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Pakistan on the Brink | The Nation

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Pakistan on the Brink

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For a time the war against the Soviet Union consumed their energies. After the Soviets were defeated, the Pakistani government, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, saw an opportunity to extend its sphere of influence over Afghanistan. It therefore refused to accept the coalition government in Kabul and in 1994 unleashed the Taliban, which, backed by Pakistani Army commando units, seized the capital within two years.

About the Author

Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali is an editor at New Left Review. His latest book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power (...

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The dragon seeds sown in 2,500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when ordered to do so by their religious leaders. Gen. Naseerullah Babar, Interior Minister under Bhutto, confided to friends that since the Taliban were becoming a menace inside Pakistan, he had decided that the only solution to the problem lay in giving the extremists their own country. The poor fool. He could not imagine that the Taliban are not small-minded provincials. Their aim is to purify the entire house of Islam. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and Osama bin Laden's father-in-law, lost an eye in the struggle against the Afghan Communists. His remaining eye looks now at Pakistan and now at Central Asia. Power has made Omar and bin Laden giddy with success, and they have lost all sense of proportion. It is this that makes them dangerous for the region as a whole.

What if reality began to mimic our nightmares and the Taliban took over the Pakistani Army? Every political leader in Pakistan is aware of the danger. Nawaz Sharif, the deposed prime minister, tried to pre-empt political Islam by stealing some of its clothes and forging alliances with fundamentalists in the army, but the tactic backfired spectacularly. General Musharraf's success, however, should not be used to conceal a dangerous truth. The army is seriously split. A fundamentalist coup was narrowly averted in 1995, and two former heads of the ISI are closely linked to the armed Islamist militias. The fundamentalists have penetrated the army on every level. It is this fact that prevents the military from disarming the militias, which, despite their minority status, are creating mayhem in the country.

The irony of the present situation is that religion in the Punjab was always a relaxed affair. The old tradition of Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on individual communion with the Creator and its hostility to preachers, had deep roots in the countryside. The tombs of the old Sufi saints, for centuries the site of annual festivals during which the participants sang, danced, drank, smoked bhang and fornicated to their heart's content, were placed under martial law by General Zia. The people were to be denied simple pleasures.

The arrival of a peculiarly non-Punjabi form of religious extremism was the birth of madness. Every faction now lays moral and political claim to Islam. Disputes are no longer settled through discussion but resolved by machine guns and massacres. Some Sunni groups (Pakistan is more than two-thirds Sunni) want the Shiites to be declared heretics and, preferably, exterminated. They have attacked Shiite mosques in the heart of Lahore and massacred the Shiite faithful at prayer. The Shiites, with Iranian backing, have begun to exact a gruesome revenge. Several hundred people have died in these intra-Muslim massacres, mainly Shiites.

In January 1998 an armed Taliban faction seized a whole group of villages in the Hangu district of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. They declared the area to be under "Islamic laws" and promptly organized the public destruction of TV sets and antennae in the village of Zargari. This was followed by the burning of 3,000 "obscene" videos and audiocassettes in the small square in Lukki. There is something slightly comical in this hostility to television--it reminds one of a Situationist spectacle in the sixties--but humor, alas, is not something associated with the Taliban. The leader of the movement, Hussain Jalali, wants to extend the Afghan experience to Pakistan. After the television burning, he declared, "The hands and feet of thieves will be chopped off and all criminals brought to justice in accordance with Islamic laws."

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