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Zahid Hussain: 'Pakistan Is Again a Frontline State'

Publisher: Columbia University Press (January 26, 2007)

Publisher: Columbia University Press (January 26, 2007)

Zahid Hussain is the Pakistan correspondent for the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. He is also the political correspondent for the Karachi-based monthly Newsline.

According to Ahmed Rashid, one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan and author of several books on the region, Zahid Hussain's new book, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam "is the first serious exposure of the rise and continuation of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. Zahid Hussain shows the links between the major jihadi groups of Pakistan, Al Qaeda, and the ISI with a degree of detail not seen in any Western writing on the subject."


Thank you, Zahid Hussain, for joining us. Could you tell us the main argument of your book Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam?

The main argument is that when President Musharraf decided to join the US war on terror it also meant taking Pakistan to war with itself, and that war has hardly been discussed indepth anywhere. What it means is that Pakistani society is now confronted with all those forces which have been in the past sponsored or patronized by the state. The militant organizations which had been working over the last two or three decades under the patronage of the military establishment have come back to haunt Pakistani society as well as the government. And that is what I described as a kind of battle for the soul of Pakistan; which way Pakistan will go depends on how this war is waged. I have also discussed the evolution of jihadi organizations in Pakistan, how jihadi culture emerged in the country during the Afghan war and was later on used by the Pakistani establishment to fight their proxy war in another part of the world.

But many people think that Musharraf had no option but to join the Americans after September 11, 2001. So even if that decision meant that Musharraf brought the country to war against itself many people say there's nothing else he could have done.

Well, that's right actually because Musharraf did not have any other choice: "Either you are with us or you are against us." This mentality of the Bush Administration left no choice for Musharraf but to cooperate.

To what extent do you think that this predicament is similar to what happened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when Pakistan got pulled in to the war as well?

Well actually, there's only one similarity I see: Pakistan has again become a frontline state. But the nature of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance in the 1980s and what emerged after the September 2001 attacks are quite different. During those first eight years there was a complete convergence of interests between the United States and Pakistan. So that war was fought in a very coordinated manner, and the covert operation which was launched there with the help of the CIA and ISI actually forced the Soviet forces to pull out from Afghanistan.

But in September 2001, when this new alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan emerged, it was a different kind of alliance. In other words, for the last one decade, Pakistan has followed a completely different policy in Afghanistan. So it was basically what I describe as a "forced marriage," a kind of a reluctant alliance. This contradiction has been present throughout. One can say that in the 1980s, when Pakistan joined the U.S. in their fight against Soviet forces, it was a war where the entire Muslim world participated. But in 2001 it was a different war altogether.

Many here think that Pakistan could do a great deal more to assist the U.S. in Afghanistan now, as Dick Cheney recently made clear in his surprise visit to Pakistan. But in Pakistan the sense seems to be that the military has already done all it can. What is your opinion?

Well, I think one should also see the failures of American policy in Afghanistan. Five years after the fall of the Taliban government, we have seen that the situation in Afghanistan is much messier. So that also shows the failure of American policy. America went to Afghanistan with a one point agenda and that was to pursue Osama bin Laden and go after Al Qaeda. They were not interested in nation-building; they were not interested in helping Afghanistan build its institutions, with the result that five years later, what we see in Afghanistan is that Osama bin Laden is still away and could not be captured, and Al Qaeda is still very active. What America had not foreseen at that point is that the Taliban could re-emerge. And that has happened. So basically when we talk about the Afghanistan situation we should also understand that it's not just Pakistan's failure. It's mainly the failure of American policy.

So do you think that the U.S. is trying to scapegoat Pakistan?

I don't think the issue is of scapegoating. But there seems to be much more urgency; it is the first time that the Americans have recognized how serious the situation is in Afghanistan. So they want to have much greater participation from Pakistan. Pakistan, after 9/11, did go after Al Qaeda. They did provide active support for the United States to help capture Al Qaeda's top leadership. But as far as the Taliban were concerned, Pakistan looked to the other side because they did not want to fight their former allies. This provided a very valuable time for Taliban to regroup themselves in the tribal belt. One should also understand that Taliban would never be a purely Afghan phenomena, but a Pakistan as well as Afghan phenomena. So it was very easy for them to melt away among the Pashtun population. But Pakistan also in a way has to take some blame because they never thought the Taliban could present a threat to Pakistan's national security. In fact, while we see that Musharraf has delivered to the United States when it comes to Al Qaeda, he has done nothing to eliminate extremism from Pakistani society. He has done nothing to curb the activities of the Taliban.

Many people say that the reason Musharraf has not curbed the Taliban in particular is because the military itself has Taliban sympathizers, as does the ISI - the intelligence agency. Is that true?

Well, it's very natural because since 1994 Pakistan had very actively backed the Taliban. I'm not saying that the Taliban was created by the Pakistani military establishment, but Pakistan's support was definitely very valuable for the Taliban and it helped the Taliban to expand its control over a large part of Afghanistan. So that was a close alliance. Pakistan has always thought that under the Taliban, its interests were much more secure. After 9/11, Pakistan was forced to withdraw its support from the Taliban government. It was a reluctant step. But when the Taliban government fell, Pakistan continued to follow this line, that there should be a negotiation with the Taliban. Even during the war when the Taliban government had not fallen Musharraf always emphasized the need for a kind of negotiation - what he called "moderate Taliban". So it was very natural then that when Pakistan was forced to withdraw its support that a complete turnaround did not occur.

Why do people think that Musharraf is a "secular and moderate" Muslim leader when it seems quite obvious that under his regime there has been such a dramatic rise in Islamic radicalism in Pakistan?

Well, I think to understand Musharraf is really a very complex issue. Musharraf is full of contradictions. His policies have been full of paradoxes. On the one hand he tries to present himself as a moderate Islamic leader who is allowing his society to open up, trying to break away from the legacy of General Zia ul Haq. But on the other hand, he is the person who was responsible for Kargil; he also intensified help for the militants. And he always, throughout, before 9/11, openly supported the jihad culture. So that paradox is very much evident in Musharraf's policy.

When he joined the U.S. he was actually doing a balancing act. On the one hand he was trying to portray himself as a very valuable and reliable ally of the United States. On the other hand, at home he did not do anything to curb Islamic extremism. He always tried to draw a thin line between what he described as sectarianism and extremism. With the result that over the last five years he has done nothing really to curb sectarianism and militancy. So we have seen that all those groups which were apparently banned have mutated into smaller cells and present a much more serious threat to internal security. What Musharraf has failed to see is that internal security cannot be maintained or cannot be established unless you really come down hard on those who are fueling sectarian conflict and are involved in militancy.

So that contradiction is very much visible and that's what we are witnessing today in Pakistan. Today the rise in Islamic extremism and in sectarian violence is a direct result of his confused policies.