Will Pakistan become ‘Islamistan’? And how soon? This is the question which bothers many a mind in the whole South Asia region. People beyond the South Asian region are worried too, because its repercussions will be far and wide.
There has been a demand by the orthodox section of Sunni Muslim society of Pakistan that the State of Pakistan be run strictly according to the principles of Sharia, i.e. the Islamic Laws, of their interpretation. That the democratic constitution be replaced with a new constitution which will establish an Islamic Caliphate of Pakistan instead of an Islamic Republic of Pakistan. That the warriors of Islam will achieve this through jihad, which is a holy War conducted by means of unlimited violence against centres of state power as well as civilian population. These warriors, currently known as the Pakistani Taliban, will create what may be called ‘Islamistan’, the land of Islam, the closest example of which was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
Pakistan was created in 1947 as a state for the Muslims of United India. The Pakistan movement was driven by the belief that in post-British India, the Hindu majority will tend to dominate the politics of the country and Muslims will not get their due share of power. After the demand for the Pakistan was conceded, but a few days before the new state was born, Mohammed Ali Jinnah on 11 August 1947 in a speech in the constituent assembly of Pakistan advised his countrymen to regard religion as a purely personal matter and not allow it to interfere in the politics of the country. However, when the process of constitution making began in Pakistan, the orthodox section of Pakistani society made sure that the Objectives Resolution adopted by the constituent assembly on 12 March 1948 contained an assurance that the Muslims of Pakistan shall be enabled to “order their lives” in accordance with “the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah”.
From then onwards, through different stages of the political and constitutional evolution of Pakistan, the Sunni dominated Muslim political parties and organisations launched agitation from time to time and succeeded in getting increasingly more pro-Islamic provisions introduced in the constitutional and legal framework of the country. Pakistan’s army which controlled the government of the country directly or indirectly for most of its history made the Islamic parties like Jamaat-e-Islami its allies in supressing domestic opposition. Mainstream political parties like the Muslim League and the People’s Party also found it difficult to resist the demands of the Islamists which were always backed by uncontrollable street power. The crowning glory of Islamists was their incorporation by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq as the main instrument of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan from 1979-1989.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan’s security establishment used these veterans of anti-Soviet jihad to launch an invasion of Afghanistan which was in a state of civil war and succeeded in capturing Kabul in 1996 under the leadership of the so-called Taliban. The Taliban allowed themselves to be influenced by Al-Qaeda leadership which had been a participant in the anti-Soviet jihad. The two together used the Afghan soil to launch the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. The retaliatory attack by the United States and its allies on Afghanistan in October 2001 resulted in the defeat of Taliban most of whose cadres and leadership along with that of al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan in the winter of 2001-2002.
The arrival of al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2001 brought about a qualitative change in the agenda of the Islamist movement of Pakistan. Until now, the objective of Islamist parties was to get the constitution and laws of Pakistan as much Islamised as possible through agitations and pressure tactics against the state. From now on, under the guidance of al-Qaeda, the objective was re-defined as capture of state power through violent means and establishment of an Islamic Caliphate to be run according to the principles of Sharia. Initially, the demand for the imposition of Sharia took the form of stray incidents of violence by Sunni groups protesting against Pakistan government’s support for the US led war on terror. After the Lal Masjid operation of 2007 conducted by President Musharraf to flush out militants, a number of Sunni militant organisations got together under one umbrella called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) with the declared objective of establishing a Sharia rule in Pakistan.
The key demands of the Pakistani Taliban can be summed up as follows: i) Introduction of Sharia, i.e. Islamic laws; ii) Islamic system of education; iii) End to interest based banking; iv) Immediate replacement of democratic system of government by an Islamic one; v) Immediate withdrawal of army from tribal areas; vi) Closing down all army check-posts; vii) Immediate release of all arrested Taliban cadres.
Even a man of ordinary intelligence would know that these demands cannot be fulfilled in Pakistan which has a democratic constitution. The militants have therefore been trying to register their demands through violence. According to a statement filed in the Supreme Court by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies on 26 March 2014, Pakistan has lost 49,000 lives in militancy since 11 September 2001. More than 24,000 people, both civilian and troops, were killed in terrorist attacks during the period 2001 and 2008. Another 25,000 died during military offensives against Taliban insurgents in the tribal regions since 2008. Besides, 15,681 casualties have been suffered by the armed forces in the tribal areas since 2008. The bomb blasts and suicide attacks have led to another 5,152 civilians dead and 5,678 civilians injured since 2008.
