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Pakistan on the Brink | The Nation

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Pakistan on the Brink

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The fundamentalist influence over the army is clearly visible in the struggle with India over control of Kashmir, which has been smoldering for years but exploded onto the front pages last summer with the occupation by Islamic militants of Kargil, in Indian-controlled Kashmir. After two months of fighting, the Clinton Administration persuaded Prime Minister Sharif to withdraw support for the militants. Sharif, now on trial for murder and hijacking, claimed in court that one of the reasons for the October coup was the army's unhappiness at his willingness to pull back from Kargil.

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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One of the most virulent and orthodox of the Sunni sects, Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith, is a creation of the ISI. Ahle Hadith wants the Saudi model of Islam implanted in Pakistan, but without the monarchy. It has supporters and mosques throughout the world, whose aim is to supply cadres and money for the worldwide jihad. This sect is in a minority, but the president of the country, a bearded fool named Rafiq Tarrar, is a supporter and government ministers have graced its meetings. I was tempted to interview members of the sect at one of its offices in Lahore when I visited last fall, but the sight of thirty heavily armed guards decided me against the venture.

Ahle Hadith's armed wing, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), could not exist without the patronage of the army. It has a membership of 50,000 militants and is the leading group in the "jihad" to "liberate" Indian Kashmir. The teenagers it recruits from poor families are trained by the army at eight special camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and are funded by Saudi Arabia as well as the Pakistani government. The government pays them 50,000 rupees (approximately $1,000, roughly equivalent to a schoolteacher's annual salary) for each corpse--several hundred so far--returned from Kashmir. The Indian government has accused Lashkar of carrying out the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in Kashmir on the eve of President Clinton's visit.

The Harakat ul-Ansar (Volunteers Movement), which was funded by the United States during the anti-Soviet Afghan war and backed by the ISI, was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1998. It promptly changed its name to Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. This is the group that hijacked an Indian Airlines plane this past December. Its fighters were among the most dedicated Taliban, and it has shifted its training camps from the Punjab to Afghanistan. Harakat's leader, Osama bin Laden, continues to maintain close contacts with the ISI, and his supporters have warned the government that any attempt to abduct him or ban his organization would lead to an immediate civil war in Pakistan. They boast that the army, which is full of their supporters, will never agree to be used against them.

Both these groups want to take over Pakistan. They dream of an Islamic Federation that will impose a Pax Talibana stretching from Lahore to Samarkand but avoiding the Shiite "Heretic Republic of Iran." For all their incoherence and senseless rage, their message is attractive to those layers of the population who yearn for some order in their lives. If the fanatics promise to feed them and educate their children, they are prepared to forgo the delights of CNN and BBC World. If a pro-Taliban faction were ever to seize control of the army--a serious possibility when Musharraf fails--the possession of nuclear weapons would assume an even more frightening significance. It is unlikely that either India or China would sit back indefinitely.

There is a serious and rational alternative to domestic chaos: a long-term treaty of friendship and trade with India and a permanent settlement that could form the basis of a larger European Union-style confederation of South Asian states. Within such a framework even the bitterly disputed question of Kashmir could be solved. Only a vocal minority of religious groups, backed by the army, is opposed to a serious deal with India.

For more than fifty years Pakistan, with the backing of the State Department, turned its back on India and cultivated links with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. This policy has been a political and economic failure, leaving the country denuded of skilled labor and incapable of meeting its basic needs. The lesson is obvious. If the politicians of this turbulent subcontinent fail to devise a way to live with one another, they will end up dying together. The fallout could affect the entire planet.

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