Security Experts Worry About Extremism in Pakistan

Security Experts Worry About Extremism in Pakistan

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In the wake of the 9/11 Commission report, experts in India are pondering Pakistan's role in encouraging Islamic extremism, its reliability as an ally in combating terrorism, and whether Washington's relations with Islamabad will change after the November elections.

Central to their concerns is the extent to which radical Islamism has taken root in Pakistan.

The commission's final report tracked the close relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan prior to al-Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S., and also noted Pakistan's collaboration with Osama bin Laden over several years.

It quoted former White House counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke as noting in a 1999 message to national security advisor Sandy Berger that the Pakistani intelligence service was "in bed with" bin Laden.

"Before 9/11, the United States could not find a mix of incentives and pressure that would persuade Pakistan to reconsider its fundamental relationship with the Taliban," the commission report said.

After the attacks, however, Gen. Pervez Musharraf "swiftly" agreed to support the U.S. in its planned actions against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.

In its chapter on future strategies, the commission urged the U.S. to support Pakistan in its struggle against extremists "so long as Pakistan's leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own."

But the characterization of Musharraf as an "enlightened" and moderate Muslim leader facing off radicals has not impressed some Indian experts on South Asian security issues.

According to Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, extremist Islam is fast becoming dominant ideology in Pakistan. And among those promoting it, he charged, were elements "proximate to, or directly connected with, the Musharraf regime."

Sahni said outside observers were largely oblivious to the "dangerous undercurrents," having their attention firmly fixed on Pakistan's "relatively moderate and westernized English-language media."

Picking up on the commission's assessment that a "failure of imagination" had kept the U.S. from understanding the threat facing it before 9/11, Sahni warned that such a failing could continue into the future, with specific reference to Pakistan.

"There are many 'future bin Ladens' waiting in the wings, largely unnoticed, or systematically and intentionally ignored, by the American establishment, as well as by much of the world," he said.

In a review of speeches and articles by leading Pakistani militants and religious figures in recent months, Sahni drew attention to frequent calls for jehad (the South Asian term for jihad , or holy war) against America and the West; praise for those fighting in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir; and teachings that Muslims can never befriend Christians, Jews and Hindus.

The statements and articles also spread conspiracy theories, such as one accusing the U.S. and Israel of being responsible for 9/11 or the Jews of being behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq.

'Not just a fringe view'

The speakers quoted include leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, a large, mainstream political party, and of Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, a militant group operating legally and openly.

Sahni argued that these were not just the views of fringe extremists, but "form a substantial component of Islamist 'scholarship' in Pakistan."

Similarly, not just Islamic madrassa schools were fomenting the jihad mentality in Pakistan, he said. The worldview of a global threat to Islam had penetrated every aspect of the country's educational system.

That view appeared to be borne out in a recent report by an Islamabad-based think tank, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, listing what its researchers found to be the most significant problems in current school textbooks in Pakistan.

They included "incitement to militancy and violence, including encouragement of jehad and s hahadat [martyrdom]" and "perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and towards other nations."

Writing on the South Asia Analysis Group website, Indian commentator Hari Sud called the post-9/11 alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan "a major paradox" but envisaged a possible "review" following the November election.

After that, Sud said, the relationship would prosper if Pakistan delivered a major blow against al-Qaeda/Taliban elements sheltering in its territory and dumped "every bit of jehadi culture."

But if the jehadism continues and Pakistan does not deliver by capturing top al-Qaeda figures, the relationship would be downgraded, he predicted.

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said during a visit to South Asia that the U.S. believed not all terrorist bases on Pakistani soil had been dismantled. Islamabad denied the allegation, saying it was based on "faulty and flawed" intelligence.

Several of the 9/11 commission members have emphasized the importance of Pakistan in the ongoing war against terrorism.

Vice-chairman Lee H. Hamilton said at the press conference when the report was released that the U.S. needed to ensure that countries like Pakistan were "stable, capable and resolute in opposing terrorism."

Political analyst Anil Athale, a retired Indian military officer, said he was struck on a recent visit to the U.S. "by the general air of pessimism prevailing amongst American think tanks about the future of Pakistan."

Athale said Americans were concerned that "the collapse of Pakistan may remove the vital pillar of their Afghan and anti-terror policy."

He said several factors could cause Pakistan to "unravel," including a coup by a pro-Taliban faction in the military or rebellions by fundamentalist-minded tribal areas including those bordering Afghanistan.

Musharraf himself took power in a 1999 coup.

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