Zardari is even more afraid than Musharraf
by Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi
Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi say the Marriott bomb in Islamabad shows how weak the new Pakistani President is in the face of the Talebanised sectors of this failing state
The sophisticated truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on 20 September, which took dozens of lives, was the latest incident in a campaign to destabilise the entire subcontinent. Most reports have blamed al-Qa'eda militants but the real blame for the crime belongs with the Talebanised sectors of the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence service (ISI), and the pusillanimity of the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto.
The Marriott assault was clearly a sequel to the bombing less than three months ago, on 7 July, at the Indian embassy in Kabul, which was also devastatingly murderous. Pakistani authorities tried to deny the involvement of ISI agents, as detailed in communications intercepted by US intelligence services. Less obviously, the Taleban on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and the Pakistani North West Frontier Province (NWFP) are engaged in a full-fronted invasion of Afghanistan's eastern neighbour.
The shift of the global Islamist terror front from Iraq to Afghanistan has less to do with opposition to the Western presence supporting Hamid Karzai than is commonly supposed. The intent of the fundamentalists (claiming to act in the interest of extreme Sunnism) is to radicalise the whole of Pakistan or, failing that, to effect a third partition of the subcontinent. Following the split between Pakistan and India in 1947, and the secession of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) in 1971, the Pakistani Taleban, as the radicals are increasingly known, will settle for nothing short of full control of the NWFP.
The Pakistani Taleban could not wage war across the border were it not for the long-standing infiltration of the Pakistani army and ISI by jihadists. For years, the Pakistani-Indian conflict over Kashmir was the pretext for ignoring this. Similarly, rivalry with India served as the justification for Mr Zardari's predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, to protect Abdul Qadeer Khan, the alleged rogue physicist who we now know helped provide nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Zardari's rival and occasional partner, Nawaz Sharif, a recent resident of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, continues his historic alignment with the jihadists.
Zardari insists that his government can handle the situation without foreign involvement. Such arguments are simply more rhetoric. They cover a policy of accommodation with the Taleban invaders, best exemplified when the Pakistani army fired at US helicopters on 21 September, the day after the Marriott atrocity. A week before, Pakistani forces were officially ordered to shoot at American troops if the latter crossed the barely defined Afghan border.
US leaders (including competitors in the presidential race) have also failed to understand the problem. They argue over whether Iraq or Afghanistan is more important to the anti-terror war, and note that al-Qa'eda is shifting its forces to Kabul. They assume that the collapse of jihadism in Iraq is the only reason for al-Qa'eda to refocus eastward. This is a serious mistake. The followers of bin Laden have spent years preparing the Pakistan onslaught. We and other close observers have long argued that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the second most important anti-jihadist front after Iraq.
In Pakistan today, the Taleban power expands as if without limits. The fundamentalist Deobandi sect (which gave birth to the Afghan Taleban regime, its missionary arm, Tablighi Jamaat, and the historic jihadist movement, Jama'at-e Islami) may soon be an equal counterforce to the Zardari regime. In the NWFP, the jihadist demagogue Fazlur Rahman (to whom Musharraf handed dominion over the province) is more powerful than Zardari. Mr Rahman controls many madrasas, and we are informed that 125,000 Taleban are studying in extremist schools in the NWFP.
Not only has Mr Zardari proved himself incapable of reversing Musharraf's capitulation to the jihadists, but (to protect himself) he seems intent on satisfying their demands. He is even more afraid of the extremists than Musharraf was — this is an extraordinarily dangerous situation. Zardari and his late spouse, Benazir Bhutto, were never concerned about solving the deep problems of the country; rather, they looked to their own property and financial interests. The Bhutto–Zardari Pakistan People's Party had as its historic slogan 'Roti, kapra, makan' — 'Food, clothing, shelter' — but none of these has been delivered, and Pakistan now visibly suffers from the Third World food crisis, with reports of adulterated flour being sold in the marketplaces.
Meanwhile, the Taleban's targets are not just official political figures and Westerners. A terrible, ongoing massacre in Parachinar, administrative centre of the Kurram Agency — inside Pakistan but close to Kabul and to Tora Bora, the old bolthole of bin Laden — has gone unreported in the foreign media. Beginning last year, mass murder has descended on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which include Kurram, in the south-west of the NWFP. Already in 2006, according to the Pakistani ex-police officer and terrorism analyst Hassan Abbas, clashes had begun in the Fata's Khyber Agency between the Taleban and adherents of the Sufi-oriented Barelvi sect, to which the earlier, loyalist generations of subcontinental Muslim immigrants to England belonged. In the Swat district, another part of the Fata, strict sharia law was imposed. Christians and Sikhs were harassed. Talebanisation of the Fata also included bans on music, compulsory full covering of women and recruiting of children for suicide terror.
But Parachinar produced a special kind of horror. The Kurram Agency is surrounded on three sides by Afghanistan, and was the first refuge for bin Laden's followers after the US bombing commenced in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet Kurram and Parachinar were inhospitable to al-Qa'eda. The Kurram Agency's half-million residents are mainly Shia Muslims — sympathetic to the Afghan Northern Alliance rather than bin Laden, and hated by the Taleban as much as non-Muslims, secular Muslims, Sufis and other non-fundamentalist Sunnis.
In the past year hundreds of Shias have been slain in the most brutal manner by the Taleban in Parachinar — their deaths accompanied by dismemberment and other brutalities. By July of this year, ironically, the only safe road into Parachinar came from Afghanistan. The American Shia political leader Agha Shaukat Jafri insists that the jihadist elements in the ISI are as much responsible for the mass murder in Parachinar as for the Taleban invasion to the north. 'The hand of the ISI is visible wherever blood is shed in Pakistan today,' Jafri said. But calls for a clean-up in the intelligence organisation have been ignored for years.
There seem to be only two options for defeating the Pakistani Taleban. One, a unification of all moderate Muslim factions, appears utopian. The other is simpler and more realistic, but rejected by Zardari on the grounds that Western intervention in Afghanistan and US involvement with Pakistan already contribute to the influence of the radicals. That is foreign military action, uniting the US with Nato and other forces, to restore some semblance of the stability that first Musharraf and later Zardari have let slip away.