Pakistan’s divided democracy, representing 170 million people, seems incapable of dealing with the collection of obscurantist theocrats and well-armed bumpkin bullies who make up the Pakistani Taliban.
On April 13 . Pakistan’s national assembly voted to ratify “Nizam-e Adl Regulation of 2009”, or NAR: the imposition of shariah law on the valley of Swat in the North West Frontier Province.
The vote itself was a typical piece of spite and short-sighted opportunism by Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari.
Smarting from his humiliation at the hands of the lawyer’s movement and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, Zardari had the regulation tabled as a bill at the National Assembly instead of simply promulgating it himself as president.
His motives: to share the blame for the capitulation with the ANP (the Awami National Party, the NWFP’s embattled ruling party) and the other democratic parties, and demonstrate to the United States that the PML-N was unable and unwilling to assume leadership of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban struggle.
Indeed, the PML-N squirmed with embarrassment as it endorsed the ruinous legislation, which was pushed through in less than an hour with no serious debate.
And the sordid political accommodation with the Pakistani Taliban was transformed into an episode of shared national humiliation.
The Awami National Party—which had been touted in the United States as the moderate Pashtun good guys who would swing the NWFP away from extremism—had begged Zardari for the deal in a desperate bid to stabilize the province, and was forced to defend it.
Only one party stood against the deal: the thuggish masters of Karachi, the MQM.
The Taliban had openly threatened retaliation against any MNA (member of the National Assembly) who voted against the deal.
Only a handful of representatives acquitted themselves with honor, including a lone MNA of the PML-N, Ayaz Amir.
This exhibition of mass cowardice does not bode well for the impending bloody struggle to contain and roll back the Pakistani Taliban.
Rauf Klasra’s report in Pakistan’s secularist/liberal The News is worth quoting at length.
“Ayaz Amir, a liberal intellectual and columnist, was the only parliamentarian to shout, “This agreement was signed under the shadow of guns and most importantly the guns of Taliban had turned out to be more powerful than the guns of our Pakistan Army.”
It was crystal clear that the serious threats of Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, carried by all the morning newspapers on their front pages, were very much on the minds of all the scared looking parliamentarians. So except for those in favour of the deal, no one from the Punjab [PML-N stronghold] or Sindh [PPP stronghold] spoke out.
None of them asked any tough questions from a visibly browbeaten Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who too was seen content with the fast falling writ of the state and his government, as many believed that a new state within the state had been created.
The desperate pleas of a genuinely worried Ayaz were, however, of no use, as his parliamentary leader Nisar Ali Khan had already given up in the face of mounting pressure from the supporters of the deal with the Taliban in the Parliament.
The MNA from Chakwal, an obvious target for Taliban where they carried out a suicide bombing recently, wondered how Muslims which could not agree on a definition of Shariah in 1400 years, would now achieve this goal in Swat. Ironically Ayaz even paid rich tributes to MQM leader Farooq Sattar for what he believed was a wonderful speech against the deal in Swat.”
Klasra’s account documents the demoralization of Pakistan’s secular political elite:
“Only two sane voices were heard in the house of 342. But the most shocking part of these proceedings was that not a single woman parliamentarian stood up to protest the sweeping laws which would greatly affect the women of Swat.
It was being widely expected that some protest by the women parliamentarians would be registered and the most relevant question from PM Gilani about how the rights of women would be protected in Swat Valley, would be asked. But it was not.
Just two weeks ago, a horrible video had shocked the whole world when a poor girl of 17 years was flogged. None of the 80 female MPs representing different political parties raised the issue, as if they had not seen the video. Liberal PPP MNAs Sherry Rehman and Fauzia Wahab, who had been championing the cause of human and women rights during the long 12 years of opposition, were also found avoiding eye contact with anyone who may ask them why they were tightlipped.”
Clearly, the jubilation of Pakistan’s elite on the victory over the justly-despised Zardari on the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the restoration of the Supreme Court has been erased, almost immediately, by fear of the growing Taliban presence inside Pakistan.
“All the women, mostly belonging to the elite class of the country sitting in the Parliament conveniently preferred to stay quiet as they did not heed to the warning of MQM leader Farooq Sattar who said a day would soon come when the Taliban would issue a fatwa against the presence of women parliamentarians in the house as, according to them, it was also against their Shariah.”
The decision appalled the United States and the entire region.
Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government in Afghanistan saw the Taliban, instead of being confronted in their safe haven of western Pakistan, becoming further entrenched. It issued a statement:
“We do not interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs,” President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, told reporters in response to a question about the deal.
