July 05, 2020
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Dreaming The Pax-talibana Nightmare

As chaos rules post-coup Pakistan, Tariq Ali revives the call for a South Asia confederation

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Dreaming The Pax-talibana Nightmare
On The Abyss: Pakistan After The Coup
By Harper Collins (Ed.)

It was during Zia's regime (1977-89) that a network of madrassas (religious schools) was established throughout the country. Initially, most of these were funded by foreign aid from a variety of sources. These schools became the training ground for a new religious 'scholar'.

Since boarding and lodging were free, it was not only the children of poor Afghan refugees who flocked to receive this privileged and unique instruction. Poor peasant families were only too happy to donate a son to the madrassas. They thought it would be a mouth less to feed at home and the boy would be educated and might find a job in the city or, if he was really lucky, in one of the Gulf states.

Together with verses from the Koran (to be learnt by rote) and the necessity to lead a devout life, these children were taught to banish all doubts. The only truth was divine truth and the only code of conduct was that written in the Koran and the Hadiths. Virtue lay in unthinking obedience. Anyone who rebels against the imam rebels against Allah. The aim was clear. These madrassas had a single function. They were nurseries designed to produce fanatics. The primers, for example, stated that the Urdu letter jeem stood for jihad; tay for tope (cannon); kaaf for Kalashnikov and khay for khoon (blood).

As they grew older they were instructed in the use of sophisticated hand weapons and taught how to make and plant bombs. ISI agents provided training and supervision. They could also observe the development of the more promising students or the Taliban, who were later picked out and sent for more specialised training at secret army camps, the better to fight the 'holy war' against the unbelievers in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's oldest Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, had grown in influence during the Zia years. Its leaders assumed that they would run the schools. The party has always prided itself on its cadre organisation built on the underground 'Leninist model' of small cells. It shunned mass membership, but this may have been because it, in turn, was shunned by the masses. Its leaders now thought their time had come. They saw the students as potential recruits. They were to be disappointed. New problems arose. Since dollars were freely available, different Islamic factions emerged and began to compete with each other for mastery in these schools and a division of the spoils. The ISI became the arbiter of intra-religious disputes and favoured some groups against others.

For a time the Afghan war consumed their energies. After the first war was over, the Pakistani state refused to accept a coalition government in Afghanistan. It was Benazir Bhutto's government that unleashed the Taliban, backed by Pakistan army commando units, in an attempt to take Kabul. The US, fearful of Iranian influence in the region, had backed this decision.

The dragon seeds sown in 2,500 madrassas produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and ready to die for their faith when ordered to do so by their religious leaders. Gen Naseerullah Babar, Benazir’s minister for the interior, confided to friends that since the Taliban were becoming a menace inside Pakistan, he had decided that the only solution to the problem lay in giving the extremists their own country. This argument was disingenuous at the time, but in the light of what has happened over the last two years, Babar deserves to be tried as a war-criminal.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War came to an end, leaving behind orphan-states on every continent. The effect in Pakistan was catastrophic. The fundamentalist groups had served their purpose and, unsurprisingly, the US no longer felt the need to supply them with funds and weaponry. Overnight, the latter became violently anti-American and began to dream of revenge. Pakistan’s political and military leaders, who had served the US loyally and continuously from 1951 onwards, felt humiliated by Washington’s indifference. A retired General summed it up succinctly for my benefit: "Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan. We’ve served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."

The Pakistan army-one of the Pentagon’s spoilt brats in Asia-refused to be relegated to the status of Kuwait. In order to gain attention it threw a nuclear tantrum. The explosion has had the desired effect. Pakistan is back on the ‘B list’ of countries in the US state department. On 29 November 1998, the then foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, attempted to soothe Western opinion: "I see no possibility of an accidental nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Pakistan has an effective control and command system". This is pure nonsense on a scientific level, but even if one were to accept the statement, a political question is immediately posed. What if reality began to imitate our nightmares and the Taliban took over the Pakistani Army? Every political leader in Pakistan is aware of the danger. Nawaz Sharif attempted to pre-empt political Islam by stealing some of its clothes, but this is a tactic that rarely works and is usually a mark of desperation.

