The roots of extremism are spreading in Pakistan. This is obvious from the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, by a policeman belonging to the Elite Force of the Punjab Police at Islamabad on January 4.
The event is even more worrisome than the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto at Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, because of the mixed reactions that it has evoked. Benazir's assassination evoked widespread shock and grief all over Pakistan. There were no reported incidents of people welcoming her assassination. The assassination of Taseer has been condemned by some and welcomed by others. Many--not necessarily confined to the clergy-- have welcomed it as a well-deserved punishment by God because of his criticism of the blasphemy law.
Was Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Taseer, acting alone or was he part of a conspiracy? It is too early to know the answer to this question. Will we ever know? Will the truth behind the assassination of Taseer ever be found out or will it be covered up as were the assassinations of Benazir in 2007 and her brother Murtaza Bhutto in 1996 or the death of Zia-ul-Haq under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in 1988? Many instances of death and destruction at the hands of extremists in Pakistan remain undetected either because of poor investigation or because of a lack of courage to investigate lest the investigator himself become a target of the extremists or because of a deliberate cover-up.
The result: The difficulty in identifying the roots of extremism and eradicating the problem and in quantifying the extent of the threat posed by extremism to Pakistan itself in the first instance and then to the rest of the world. The winds of Islamic extremism generally blow from Pakistan. There are pockets of Islamic extremism in other countries too--Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia to give some examples. There are more instances of extremism spreading to other parts of the world from Pakistan than from these countries. If one has to counter Islamic extremism ideologically one has to start destroying its roots in Pakistan. Islamic extremists from all over the world tend to look upon Pakistan as the ultimate sanctuary not only because of the favourable terrain in the tribal belt, but also because of their confidence that they will enjoy public and state support in Pakistan.
Many institutions in Pakistan have turned out to be the spawning grounds of extremism and terrorism-- mosques, madrasas, the Army, the Air Force, the US-trained Special Services Group (SSG), the Elite Force of the Punjab Police etc. Some of these such as the SSG and the Elite Force were specially raised and trained to deal with extremism and terrorism and to protect the VIPS. They have turned out to be the breeding grounds of the evils they were meant to fight. Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of the so-called 313 Brigade allied with Al Qaeda, reportedly started his career in the SSG before he gravitated to terrorism.
One has reasons to worry as to which are the other institutions which might have already been infected, though not detected so far. How about Pakistan's nuclear and missile establishment? What faith can one place in Pakistan's assurances that this has remained unaffected by extremism. Tomorrow, if a threat erupts unexpectedly from the nuclear and missile establishment, what form will it take? Leakage of material and technology to the terrorists? Seizure of material and establishments by extremist Trojan horses in order to use them for intimidation? Both possibilities are there, but a definitive assessment is rendered difficult because of a lack of data.
While the Pakistan Army has taken some action against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Pashtun belt, the Pakistani authorities have not taken any action to confront extremism ideologically. Their pretence of reforming and modernizing the madrasas has allowed the madrasas to continue to produce extremism and terrorism. Their education system has received very little attention. More money has flown from the US for providing arms and ammunition to the Armed Forces than for improving and expanding the education system. The interest taken in the initial months after 9/11 in the modernization of the madrasas and for improving the education system has petered out.
No attempt has been made to reduce the influence of Wahabi clerics in the Armed Forces and the Police. The clerics were introduced by Zia-ul-Haq. Their influence remains strong. The Wahabised clergy provide the religious justification for acts of extremism and terrorism. In 1993, the Clinton Administration placed Pakistan for six months in a list of suspected state sponsors of terrorism and forced Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister, to sack Lt.Gen.Javed Nasir, the then chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and some of his colleagues, who were suspected of being mixed up with the Afghan Mujahideen. In October 2001, before starting the operations against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban under Operation Enduring Freedom, the administration of George Bush forced Gen.Pervez Musharraf to remove from the post of ISI Director-General Lt.Gen.Mahmood Ahmed, who was suspected of being mixed up with Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Since then, there has been no action against any other officer of the ISI despite strong suspicions of their being mixed up with the Jalaluddin Haqqani group and despite evidence of the role of the ISI in the terrorist attacks against the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai.
As a result, the ISI has gone back to its old ways of inaction against extremist and terrorist organizations and the breeding grounds of extremism. The administration of Barack Obama might have stepped up the Drone strikes in the tribal belt, but it has not been able to make the Pakistan Army and intelligence act firmly against the breeding grounds of extremism. There has hardly been any action by the Pakistani authorities to counter extremism ideologically. Factories of extremism and jihad are once again sprouting, providing a never-ending flow of new recruits to the extremist and terrorist organizations.
The assassination of Taseer is a wake-up call not only for the Pakistani authorities, but also for the international community. Extremism is again on the forward march in Pakistan. A comprehensive strategy to force Pakistan to act firmly against the breeding grounds of extremism is the urgent need of the hour.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai