The Mumbai massacres and Pakistan’s new nightmares

Pervez Hoodbhoy.jpg

India’s demand for action against jihadist groups is entirely legitimate. But this must be done through international pressure upon Pakistan, says Pervez Hoodbhoy,who is the chairman of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, is a distinguished scientist and a consistent voice for peace, democracy, and friendly relations between Pakistan and India.

India should work for a stronger Pakistan, says Pervez Hoodbhoy.

 Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, is a distinguished scientist and a consistent voice for peace, democracy, and friendly relations between Pakistan and India. He was interviewed recently by Cristina Otten for Focus, a German magazine, on the terror strikes in Mumbai, the reactions in Pakistan, the threat posed by jihadists, India-Pakistan relations, and other key issues. “I think India’s demand for action against jihadist groups is entirely legitimate,” Dr. Hoodbhoy comments, “but this must be done through international pressure upon Pakistan.”

Tensions between Pakistan and India have been growing after the Mumbai attacks. Are we close to a military escalation?

 In spite of vociferous demands by the Indian public, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has withstood the pressure to conduct cross-border strikes into Pakistan. Correspondingly, in spite of the bitter criticism by Islamic parties, Pakistan’s government has taken some action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the jihadist organisation that is quite probably behind the attacks. Pakistan has refused India’s request for extradition but in spite of that, the tension has eased somewhat. One fears, however, that another attack could push India over the fence.

What makes the LeT so different from other militant groups? Is Pakistan really moving against it?

LeT, one of the largest militant groups in Pakistan, was established over 15 years ago. It was supported by the Pakistani military and the ISI because it focussed upon fighting Indian rule in Muslim Kashmir. Today it is one of the very few extremist groups left that do not attack the military and the ISI; in contrast almost all others have turned into fierce enemies. Time will tell if the current move against LeT is serious. If serious, then the Army and the ISI will have earned the bitter enmity of yet another former ally. They dread repeating their experience with the Jaish-e-Muhammad, another formerly supported militant group. Jaish is now responsible for extreme brutalities, including torture and decapitations, of Pakistani soldiers captured in FATA. It’s a nightmarish situation for the Pakistan Army.

How have Pakistanis reacted to the Mumbai massacre?

 The initial reaction was of sympathy. I did not see any celebrations, contrary to those I saw after 9/11. But then, as the Indian TV channels started accusing Pakistan and demanding military retaliation, the reaction turned to anger and then flat denial — Pakistanis did not want to accept that this attack was done by Pakistanis or had been launched from Pakistani soil. Subsequently one saw amazing mental gymnastics by popular TV anchors, and their guests. It is sad to see intelligent persons losing their marbles.

Pakistan has always stressed that it will deliver the first nuclear strike if it feels threatened by India. Do you see any signs of this?

 About a week before Mumbai, President Asif Ali Zardari had given the assurance that Pakistan would not use nuclear weapons first. India had announced a No First Use policy almost ten years ago. But Mr. Zardari is not taken seriously by the Pakistani generals who actually control the Bomb, and India’s NFU declaration is also worthless. Cross-border raids by India could well ignite a conventional war. For many years U.S. defence strategists have gamed conflicts between Pakistan and India. They say that a conventional war will almost certainly lead to a nuclear conclusion.

Why did the assassins choose India instead of committing attacks against western allies in Afghanistan?

 LeT is based in Muridke, close to Lahore. It is essentially Punjabi, which makes it linguistically and culturally quite unsuited for fighting in Afghanistan. You could say that LeT is an India-specific, Kashmir-specific group. But LeT, like other militant groups in Pakistan, sees a continuum between Indians, Americans, and Israelis. As enemies, they are all fair game.

What did the Mumbai terrorists want?

 No demands were made and all hostages were killed. So the purpose of the attack was never declared. But the stated goals of LeT leave little doubt. It sought to hurt India and its newly acquired reputation as an economic powerhouse, and to start an India-Pakistan war. If Pakistan moves its troops towards the eastern border the pressure on the Taliban in FATA will be lessened. Still another reason could be to encourage pogroms against Muslims in India. This would swell the ranks of the extremists, and hurt both Pakistan and India. Finally, the attack was a means of releasing hatred against non-Muslims.

What differences and parallels do you see between the Mumbai attacks and the attack in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad?

 They were quite dissimilar in execution. The Mumbai attacks were extremely intricate, used GPS and VOI protocols for communication purposes, involved extensive military training, and long-term planning. On the other hand, the Marriott bombing in Islamabad was a relatively simple affair involving a single dump-truck and a suicide bomber. The basic purpose, however, was similar — to destabilise the state, take revenge on the U.S. (two of the 58 killed were U.S. marines), and raise the cost of war in Afghanistan and FATA.

Do you also see tight connections between the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Al-Qaeda?

 Maybe. They share similar goals. But in the world that extremists inhabit, mere similarity is insufficient — it has to be much closer than that because small ideological differences are often amplified out of proportion. But as yet there is no proof of joint operations or cooperation.

What role does Kashmir play in the current conflict?

 Fraudulent elections conducted by India in 1987 led to widespread resentment, followed by a horrifically bloody crackdown by Indian security forces. Pakistan’s army saw opportunity in this, and waged a covert war in Kashmir using jihadists to “bleed India with a thousand cuts.” The United Jihad Council, which oversees the activities of an estimated 22 Pakistan-based organisations, is covertly supported although it acts outside of the Pakistani state. The Kargil conflict in 1999 brought matters to a head when General Musharraf initiated a war with the assistance of jihadist forces which subsequently celebrated Musharraf as a hero, and vilified Nawaz Sharif for a cowardly surrender.

