Today’s Pakistan has a serious quandary. It is no longer faced with the choice between a secular, pluralistic state and an Islamic state. Rather, the decision is between two Islamic state models, one that is modern and democratic and one that is backward, intolerant, increasingly hostile and dangerous to itself and its neighbors. Pakistan’s military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, ostensibly seeks the former, while the Islamist radical opposition hopes to ensure the latter.
Yet, Faustian “deals” between religious forces, extremist jihadi groups and elements of Pakistan’s military establishment–most notably the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)–over the past two decades show no signs of abatement. These have lead inexorably to the present crisis. The “deals” had the common objective of extending state policy through clandestine means, whether in Afghanistan or Kashmir. One such recent “deal” occurred during the 2002 elections when the intervention of ISI officers assisted the political fortunes of the six Islamic parties grouped together to form the coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) party against such political rivals as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). This resulted in a significant success for the MMA, which picked up more than fifty parliamentary seats and won majorities in the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan Provinces. Now a new “deal” is developing in which President Musharraf and his Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ)–“The King’s Party”–and the MMA are working together to create a modern version of an Islamist state. Such an outcome probably is unrealistic given that the radical Islamists view Musharraf as an agent of the United States. 
Two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December raised immediate questions about the stability of the regime, the strains existing within the Pakistani body politic and the competing role of Islamist elements within the society. These attacks reportedly were perpetrated by members of two domestic Islamist groups–Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangi–believed to have been formed by the ISI to fight in Kashmir. It is now also clear that the assurances given by President Musharraf that Pakistan did not provide nuclear assistance abroad are blatantly false. This matter calls into question whether the Musharraf government is credible in its assurances about battling terrorism. It also raises questions regarding how seriously Pakistan is waging the battle to eliminate al Qaeda, stop the Taliban’s revival, stem the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and curb radical Islamist groups. Also, can Islamabad be believed when it says that Pakistan’s nuclear technology has not been provided to terrorist groups? Although the nuclear issue is beyond the scope of this article, it is relevant because of the questions raised about Pakistan’s credibility and whether it is waging the war against terrorism while also coping effectively, as it avows, with the whole range of instability factors connected to indigenous Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Pakistan, while not directly involved in the events of September 11, was, on the surface, thoroughly transformed in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States. President Musharraf’s words at the time gave promise of fundamental change in Pakistan, suggesting that it might tackle the terrorist threat head-on and change the environment in which it thrived. Reality, however, quickly showed quite another face.
While many Pakistanis applauded Musharraf’s rhetoric, it has created an internal backlash, with the Islamists espousing strong anti-Musharraf and anti-American sentiments. The president has become a target of Islamic militants for ordering an end to tolerance for extremism and for joining with the United States in the war on terrorism, if only rhetorically. Although Musharraf initially proclaimed an abrupt switch regarding al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and a crackdown on Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus–as well as indicating he would expel foreign fundamentalists–official Pakistani actions seemed in fact to be pervaded by ambivalence.
Musharraf has made conflicting remarks about the likelihood that Osama bin Laden is alive or dead. More than 500 al Qaeda operatives have been captured and remain in Pakistani jails or have been released for trials abroad. Yet it seems they are only being coughed up by the Pakistani security services in dribs and drabs to placate pressure by Washington on Islamabad to fulfill its anti-terrorism commitment. Moreover, the Taliban not only has been allowed to regroup and revive but is being permitted to re-infiltrate Afghanistan on a large scale.
To what extent there is active ISI involvement in this Taliban activity is unclear, but it could not have occurred without at least the ISI’s tacit approval. Just as importantly, Musharraf attempted to deflect internal political pressures by making a “deal” with the Islamist political parties in December of 2003 to break a constitutional deadlock that had persisted since legislative elections in October of 2002. He agreed to step down as army chief at the end of 2004, in return for the Islamists’ cooperation in approving arbitrary constitutional amendments that he had introduced. The fact that Musharraf opted for a deal with political Islamists–at a time when militant Islamists were trying to assassinate him–rather than trying to befriend the secular opposition that seeks a restoration of democracy is indicative of the perilous course Musharraf is navigating.
