Pakistan: Religion, Terrorism and Democracy

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K.S. Dhillon[1]

The full significance of the terrorist strike at the heavily guarded Marriott hotel in Islamabad’s maximum security and restricted-entry zone on 20 September 2008 needs to be assessed more realistically than is being done by political and strategic analysts in South Asia, especially so far as its symbolic value for Islamist militants active in the area is concerned. Not only is it a blatant attack on the still fragile democratic polity that the country’s untested politicians recently stitched up with great difficulty due to the many inbuilt contradictions between the overall political objectives of the two principal players, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, it is also a major challenge to Pakistan’s very existence as a civilized and self-confident member of the comity of nations.

In another sense, it is a telling reflection on Pakistan’s ability and willingness to operate as a dependable ally in the world’s fight against global terrorism. It also places a big question mark on the country’s ability to survive as a moderate Islamic state.

The message sought to be conveyed by the assailants is loud and clear: they care neither for religion nor democracy, not to speak of universally recognized canons of social contract and concord. As the second most powerful military and nuclear power in South Asia, such happenings in Pakistan are fraught with complex and perilous consequences to the peoples of the entire region. This is why all of us in this part of the world, but more so in India, itself hugely threatened by assorted militancies and insurgencies, are deeply concerned. What is at stake is the peace and stability of all of us in the region and not merely in Pakistan. Clearly, all South Asians are acutely vulnerable to such attacks and are thus in a state of grave and imminent risk at the hands of the mushrooming terrorist groups of various hues and complexions. We, in India, are no strangers to such horrendous events, now almost on a weekly basis.

That a large truck laden with a massive quantity of deadly explosives was able to pass unhindered through a highly secured area, housing the parliament, presidential and prime ministerial mansions, and important foreign missions. To strike at the heavily protected Marriott hotel, is in itself a depressing commentary on the way matters of high security are handled in that country. Not that our own security agencies are markedly more competent in guarding our backyards in such situations. The TV grabs of the attack and the chaotic manner in which the security personnel reacted to the suicide assault in Islamabad, as in Delhi about the same time, do not depict the South Asian security forces in a favourable light. For a security apparatus that has been faced with such threats for years, in both cases, it was a disgraceful display of botched counterterrorism strategies and operations.

Whether you call it Pakistan’s 9/11 or compare it to the attack on India’s parliament in December 2001 in which nine policemen and a parliament staffer were killed, the storming of Marriott is more than anything else a criminally blatant endeavour to demolish one of the major power symbols of the country. Although the number of deaths, around 60, was far below the 150-plus fatalities in the attack on the late Benazir Bhutto welcome procession in Karachi on 18 October last year, politically and strategically, this attack holds a much higher symbolic value to the terrorist organizations, operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The choice of the Marriott as a bombing target may also have been inspired by the fact that many foreigners patronize the five-storey, 290-room hotel that was also reportedly being used for a covert operation by US Marines, who were seen, according to media reports,   unloading a truckload of steel boxes on the night of 17 September. The truck belonged to the US embassy. It was also on the same day that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani met the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, in Islamabad to ask him to end his forces’ military incursions into Pakistan. The Marriott’s physical proximity to the country’s power centres and to several television and radio stations lends it a special strategic prominence and although most of the casualties were Pakistani citizens including hotel guests,  security guards, hotel workers and drivers, about a dozen  foreigners, among them American, German and Vietnamese citizens, besides the Czech Ambassador were also killed.

The timing of the attack was also clearly meant to send a message to the Pakistani establishment in no uncertain terms as it sought to put into the shade the newly elected
President’s maiden address to the joint parliamentary session consisting of the National Assembly and the Senate a few hours earlier, in which he vowed to battle Jihadi elements with a view to restoring the moderate and liberal character in tune with the aspirations of the people as expressed in the February parliamentary elections. Stray reports also indicate that the suicide bomber’s earlier target may have been the Parliament house itself but tight security at that venue ahead of the presidential address might have led to a last minute strategic shift to the Marriott. Also, the attackers timed the strike to coincide with Iftar, a traditionally peaceful time of daily thanksgiving, when Muslims end their dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramzan.