In January 2002, General Musharraf declared that no groups on Pakistani territory would be permitted to launch cross-border attacks. Was this promise fulfilled?

 Indeed there was a decline in infiltrations, and lessening of the covert support given by Pakistani agencies. But jihadists still maintained a strong presence. On a personal note: soon after the terrible October 2005 earthquake, I had gone to various areas of Azad Kashmir for relief work. There I found the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipah-i-Sahaba, and other banned organizations operating openly using military-style six-wheeled vehicles, as well as displaying their weapons. Their relief efforts were better organised than those of the army. In fact, they were pulling injured soldiers out of the rubble. When I mentioned this fact to General Musharraf a few months later at a Kashmir peace conference, he was very angry at me for publicly discussing a tabooed subject.

What brought about the huge growth of extremism in Pakistan?

 Radical extremism is the illegitimate offspring of a union between the United States under Ronald Reagan, and Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq. In 1980, the two countries had joined up to harness Islamic fighters for expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan. The U.S. was quite happy to see radical Islam spreading because it served its goal at the time. So was Zia. But today our government is in deep trouble and has to deal with a spontaneous groundswell of Islamic radical zeal.

 What parts of the Pakistani society support Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?

 Baluchistan and Sind are far less supportive than Punjab or the NWFP. The amazing fact is that parts of Pakistan’s upper class — which is very westernised but also very anti-western — also support the Islamists. I find it tragic that there is no uproar in the country when Taliban suicide bombers target mosques, funerals, hospitals, girls’ schools, and slaughter policemen and soldiers. People have become so anti-American that it has blinded them to these atrocities. The Pakistani left is also confused and mistakes the Taliban as anti-imperialist fighters.

And where do you stand on this matter? Do you see anything that the Islamists have to offer?

 Frankly, I cannot see Pakistan’s Islamists offering anything positive. They are against population planning, educating females, tolerating other sects or religions, etc. They neither know the outside world nor want to know it. All they know — and know well — is how to make war. Fortunately, as their electoral rout showed, most Pakistanis do not want to live under these fanatics.

President Zardari promised to destroy terror camps in Pakistan. But his affirmations seem half-hearted. Can’t he do more or doesn’t he want to do more?

 It is not up to him to do more. The real power lies with the Pakistan Army, which has yet to decide who the real enemy is. The Army has lost nearly two thousand soldiers in battles with extremists. But it still cannot convince itself that they constitute an existentialist threat to Pakistan. One can understand this reluctance. Over the years, officers and soldiers were recruited into the Army on the basis that they were defenders of Islam and would always fight India. Instead they now have to fight forces that claim to be even better defenders of Islam. Worse, they are no longer being called upon to fight India, which is what they were trained for. So there is confusion and demoralisation, and practically zero public understanding or support.

How do you feel about Pakistan’s war against the extremists?

 This is the first time in my life that I feel the Pakistan Army should be supported, but only to the extent that it fights the extremists without killing innocents. Unfortunately, the Army’s current tactic is to flatten villages suspected of harbouring terrorists. The collateral damage is huge and completely unacceptable.

Pakistan has armed and financed the Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The CIA pays Pakistan to arrest Al-Qaeda operatives, but Pakistan uses the money to fund the Taliban resurgence in northwest Pakistan. Any changes under the new President?

 It will take time — and perhaps still more suffering — to kick an old habit. Even though the Army is being literally slaughtered by the Taliban, it continues to make a distinction between the ’good’ and ’bad’ Taliban. The good ones are, by definition, those who attack only U.S./Nato or Indian interests in Afghanistan, but do not attack the Pakistan Army. The good ones are seen as essential for having a friendly Afghanistan when, as will surely happen some day, the Americans withdraw. Among the good Taliban are jihadist leaders such as Jalaludin Haqqani. On the other hand, Baitullah Mehsud or Maulana Fazlullah are bad Taliban because they attack the Army and the state. Interestingly, Army inspired propaganda paints the bad Taliban as Indian agents, which is quite ridiculous. This false differentiation is the real reason for the Army’s ambivalence and inability to deal effectively with the Taliban menace.

What should India do and what is your forecast for the region?

 India should not attack Pakistan. Instead, it should work for a stronger Pakistan. If Pakistan implodes, the flaming debris will set India on fire. India should not think of even a pin-prick attack. This would unite the army and the jihadists who, at this juncture in history, are in serious confrontation with each other. Worse, this could lead to a larger response, and then escalate out of control. Nuclear armed countries simply cannot afford skirmishes. I think India’s demand for action against jihadist groups is entirely legitimate, but this must be done through international pressure upon Pakistan. To get rid of militant extremists — whether Muslim or Hindu — is in the best interests of both Pakistan and India.

Will Pakistani extremists win or can the West still bring about a rebound?

 It’s a grim situation but not irreversible. Iraq and U.S. imperial policies over the last decades created a hatred for Americans that ultimately translated into blind support for all who fight them. So although most Pakistanis disapprove of the Taliban’s primitivist social agenda, popular sentiment is still with them because they fight the U.S. So, reducing anti-Americanism is the key. One hopes that Barack Obama will be able to undo some of the harm his country did to Pakistan. Let’s see. But basically it is for Pakistanis — not Indians or anybody else — to fight it out. The Taliban and allied extremists have a real chance of winning in Pakistan. The state has crumbled in places such as the NWFP, and could disintegrate elsewhere quite rapidly leaving the fanatics in charge. We Pakistanis have to realise that this is a war for our survival as a civilised nation, and one that we must win.

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excellent interview. congrats

excellent interview. congrats for publishing this.