Op-ed: Counter terrorism and domestic politics —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
The re-activated policy to counter religious extremism cannot be sustained without bringing supportive political elements on board. This is not possible without seeking a realignment of political forces, expanding the support base of the government
The government of Pakistan banned six hard line Islamic parties last week. This step was much needed and will help dispel the widely held view at the international level, especially in the US, that Pakistan pursued a policy of duality on terrorism: while combating terrorism, the state authorities either ignore the activities of some Islamic extremist groups or allow them to function under changed nomenclatures. The leader of a banned Islamic-sectarian party resurrected under a new name was part of the ruling coalition at the federal level until his brutal assassination a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps he was the latest victim of religious-sectarian killings in Pakistan.
For the third time since 2001 the government of Pakistan adopted punitive measures against hardline Islamic groups. On two previous occasions, August 2001 and January 2002, the government’s efforts were not taken to their logical conclusions because the policy makers were not fully convinced that the extremist and sectarian Islamic groups should be entirely curbed.
The then military government led by General Pervez Musharraf lacked the political roots to pursue consistently the policy of combating religious extremism and terrorism. Furthermore, some extremist Islamic groups were instrumental to the military government’s pro-active policy in Indian-administered Kashmir. Therefore, curbing religious extremism entirely was not considered desirable. The dilemma was to create a balance between the demands on Pakistan in the global efforts to combat Islamic extremism and terrorism and the imperatives of its Kashmir policy.
The Musharraf regime faced additional constraint after it civilianised military rule and decided to share power with a co-opted political leadership. All the political parties in the opposition, especially the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six Islamic parties, and the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), which included the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), refused to accept the Legal Framework Order, 2002 (LFO), as a legitimate instrument, amending the 1973 Constitution. The whole edifice of the post-military rule political order with General Pervez Musharraf in command was based on the LFO and the general did not want to accommodate the opposition demands for changes in the order or its validation by the Parliament.
After the failure of the talks on the LFO with the ARD and the MMA, the government opted to continue a dialogue with the MMA which had a greater stake in the post-military rule political arrangements because it was in power in NWFP and shared power with the PML-QA in Balochistan. The long drawn-out dialogue between the government and the MMA produced a framework for making changes in the LFO for its approval by the Parliament. Together the MMA and the government have the two-thirds parliamentary majority to approve a revised version of the LFO.
The need and hope of an understanding with the MMA slowed down the government’s policy to counter religious extremism in Pakistan for understandable reasons. The MMA members, especially its two main constituent parties, the JUI-F and the Jamaat-i-Islami, are the most vocal critics of US policy on counter terrorism in Afghanistan and oppose stringent measures against the Taliban and Al Qaeda activists in Pakistan. The two factions of the JUI (F and S) are also very critical of the government’s efforts to regulate the Islamic seminaries.
The government had to go slow on containing the activities of extremist Islamic groups. Its counter terrorism policy therefore wavered. Pakistani authorities arrested Al Qaeda activists hiding in Pakistan’s urban centres from time to time and handed them over to the US. However, Pakistan rejected the reports by international media and the US administration about the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda type activists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan’s response was similar when Afghanistan and international media talked of the presence of Taliban elements in Balochistan, especially in the Quetta-Chaman area, and their links with the growing insurgent activity in Afghanistan.
The ambiguity in Pakistan’s counter terrorism policy allowed limited space to banned extremist Islamic groups which resurfaced under new names. Other extremist elements that had voluntarily reduced their activities returned to the political stage.
The government policy of ignoring their activities became untenable for domestic and external reasons. The major incidents of sectarian killings in Quetta, the stepped up violence and bomb blasts in Balochistan and deteriorating law and order situation elsewhere compelled the government to review its internal security policies. The activities of Taliban and Al Qaeda type elements and Pakistan religious extremists became too well known to be denied. Above all, Taliban activities against the Karzai government and the allied troops in Afghanistan focused sharp attention on these elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through diplomatic channels, the US and other major states impressed on Pakistan the need to take effective measures to control these elements.
Pakistan made important security moves in parts of the Tribal Areas and especially in the Waziristan Agency. These operations showed that reports about the presence of extremist elements in the Tribal Areas were not unfounded.
Will the government of Pakistan persist in its new policy of curbing religious extremists or dilute some features of this policy over time? The future of the present policy depends partly on the government’s ability to build political support for its policies. This cannot happen unless the government finds a way out of the LFO bind.
If the government goes for a political settlement with the MMA, one wonders if the latter would come on board without seeking a slowdown of the current policy towards hardline Islamic elements and Islamic seminaries? Ideological considerations and power politics dictates that the religious alliance protect its support base which comprises mainly religious hardliners, conservatives, and Islamic seminaries associated with MMA parties.
If we take into account the recent statements of President Musharraf on Islamic extremism and its impact on Pakistan, it seems that the natural partners of the government in its venture to counter religious extremism and sectarianism are the liberal and centrist sections of society. However, the government faces a dilemma in cultivating them. The strongest political entity among the liberal political circles is the PPP. The PML-N to some extent can also support the government’s policy in this regard. But both the parties are an anathema for the present government and especially for President Pervez Musharraf who has repeated said that there is no scope for the leaders of these parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in Pakistan’s future politics.
The re-activated policy to counter religious extremism cannot be sustained without bringing supportive political elements on board. This is not possible without seeking a realignment of political forces, expanding the support base of the government. A pragmatic option is to seek out the liberal political forces, primarily the PPP and secondarily the PML-N. This calls for initiating negotiations with them for working out mutually acceptable terms rather than President Musharraf and the army dictating their terms. The MMA option is also available but it may require the government to go back to pursuing duality in its counter extremism and terrorism policy.
Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst