Farzana Shaikh: The vacuum that rules Pakistan

A troubled country will not be able to 'do more' about terrorism until it clarifies its relationship with Islam

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:44

There is now an almost fateful inevitability that a major terrorist attack in the UK will carry a Pakistani imprint. The London suicide bombings in 2005, the abortive project to blow up transatlantic airliners flying in 2006, the November attacks in Mumbai and the assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last month. All have been shown to have had roots in Pakistan.

Yet Pakistan continues vigorously to contest this interpretation. Although all those implicated in the plots of 2005 and 2006 were known to have been trained in Pakistan, it claims that the roots of their radicalisation lay in Britain. Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, it has emphatically denied the involvement of its nationals in terrorist acts abroad as it did most famously in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack.

However, last week's arrest in the north of England of 11 undisputed Pakistani nationals could be a turning point. Henceforth, it will be far more difficult for Pakistan to deny that home-grown Pakistanis do indeed choose to commit terrorist atrocities abroad.

Gordon Brown, who recently warned that three-quarters of all terrorist attacks planned in Britain could be traced to Pakistan, has been vindicated. His blunt instruction to Pakistan to "do more" to root out terrorists will come as a familiar refrain to most Pakistanis, who have come to dismiss them as increasingly tedious if not downright disingenuous. They point to the far higher casualties suffered by military personnel, police forces and civilian population in Pakistan than in any other country currently engaged in fighting terrorism.

Many also retort in frustration that it was the West that first decided to "export" terrorism and send dangerous foreigners (Arabs, Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens and others) to Pakistan to wage war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today a growing number of Pakistanis, possibly even a majority, are convinced that any residual link between Pakistan and terrorism would be severed overnight if US and Nato forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

So is Pakistan in denial about terrorism, and if so how can it be expected to "do more" to contain the threat? The answer is far from straightforward. What is clear, however, is that any expectation of Pakistani co-operation must recognise the constraints that thwart agreement over the question of terrorism, which arise from the country's competing centres of power with conflicting agendas.

Any pressure on Pakistan from Western governments, including Britain, to "do more" must take into account three domestic considerations. The first is the perception that, however grave the threat posed by terrorism, the graver threat stems from Pakistan's historic enemy, India. The second is that the climate of mistrust between Pakistan and its Western allies has deepened suspicion that concern with terrorism is geared primarily to ensure the security of the West rather than of Pakistan. The last is a nagging uncertainty over Pakistan's Islamic identity, which has complicated the task of confronting terrorists claiming to act in the name of "Islam".

It is no secret that Britain, like the US, has been keen to redirect Pakistan away from its traditional enmity with India and concentrate its forces on crushing terrorists. The end of military rule in 2008 and the return to elected government under the Pakistan People's Party presented an opportune moment to press for change. This also served to pave the way for enhanced co-operation between Britain and Pakistan, especially on jointly monitoring the activities of an estimated 800,000 British Muslims of Pakistani descent, who travel freely between the two countries.

But hurdles lay in the way. Accustomed to building its political fortunes on conflict with India, the army has been less than enthusiastic about the wholesale revision of Pakistan's strategic policies vis-à-vis its main regional rival. Nor has the army been keen to compromise policies that depended for their success upon groups of "irregulars" it regarded as strategic assets in its asymmetric war against India. The problem is that it is precisely these groups that are today widely implicated in planning terrorist attacks against Western targets.

Co-opting Pakistan's military establishment and bringing it in line with Western interests has also been hampered by the climate of growing mistrust between Pakistan and its Western allies, arising from fresh allegations since President Obama assumed office. These centre on claims that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency still harbours close links with terrorist groups allied to al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. The allegations have been strongly rejected by Pakistan, whose foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, last week used the occasion of a joint press conference with the special US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to warn that Pakistan's co-operation in the "war on terror" could not be taken for granted without mutual respect.

Though this climate of mistrust has not yet affected the progress of anti-terrorist co-operation between Britain and Pakistan, both sides must limit the fall-out from the war of words over who should have done more to tighten national borders and curb the movement of alleged terrorists.

Ultimately, however, Pakistan's capacity and willingness to "do more" to meet the terrorist challenge will depend neither on political arrangements at home nor on the material support of allies from abroad. Rather it will depend on the country's confidence to project an identity grounded in a clearer vision of the state's vexed relationship with Islam, which has left it prey to deep divisions, for it is this vacuum that has rendered it vulnerable to the forces of extremism. And it is these that now endanger both the state of Pakistan as well as the security of its neighbours and the wider international community.

Farzana Shaikh is an associate fellow at Chatham House. Her book Making Sense of Pakistan is out next month

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