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'India has an important role in helping Pakistan'

By Arthur J Pais
Last updated on: November 21, 2008 15:39 IST
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In the first part of his interview, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political and defense analyst and columnist based in Lahore, spoke of the situation in Pakistan and of peace and stability along the Line of Control in Kashmir, that divides India and Pakistan

Part I: 'Pakistan won't revert to the policies of the 90s'

In the second part tells rediff India Abroad's Arthur J Pais of Pakistan's internal strife, the ISI and the situation in Afghanistan.

What are the more important factors that facilitated the growth of the Pakistan Taliban and extended al Qaeda influence in Pakistan?

Three factors facilitated their growth. First, the initial target of both sets of Taliban was Afghanistan. As they did not challenge Pakistani authorities, the latter did not generally interfere with their activities unless they got involved in local feuds and disturbed the law and order situation.

Second, the Pervez Musharraf government pursued a dual policy of confronting and arresting some al Qaeda and Taliban elements but not pushing security action against them to dislodge them completely. Local civilian and intelligence authorities had enough discretion to give space to these elements. This helped the Musharraf government get the MMA's backing and consolidate itself. It was only after the storming of the Red Mosque in July 2007 that the MMA began to distance itself from the government.

Third, local authorities under the MMA government in the NWFP did not try to stop the Taliban march from the tribal areas to adjoining districts because they shared their worldview. By the time the MMA government left office in 2007, the Pakistani Taliban had reached several rural and urban centres of the province. MMA also began to oppose the federal government's military operations in the tribal areas.

The Pakistani Taliban, backed by their Afghan counterparts and al Qaeda, decided to challenge the Pakistani government openly in settled areas after the Red Mosque incident, because they viewed it as the beginning of the government's new policy of subduing their Pakistani allies. A series of suicide bombings hit Pakistan in 2007-2008.

Analysts have constantly focused on the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence in backing the Taliban. Do you agree?

The ISI is a disciplined organisation and it comprises predominantly army personnel -- it is not a rogue institution. However, you cannot rule out the presence of some rogue elements. What we have observed over time is that some of these handlers -- people who actually deal with the militant groups at the end of the chain of commands at ISI -- develop sympathies and attachments with the chief militant groups, including the Taliban, and that is why you had that kind of problem in the ISI at the lowest level.

However at the highest level of the ISI there is a unanimous view that militancy is a threat to Pakistan, and now with the change of command, with the new director general of ISI appointed by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, this means there will be more accountability of ISI work. My assumption is that the new ISI leadership is eventually going to ease out all army officers and army personnel about whom they have doubts. Maybe in the past the ISI was following a dual policy; we can talk of the period immediately after September 11, 2001 in this context, when the ISI had no intention of totally eliminating al Qaeda and the Taliban. But after the experiences of 2007 -- the attack on the Red Mosque and the increased number of suicide attacks and the head-on encounters with the Pakistani army and paramilitary forces -- the ISI is going to reform itself and get rid of these people.

The bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan earlier this year was attributed to the ISI.

You cannot rule out the political possibilities of such a development. Pakistan has linkages in Afghanistan because of the traditional relationship that exists between the Pakistani and Afghani society and the movement of people. In a situation that exists at the moment, I will not rule out a political possibility, the reason being that the Pakistani intelligence agencies have a complaint against India. This is the kind of information that is available in Pakistan, but there is no evidence to substantiate that; but the intelligence agencies are arguing that India is using Afghanistan to provide financial assistance to dissident elements in Pakistani Baluchistan, and some are also of the view that some kind of funding may be going to the Taliban as well, so that the Taliban will create more problems within Pakistan. Of course, there is no complete evidence of it, but if we buy this argument, then we know how intelligence agencies think here.

My own analysis is that if we buy this argument, that there is an Indian involvement in Baluchistan or other regions of Pakistan, then I will not rule out some kind of ISI involvement in the Kabul bombing. Otherwise, we don't really have evidence. It is kind of speculation; by using circumstantial evidence you can make that kind of argument.

