Pakistan's election results have challenged the misplaced fear in the international community that Pakistan could fall under the control of Islamic extremists. However, this does not rule out the possibility of Pakistan's descent into an abyss of instability.
Islamic extremism in Pakistan is not a grass-roots phenomenon as it has been in many states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Pakistan's founding fathers, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, preceded by the Indian sub-continent's British colonial rulers and India's Mughal rulers, laid the foundation for Pakistan to be led by the rule of law and moderate Islam.
Nonetheless, successive civilian and military-led governments, the military and intelligence agencies have employed Islamic extremism as a tool of their policies. As such, extremist Islam has emerged as a top-down phenomena.
Militant extremism in Pakistan starts at the top.
As demonstrated by the poor performance of Pakistan's Islamic parties in last week's parliamentary elections, Pakistan is far from ripe for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution.
The six-party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which secured over 50 seats in the last Parliament with a strong showing in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, secured less than 10 seats in the National Assembly in this election and lost its lead in tribal provinces to sub-national secular parties such as the Awami National Party and the Balochistan National Party (Awami).
Coupled with the strong showing of the secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz at the national level, the election illustrates that secular Islam is alive and kicking in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan's last parliamentary elections in 2002 were the only time in the country's 60-year history - it has had 10 parliamentary elections - when Islamist parties had a strong showing. This was fueled by the government marginalizing the secular parties, as well as a backlash to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul.
In reality, Islamist groups have only gained ground in Pakistan when the government has employed them as a tool of their policies. During the 1980s, president Zia ul-Haq, backed by the United States, used Islamic extremism to fan the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
During the 1990s, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and successive governments employed Islamic extremism to challenge the Indian claim to Kashmir by undermining India's conventional military superiority with asymmetrical attacks on soft and symbolic targets in Kashmir.
The ISI also attempted to gain "strategic depth" with regard to India by creating an arc of influence from Central Asia to Afghanistan. While Pakistan's military establishment is regarded as professional and secular (with the exception of Zia, who attempted to bring Islam into the political and military sphere), it has not hesitated in using Islamic extremism to battle its enemies. This was seen in Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan until September 11, 2001, and support for Islamic extremist groups in Kashmir.
Under President Pervez Musharraf, Islamic extremists entered Pakistan's mainstream political sphere as Musharraf empowered extremists in order to marginalize Pakistan's secular opposition parties while using the growth of Islamic extremism to justify his non-democratic rule.
We tolerate Musharraf because we need him to balance the militants -- but, to a surpising extent, Mushy and his colleagues pull the militants' strings.
Core dilemmas unaddressed
While the victory of Pakistan's secular opposition parties will relieve some concern over the "Talibanization" of Pakistan, the threat will not dissipate as long as Islamic extremism continues to be employed as a tool by Pakistan's political parties, the military and the ISI.
The threat of Islamic extremism has made Musharraf -- a military dictator who seized power in a coup, who has dismissed members of Pakistan's judiciary for opposing him, and who has denied free speech to political opponents -- into our "ally" in the War on Terror.
The more Islamic militant activity there has been in that part of the world, the closer we have gotten to Musharraf, regardless of his government's de facto support for nuclear proliferation, terrorism in India, violation of human rights, and so on.
Furthermore, the ISI helped fund the jihad against the Soviet Union by supporting heroin trafficking. The heroin destroyed not just the Soviet Army, but the Soviet people on the home front, while providing a source of money to supply the mujahideen. Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban in 2001, heroin production in that part of the world has skyrocketed, much of it from the areas along the border where these militants are based.
The ISI is in this up to their necks.
The ISI is a professional organization -- its members rotate in and then back out of their assignments with the ISI to keep them from building up too much power.
Therefore, if the ISI is in this up to their necks, so are their military superiors.
One could have made the argument in the past that Bhutto or Sharif, as civilian prime ministers, may not have had a great deal of control over the ISI, but it is hardly likely that Musharraf does not.
In doing so, the government is playing with fire and has occasionally got burned in the process, as seen by the numerous assassination attempts on Musharraf, the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto last December and the death of over 1,000 Pakistani soldiers in operations against extremist elements in Pakistan's tribal regions.
What are the lives of 1000 Pakistani soldiers if the ongoing instability keeps Musharraf's crowd in power? Jihadis and Pakistani soldiers... you go far enough up the ladder, and it's the same crowd pulling the strings of both groups.
International terrorist and extremist groups have become increasingly localized, as seen by the rise of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law), led by pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah in the Swat Valley in NWFP and the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban) based in the South Waziristan tribal area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, led by Baitullah Meshud. Meshud has been accused by the government of masterminding the assassination of Bhutto.
To quell the rise of Islamic extremism, Pakistan must address fundamental problems plaguing its existence - namely strengthening institutions, reforming the education system and stabilizing Pakistan's periphery.
This will be a job for the civilian government -- if it can get formed, and if it can exercise power.
Empowering Pakistan's institutions and addressing its neglected education system are pivotal to combating Islamic extremism, although Musharraf's pledges in these areas have been unfulfilled.