While loss of civilians and security forces is enormous, what lends political and strategic significance to the activities of the militants is their attacks on high value military targets. Such attacks since 2007 would reflect an effort on their part to capture state power through violent means. In May 2011, the Taliban attacked Mehran naval base near Karachi and destroyed two US surveillance aircraft. This was the first major attack on a military target and is said to have taken place with the involvement of officers sympathetic to the militants. Earlier in 2009, the military headquarters in Rawalpindi had come under heavy attack when militants laid siege to the complex for 24 hours killing 19 persons. On 16 August 2012, the Taliban attacked one of the most heavily guarded military airbases in Pakistan, the Minhas airbase located near the Aeronautical Complex at Kamra, 45 miles north-west of Islamabad. The airbase is believed to store about 100 nuclear warheads which Pakistan possesses. This was the third such attack on the airbase since 2007, earlier ones being in December 2007 and August 2009. On 20 January 2014, the militants attacked a market next to the military headquarters killing 13 people. A day earlier, they had killed 26 soldiers and wounded 25 others in the north-western town of Bannu.
Whether or not the Pakistan government should take military action against Taliban was a question actively debated within Pakistan ever since Nawaz Sharif’s government assumed office after May 2013 elections. While the army leadership was in favour of action, the political leadership lead by Nawaz Muslim League and supported by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf was opposed to any action. The peace negotiations started by the government with the Taliban in March led nowhere. The massive attack by the Taliban on Karachi airport in the early hours of 9 June compelled the government to undertake a comprehensive military action against the Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan on 15 June. While the prospects of success of this operation are being debated in the Pakistani media, it may be worthwhile to make an assessment of the support that the Taliban have in society.
A survey conducted by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in April 2010 based on 1,568 respondents representative of all regions, age groups and educational backgrounds revealed two significant findings. To the question whether you consider the struggle for implementation of Sharia as a jihad, those who said ‘yes’ were 63% from Punjab, 70.8% from NWFP, 69.7% from Balochistan, 36.6% from Sindh, 65.7% from FATA, 62.5% from Islamabad, 27.5 % from Gilgit-Baltistan, and 59.7% from AJK. To another question, whether the militants in Indian-held Kashmir are engaged in jihad, those who said ‘yes’ were 57.1% from Punjab, 64.6% from NWFP, 57.3% from Balochistan, 39.7% from Sindh, 6% from FATA, 65% from Islamabad, 11.8 % from Gilgit-Baltistan, and 89.6% from AJK. This means that in Pakistani society the demand for the imposition of Sharia is quite high. Similarly, the support for jihad in Kashmir is also noteworthy.
The question that remains to be answered is whether the Pakistani army is also radicalised and if so, to what extent? This question is not easy to answer because the evidence available is only circumstantial. The commonly held view is that a section of the army is strongly radicalised because otherwise so many Taliban attacks on sensitive military targets would not be possible. There is a scholarly view held by a distinguished academic Pervez Hoodbhoy that Pakistan indeed has two armies. There is Army I which is pro-status quo and then there is Army II which may be called as Allah’s Army and wants to change the status quo. That the army leadership is divided on the question of policy towards Taliban is also obvious from the fact that sometimes the army is soft on Taliban, distinguishing the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ Taliban and sometimes it advocates strong action against them.
The future of Pakistan and the future of Pakistan’s relations with India depends on the extent to which the security establishment of Pakistan is able to eliminate militancy led by TTP, LeT and other organisations. There are grave doubts that the operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan will fully serve this purpose. The malaise seems to have gone much deeper and widespread in Pakistan. The military solution is not enough. Someone must have the courage and conviction to say that a modern state cannot be run on the basis of Sharia. The country must be guarded against the negative impact of the establishment of a Caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, and the likelihood of Afghanistan being dominated by Taliban.
But this is easier said than done. If not, the possibility of Taliban capturing power in Pakistan directly or indirectly in the next ten years cannot be ruled out. In the process, Pakistan will of course lose its identity. But a Taliban ruled Pakistan will have grave implications for India. It will completely de-stabilise India and shake it to its very roots. It will engulf the entire Jammu and Kashmir in flames again. It will hold the whole of India to ransom for demands which cannot be met. India will be faced with a prolonged asymmetric warfare for which it may not be prepared. Unfortunately, these are not matters which diplomats of the two countries will ever discuss. Therefore, let us hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.