Pakistan's balancing act

Excerpts from
Pakistan's Awkward Balancing Act on Islamic Militant Groups
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service; August 26, 2006; A10

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For the past five years, Pakistan has pursued a risky, two-sided policy toward Islamic militancy, positioning itself as a major ally in the Western-led war against global terrorism while reportedly allowing homegrown Muslim insurgent groups to meddle in neighboring India and Afghanistan.

"The conundrum for the military still persists," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general. "The question always is, should we totally ban these organizations or keep them for later use?" Although the government has "selectively" prosecuted extremist groups, he said, "at the conceptual level, it has deliberately followed an ambiguous policy."

The basic problem for Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is that he is trying to please two irreconcilable groups. Abroad, the leader of this impoverished Muslim country is frantically competing with arch-rival India, a predominantly Hindu country, for American political approval and economic ties. To that end, he has worked hard to prove himself as a staunch anti-terrorism ally.

But at home, where he hopes to win election in 2007 after eight years as a self-appointed military ruler, Musharraf needs to appease Pakistan's Islamic parties to counter strong opposition from its secular ones. He also needs to keep alive the Kashmiri and Taliban insurgencies on Pakistan's borders to counter fears within military ranks that India, which has developed close ties with the Kabul government, is pressuring its smaller rival on two flanks.

Until recently, Musharraf had handled this balancing act with some success, Pakistani and foreign experts said. He formally banned several radical Islamic groups while quietly allowing them to survive. He sent thousands of troops to the Afghan border while Taliban insurgents continued to slip back and forth. Meanwhile, his security forces arrested more than 700 terrorism suspects, earning Western gratitude instead of pressure to get tougher on homegrown violence.

"It is ironic that our very success in thwarting plots and arresting a large number of terrorists reinforces the perception that this country is a bastion of terrorism," said Shafqat Mahmood, a former Pakistani legislator, suggesting that Islamic militancy has been permitted to flourish in Pakistan at the country's peril. "Our triumphs in the war against terror have become advertisements of our failure," he said.

In an interview last week, Riaz Mohammed Khan, Pakistan's foreign secretary, expressed indignation that India had swiftly blamed Pakistani-based groups for the train bombings, saying Pakistan had "no evidence whatsoever" of any such links and that India had ignored its repeated offers to collaborate in any investigation of the attacks, which killed more than 180 people.

Some observers suggested that in different ways, both Pakistan and India are using the terrorist threat to bolster their competing relations with the West. Just as Pakistan, the regional underdog, may be exaggerating its role as a terror-fighter, they noted, India, the aspirant to global influence, may be exaggerating its role as a victim of terror.

Others suggest that U.S. policy in the Middle East is making it difficult for Muslim countries such as Pakistan to remain peaceful and in control of large, impoverished populations who increasingly turn to religion and identify with the struggles of Muslims in other countries.

But critics said Pakistan's problems with Islamic violence cannot be resolved as long as the military remains in power. In an unusual move last month, a diverse group of senior former civilian and military officials wrote an open letter to Musharraf, warning that the country is becoming dangerously polarized and that a uniformed presidency only exacerbates the problem by politicizing the armed forces. The only solution, the group wrote, is a transition to a "complete and authentic democracy."

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