Pakistan is being slowly Talibanised - Guardian, UK
- Pakistan is being slowly Talibanised
Musharraf has handed over the border regions to
Wednesday December 11, 2002
Akram Khan Durrani is not a politician likely to loom
large on the world stage. But in his own pond, Mr
Durrani is a very large fish. And his pond -
Pakistan's North West Frontier Province - has, since
September 11, become a place of strategic interest. It
is of more than passing concern, then, that when Mr
Durrani was sworn in as the new chief minister of
NWFP, he banned the sale of alcohol, put an end to all
gambling and outlawed music in all public vehicles.
No doubt Mr Durrani had sound reasons for these
measures. Alcohol, after all, is banned in Pakistan,
though it is a prohibition widely ignored. And if the
ban on music carries echoes of the Taliban regime, Mr
Durrani can argue that it was a safety measure. Music,
he said, tends to cause accidents. But among his
supporters, it was a promising start to honouring
their party's promises: a ban on cable television and
cinemas, and the enforcement of sharia law.
Looked at one way, NWFP is a remote part of the world.
Yet it is also a critical border region between
Afghanistan and Pakistan, inhabited by people who call
themselves Afghan (otherwise described as Pashtun) and
once the southern extension of the Afghan kingdom.
Whatever happens in NWFP impacts on Afghanistan and
vice-versa. What Mr Durrani thinks and does is of keen
interest not only in Islamabad but in Washington, too.
The irony is that the US and its ally President
Musharraf have helped bring this situation about. The
religious parties came to power on the back of two
factors: Pashtun anger at General Musharraf's support
for the war in Afghanistan, and Musharraf's desire to
hold on to power while honouring his promise to hold
elections. Musharraf excluded Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz
Sharif from the elections, the two secular leaders
most likely to win. And in the NWFP and Baluchistan,
secular parties that supported the war are regarded
with suspicion by Islamabad because of the capital's
fear of local nationalism. They, too, lost to
religious militants. Power was handed to men whose
sympathies for the Taliban and al-Qaida had never been
in doubt, men who had sworn to throw the US out of
Mr Musharraf presents himself as a moderate,
pro-western figure who has taken a stand against
militant Islamism in Pakistan. Was it political
incompetence, then, that facilitated the unprecedented
success of the religious parties? Perhaps.
But some observers see an advantage for Mr Musharraf
in the new situation. Before September 11, he was a
military leader whom right-minded democracies kept at
arm's length. A week later, he was a key ally in the
war on terror. Had a secular party won the elections,
Musharraf risked being challenged internally and
marginalised internationally. Now he is confirmed as
the man the US needs more than ever to hold back the
tide of religious extremism in Pakistan.
As the election results were announced, EU observers
called the process "deeply flawed". But the US state
department spokesman, Richard Boucher, called it "a
credible representation of the full range of opinion
in the country".
Back in the NWFP, Munawwar Hasan, a leader of the
winning religious alliance, the Muttahida
Majlisi-Amal, was elaborating his own version of
stability and moderation. "Taliban and al-Qaida
members are our brothers," he said. "Whether it is
Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, we will not hand over
anybody to the US without any proof. Our government
will rule according to the Quran and Sunnah and not
with the whims of the US." Of the 442 al-Qaida
suspects arrested by Pakistani authorities since last
year, 380 were detained in the northwest border
region. Now both NWFP and Baluchistan are ruled by men
who regard US policy as "tyranny".
None of this is reassuring to those organisations in
the NWFP who do support moderation - the human rights
organisations, the NGOs and the secular political
parties. In the last couple of years civic groups, aid
workers and development organisations have been
targeted by religious groups in NWFP: several have
been subjected to grenade attacks.
In Baluchistan, the new chief minister, Jam Mir
Mohammad Yousaf, has released Islamist radicals whom
Musharraf detained earlier this year when he banned
extremist groups. The arrests were applauded in the
west as evidence of his determination to eliminate
sectarian killings and terrorism.
It is in this hostile terrain that the US continues to
hunt for al-Qaida fugitives. The FBI has reportedly
now formed its own force of retired army, paramilitary
and police personnel to pursue al-Qaida, in an attempt
to bypass Pakistan's new political powers. The war on
terror, in north-west Pakistan at least, is going to
be a long one.
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