Yes, the United States has also alleged that the ISI is involved. My argument is you will never get concrete evidence on this issue. We may come to know for sure only if some 20 years from now, some retired officer writes a book.

London-based writer Tariq Ali, who is of Pakistani origin, believes the Indian Kashmiri Muslims were mainly of Sufi persuasion, but the political scene began changing because of the influx of militants and the al Qaeda, leading to a hardened kind of Islam.

I would agree with that argument. It is not only in the Indian administered Kashmir that we had strong Sufi traditions, even in Pakistan we had a strong Sufi tradition, a lot of tolerance and acceptance of cultural and religious diversity. But it was only in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Pakistanis and Americans started to support the war to dislodge the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, that orthodoxy and militancy was propagated in Pakistan, especially by General Zia-ul-Haq. The Saudis also supported this move, and America was not averse to the idea. A lot of people from the Arab countries came to Pakistan in those decades. You have also had a hardening of attitudes within Pakistan. The level of religious and cultural tolerance began to decline in Pakistan as a result. Part of it was due to the strengthening of Wahabi tradition or, to use the South Asian term, the Deobandi movement, and it led to the rise of Islamists who are very intolerant.    

Do you think an upshot of the recent elections in Pakistan is that militancy will decline?

I hope so but one cannot be very optimistic given Pakistan's track record. Many times in the past, Pakistan had started moving on a democratic road but suddenly things went in the reverse direction. But at the moment, there are some signs that are positive, and Pakistan is in the process of a transformation. I don't know whether this transformation will be completed, but there are certain changes taking place which may not be noticed outside of Pakistan until they become very clear trends. If these trends continue, the situation will improve. If they don't, then of course Pakistan will revert to the old situation, military rule.

There are a few positive things happening: Pakistan has now an elected government, not only at the federal but also the provincial levels, and these governments are able to work together despite the differences that exist between various parties. There is a widespread support for a democratic political order even if it is defective, and there is very little support for military rule, at least at this moment. If these trends can be consolidated, Pakistan becomes a democratic country and moves ahead – and then I think militancy will decline.

There has always been a big problem of ownership of the war on terrorism in Pakistan. But the newly elected government is the first to publicly own counter-terrorism and declare that it serves Pakistan's national interests. The key leaders -- the president, the prime minister and cabinet members -- have openly defended Pakistan's role in countering terrorism and they mean it.

What we have learned over the years is that if you hold fair and free elections, generally people won't vote for the extremists. Eighty five percent of the people either vote for right of the centre or left of the centre political parties and not for extremists.

The current government is committed to fighting terrorists; even more than during Musharraf's time. Musharraf too was committed to fight the terrorists, but the civilian government under him was not interested in fighting the Taliban, and he made pacts with those elements to remain in power. In the past, you had an Islamic government in the North West Frontier Province which shared the perspective of the Taliban, and it was during their tenure that Taliban moved from the tribal areas and settled in the districts outside the tribal areas. It is also significant that in the last two months, the operation against the militants in the frontier region has been more successful than at any time in the past decade.  

But this is not enough. Serious efforts are to be made to create a better society, especially making sure that the young people should be socialised into multiple and plural discourses on socio-political and cultural issues. The federal and provincial governments should make earnest efforts to revive the moderate and tolerant vision of Islam that characterised Pakistani society up to the mid-seventies.

If Pakistan, the entire South Asian region will be affected.

India has an important role in helping Pakistan achieve stability, peace and democracy. If the tension between India and Pakistan becomes less, especially in Kashmir, and the LoC is softened, many militants and extremists in Pakistan will see their importance go down progressively.

If India helps to resolve the river water dispute, the people and bureaucrats in Pakistan who are seeking better relations with India will become stronger. The Kashmir problem is enormously complex. But taking the smaller steps to bring about goodwill in the region is very important, and India can do it.

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Arthur J Pais