If FATA represents the cutting edge of terrorism in the name of Islam, Punjab, unfortunately, is the hinterland of this phenomenon. Or, to borrow a phrase from the repertoire of military folly, Punjab is the strategic depth of bigotry and extremism masquerading in the colours of Islam.
Religious extremism took root in the soil of Pakistan thanks to the so-called Islamisation policies of Gen Ziaul Haq and his role in pushing the first Afghan ‘jihad’. The dragon’s teeth of our sorrows were scattered by Zia. We are reaping the harvest.
Next in the line of military saviours, Pervez Musharraf — may Pakistan for all its faults never have such a saviour again — could have reversed the trend of the Zia years. But he had only a limited understanding of things. President Asif Zardari is not the first of our accidental leaders. Musharraf was another product of accident and circumstances. Had he not been plucked out of Mangla and made army chief Pakistan would have been spared the misfortunes it had to endure under his star.
He signed on with the Americans in 2001 but despite the two assassination attempts on him, he was never serious about cleansing the Frontier havens where the fleeing Taliban from Afghanistan had taken refuge. Far from eradicating the Taliban, his vacillation and lack of true commitment allowed the problem represented by the Taliban to grow. The Taliban phenomenon in Swat and the Lal Masjid affair — small problems through neglect assuming a bigger shape — were testimonies to his limited vision and short-sighted policies.
The extremism Pakistan is now battling is thus a gift whose line of descent can be traced from Zia to Musharraf. The army’s predicament can be imagined. The ghost it is trying to lay to rest was conceived and tested in its own laboratories. This is the Pakistani way of doing things. First create a problem and then invoke the power of heaven to eliminate it.
As an aside I can’t help adding that one of the key figures instrumental in getting US Congress to fund the Afghan resistance was Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas. Wilson was fond of a hard drink and fond of good-looking women, tempting qualities that suggested a swashbuckling knight errant. (Most men have Wilson’s inclinations. But it is not given to everyone to fulfil them.) The irony is piquant: someone like him emerging as one of the central protagonists in an enterprise hailed by its partisans as a great victory of Islam.
Wilson had all the fun while it lasted. On his frequent visits to Pakistan during that period he was never without one or two striking companions. The Pakistani generals he interacted with were content to make a lot of money, some of which shows in the prospering business enterprises of their lucky offspring. More than in most other places, it helps in Pakistan to have the right kind of father.
But to return to the complex relationship between the Frontier and Punjab in that clash of arms, fought for the greater glory of Islam, the former was the staging post or the launching pad of that ‘jihad’ while Punjab was what might be called, in military terminology, the concentration area. The nerve centre of that ‘jihad’ was ISI Hqs in Aabpara, Islamabad. CIA supplies were landed at Chaklala Airbase and then brought for storage to Ojhri Camp next to Faizabad in Rawalpindi. From there they were transported to the frontlines of the Frontier.
Meanwhile Zia’s missionary zeal, backed by Saudi money, was beginning to transform the Punjabi landscape. Madressahs or religious schools began cropping up everywhere, including Islamabad. Backed by state patronage, mullah power, hitherto not much of a factor in Pakistani politics, began to show its muscles.
There was a ban on politics in any case. Apart from PTV, there was no other TV channel and even PTV was being conquered by the mullahs. Newspapers lay under a heavy blanket of censorship. The only thing to do under Zia was to either watch Indian movies at home or perform the various rituals of religious hypocrisy in public. The begums of the good and great, never behind their men folk in bowing to the prevailing wings, entered heavily into the business of arranging religious ceremonies (milads) under one pretext or another. Pakistan became a very pious and hypocritical society. Even army promotions began to be affected by one’s reputation for religious observance or otherwise.
All the extremist outfits with whose names we are now familiar emerged at that time: the jaish this and that, the lashkar so and so. Most of them were Punjab-based and members from all these organisations acquired battle experience in Afghanistan. My friend Colonel Imam of Afghan ‘jihad’ fame — and who, like most good people, is from Chakwal — takes enormous pride in saying that the most fearless fighters of all were from Punjab. And he should know for he was in the thick of it.
When with the departure of the Soviet army and the victory of the Saudi and Charlie Wilson-funded ‘mujahideen’, the Afghan war wound down, the fighters who had gained battle experience in Afghanistan were shifted to an entirely different front: Kashmir, where in a protracted struggle they managed to tie down half a million Indian troops.
Their godfathers in the security establishment felt elated. Forgetting the role of hard-drinking Charlie Wilson and the Saudis, they wrote a self-glorifying narrative in which it was claimed that not only had the power of faith defeated the Soviets. It had also hastened the end and break-up of the Soviet empire. If a superpower could be thus defeated, zeal and the spirit of ‘jihad’ could work similar miracles in Kashmir.
This was the mood then pervading the top ranks of the army and the intelligence agencies. So it is scarcely to be wondered at that when after the fall of Kabul to the ‘mujahideen’, a Pakistani delegation was on its way to the Afghan capital, no sooner had the aircraft carrying it entered Afghan airspace when those on board, including some Americans, were startled by a loud cry: “Allah-o-Akbar”. This from the then ISI chief, the heavily-bearded Lt-Gen Javed Nasir.
Our rendezvous with our present extremist-flowing troubles did not come about from out of the blue. We had ploughed the land and watered it for a long time.
When the Americans attacked Afghanistan post-Sept 11, the theatre of ‘jihad’ shifted again: back to Afghanistan. The Bush administration of course screwed things up for itself by going on to attack Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan, a piece of folly sure to haunt the US for a long time to come. But Afghanistan was bad enough by itself. It reignited the fires of holy war and, given the iron dictates of geography, it was inevitable that Pakistan sooner or later would have its hands burned by another conflict raging in Afghanistan.
Once a change of course in our strategic course was forced upon us by the US — Musharraf succumbing to American pressure without extracting the kind of bargain that would have better served Pakistan’s interests — logic and necessity demanded a clean break with the playing-with-fire policies of the past. In other words, a clean and definitive break with Zia-minded ‘jihad’. But Musharraf played a double game. Even while dancing wildly to America’s tune he was never serious, or he lacked the will and capacity, to seriously rethink the past.
But now that under a new sun and a new sky we are finally embarked upon a new course — which marks a true break with the past — we have to realise the extent and magnitude of the problem. The terrorism we are now fighting is not a provincial subject. It is not confined to any one province. It is a composite whole, organically tied together, growing not from any isolated virus but from a sickness of the mind and soul which had the whole of Pakistan, or at least its strategic quartermasters, in its grip.
If Pakistan is to become something, realising its dreams and potential, if it has to enter the real world and leave the world of dreams and fantasies behind, then there is no course open to it except to tackle this sickness, no matter what it takes and what sacrifices it entails, without ifs and buts, and without any misconceived appeals to the Taliban.