The irony of the present situation is that religion in the Punjab always was a relaxed affair. The old tradition of Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on individual communion with the Creator and its hostility to preachers, had found deep roots in the countryside. The tombs of the old Sufi saints, for centuries the site of annual festivals during which the participants sang, danced, drank, inhaled bhang and fornicated to their heart’s content, were placed under martial law by General Zia. The people were to be denied simple pleasures.

THE peculiarly non-Punjabi form of religious extremism did not arrive in Pakistan from nowhere. It was approved by Washington, funded by Saudi petrodollars and carefully nourished by Zia. The result was the birth of madness. The twisted and self-destructive character of the groups that have been mushrooming over the last five years is hardly in doubt. Ninety per cent of Pakistan’s Muslims are Sunnis. The rest are mainly Shias. The Sunnis themselves are divided into two major schools of thought. The Deobandis represent orthodoxy. The Barelvis believe in a more synthetic Islam, defined and changed by local conditions. For many years these were literary disputes, often debated in public by mullahs and religious scholars. No longer. Every faction now lays claim to Islam, a moral and political claim. Disputes are no longer settled through discussion, but are resolved by machine-guns and massacres.

Some Deobandi factions want the Shias to be declared as heretics and, preferably, physically exterminated. A sectarian civil war has been raging for nearly three years. The Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the First Four Caliphs) has attacked Shia mosques in the heart of Lahore and massacred the Shia faithful at prayer. The Shias have responded in kind. They formed the Sipah-e-Mohammed (Soldiers of Mohammed), got Iranian backing and began to exact a gruesome revenge. Several hundred people have died in these intra-Muslim massacres, mainly Shias.

In January this year, an armed Taliban faction seized a whole group of villages in the Hangu district of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. They declared the area to be under ‘Islamic laws’ and promptly proceeded to organise the public destruction of TV sets and dish antennae in the village of Zargari. This was followed by the burning of 3,000 ‘obscene’ video and audio cassettes in the small square in Lukki.

There is something slightly comical in this hostility to television and it reminds one of a situationist spectacle in the sixties, but humour, alas, is not something associated with the Taliban. A leader of the movement, Hussain Jalali, wants to extend the Afghan experience to Pakistan. After the television burning, he declared: "The hands and feet of thieves will be chopped off and all criminals brought to justice in accordance with Islamic laws."

"What can we do?" a supporter of the Sharif brothers had asked me, wringing his hands in despair. "These bastards are all armed!" I pointed out that some of the bastards were being armed by the government to create mayhem in neighbouring Kashmir, but that Pakistan’s bloated army was also armed. Why weren’t they asked to disarm these groups? Here the conversation ended. For it is no secret that the fundamentalists have penetrated the army on every level. What distinguishes them from the old-style religious groups is that they want to seize state power and for that they need the army.

In fact one of the most virulent of the groups, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, is a creation of the ISI. Its political wing, Ahle-Hadis, wants the Saudi model implanted in Pakistan, but without the monarchy. They have supporters and mosques throughout the world, including Britain and the US, whose aim is to supply cadres and money for the worldwide jehad. The Ahle-Hadis is the most orthodox of the Sunni sects and is in a minority except that it has powerful supporters-government ministers grace its meetings. Their sub-office is at 5 Chamberlaine Road in Lahore. I was tempted to go and interview them, but the sight of thirty heavily-armed guards persuaded me against the venture.

The group’s armed wing, Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of Medina), couldn’t exist without the patronage of the army. It has a membership of 50,000 militants and is the leading group in the jehad to ‘liberate’ Indian Kashmir. They are trained by the army at eight special camps in Azad (Pakistani-controlled) Kashmir and are funded by Saudi Arabia and the government of Pakistan. They recruit teenagers from poor families for the holy war. They have lost several hundred members in Kashmir. The government pays them fifty thousand rupees for each corpse returned from Kashmir. While fifteen thousand rupees are paid to the family of the ‘martyr’, the rest helps to fund the organisation.

