The South Asia Channel

Beyond a military solution for Pakistan

The document trove published by WikiLeaks reignited lingering suspicions that Pakistan’s leaders haven’t been completely forthright in their public support for the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan. The reaction from Pakistani officials to these renewed suspicions has been predictably indignant. Reading the reports made public on WikiLeaks from outside Pakistan, it’s easy to believe that extremism ...

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

The document trove published by WikiLeaks reignited lingering suspicions that Pakistan’s leaders haven’t been completely forthright in their public support for the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan. The reaction from Pakistani officials to these renewed suspicions has been predictably indignant.

Reading the reports made public on WikiLeaks from outside Pakistan, it’s easy to believe that extremism and terrorism in the region could be stopped almost immediately, if only Pakistan would fully commit to the effort. The reality, however, is much more complicated. At a recent conference hosted in Islamabad by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and the United States Institute of Peace Pakistani researchers showed that the drivers of extremist violence in the region are intertwined with Pakistan’s political and economic organization.

Extremism in Pakistan is linked to extremism in Afghanistan. And at the core of Pakistan’s extremism problem, the researchers concluded, is bad governance. If that is true, the solution lies beyond the capacity of Pakistan’s military men or politicians.  

Pakistan’s population is largely poor and there is little chance that someone born into a lower or middle-income household will move up the social ladder through legal channels. And while laboring through everyday life, interaction with state services for the average Pakistani is likely to result in a demand for bribes or casual mistreatment. If the average Pakistani is in need of help, the security organs of the state are more likely to abuse than protect.

The devastating floods in Pakistan provide a stark example of this government inaction. News reports indicate that 1,600 have died and another 4.5 million affected directly by the flooding. While popular anger grows due to a government perceived as slow and ineffectual, President Asif Ali Zardari has provoked further furor by continuing with an expensive and luxurious European tour.

The researchers at the conference pointed out that although polling shows actual support for the aims and methods of extremists in Pakistan is relatively low, violent extremism is more widespread than in other Muslim countries due to its greater concentration of extremist groups.

"If you want to believe the extremist narrative and want to fight, you will be able to find people to facilitate you," said Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute of Peace.

The floods again illustrate the point. Jamat-ud-Dawa, ostensibly banned and believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba is reported to be providing relief to victims of the flood. Not only are extremist groups easy to find, they stand in for the state in times of crisis.

The result of the long and short-term effects of poor governance, the researchers added, is that the underlying causes driving extremism are spreading throughout Pakistan, even though its religious ideology has not been traditionally widespread in the country.

Noting that "sharia is like a unicorn," Ijaz Haider went on to say that Pakistan contained so many understandings of Islam that they could almost be considered separate religions, which made it increasingly dangerous that Pakistanis were becoming comfortable with denouncing Islamic interpretations with which they didn’t agree.

While the researchers agreed that the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan provided a catalyst and focus for extremism in Pakistan, the real problem is that a military solution alone, whether from Pakistan or the United States, cannot reverse extremism.

Journalist and researcher Wajahat Ali, for instance, said that the ideology of extremism would have to be challenged by other ideas. "The fight against extremism will be fought in the craggy mountains of Waziristan but it will be won in the newsrooms," he said.

Yet the challenges ahead are enormous. The economy would need to grow at five percent a year just to employ the young people entering the workforce. In addition to new job seekers, alternative employment would need to be found for the huge number of Pakistanis who can no longer count – as they have done in the past – on Gulf Arab economies to provide employment. Provisions will also have to be made to peacefully integrate the millions of Pakistanis who will move from rural areas to the country’s poor urban areas, seen around the world as fonts of radical politics.

The problem, however, is not in diagnosing Pakistan’s problems but actually solving them. The PIPS conference showed that Pakistan is not short of insightful and rigorous researchers and intellectuals who are better -equipped and -placed to diagnose the sources of extremism in Pakistan that many of those abroad. However, they are as removed from the decision makers as those suffering from the floods. The difficulty in moving towards governance reform is only compounded by international interventions that seek to further cement the power of Pakistan’s incumbent, mostly military elites. The history of U.S. material and moral support to well-connected feudal lords and military officials is so long that USAID seems to be having trouble today trying to identify Pakistani civil society to work with.

The most telling indication of how difficult achieving good governance will be in Pakistan were the comments by Sherry Rehman, a senior member of the ruling Pakistani People’s Party (PPP) and a former minister of information.

In answer to a comment about lack of government planning, Ms. Rehman said; "Governments don’t plan for the next 40 years. That’s true. This is because they are worried about getting thrown out in the coming year."

If the international community does not help Pakistan move beyond zero-sum politics, it will find that no amount of cajoling and threatening Pakistan’s political elites is going to work. It’s outside any one group’s power to change the toxic mix of problems successive Pakistani governments and their friends have allowed to fester.

Amil Khan works in Pakistan for Radical Middle Way and writes on issues connected to terrorism and extremism as Londonstani on the Abu Muqawama blog. His book about the development of extremism, The Long Struggle, will be published later this year.

Amil Khan is a former Reuters Middle East correspondent and author of The Long Struggle: The Muslim World's Western Problem.