President Pervez Musharraf’s address to the nation last Saturday officially marked the end of the mosque-military alliance forged by Pakistan’s previous military ruler, General Ziaul Haq. General Zia’s military regime had increased the influence of Islamic ideologues to legitimise its rule in the name of Islamisation. General Musharraf hopes to reduce that influence while securing international legitimacy on the grounds of eliminating Islamic militancy.
To his credit, General Musharraf has espoused a more moderate brand of Islam for Pakistan since his assumption of power. In his latest speech, General Musharraf argued that he was already working on restraining Religious extremism and gave a chronological listing of his government’s efforts in this respect. But the timing of his crackdown is clearly linked to external factors.
Pakistan’s well wishers at home and abroad have called for the regulation of mosques and madrassas, and for the banning of ‘extremist’ groups, for the past several years. But General Musharraf took no decisive steps in that direction until now, when Indian troops are massed on the Pakistan border and international demands for action have been growing. US pressure, manifested in regular phone calls by Secretary of State of Powell and President Bush, has increased significantly after the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament.
General Musharraf may have been thinking of doing all that he has now announced even earlier, and for purely domestic reasons. He is, as he said in his speech, keen ‘‘to restore the writ of the government’’ and the state. But it will be difficult for him to avoid the comment that his actions at the present moment have been forced by pressure from India and the US. In fact, it appears to be a pattern with General Musharraf that his definitive actions are often reactive. His decision to take over the reins of power was a reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s action to remove him from the office of Chief of Army Staff. Withdrawal of support from the Taliban resulted from US demands in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And now, action against militant Islamic groups is a response to demands by the international community.
By most accounts, General Musharraf’s heart is in the right place on most issues that matter to the world and to Pakistanis. But his hesitation to act without sufficient pressure creates doubts about the credibility of his actions. Militant Islamists could try and undermine General Musharraf’s new initiatives by launching terrorist attacks inside the country, as well as in Jammu and Kashmir or the rest of India. Pakistanis suspicious of Indian intentions fear that warmongers could orchestrate violence to provide justification for an attack on Pakistan.
In either case, it is important that Pakistan and India open channels of communication to foil such moves. General Musharraf also needs to guard against extending his crackdown to legitimate Islamic political groups. While Islamic militias must surely be disarmed, traditional religious political parties must continue to be allowed to play their role in Pakistani society.
Repression of all Islamic groups could create an ugly situation within the country. Egypt and Algeria, which repressed Islamic political sentiment, also ended up giving birth to the hardest of hardline militant Islamists, including a large number of recruits for the al Qaeda.
Pakistan’s Islamists have never been able to do well in electoral politics. Their strength in recent years was the direct result of covert sate patronage and the decision by successive rulers to assign them a role in their regional strategy. If the Islamic parties are forced to face elections soon, their limited support will be exposed and they will be relegated to the margins of political life, as they were in the past. But extended repression, without making a distinction between militants and Islamic activists, will create an underground movement.
Now that General Musharraf has taken the decision to revert Pakistan to its moderate Islamic origins, he would do well to reach out to the country’s political mainstream. The rise of extremism in Pakistan is the result of attempts to force political solutions on the nation from the top. An uninterrupted political process allows extremes to be subsumed and marginalised.
General Musharraf’s speech broke no new ground in relation to the standoff with India though he offered India some comfort with his statement that ‘‘Pakistan will not allow any terrorist activity from its soil anywhere in the world’’. He also did not repeat his previous attempts to distinguish between ‘terrorists’ and ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir. This was a subtle positive signal, which Jaswant Singh appears to have noted.
More important, from India’s point of view, were what General Musharraf termed ‘rules of behaviour’ in respect of Pakistan’s support to Kashmir and other international disputes involving the Muslim Ummah.
For its part, India has decided to give General Musharraf time to implement his declared policies without withdrawing its troops from the border. Once it is clear that the change in Pakistan is for real, India will not be able to maintain an offensive military build up. Hardliners could still insist that Pakistan needs to be taught a lesson. Yielding to such thinking could lead the sub-continent to war.
It is important that Islamabad follow through with the commitments that accompany General Musharraf’s latest signals to New Delhi. But the Indian leadership must also take a long-term view of relations with Pakistan, its views on General Musharraf notwithstanding.
General Musharraf made no reference to General Zia or to his predecessors in the military who allowed Pakistan to degenerate into semi-anarchy in pursuit of strategic objectives of dubious value. If General Musharraf wants his new moves to be seen in the context of revitalising the Pakistani state, he must allow a review of the military’s worldview that led to the strategic decisions he now wants to reverse.
Islam is an integral part of Pakistan’s ethos. It became the focus of violence and militancy mainly because Pakistan’s intelligence services used it to control the political process within the country and around the region. If the militarist-militant alliance is to be broken, democracy and constitutional rule will have to be restored. Accepting the basic premises of pluralist politics will probably diminish the role of the military in the country’s decision-making. This unintended consequence of Pakistan’s transition from General Zia’s scheme to General Musharraf’s espoused vision may not necessarily be known to the country’s current military ruler.
The writer has served as adviser to prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and as Pakistan Ambassador to Sri Lanka