The obvious inference from this chain of events is that the Islamist terrorists are capable of striking at will even in a strategically sealed area in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, and neither democracy nor religion mean anything to them. No one seems to have claimed clear responsibility but the attack is obviously the handiwork of Pakistani Taliban, closely allied with Al-Qaeda, and, as mentioned above, deeply entrenched in FATA. It will be recalled that on 3 September helicopter borne US troops actually landed in Angoor Adda in Waziristan and attacked a building where Al Qaida operatives are said to have been staying. After Asif Zardari was sworn in as president on 6 September, a series of strafing missions by US drones were carried out in the area.

These incursions have caused a great deal of resentment and outrage in the nation, setting off fears that its sovereignty and territorial integrity are under attack. Promptly responding to public opinion, the government warned the Americans of retaliatory action if they continued to violate Pakistani air space. However, such threats of retaliation against the mighty Americans make little sense, given Pakistan’s client state status and heavy dependence on the US, both in economic and military terms. Understandably, there is no dearth of emotionally charged people in Pakistan, who are eager to fight the US and resist with all that it takes her supposed hegemonic designs. Such US strikes, apparently goaded by the need to boost the morale of the Republican party in preparation for the November elections, lay bare the arrogant and thoughtless approach of the US to national sensitivities and gravely undermine Pakistan’s fledgling democracy, viewed by many as the only hope for winning the war on terror.

It is by now reasonably certain that the Pakistani people rightfully belong to a moderate Islamic variety and are extremely distrustful of the growing appeal of fundamentalist Islam through many Mullah-dominated religious schools and seminaries. Her nascent democracy faces an ominous threat at the hands of Taliban and Al Qaeda elements on Pakistan’s western borders as also in its heartland. We all know how reluctantly and half-heartedly Pakistan discarded its Taliban allies, the successors of the Mujahideen it supported in America’s covert war against the USSR. In the wake of 9/11, Pervez Mushrraf’s military regime aligned itself with the US, apparently in the face of widespread public resentment and antagonism in the country. The American attack on Afghanistan soon after 9/11 drove Taliban elements across the border into Pakistan’s north-western tribal areas where they have ethnic, linguistic and historic ties. Their Al Qaeda friends, who have developed close ties in the area through matrimony and a shared hatred for a common enemy (America), joined them. It is thus no coincidence that Pakistan experienced its first suicide bombing in 2002.

The new government that assumed office after the February 2008 elections seems to feel that it has inherited a war largely perceived by the Pakistani people as a proxy war on behalf of the US. This has to be rectified otherwise the fight against the rising tide of militancy and terrorism in that country cannot succeed. Simultaneously, the six month old democratic government has to set its own house in order, resolve the inter-party incongruities and do all it can to strengthen its credibility ratings with the people, who alone can fortify its hands in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements, posing a very grave threat indeed to Pakistan and its neighbours, especially India and Afghanistan, not to mention the more distant targets in the US and Europe. For Pakistan, it is indeed a battle for its survival as a modern, moderate and democratic Islamic state. She has, therefore, to be doubly sure that all elements of the state apparatus, both civilian and military, are involved in the formulation and implementation processes of a transparent, effective, viable and durable counterterrorism policy and its operational repercussions.

A military-only option is clearly not the answer, it has not succeeded in any terrorist-threatened region, Palestine and Iraq included. There has to be a political strategy and a road map for meeting the challenge of terrorism, whether of the Islamist, secessionist or any other variety. That is why it is imperative that a political government must lead the nation in fighting all threats to peace and order in society and indeed to its very survival. For, only a democratic polity can represent and live up to the hopes and wishes of its people and effectively battle anti-national forces. In the February 2008 elections, the Pakistani people made their preferences evident in no uncertain terms by rejecting dictatorship and right wing Islamic ideologies. They voted overwhelmingly for change from past policies i.e., military interference in governance and the politics of hate as well as religious bigotry and, more significantly, for reining in the intelligence agencies, which have historic ties with the Mujahideen and their Taliban successors. Implicit in this vote for change is the need of establishing peace with Pakistan’s eastern and western neighbours, India and Afghanistan.