However there were concerns that “dealing with terrorists and handing over parts of one country to terrorists could have dire consequences in the long term”, he said.
Hamidzada added that “since any deal with terrorist groups can affect our people and our country’s security, we request Pakistan, before any such deals, take into consideration its negative impacts on relations between the two countries”.
Just to make sure that there was no misunderstanding and the humiliation and degradation of the ANP was complete, the Taleban then reneged on the disarmament agreement that was meant to provide window-dressing for the deal.
And the ANP went along, according to the Hindustan Times:
“Within a day of the accord being announced, Khan said, contrary to what was agreed, that the Taliban in Swat would not surrender their weapons on the grounds that Islam permitted the carrying of weapons. The Awami National Party (ANP) spokesman explained that what Khan meant was that “personal weapons” would not be surrendered. Earlier, Khan had made the Taliban forsaking weapons conditional on “the enforcement of Sharia on the ground by the government” when no such condition was included in the infamous agreement with the ANP.”
Indeed, the ANP seems to have given up on the moderate Islam effort entirely:
“NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti – who represents the liberal Awami National Party – appeared enraged at criticism coming from within the country and from European and the US governments. “This is our problem,” he said. “Islam is our religion and we are Muslims,” … He also ruled out the possibility of action against the Taliban for destroying state property, including girls’ schools, saying it would be against local traditions.”
And, when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they do!
“Talking to TOI [Times of India] from an undisclosed location, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan echoed Sufi Muhammad’s call for implementation of sharia across Pakistan. ‘‘Our demand for Sharia wasn’t Swat-specific. We’ll continue our struggle for implementation of sharia outside the Pashto-speaking areas,’’ he said. Khan said Taliban would ‘‘make Swat a model of good governance and soon people in other areas will also demand the same set-up’’. He said Swat people had sacrificed for the sharia cause. ‘‘People who opposed sharia were neither sincere to Islam nor the nation.’’ ”
The high-profile exercise in appeasement (or intimidation) in Swat was followed by another, less publicized, but even more blatant accommodation: the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail.
Aziz was arrested in the aftermath of an incident that, in retrospect, may have marked the high-water mark of Pakistan’s effort to genuinely confront Islamicist fundamentalism—the bloody assault of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad ordered by Pervez Musharraf in July 2007.
In an eerie and disturbing piece of foreshadowing Aziz, the leader of the mosque, had challenged government writ in Islamabad by presuming to interpret and enforce sharia law backed by vigilante raids in the capital from his large and centrally-located mosque.
Perhaps 1000 died in the operation, which provided heartland Punjabi extremists (as opposed to Pashtun fundamentalists in the remote western lands) with a powerful sense of grievance and rallying cry. Aziz was famously captured trying to flee the mosque dressed in a burkha together with a group of women and children.
Certainly, the circumstances surrounding Aziz’s release do not inspire confidence that the Zardari government is managing the extremist threat with some masterful combination of concession and coercion:
As Iran’s state media reported with open alarm and distaste:
“The former chief cleric of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, addressing a crowd of nearly 1,000, vowed to continue his struggle to enforce Taliban style law throughout the country.
“The sacrifices given by the people in the Red Mosque and its female students will not go in vain. Islamic system will be enforced in the country,” the cleric told a cheering crowd. ”
Both the Zardari government and the PML-N attempted to distract attention from the problem they had delivered to Islamabad’s doorstep with the Swat agreement by criticizing that convenient, destabilizing bugbear—the United States.
For good measure, a government minister invoked the Indian menace and threatened to play the China card (which, I expect, has Beijing cringing with disapproval):
“The government should not help NATO and the US against the Taliban, as both parties are open enemies of the country, Federal Science and Technology Minister Azam Khan Swati said on Tuesday. Addressing workers of the Federal of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) zonal office, he said: “They are not our friends and wanted to make India the leading power of the region.” It is the duty of the President and prime minister to resist efforts to help them at all costs, he added. He said the US might go after Pakistan’s missile and nuclear technology, as it had been unwilling to give any leeway to Iran’s “peaceful use” of atomic technology. He said his ministry would focus on technology imported from China to deal with every situation.” [emph. added]
Perhaps Asif Zardari’s response to his cratering political fortunes and the United States’ rumored intense interest in buddying up with Nawaz Sharif will be to climb in bed with the hypernationalists and maybe even the Islamicists. It is likely that, as before, his crude efforts to strengthen his position will fail and, as usual, the national unity and Pakistan’s democracy will suffer as a result.
If anybody is going to stand up to the Pakistani Taliban, it’s probably not going to be the cupcakes of the PPP and the PML-N, who have cynically accommodated and exploited the powerful religious and social forces inside Pakistan to preserve their wealth and power and in the process created political movements whose cadres are addicted to money and influence and whose rank-and-file is good for little more than the tire-burning raree-cum-riots that characterize Pakistani street-level politics.
It looks like it’s going to up to the MQM, the political/criminal combine that rules Pakistan’s greatest city, Karachi.
The MQM or Mutehida Qaumi Movement is a party whose political base is the mohajirs–descendants of Urdu-speaking refugees from India who fled to Karachi at partition in 1948. It was founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain, an ex-Chicago cab driver and student organizer with the stated purpose of protecting mohajirs against discrimination and reputedly enjoyed the sponsorship of Pakistan’s president at the time, Zia ul-Haq.
The MQM is socialist in orientation, Leninist in organization, and is not averse to maintaining and expanding its influence through the use of political violence. A definitely unfriendly but apparently rather accurate account of the MQM’s rise by a Karachi blogger states:
“This later on with army backing led to a network of professional militant bands with a hand in the drug trade of Karachi, composed of 5,000-6,000 hit men and notorious criminals. Carjacking, land grabbing, extortion, kidnapping, drug running, illegal construction made them unbelievable sums of money which gave them remarkable gains in successive elections. Altaf also opened up a number of torture cells around the city for those hard cases(reporters, human rights activists, doctors, police officials, etc.) who refused to toe his line. Besides the professional criminals and terrorists, the MQM also trained a whole generation of street gangs in the ABC’s of street thuggery, and used them to ensure that the people in the MQM ‘areas’ toed the party line.”
Hussain fled Pakistan for England to escape a bloody campaign by the Pakistan government under Nawaz Sharif in 1991-2 that claimed the lives of several of his relatives. His decision was apparently a wise one, given the brutal character of the crackdown, as the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services reported in 2004:
“Pakistani forces resorted to staged “encounter killings” in which they would shoot MQM activists and then allege that the killings took place during encounters with militants (U.S. DOS Feb 1996).”
Perhaps because of the dirty war angle in the Pakistan government’s campaign against the MQM, Altaf Hussain obtained asylum as a political refugee and, in 1999, British citizenship.
Atlaf Hussain (whose name now carries the honorific Bhai) runs his operation by phone from London now and by all accounts keeps a tight grip on affairs.
A December 2006 report on the murder of Athar Usmani, the central secretary general of the MQM-Haqiqi, the dissident faction of the MQM reputedly backed by Nawaz Sharif’s government in the 1990s, gives a flavor of how things still run in Karachi:
“During his last interview with Gulf News in Lahore, Usmani had stated that the Altaf group had murdered 98 workers of the Haqiqi group in Karachi alone since 2003. The family members of none of the deceased were allowed to lodge a police complaint.
While making public a letter written to newspaper editors by Afaq Ahmad, the chief of the MQM-Haqiqi who is behind the bars since 2003, Usmani had said his party’s chairman has survived two attempts on his life in Karachi’s central jail during the last six months.
In the first attempt, his food was poisoned while in the second one, the rivals tried using a poisonous injection to get rid of him, said Usmani, who was released in December 2005 from a Karachi jail after a three-year detention.”
The MQM delivers Karachi and muscle to whatever party is in power; it allied with Musharraf, then Zardari, and has allegedly killed activists in the PPP, the PML-N, and the lawyer’s movement as need and circumstances permit.
The MQM has one political base—Karachi—and is committed to defending its position there with the threat of force. That includes trampling on the aspirations of Karachi’s large Pashtun population.
It’s worth noting that there are an estimated 4 million Pashtuns in Karachi—more than in Kabul, Peshawar, or Qetta–many of them displaced by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan or government military operations in the Northwest.
MQM’s clash with the Pashtuns in Karachi predates the Taliban era, dating back to riots in 1984, and has deep socio-economic and political roots.
The recent appearance of genuine Taliban elements in Karachi has given a new justification and urgency to the MQM’s campaign against the Pashtuns in Karachi.
As the invaluable Syed Saleem Shahzad reports in Asia Times, Karachi—and the MQM—are in the Taliban’s cross-hairs as it seeks to extend its reach beyond the Pashtun-dominated FATA and NWFP into the urbanized heartland of Pakistan.
“With the “truce” with the security forces having been broken, Mehsud and his allied groups now want to strike back, starting by creating chaos in Karachi. They have chosen the city for two reasons:
· It has the largest concentration of the Mehsud tribe after South Waziristan.
· It has a non-Pashtun majority, making it ripe for ethnic violence with the second-largest community, the Pashtuns.