The Harkat-ul-Ansar (Volunteers Movement), once funded by the US and backed by the ISI, was declared a terrorist organisation by the state department last year. It promptly changed its name to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Its fighters were amongst the most dedicated Taliban and it has shifted its training camps from the Punjab to Afghanistan. The Saudi terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, continues to maintain close contacts with the ISI and his supporters have warned the government that any attempt to abduct him or ban his organisation would lead to an immediate civil war in Pakistan. They boast that the army will never agree to be used against them. Why? Because there has been a symbiosis of sorts. There are too many of their supporters in the army and on every level.

Both these groups want to take over Pakistan. They dream of an Islamic Federation which will impose a Pax-Talibana stretching from Lahore to Samarkand, but avoiding the ‘Heretic Republic of Iran’. For all their incoherence and senseless rage, their message is attractive to those layers of the population who yearn for some order in their lives. If the fanatics promise to feed them and educate their children, they are prepared to forego the delights of CNN and BBC World. It is this prospect that is truly frightening.

The only other alternative is to mend the breach with India. The 1998 visit of the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to Lahore was welcomed by business interests and an otherwise critical print media. There is a great deal of talk of a new permanent settlement. An EU-style arrangement that incorporates India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. An opening of the frontiers and a no-war pact between India and Pakistan. It is undoubtedly the most rational solution on offer, but it would necessitate the disarming of, at least, the Lashkar-e-Toiba. During his visit, the Indian prime minister had demanded this as a gesture of goodwill.

When a leader of the group was informed of this request by a Pakistani official, he replied: "Try and disarm us, if you can. If you do, we will have to do now what we were planning to do in two years’ time. It’s up to you." It is this desire for a head-on clash, this urge towards an explosive encounter, even if they turn out to be the victims of such an encounter, that marks the new wave of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Mercifully, they still constitute a minority in the country, but all that could change if nothing else changes.

Has anything really changed with the coup of October 12, 1999? Most of the liberal intelligentsia, disillusioned with traditional political

alternatives and too exhausted to act themselves, were hopeful that Musharraf would modernise the structure, but the underlying problems refuse to go away. Good intentions alone cannot change Pakistan. The problem posed by the existence of armed fundamentalist organisations cannot be solved by adopting an ostrich pose.

The army is no longer a unified institution. Well-organised groups of Islamic zealots have penetrated its core. Unlike the older and more traditional religious parties, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Sipah-e-Mohammed, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen are all hungry for power. Their preferred model is that of the Taliban. If such a faction were ever to take over the Pakistani army-and the possibility is not as remote as it seemed a few years ago-the possession of nuclear weapons would acquire a frightening new significance.

That, too, will achieve little, for the only serious and rational alternative to domestic chaos is a long-term Treaty of Friendship and Trade with India, a new permanent settlement which could form the basis of a larger EU-style confederation of South Asian Republics. Within such a framework the Kashmir question, too, could be amicably resolved. After all, it should be perfectly possible for both India and Pakistan to guarantee an autonomous Kashmir

within such a confederation. In fact, Kashmir could become a haven of peace, symbolising a new peaceful co-existence. If the political will existed in Delhi and ghq in Rawalpindi, what I am suggesting is perfectly achievable.

For over fifty years, Pakistan has turned its back on India, imagining it could replace its giant neighbour by cultivating links with the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. (The only exception was in 1961 when Ayub Khan, under US influence, offered a joint defence pact to India. Nehru retorted: "Joint defence against whom?" The answer came a year later on the Sino-Indian border. Interestingly enough, the joint defence proposal aroused very little protest in Pakistan itself!) The strategy has been a political and economic failure, leaving the country denuded of a skilled labour-force and incapable of meeting its own basic needs. In recent years, there were a few signs that politicians of the main secular parties were beginning to explore a new economic deal with India. Pressure from the fundamentalists and the army sent their heads quickly back into the sand. And yet this remains the only rational solution in the medium term. All other options are bleak beyond belief.

The ISI-armed fundamentalists are waiting in the wings. The hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane and the release of a fundamentalist leader was merely a symptom of the dangers that lurk underneath the surface of Pakistan’s social fabric. Previous civilian governments could not guarantee law and order outside a few cities.

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