Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gideon Rachman on Pakistan

The title for Gideon Rachman's piece on Pakistan "The Talibanisation of Pakistan" isn't quite right. He's actually talking about the Talibanisation of border regions at the moment. That doesn't make the evidence any less alarming.

"Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's north-west frontier province, is a depressing place to visit at the moment. Islamic militancy and violence are spilling over the border from Afghanistan. Suicide bombings used to be unknown in Peshawar. But there have been 16 since September. A bombing in January killed the local police chief, who had been cracking down on militants. Another bombing last week blew up a local hotel and killed about 24 people. This is following the pattern of Afghanistan itself. Suicide bombings did not happen there until 2005. Now they are a deadly, weekly occurrence in Afghanistan, and have spilled across the border into Pakistan.

The phrase "climate of fear" is a cliche. But it is an accurate description of the current mood in Peshawar. The American consultate - the last major western diplomatic representation in the city - is surrounded by Green-Zone style fortifications. Moderate Muslims are intimidated. Threats have been made to shops selling CDs, barbers who have the temerity to cut mens' beards and to girls' schools.

The threat of a "Talibanisation" of Pakistan is by no means confined to Peshawar. There is currently a dangerous stand-off in Islamabad, where a radical mosque - associated with suicide bombers - has kidnapped some policemen. And things are much worse in the wilder fringes of the country. Last week I met local journalists who said that it is now just too dangerous for them to travel freely in the tribal regions like Waziristan. This too is a relatively new development. The reporters who I spoke to say that as recently as last year they were prepared to risk it.

One of the sadder aspects of the whole situation is the extent to which the moderate majority are intimidated by the threat of militant violence. In Peshawar last Friday I went to a seminar on American foreign policy, at the local university. As one might have anticipated the criticism was pretty strong. But, beneath the surface, there was also clearly many students who are very frightened by their local militants. (In the audience, I would say there were about 30 female students - two were unveiled. Of the rest, about half wore a hijab - a veil covering their hair, and the other half had the niqab - a full-face covering, leaving just a space for the eyes.) After the seminar one of the students came up to me and said: "I'm a moderate. I don't have a beard. But if things go on like this in Peshawar, my family could end up being driven out or killed.""

His concludes by responding to some Pakistanis who blame the US for this process, for funding the Afghan rebels against the old Soviet Pakistan. I think he's right to note that Pakistan bears just about as much responsibility as its Inter Service Intelligence agency played a critical role in their rise to power. More than that, I don't think that the old Muhajideen that the US funded were quite as radical as the Taliban, they were predominantely the old guard that the Taliban pushed out.

I also don't think he does enough to point out that the problem of extremism in Pakistan shouldn't be solely explained as an import from Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own problems with religious extremism that emerge from a dysfunctional politics and a state founded in religious identity.

1 comment:

Vino S said...

My view is that some of the religious extremism in the north-west is partly an assertion of regional identity against the 2 main secular parties - who are stronger in Pakistani Punjab and Sindh.

The original people backed by the ISI were indeed the mujahedeen, not the Taliban, but the mujahedeen then fell out with one another and created a new refugee crisis. The Taliban arose from these refugees in Pakistani camps. However, they were able to call on international help from militant islamists whose original presence in Afghanistan had been encouraged by the US and others to weaken the Soviets.