In this battle, Asia Times Online has learned, the militants are searching for ways to unnerve their enemies in top positions, including high-profile kidnappings in the country’s largest city and financial center.
The battles of the tribal areas have now unmistakably moved to the urban centers.”
It’s not a question of will the MQM fight when the Taliban get to Karachi.
The Taliban are already there, and the battle has been joined.
Again, from Saleem Shahzad, describing how the “truce” between the Taliban and government forces in Karachi was broken:
“Senior investigators have told Asia Times Online that the situation in Karachi is very delicate and law-enforcement agencies had decided to avoid any direct clashes with militants. That is, there was a tacit agreement that the militants could use Karachi to raise funds and for other logistic purposes, and the security agencies would not carry out any operations against their sanctuaries.
Most of the fund-raising was to provide support for the Taliban in Afghanistan – a source of anger for the US. This concern was translated to a Karachi-based political party, the Muttehida Quami Movement (MQM), which recently began a campaign against the Taliban in the city.
This included an incident in which the MQM blew the whistle on a kidnapping operation in Karachi by the Mehsud tribe in which several police officers were injured. This forced the police to take action, leading to several arrests, including the high-profile one announced on Monday. ”
Given the U.S. anger at the use of Karachi as a base for funding the anti-U.S./NATO battle in Afghanistan—and the possibility that Washington will force Pakistan’s flabby democratic parties to get serious about the penetration of the Taliban into urban centers–the MQM seems to be ready to make a calculated gamble by escalating the conflict with the Taliban in Karachi.
With full respect for the MQM’s murderous valor and its fierce determination to maintain control of Karachi, it is possible to speculate that this isolated party’s bravado also reflects a measure of sub rosa support from the United States.
The United States is poised to make a deal with an anti-U.S. anti-Taleban devil in Afghanistan—Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Foggy Bottom and Langley are exploring the possibility that it might take an alliance with a borderline-criminal bunch in Karachi—instead of single-minded support for a democrat but perhaps terminally feckless government in Islamabad—to open the effective second front against the Taliban that the U.S. has been craving since 2002.
During the Bush administration, the MQM leadership was already meeting with Ambassador Anne Patterson to anxiously deplore the “Talibanization” of Pakistan.
In December 2008, Richard Boucher had a publicized meeting with Altaf Hussein in London to discuss Pakistan’s problems—and probably to agonize over the importance of protecting the supply lines for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan that stretch from Karachi up to the Khyber pass.
Despite the MQM’s vociferous condemnation of the Swat deal, the aftermath of the NAR vote has exposed divisions between Pakistan’s democratic parties and the MQM that the Taliban must find extremely gratifying.
The PML-N, and the ANP have been forced into the awkward position of defending the Swat shariah legislation, mainly by ad hominem attacks on the hypocrisy of the bloody-minded MQM—and an apparently dishonest (and hypocritical) discounting of Karachi’s significant stake in the struggle.
The MQM has responded with attacks of its own on the PML-N and ANP. Presumably because the MQM is still in alliance with the Zardari government in the National Assembly, it has refrained from attacks on the PPP—it only noted with disapproval that the NAR was tabled without consulting the MQM.
The hostility between the MQM and the PML-N is a byword, given the ferocious attempts to destroy the movement during Nawaz Sharif’s first prime-ministership. There is also a great deal of bad blood between the ANP and the MQM, as the ANP’s championing of the growing Pashtun population of Karachi represents a threat to the MQM’s pre-eminence.
The ANP’s Minister of Information dumped on the MQM—referring to its skill set, he not inaccurately stated that “killings and torture is the raisin d’etre of the MQM, which was created and nourished by military dictators”–in a telephoned tirade to The News:
““ The MQM stance on the Regulation was not much astonishing for us because it has a long history of brutalities against Pakhtuns in the port city. Instead of seeing nightmares about the entrance of Taliban into Karachi, the MQM chief should immediately stage a comeback to Pakistan and face the ground realities,” NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Bilour said while talking to The News by phone.”
Contra Mr. Bashir Bilour, it is likely that the “ground realities” in Pakistan will indeed involve some galvanizing, bloody outrage in Karachi, given the MQM’s patent desire to force a confrontation now, before the situation deteriorates even more.
The MQM has repeatedly stated it will not permit the “Talibanization” of Karachi and there is every sign that they should be taken at their word. And they might do rather well, in an communal violence/death squad/ethnic-cleansing sort of way, even if they don’t get effective government backing.
