Pakistan cannot afford to allow armed groups to function with impunity
Pakistan is in the grip of religious extremism, terrorism and ethnic and sectarian violence. Religio-cultural divisions and socio-political intolerance have increased so much that there are competing perspectives of what has been happening in and around Pakistan over the last several years. The followers of competing perspectives have become exclusivist because each group is convinced of one’s righteousness and describes other interpretations as mistaken and misinformed.
Traditional right-wing political groups and Islamists extend varying degrees of support to the Taliban (Pakistani and Afghan). The Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI (both factions) and their affiliates and other Islamic groups sharing their religious and political perspectives engage in a passionate defence of the Taliban and other militant groups. To them the fault lies on the side of the Pakistan government and the United States. They want the Pakistan government to change its policies and adopt a friendly attitude towards the Taliban. It may however be mentioned that a number of Islamic groups subscribing to the Bralevi and Shia doctrines do not support the Taliban, although these groups are religiously conservative and criticise the US policies in the region. They plead for a tough action against the Taliban and sectarian groups. These groups have now become more active on these issues than was the case in the past.
It is ironic that the Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI work within the framework of Pakistani constitution and law and participate in the elections but they support the Taliban who neither owe their allegiance to Pakistan’s constitution and law nor do they accept the primacy of the Pakistan state. The Taliban want to overwhelm the Pakistan state to use state power to implement Islam of their choice. They have never issued any appreciation of Islamic parties but, on the other hand, Pakistan’s Islamic parties have much appreciation for the Taliban and defend them against all criticism.
The friendly attitude of Islamic parties towards the Taliban has made the latter more defiant and violent. They appear more determined than ever for using violence against the Pakistani state. They resort to suicide attacks, armed ambushes, car bombs and other bombings and resort to intimidation against those who publicly reject their worldview. On more than one occasion they beheaded the captured Pakistani soldiers and dumped their heads and bodies separately. Similarly, they often execute people publicly for working against their interests. Neither Islam nor any doctrine of humanity justifies such brutalities.
The attack on Swat’s girl students by a Taliban group has given all of us a chance for soul searching for how the issue is to be tackled. Though all parties and societal groups, including the Islamic parties, are condemning the attack, this consensus breaks down as we try to examine the causes and how to deal with the situation in the future. Should we continue to engage in polemical exchanges based on partisan party or group interests or turn this into an ideological war amongst various political and religious identities?
The Swat incident has produced noticeable impacts on the current discourse on terrorism. First, those publicly opposed to the Taliban, viewing them as a threat to the state and society, have become more vocal in their criticism and they are demanding that the state’s civilian and military institution should give up the policy of soft paddling towards selective militant and hardline groups. They want a firm action against those challenging the primacy of the Pakistani state and using coercion to impose their socio-religious perspectives on others by force.
Second, a large number of fence sitters between those wanting a tough action against the Taliban and the Islamists and extreme right-wing group that support the Taliban are now tilting towards the emerging first perspective. A large number of these people feel that some tough action is needed to make sure that these extremist groups do not repeat the Swat incident.
Third, Islamist political parties and groups are on the defence and they are perturbed by the growing societal criticism of the Taliban and other militant groups. They are worried that if the current barrage of criticism of the Taliban and others continues, many people in the middle of the ideological divide would shift towards the anti-Taliban discourse. Therefore, they are putting forward all kinds of explanations for the Swat incident and raising issues to deflect the current societal pressure and shift the focus from the controversial role of the Taliban. Their often repeated arguments are that the attack is a conspiracy for creating justification for an attack on North Waziristan or that the Swat attack is engineered by the foreign enemies of Pakistan rather than the Taliban.
The issue is straight forward. If Pakistan is to continue functioning as an effective nation-state with respect in the comity of nation, it cannot allow armed groups to function that reject Pakistan’s constitution and law and want to impose their narrow dogmatic Islamic views on others with the threat of violence. If such groups proliferate and expand their domain of authority for any reason, Pakistan will gradually fade out as a state. Such a situation has to be dealt with a policy that combines tough military action against those who continue to use force, dialogue with those who are prepared to stop violence and talk for a political settlement, and economic development for the strife ridden areas. However, no meaningful economic development can be pursued if strife continues unabated.
Pakistan’s Islamic parties should convince the Taliban to moderate their behaviour and work within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution and law. This will be their major positive contribution towards promoting societal harmony and stability in Pakistan.
The major political parties of Pakistan, especially the PPP and the PML-N, need to coordinate their policies for controlling the menace of religious extremism and terrorism. The PML-N leaders need to recognize that if they are able to assume power at the federal level after the next general elections, the Taliban and other extremist groups are not going to accept the domain of the Pakistani state. These groups are neither fighting against the US nor exclusively against the present ruling coalition led by the PPP. They are fighting against the Pakistan state and their efforts will continue even after the next general elections. If these two political parties develop a broad-based understanding on the Taliban and terrorism related issue, the prospects of controlling these problems will increase.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.