Pakistan’s Day of Reckoning

The Tuesday tragedy in the U.S. is already having a profound impact on Pakistan. The apocalypse in the U.S. has forced upon the Pakistani ruling elite its day of reckoning sooner than it had anticipated. The Pakistan military, which is also running the government here since October 1999, now has to choose clearly and unequivocally between a direct confrontation with the militant religious groups–and there are dozens of them–and the wrath of a wounded and angry America.

President General Pervez Musharraf, whose son lives and works in the U.S. and who makes no secret of his liberal inclinations, was quick to join the rest of the world in condemning the suicide attacks. He appeared himself on the national television network to promise Washington his government’s full cooperation in the manhunt. None of it was surprising. After all, the Pakistan military has been a staunch ally of the U.S. since as far back as the 1950s. They have, of course, fought wars together. The military has always relied heavily on U.S. administrations–both in terms of material support as well as backing for its domestic political role.

But, at the same time, the mainstay of the military’s politics within Pakistan is the Kashmir issue, which is portrayed not as a territorial dispute with India but as an ideological and religious conflict. Pakistan has never denied providing “diplomatic, political, and moral” support to the “freedom fighters” in Kashmir. It is part of general public knowledge, though, that the Pakistan military’s links with the militants in Kashmir run much deeper. Even General Musharraf has said many times that, “jihad (the freedom struggle) in Kashmir and terrorism must be differentiated.”

Almost all fighter groups, especially the orthodox Sunni factions, look up to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as their inspiration. Most of them owe their origins to the Afghan jihad. Pakistan’s Kashmir policy depends on their support. In fact, jihadi groups are considered prized instruments in pursuit of Pakistan’s strategic objectives, i.e. a favorable settlement of the Kashmir dispute. The military standoff with India in 1999, when mujahedin and Pakistani soldiers occupied the strategic hills of Kargil, only to retreat later, graphically illustrates this relationship between the religious militant groups and the Pakistan military.

The destruction in the U.S. on Tuesday has given the anti-U.S. Islamists a free advertisement to reach out to more young people. The mere spectacle of the World Trade Center towers crumbling is being flaunted as the destruction of the myth of U.S. power. The heavily indoctrinated, religious-minded public sees it as a miracle of faith (forget the official statements in the media and the views of the westernized intelligentsia on the BBC). The common man on the street is, at best, ambivalent: the U.S.’s anti-Muslim policies in the Middle East (and Kashmir) invited these attacks; the loss life, regrettable though it is, was, as they say, as “collateral damage.” Press releases from some jihadi groups sent to newspaper offices claim that there is an overflow of applicants for suicide bombers since those airliners rammed through the symbols of U.S. imperialism.

Thus far, Pakistan had never been so openly compelled to resolve this contradiction with as much international pressure as is now at work in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. After the Agra summit with Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, in July this year, the Musharraf government had taken some cosmetic measures to limit the activities of the jihadi groups, such as a nominal and largely ineffective ban on the collection of funds from the general public. Even this week, when terror struck America, the chief of Pakistan’s top intelligence agency, the ISI, has had meetings at Pentagon, apparently discussing the Taliban and terrorism. But now the day of reckoning has indeed arrived because it is time to take sides, under the full gaze of an international and domestic audience.

The Pakistan government, indeed its society and the military, are at an ideological crossroads. Nationalism here in Pakistan is equated with religion. In official as well as public parlance, ideology of Pakistan and Islamic ideology are interchangeable phrases. And those who enjoy “property rights” over Islam here–the sectarian clergy and militants–interpret the religion in anti-West, anti-U.S., anti-India terms. Theirs is an anti-culture which, incidentally, coincides with the mindset of Pakistani soldiers. In a famous interview with the BBC recently, General Musharraf said, “Pakistan’s military is second to none in the world,” and he attributed the Number-One-Military status to the religious commitment and inspiration of his soldiers. Pakistanis have few things to take pride in; religious myths and heroes are among those few. It is part of the local folklore that angels had descended from the skies, in September 1965, to fight on the side of Pakistani troops in their war against India.

In the immediate context, whatever turn events take from here onward, the Pakistani state and society is bracing for a troubling time ahead. The fear of a U.S.-allied attack on Afghanistan is a sobering thought–the last time it was attempted, many cruise missiles hit unintended targets in Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan. The incidence of Sunni-Shia sectarian killings is already increasing at an alarming pace. The prospects of other forms of, and pretexts for, violence popping up loom large. The challenge for the military government is formidable. Given the Pakistani public’s psychological subservience and habitual obedience to military authority, participating or cooperating in the U.S. plans to counter-attack the terrorists will be the easier part for the Musharraf regime. In the long run, though, reforming and reconstructing the conceptual and ideological orientation of many generations of Pakistanis will be more difficult, if not improbable. Pakistan, in a nutshell, faces the task of reinventing itself.