Monday 22 September 2008

Pakistan's moment of truth (UPIASIA)

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — Founded as it was by a bacon-friendly, whiskey-drinking Muhammad Ali Jinnah, by the end of the 1950s – once almost all non-Muslims had been driven out of Pakistan – the country remained only loosely tethered to the lifestyle encouraged by the ulema, the body of Koranic scholars that has appeared as the indispensable intermediary between believers and God in the Islamic world.

Led by officers trained under the British, the Pakistan army in particular remained secular, although it had used religion in 1947-48 to try and pry loose Kashmir from India, the country to which its maharaja had acceded.

All this changed with Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s fateful appointment of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq as chief of army staff, superseding seven officers, all of whom were better qualified for the job. Bhutto chose Zia on the basis of the fawning missives he used to receive from the general, and the deferential – indeed cringing -- manner in which Zia introduced Bhutto to his men during a prime ministerial visit in 1975.

Such suppleness of spine convinced Bhutto that in Zia he would have a servile henchman. Instead, a year later, the general displaced Bhutto in a coup and executed him shortly thereafter.

Zia, at that time the only Wahabbi general in the Pakistan army, swiftly introduced changes in the institution to bring it in sync with the extreme philosophy of Ibn Wahhab, whose toxic creed had been backed by first the United Kingdom and subsequently the United States as a counter first to Turks, then Arab nationalists and finally, the Soviets. Zia aligned his country firmly with other Wahabbi states, and began to fill the officer ranks of the army with recruits from the numerous Islamic seminaries, or madrassas, that had begun to proliferate in Pakistan during the 1960s.

In one of its most disastrous miscalculations, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency under William Casey began arming, training and funding jihadis selected by Zia's men to do battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Had the agency instead used the hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationalists for the same purpose, the covert war against the Soviets would have been conducted more effectively.

As it was, the radicalized international rabble of extremists which Zia patronized subsequently came to power in Kabul as the Taliban, with the connivance of elements of the Clinton administration, in 1996. That was the high-water mark of the Zia strategy of leveraging jihad into strategic gains for Pakistan, as the Taliban was – and still is – a creature of jihadist elements within the Pakistan army. No wonder the army claims to be helpless in checkmating the rabble that depend on them for explosives, communications gear and logistical support.

Since late 2007, when the current chief of army staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was slated to replace Pervez Musharraf, this columnist has been skeptical of those – including many in the United States – who saw the former Inter-Services Intelligence chief as a "moderate." In actuality, Kiyani is committed to the vision of Zia-ul-Haq, and has consistently backed the extremist groups now active in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Those within the military establishment in Pakistan say that under his watch, sensitive communications equipment as well as explosives, mostly procured from China, have been clandestinely transferred to extremist bands. Although the ISI facilitators of such groups instruct them for the record that these should be deployed in India, they are aware that since NATO's entry into Afghanistan six years ago, these days almost all the major jihadi groups focus on that military alliance rather than India as the target.

Consequently, most of the materiel ostensibly provided by the ISI to conduct covert war with India gets used against the United States and its partners in Afghanistan – a fact that is well known to all intelligence agencies operating in the region. Sunday’s bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad indicates that the primary battleground may be shifting to Pakistan; the explosives used were the type originally intended for use in India.

The explosives used in the blast contained sophisticated chemicals designed to cause fire on impact, indicating that future suicide bombers will be able to inflict considerable damage even if they detonate their cargo some distance away from their targets. While individuals in Pakistan claim that these explosives were supplied – to the Pakistan army – by a country that has been allied with Islamabad since the 1960s, this claim needs to be verified by investigation. If found true, that country needs to be warned not to supply such materiel to an army that is known to have close links with numerous jihadist groups.

After more than six years of denial, the U.S. military is slowly beginning to understand that the "Afghan" conflict is in reality seamless combat against a foe that pays no attention to the artificial boundaries between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unless Taliban groups in both countries are taken out, the situation facing the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai will continue to deteriorate.

It is unlikely that the U.S. team of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will go beyond the mosquito bites inflicted by Predator unmanned aircraft strikes within Pakistan. What is needed is a strategy of land and aerial interdiction of supplies from long-established routes on the border, so the Taliban are denied their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Although no formal link exists between the Pakistan army and the militia they helped create, ties of kinship as well as a shared interest in the narcotics trade ensure that a constant interflow of information and "advice" takes place between them.

The Marriott attack is the moment of truth for the Pakistan army. The jihadis’ message is to leave them alone to convert the border areas into a new Taliban state that can serve as their base for global operations. At present, instead of accepting that the incident underscores the need to join with NATO to eliminate the Taliban, General Kiyani has been muttering about "war" with the United States!

The former Pakistan president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, was unable or unwilling to separate the Pakistan army from the extremists it has nurtured since the 1970s. If Kiyani does likewise, the stage seems set for one-fifth of the country to become the next Talibanized state, able to ensure chaos and mayhem in the remaining four-fifths. Those who are aware of the general's partiality toward jihadis are not hopeful that Ashfaq Kiyani will make the correct decision – either for his army or for his battered country.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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