Pakistan facing critical choices
Daily Times, July 15, 2007
WASHINGTON: Pakistan is facing a critical moment in its battle with extremism and Washington must show support to the Musharraf government’s offensive against terrorism and to the moderate majority of Pakistani civilians that Musharraf needs to support his efforts against extremists, according to a South Asia expert.
In an analysis over the weekend, Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation argued that if President Musharraf is to succeed in liquidating extremism, he would need US support. US officials should make it clear, however, that eliminating terrorism requires that the Pakistan army resumes its offensive in the Tribal Areas. She refers to last week’s congressional hearing in which a senior CIA official said that Musharraf’s peace deals with tribal leaders had “not been helpful”. While earlier military operations in the tribal areas succeeded in keeping Al Qaeda on the run and in disarray, they damaged tribal institutions and increased radicalism, causing the deaths of several hundred Pakistani soldiers.
Curtis maintains that it was because of these growing problems that President Musharraf announced in September 2006 a peace deal with tribal leaders of the North Waziristan Agency that included an end to offensive military operations in exchange for the tribal rulers’ cooperation in restricting Taliban and Al Qaeda activities. The objective of the Pakistan government is to restore the traditional form of governance in the region and co-opt the tribal elders and political representatives through an infusion of economic assistance for new roads, hospitals, and schools.
This new policy will take time to bear fruit, but time is not on Pakistan’s side. There are signs that Pakistani extremists are taking advantage of the decreased military pressure by attempting to institute strict Taliban-like Islamic edicts in the region. US intelligence officials have expressed concern that military strikes on Al Qaeda elements entrenched in Pakistan’s tribal areas could spawn new militant activity in the country. However, these fears must be weighed against the possibility that such action could help prevent future terrorist attacks, she adds.
The Lal Masjid episode, Curtis argues, marks the beginning of a showdown between progressive forces who see Pakistan’s future linked to the West and Al Qaeda-linked extremists who want to establish a theocratic state in Pakistan. The crisis should convince the Pakistan government that it must deal firmly with extremist elements and develop a unified and strong opposition to any groups or individuals linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, she suggests. Groups that previously received sanctuary and support within Pakistan because of their anti-India agendas should now be confronted. Although Pakistan has banned such groups, it has failed to arrest their top leadership or punish those within the intelligence services who continue to have links to the groups, she points out. Having done what was necessary to assert the government’s writ over the Lal Masjid situation, General Musharraf now must cope with the fallout from the confrontation and remain committed to the fight against terrorism, she stresses.
According to Curtis, most Pakistanis support the decision to confront the extremists at the Lal Masjid, which brings an opportunity for Musharraf to highlight the dangers of allowing extremists to fester in the Tribal Areas. She writes, “Pakistan is at a critical moment, and Washington will need to pay close attention to the various trends developing in order to effectively bolster the Pakistani state against Al Qaeda-linked extremists...An important element in fighting extremism in Pakistan is to ensure that the people have a compelling alternative to the anti-state ideology of Al Qaeda. In other words, if the Pakistani people feel they have a voice in how their country is governed, they will be less susceptible to the Al Qaeda ideology.” So, she says, President Musharraf should heed the large-scale protests concerning the dismissal of the country’s Supreme Court chief justice. He should not battle the secular democratic forces of his country, but instead make common cause with them to battle extremism in Pakistan, she adds. The US should press Musharraf to work with the mainstream political parties to develop a plan that will return the country to civilian, democratic rule through credible elections, she said. khalid hasan