Wednesday, January 21, 2009

William Dalrymple on Pakistan

William Dalrymple writes in the New York Review of Books of the steadily disintegrating situation in Pakistan. The main reason for this is the policy of courting Islamic extremists, wholeheartedly adopted since the 1980s by the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI must simply and unequivocally be termed a rogue agency. But ISI had the support of the CIA (which, for the role it has played in meddling with countries the world over, must also be called rogue). The CIA-ISI supported Islamic extremists were then fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The ISI also found extremists useful in bogging India down in the Kashmir conflict.

Decades have passed and the beast that was unleashed in the 1980s is now threatening to consume Pakistan. Even in Lahore, Pakistan's cultural and artistic capital, far away from the Afghan border, journalists and editors are being threatened by radical groups. The activist Asma Jahangir has also received warnings - "in her case, to desist helping the victims of honor killings."

Dalrymple's entire essay, which focuses on Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid's book Descent into Chaos, is well worth reading; but here are some of my picks - these, in my opinion, are the most telling.
"As Hamid Gul, the director of the ISI who was largely responsible for developing this strategy [of using jihadis in Kashmir], once explained to me, if the ISI "encourages the Kashmiris it's understandable." He said, "The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?" Next to him in his Islamabad living room lay a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the people of Berlin for "delivering the first blow" to the Soviet Empire through his use of jihadis in the 1980s."

"The army's senior military brass were convinced until recently that they could control the militants whom they had fostered. In a taped conversation between then General Pervez Musharraf and Muhammad Aziz Khan, his chief of general staff, which India released in 1999, Aziz said that the army had the jihadis by their " tooti " (their privates). Yet while some in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed their own agendas, sending suicide bombers to attack not just members of Pakistan's religious minorities and political leaders, but even the ISI headquarters at Camp Hamza itself, in apparent revenge for the army's declared support for America's war on terror and attacks made by the Pakistani military on Taliban strongholds in FATA. Ironically, as Rashid makes clear, it was exactly groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were originally created by the ISI, that have now turned their guns on their creators, as well as brazenly launching well-equipped and well-trained teams of jihadis into Indian territory. In doing so they are severely damaging Pakistani interests abroad, and bringing Pakistan to the brink of a war it cannot possibly win."
And last, but certainly not the least, is Dalrymple's suggestion that the "Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam" needs to be stopped, and that the Sufism of provinces such as Sindh could be an effective counter against such puritanical strains:
The Saudis have invested intensively in Wahhabi madrasas in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. The politically moderating effect of Sufism was recently described in a RAND Corporation report recommending support for Sufism as an "open, intellectual interpretation of Islam." Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Could it have a political effect in a country still dominated by military forces that continue to fund and train jihadi groups? It is one of the few sources of hope left in the increasingly bleak political landscape of this strategically crucial country.

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