By Jonathan Power
There is an “in” political word – “blowback”. Pakistan certainly has it. We can also call it “the chickens coming home to roost” or the “sins of the fathers visited upon the children”. The question is can the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, do anything about it? His predecessor wasn’t able to do much and neither could the military government of General Pervez Musharraf which preceded him. Now we have to see if Sharif can find a solution. If he fails Pakistan might rip itself apart.
“Blowback” is happening because the shots are increasingly being called in political life by the extremist Islamist fighting units that the now threatened Pakistan political establishment itself created.
Going way back to soon after the nation was born in 1947 when it split off from India to form an independent Muslim country the military’s Inter Service Intelligence, ISI, agency has funded and supplied the jihadists to do what the army could not do more publicly.
The targets remain the same: first Kashmir and later Afghanistan. In Kashmir the objective has been to wrest the Muslim-dominated province out of the hands of India. In Afghanistan the initial purpose was to aid the Taliban take over after the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation forces in 1989. Today, as the US and Nato troops prepare to leave, the militants are geared to supporting the Taliban to gain control of the country once again.
In both countries the objective has been to roll back India’s influence. If Pakistan has a friendly government in Afghanistan it gives it more strategic depth and denies India the opportunity to encircle it. If Pakistan wins control of Kashmir it pulls more of India’s Muslim population under its roof and rectifies what Pakistan believes was a grievous wrong inflicted upon it at the time of independence.
Thus, despite pledges after 9/11 to support the Americans fighting in Afghanistan and to facilitate supply routes, the ISI continued with supporting the Taliban, giving it extensive financial, logistical and intelligence support. (This may have extended to some elements of ISI, officially or unofficially, quietly aiding the protection of Osama bin Laden, hidden in Pakistan.)
The militants are prepared to go to any length to fulfil their aims and after becoming more financially and militarily independent act increasingly without the backing of the ISI. For their part the government and its military have, over the years, become more cautious, constraining the activities of the ISI. But the tail still too often wags the dog. This was seen most horrifically when five years ago jihadist militants from Pakistan attacked an hotel in Mumbai killing 166 people. The Pakistani government was deeply embarrassed by the event but nevertheless refused to either hand over to India or arrest and try the suspects. It appeared to be too frightened of crossing the militants. The organisation behind the bombing, Lashkar-e-Taiba, regularly holds rallies in Lahore.
Last weekend jihadists attacked Peshawar, the city of 4 million that sits close to Afghanistan. They came from the unruly, adjacent so-called tribal areas, where the jihadists exert a growing influence. Groups such as the Pakistani Taliban have seized control of large parts of South Waziristan which borders Afghanistan, enforcing an extreme version of sharia law and participating in attacks on government and coalition targets in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army has been compelled to divert resources to try and root out the jihadists.
All this has come as no surprise. Even 6 years ago jihadists tried to ambush and kill President Musharraf and were probably instrumental in the murder of presidential candidate, Benazir Bhutto. Every time a Pakistani leader threatens to act against their interests they go for the jugular, (and they will go for Sharif’s if he crosses them). And yet all these years the ISI has continued to succour them. Pakistan faces both ways, Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK said, on a visit to Pakistan last year.
In recent months the government of Pakistan has tried to break loose from the policies that have favoured the Taliban, reaching out to the Afghan government, perhaps fearful a victorious Taliban would give support and strength to the jihadist movements inside Pakistan.
Kashmir and Afghanistan are intertwined. The Afghan conflict has served as a smokescreen behind which Pakistan wages its campaign in Kashmir. The Pakistan government, first under Musharraf and more recently under President Asif Ali Zardari, negotiated with India to end the Kashmir dispute. Musharraf would probably have achieved a mutually acceptable settlement if Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would have closed a deal which offered so many Pakistani concessions. Sharif knows he has to push for a deal if only to sideline the Kashmir-based Pakistani jihadists.
Sharif will have to fight not just for the soul of Pakistan but for its very being as a unitary state.
Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013