The MQM is mobilizing its local, national, and international assets to confront the Taliban as Nisar Mehdi reported in Pakistan’s The Nation on April 11:
“In a meeting of the party’s unit offices held here Friday, MQM office bearers pointed out that Taliban had found safe havens in Aurangabad, Paposh (Nazimabad), Gulzar Hijri, Baldia Town, Bahadurabad and others areas of the city. They urged the party workers to remain alert especially during the current month.
In the meeting, it was decided to form vigilance committees at union council level and establish foolproof surveillance system to address the menace of extremism and cope with terrorist activities in Karachi.
Meanwhile, it was also learnt that members of MQM Rabita Committee, including Dr Farooq Sattar, Shakeel Umar, Naik Mohammad, Anees Ahmed Kaimkhani and Waseem Aftab would leave the country today (Saturday) to attend an important party meeting in London.
According to sources, growing extremism, presence of Taliban in Karachi and re-organisation of the MQM in Punjab, Balochistan and other areas of the country will be discussed in this meeting of Rabita Committee to be held under the chair of party chief Altaf Hussain.
Meanwhile, Altaf Hussain has directed the Rabita Committee members and other party office bearers to remain alert to thwart any terrorist incident in the city.
Addressing a gathering of the MQM office bearers at Khursheed Memorial Hall, Altaf Hussain said the country was in a state of war due to terrorism and extremism and therefore it was imperative for all party workers to remain vigilant and united. He added that Taliban pose an existential threat to the solidarity and integrity of the country.
“Terrorism has become a cancer and therefore, it is the duty of each and every party, including the MQM, to come forward to save the country.”
Clearly, the MQM’s anti-Taliban doctrine will be the driving force in its politics in the near future—and an important touchstone for determining which party’s aspirations for the prime ministership it will support.
The question is, will Pakistani democracy survive long enough for the transfer of power to the PML-N that now seems well within Nawaz Sharif’s grasp.
Democratic Pakistan is in poor shape to confront a violent insurgency ready to engage in a campaign of urban violence. The violent antipathy between prime-minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif and the MQM–which will be in the vanguard of any confrontation with the Taliban in Pakistan’s urban heartland–doesn’t help,
It may be democratic Pakistan’s fatal flaw that its survival depends on the cooperation of the two parties least likely to work together.
The brave PML-N MNA, Ayaz Amir, wrote an op-ed in the Khaleej Times.
“These are depressing times for Pakistan mainly because while our troubles are many, and our challenges daunting, there is no sense of direction and very little by way of reassuring leadership. Before the ‘long march’ things were easy in that everything could be blamed on Zardari. Now it’s not so easy.
Does the PML-N have any policy regarding what once-upon-a-time was the ‘war on terror’ and now God alone knows is what? The nation is dying for a lead, a clarion call to arms.
Coming to power is not the problem. The PML-N is already in power in Punjab, and will make it to power at the centre when the opportunity comes. But will it be able to deliver? Can it give the lead the nation wants and the people of Pakistan deserve? That is the question. Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister of Pakistan twice before. He will have to be a better prime minister of Pakistan next time round if Pakistan is to get out of the woods and surmount the terrifying challenges it currently faces.”
Amir recounted the gist of a conciliatory phone call he received from MQM jefe Altaf Hussain in London and struggled with his sense of ambivalence (and his awareness of the MQM’s well-documented history of violence against politicians and journalists):
“There would be no soul so foolhardy as to speak against Fazlullah in Swat. It takes a brave soul to speak against Altaf Bhai in Karachi.
Altaf Bhai called me from London the other day and said that in order to save Pakistan we must all join hands and forgive and forget. No one can disagree with his sentiments but if anyone could ask him to consider that if the media in Karachi live in fear of the MQM and if MQM supporters get touchy even at the faintest hint of criticism, then what, in real terms, is the difference between the politics of Karachi and Swat? A harsh comparison no doubt but one I hope, in the new spirit of democracy he appears to be advocating, he will forgive me for making.”
With Pakistan’s elite, both in government and in the army, compromised and divided by its equivocal attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism, and the potential for the Taliban to exploit a clumsy and incompetent counter-insurgency executed by a pandering elite by tapping into the alienation and anger that smolders among Pakistan’s poor, Pakistan’s young, corrupt, and narrow brand of democracy may not get the breathing space it needs to emerge as a genuine and effective national force.
If the democratic parties are unable to meet the challenge, the likely alternative is not necessarily Islamicization—it is a return to military rule.
Once again, Ayaz Amir:
“…realistically speaking, Pakistan has all the democracy that it can safely handle. Democracy therefore is no longer the problem. Our national debate must move on and focus on the battle for national survival which is staring us in the face.”