Pact with the Devil

Pakistan was supposed to serve the USA as a bulwark in the war on terror. Things haven't quite worked out as planned because President Musharraf entered into a Faustian pact with Islamic fundamentalists. Bernard Imhasly reports from Islamabad

Pakistan's President Musharraf and US-President Bush (photo: AP)
After 9/11, the USA took the pragmatic risk of allowing a deeply divided state to play a key role in its strategy in the war on terror, writes Bernard Imhasly

​​Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, a joke was making its way around the Pakistani capital Islamabad. The USA had fallen victim to its president's poor knowledge of geography.

Didn't George W. Bush want to overthrow a dictator who possessed weapons of mass destruction, muzzled democracy, threatened his neighbors, tolerated Al-Qaida cells, and promoted Islamic fundamentalism? The only country that met all of these criteria was not Iraq, but a country located a bit further east called Pakistan.

Unfortunately, this state was chosen as perhaps Washington's most important ally in its fight against Islamic terror. After 9/11, the USA took the pragmatic risk of allowing a deeply divided state to play a key role in its strategy in the war on terror. Five years after the historic turning point of 2001, the Pakistan equation is clearly not working out.

"Managed democracy" and "true democracy"

At the time, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf assiduously promised a "real democracy" for his country. Yet, only one year later, he allowed himself to be elected president for five years in an obviously falsified election.

He further promised a "moderate Islam" and the elimination of Islamic fundamentalism. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter, he entered into a Faustian pact with just these elements.

Supported by the Islamists in the MMA Party, he had the constitution changed so that he could remain president as well as head of the armed forces. Musharraf managed to carry out this exercise in "managed democracy" under the auspices of the USA, which just one year later was caught up in a war in Iraq meant to establish "true" democracy.

Did Musharraf keep at least part of his promise and destroy the Al-Qaida network and the Taliban infrastructure located in his country? Five years after September 11, three of the country's most popular politicians are still in exile and the Islamist MMA Party rules in the two strategically important provinces bordering on Afghanistan.

Repositioning of the anti-terror strike force

The reform and registration of the Islamic Madras schools, a centerpiece of Musharraf's reform policies, has hardly moved forward. The reason is that Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, the home to most of the Madras schools for holy warriors, be they Jihadists or Taliban, is controlled by the Islamic MMA.

The infiltration of the Taliban into Afghanistan has reached such proportions that the American-led anti-terror strike force in southern Afghanistan had to be repositioned to the border with Pakistan. This new generation of Taliban fighters is a major reason for the continuing instability in Afghanistan five years after its liberation.

In addition, the attempt to eliminate the violent Jihadist underground while simultaneously making a deal with the MMA has proved to be too big of a balancing act for Musharraf to pull off. In all of the six major terrorist attacks (or terrorist plans) since 9/11 – Madrid, London, Bali, London, Bombay, and Delhi – the trail has led back to Pakistan.

The MMA's top politician is Fazlur Rahman. He controls a large number of Madras schools in the North-West Frontier province. In 2001, he proudly presented them to the foreign media as training centers for the Afghan Taliban.

Rahman has condemned Musharraf as a "dictator" in the Islamabad Parliament, yet, to date he has contributed to the consolidation of Musharraf's power. Out of concern for his own power base, Musharraf has until now not dared any head-on confrontations with organizations suspected of supporting terrorism, although they have already declared war on him and almost assassinated him twice.

In the MMA governed North-West Frontier province, there are still training centers for Kashmiri liberation organizations, which maintain links to the presumed financial backers of those who planned the London bombings.

The "good" and the "bad" Jihadists

The commitment to Kashmir is another reason for the continuation of terrorist cells in Pakistan. Under the shadow of worldwide terrorism, the old enmity with India has made way for a greater readiness on both sides to move towards peace. Progress, however, has been minimal. Musharraf has not risked turning over a new leaf to disband the Kashmiri underground network, even if the army had let him.

As long as the army remains politically committed to armed resistance against India, Al-Qaida cells will continue to find refuge in Pakistan. It will not be possible to make a clear distinction between the "good" and the "bad" Jihadists.

According to the latest media reports, there are still training camps for Kashmiri fighters in the North-West Frontier province. Although their financing has apparently been cut off, the Islamic cadre remains ever present.

The question remains as to whether the inclusion of Musharraf's military regime in the anti-terror coalition has helped or hindered in achieving its goals. In all likelihood, it has been a zero-sum game. By taking Musharraf on board, the alliance has been able to prevent a nuclear-armed Pakistan from further destabilization and ending up as a coalition of generals and mullahs.

The price paid, however, has been high. The radical Islamic infrastructure continues to exist in the form of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani underground network.

Bernard Imhasly

© TAZ/ 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

This article was previously published by Germany's daily, TAZ.

Islamic Militans in Pakistan
The Janus Head of the Musharraf Regime
After 9/11, Pakistan became an important US ally in the world-wide battle against terror. But for tactical reasons, the government is not particularly eager to attack the ideological base of the Islamic militants, as Boris Wilke explains in an interview with Thomas Bärthlein

Interview Ayesha Jalal
Pakistan: A State with a Split Personality
President Pervez Musharraf is a man with more than one face. His contradictions match Pakistan's history. This nation was defined along religious identity and, from the very beginning on, the army was a source of unelected political power. In this interview Ayesha Jalal elaborates on these issues