pakistan.

However, in conclusion, we may say that far from ending the Islamist terrorist threat – the death of Usama bin Laden has in at least the short, if not the medium term, probably destabilised Pakistan. The Taliban are still there - the frankenstein monster that the ISI helped bring to birth now is not simply an Afghan movement, but is now also a Pakistani movement too.

The real question is which way will Pakistani slide? Will the Pakistani army and especially the ISI finally realise that their own sponsorship of Islamist terrorist groups has unleashed a monster that threatens the very existence of Pakistan far more than India ever will? Or will there be a boost to radical Islamist parties. Some of these such as Jaamat  Ulema i Islam, who hold sway in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province have long been supporters of the Taliban and other jihadist groups and at least sympathetic to al Qaeda. If this were the case then in the next few years Pakistan could slide into having a radical Islamist government that controls the country’s nuclear weapons.


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