Theoretically, Musharraf has placed himself on the “right side of the terrorism paradigm,” a senior U.S. policy official has remarked. However, this is part of his remarkable juggling act since taking power in the 1999 coup. He continues to provide support for groups considered to be terrorist; he also permits radical Islamists to operate and continues to allow Taliban members to use Pakistan as a base from which they can disrupt the political situation in Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, Pakistani officials state vociferously that, since the crackdown against al Qaeda and the Taliban, the overall security situation has improved and the threat of terrorism has diminished. U.S. officials also insist that cooperation with Pakistan on counter-terrorism has indeed become quite close, but privately they remain skeptical about the its longer term effectiveness. Despite adverse assertions in the foreign media and by American policy makers to the contrary, Pakistani leaders contend that Islamabad has been tough on terrorism and that cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan aimed at quelling the Taliban and eliminating al Qaeda has improved. These officials claim that, internally, the tribal regions of Pakistan have become increasingly hostile to terrorist elements. They say this is due in large measure to increased, proactive Pakistani military and security measures that are aimed at dismantling al Qaeda outposts, capturing or killing its members and using new technological means to prevent terrorist activity. Additionally, during his January 2004 meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Musharraf pledged that Pakistan would not allow terrorist groups to operate from its soil in Kashmir or within India.
A DEEPENING CRISIS?
On January 17, President Musharraf delivered his first speech to the nation’s Parliament since assuming power in 1999. In part, this speech was an answer to the December 2003 assassination attempts. Secular deputies and MMA members alike jeered him, and many MMA members walked out, demonstrating serious domestic political opposition to the legitimacy of his rule. But Musharraf spoke out, contending that, “The curse of extremism, by a handful of persons, is damaging the country internally.” He pledged that Pakistan would not flinch from launching “a massive operation against those foreign elements in our border areas who can be a cause of terrorism in our country and Afghanistan.” Despite these declarations, the perception persists that Pakistan continues to be a sanctuary for terrorists, promotes an Islamic insurgency in Kashmir, fails to crack down effectively on the Taliban, permits the Taliban to return to Afghanistan, spreads nuclear technology to “rogue” states and has a serious instability problem caused by its domestic radical Islamists.
What worries many U.S. government and other knowledgeable observers is that over the past twenty years the ISI has permitted armed Islamic groups to flourish and is no longer able to keep them in check. These groups have provided the fodder for a Pakistani-inspired insurgency in Kashmir and helped facilitate the growth of the Taliban in Afghanistan; they also provide a nucleus of armed radical personnel within Pakistani society. Mostly these elements have been from the Sunni communities, but there has been an increasingly alarming emergence of a new, virulent brand of armed radical Shia groups, especially in large urban areas. The combination of these local jihadis and religious extremists is perceived by Musharraf as the main threat faced by Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan must cope with a widespread internal militancy and the presence of radical Islamist groups of foreigners, which pose a potentially existential threat to Pakistan’s stability and to the continuance of military rule.
Radical militancy is likely to remain a problem unless there is a genuine, fundamental political and social change in Pakistan, one that shifts the country from authoritarian military rule and replaces it with a civilian democracy, flawed as it may be. Legitimacy for any Islamabad regime is essential, and that is sorely lacking at present. It is too early to know whether Musharraf can weather the present crisis. Based on his actions to date, however, he is likely to continue cosmetic actions to placate the United States and the international community. At some future date this will have a serious backlash effect that will no longer be able to be swept under the rug. Musharraf must cease selective moves against violent Islamic radicalism. So far, his actions have been mainly tactical, hoping to keep his opponents off balance and to co-opt them. He does not appear to have a broader strategic vision to overcome the problem. Such practices have resulted in the various Islamist groups coalescing to form the latest threat to Pakistan’s stability and to Musharraf personally.
Yet, at least for the short term, the potential for a radical leadership to emerge, Islamic or otherwise, is low. The present Pakistani establishment is firmly in charge and, with enhanced technical and military assistance from the United States, is able to ensure its dominance is not effectively challenged. Pakistan probably has a “grace” period of five to ten years to solve its internal political legitimacy crisis before an explosion occurs. It is undeniable, however, that radical forces are growing, especially the Islamists, that social chaos and demographic pressures are mounting and that many of Pakistan’s mainstream liberals are increasingly frustrated. Unless this is checked, this last group could turn to Islam. Moreover, if anything happens to disrupt the Army’s cohesion–an unlikely but not impossible occurrence–a radical Pakistan could emerge because no alternative exists; nor has one been allowed to develop.
1. The Faustian model is the idea of former Ambassador to Pakistan William B. Milam, enunciated during a talk at the Middle East Institute in Washington on December 10, 2003.