First, he has undermined the institutions he hoped to strengthen by manipulating the political and legal process to prolong his rule since taking power in a coup in 1999. Second, his military government devoted too few resources to promoting secular education while simultaneously strengthening the military industrial complex and empowering Islamist parties to keep secular opposition parties weak.
The return of a secular civilian government may change this, but given the lack of progress in achieving these goals during a decade of civilian rule by Bhutto and Sharif, significant change is not expected. The fact that Bhutto's inexperienced 19-year-old son, Bilawal, and husband, Asif Ali-Zardari, who faces allegations of corruption, have been appointed as the heads of the PPP ahead of more experienced party members illustrates the continued dominance of feudal patronage over policy platforms in Pakistani politics.
Pakistan's internal stability also remains closely intertwined with its international relations. Although tensions between India and Pakistan have been shelved for the time being, a major terrorist attack on Indian soil or an escalation in terrorist infiltration across the Line of Control that separates the Pakistani and Indian-administered areas of Kashmir, could increase hostility.
Pakistan's support for terrorists in India has maintained their relations as one of a cold war, with occasional hot wars (and some detente) interspersed. As such, India becomes a threat to Pakistan out of legitimate self-defense; the numerically superior Indian Army could cut Pakistan in half in a fairly quick strike, and that idea must surely have crossed the minds of Indian military leaders as Pakistani-sponsored terrorists have attacked targets not just in Kashmir, but elsewhere in India, as well.
In turn, Pakistan must feel the need to be able to defend its existence in the face of superior Indian forces -- hence the development of the nuclear option.
This development of nuclear weapons has worked, in turn, to keep Pakistan isolated from the United States -- except when Pakistan was a convenient ally, as during the Cold War, the jihad, and now the War on Terror.
So, Pakistan's military leadership has maintained 1) the proxy war of Islamic extremists against India, 2) the nuclear deterrent to keep India from squaring off against Islamabad over that proxy war, and 3) the charade of Islamic militants and a "War on Terror" to stay important to Washington, and thus to get a free pass for sponsoring terrorism and for nuclear proliferation.
(There is a way out of this, you know.)
Meanwhile, the "terrorists" -- who train for holy war in Kashmir just as enthusiatically as they train for it against Russia, Israel or America -- serve to keep a small group of people in Pakistan in power, and they do so at the expense of ordinary Pakistanis.
The dialogue that was initiated between both states in 2004 is presently in abeyance as the Indian government has apparently decided to take a wait-and-see attitude to the process of political transition in Pakistan. Confidence-building measures must be complemented by a concrete solution to the issue of Kashmir, which remains a thorn in bilateral relations. In the end, rapprochement in India-Pakistan relations will be necessary to justify the Pakistani military's withdrawal from the political sphere.
On Pakistan's western front, addressing the "Pashtun problem" is pivotal to stabilizing relations with Afghanistan. Pashtun nationalism and the disputed status of the Durand Line between the two countries are core issues within Afghan-Pakistan relations.
They were addressed in a "Joint Pakistan-Afghanistan Peace Jirga" (tribal assembly) in Kabul last year, which will be followed by a series of jirgagai or smaller jirgas. However, these initiatives are likely to make slow progress, given the continued level of mistrust between Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the lack of recognition for Pakistani sovereignty over tribal affiliations in the area and the Pakistani side pushing for Afghanistan and the United States to reach rapprochement with "reformed" Taliban.
The other option Pakistan's elite has is to maintain the instability and simmering jihad, but that has the potential to flare up, out of control -- and possibly result in a regional war that finishes with Pakistan's disintegration and dismemberment.
Following in the footsteps of a foe
The recent discussion of Pakistan's "fragmentation" goes back to debates by political pundits during the first decades of neighboring India's independence (1947) that it would also undergo balkanization.
However, a state far more ethnically, religiously and geographically diverse than Pakistan has survived for 60 years and the fear-mongers have been silenced as India has emerged as a darling of foreign investors.
The essential issue that needs to be addressed in Pakistan is one of identity. How does Pakistan see itself? The Nehruvian and Gandhian view of India as a secular democratic state allowed it to reconcile its vast diversity, despite sporadic and ongoing pressures on India to take Pakistan's path based on a narrow religious identity.
Pakistan's Islamic identity has not been sufficient to quell strains between its major ethnic groups and accusations that the national government's policies are dictated by the interests of Punjab province.
India's federalist structure of government, which devolved power to the states, also facilitated in undermining separatist tendencies. A similar empowerment of Pakistan's ethnic and religious minorities would weaken separatist tendencies in Balochistan, NWFP and the tribal areas and help to quell sectarian and ethnic violence on the streets of Pakistan's major cities.
In a very real sense, the "War on Terror" is Mushy's War -- not just his, but that of the elite around him, as well -- and ordinary Pakistanis, as well as Indians, Afghans, and everyone else, pay the price.
"The extremists need a dictatorship,
and dictatorship needs extremists."