During a recent visit to Pakistan, this writer noticed widespread support among all sections of the people for the system of democracy. They also appeared to firmly believe that fundamentalism and army rule is not in the best interests of their nation. In fact, they deeply and sincerely envy India for her enduring staying power as a vibrant democracy with a strictly apolitical army, firmly under civilian control. In areas where the Pakistan government has been able to enlist local support against the Taliban, there are clear signs of the Islamist groups losing steam, though the frequent heavy-handed military approach continues to undermine this support and enhance the capacity of the Taliban to blunt counterterrorist operations. Driven by the US, the Pakistani army has been bombing Bajaur, the northern-most tribal agency sandwiched between Afghanistan’s Kunar province and the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan  since early August. Some 300,000 people are estimated to have fled the fighting to take refuge in badly-run relief camps around the cities of Mardan and Peshawar. A human rights activist, who visited these camps recently, reports that the displaced people want to live as Pakistani citizens, enjoying the same rights as other Pakistani citizens, be governed by the laws and Constitution of Pakistan and not the colonial era Frontier Crimes Regulation that is still in force there. They want to experience the fruits of development such as schools, hospitals, secure jobs as well as better and safer future for their children. They claim that they do not support the Taliban and, in fact, loathe the practices and the system of governance offered by them.

Approximately 50 kilometers northwest of Islamabad is situated the small township of Tarbela, the headquarters of Pakistan’s Special Operation Task Force (SOTF). Recently, 300 American personnel, officially labeled as a training advisory group, are reported to have landed at this station. There is reason to believe, however, that there is more to this operation than what meets the eye. It will be recalled that in the mid-1990s, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif allowed a special CIA cell to operate from the same facility, to track and apprehend Osama bin Laden. They left after Pervez Musharraf came to power. Now, the US has bought several square kilometers of land at Tarbela. Not long ago, 20 large containers arrived at the site to be unloaded only by Americans; no one else was allowed in the vicinity. Huge quantities of special arms and ammunition as well as tanks and armored vehicles are believed to have been brought into the country in these containers. All this activity surely cannot be merely related to training programmes. Obviously, all such hush-hush activity at Tarbela is in preparation for an all-out offensive in NWFP and beyond to storm Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries and it is not unlikely that more American troops will soon be inducted into the area for an effective push against the so far illusive adversary. Pakistan’s recent offer to enter into ceasefire agreements with militants in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas were not only summarily rejected, but followed with widespread attacks on security forces in the area and then the Marriott attack. It appears that the US, concerned at the continued failure of the Pakistani establishment to come to grips with Islamist terrorist groups, spawned chiefly by al Qaeda elements in FATA as well as in other parts of the country and the logistical support that they continue to extend to their colleagues across the porous borders to nourish insurgency in Afghanistan, has decided to take matters more resolutely in its own hands.

This will make the still fragile democratic dispensation even more insecure and unpopular and damage its ability to combat insurgency and terrorism. All South Asian nations, especially India, a fast growing regional power, need to readjust their priorities in the area of foreign policy to allay any Pakistani apprehensions and assure that country’s people and establishment that they mean no harm to them and are, in fact, greatly interested in securing their position as a democratic and moderate Islamic state. As the largest and most powerful nation in the region, India should offer all necessary help to its neighbour in battling Jihadi terrorism. We will, thereby, also reinforce our own security in that sphere. This will also be in the long term interest of all the South Asian nations.

K.S.Dhillon is a former director general of  police in the Indian states of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh,  a former vice chancellor of Bhopal University and a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.