Zahid Hussain: 'Pakistan Is Again a Frontline State'

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.

What do you think the relationship is between military rule and Islamist forces in general in the history of Pakistan? Even if Musharraf is considered "liberal" and therefore different from Zia, they are both military men.

Well actually, the difference between General Zia and Musharraf is basically that they came to power in a different international environment. In the 1980s the international environment was conducive for Zia's type of Islamization. It was a time when Islam was seen as the bulwark in the war against Communism. So that war was seen as no contradiction. Musharraf came to power in a different circumstance, where the world was threatened by the rise of Islamic militancy. In his policies he is also trying to get support from the West in the fight against this Islamic extremism. But he was also actually a prisoner of the other situation where the Pakistan military for the last two decades has used Islamic militancy as an instrument of policy to pursue its foreign policy objectives in Kashmir and other parts of the world. So he was a prisoner of that situation.

Musharraf also has this military mindset which really believes in jihad, completely in a kind of ruthless way. That contradiction is very much there. And Musharraf's background also says a lot. He comes from a middle class family and obviously he may have some kind of moderate thinking. But basically he never understood that you cannot develop a moderate Muslim society unless you completely eliminate the root cause of extremism. And we have seen actually the result of that confused thinking: militant organizations are far stronger today than ever.

What are the root causes, in your view?

Musharraf never took any action against those madrassas that had preached hatred. He never did anything. And he has talked a lot about it. But his statements were also very contradictory. Whenever there was pressure from abroad he announced some measures but later on, there was no implementation. He kept saying that madrassas are our biggest NGOs. So that's a huge contradiction.

One cannot say that all the madrassas have been involved in terrorism. But definitely a majority of them have been involved in fueling extremism in the society. This presents the most serious threat to internal security.

From what you say about the changed international environment in the 1980s and post-9/11, in a way it seems as though the West -- and principally the United States -- is reaping what it sowed in the Cold War.

Well, yes, actually one can say yes. But it was much easier for the West to walk out from Afghanistan then. They did use jihad, as I said earlier; Islam was seen by the West at that point as a bulwark to fight against the Soviets or the Communist bloc. That suited them because they exploited the religious fanaticism of the Muslims to fight their battles. Once the objective was done they just pulled out from Afghanistan.

Then, obviously, after the fall of the Communist bloc, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the main enemy had gone. So that also pitted them against the Islamic extremists who at one point were the allies of the United States. So in a way the main flaw in Pakistani policy lies in the fact that it did not foresee that the ruthless use of Islamic fanaticism to fight a proxy war could have a blowback effect at home. That is what we are witnessing today.

One could argue that the United States failed to see that as well.

Oh well, actually, yes, everyone did. As far as the United States is concerned I would say that its policies, particularly after 9/11, the way they have fought the so-called war on terror, has fueled more extremism. It has polarized the world. In fact, if you ask me, the world is much more under the threat of terrorism now than it was before 9/11.

Some analysts have suggested that the policies of the military government in Pakistan - especially, but not only, its role in the war on terrorism - have already fractured Pakistan's political landscape irretrievably. Do you agree with that?

Well, actually, I will not say irretrievably. Definitely, Musharraf's policy has generated a kind of polarization along ethnic, social and political lines. It has also led to some extent to the fragmentation of society. While Pakistan at this moment faces the biggest threat of fragmentation, I have never believed that, at any time or today, there is any danger of an Islamic fundamentalist take-over in Pakistan. But it definitely faces a fragmentation where the radical Islamists control a part of the country and the other part is going in a different political direction. So what Musharraf did is never to decide who his allies are. When you fight a battle, when you claim to fight Islamic extremism, you have to have allies among progressive forces. But he has always relied mostly on the Islamic forces who bailed him out when he was in trouble. When he actually wanted the 17th Amendment to be implemented and to legalize his rule it was the Islamic parties who supported him. He also always thought of the liberal parties as the main threat. One should also see the military and mullah alliance, which has been talked about a lot, but has never been completely broken. One could see that there have been strained relations but a divorce has never taken place.

Last question: could you comment briefly on what you think the implications are of the recent sacking of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry?

Well, this is a second Chief Justice who had been sacked by the Musharraf government. The first time was in 2002 when the judges were asked to take fresh oaths and the Chief Justice and various several other senior judges were not invited. So that was a major blow against the judiciary. Now there's a second one and it basically has more serious repercussions because the manner in which he was sacked is unprecedented, even in Pakistan's history. We have seen very serious political crises and the Constitution has never had that kind of sanctity. But this is still the worst political crisis where a Chief Justice was summoned by the President and effectively detained for several hours. It has never been seen in Pakistan's history. What that means is that whenever Musharraf sees a threat from any quarter of any society he ruthlessly crushes it. It's a serious blow to the independence of the judiciary. I'm not saying that the judiciary was very independent anyway but definitely he has sent a clear signal to the judges that they have to toe the line.

One other thing is very significant: this has come at a time when the presidential elections are very close. There is always a debate going on in the country about whether Musharraf could continue as the President as well as a military chief. So it was quite obvious that this issue would have landed with the Supreme Court at some point. So what he is trying to do is to secure the judiciary on his side. But he has not taken into account one thing: by doing this, he has generated a crisis of a magnitude that he cannot control.

Do you agree, as many people think here, that Musharraf is the only thing standing between Pakistan and an Islamic revolution?

We have heard that so many times! This belief has been reinforced by the West itself because they always believe that a military man in uniform can deliver more to them. So they have always supported military dictatorships. That is kind of an excuse.

I don't think Islamic fundamentalists have ever had the force to take over control of the country. This is a kind of bogey which has always been used by not only Musharraf but some of the other political leaders in the past. One could see, actually, if you look at democratic process, through the democratic process the danger or threat of Islamic radicalism can be completely eliminated. Well, the rise of Islamic militancy, which we have seen in Pakistan, was directly the result of the military establishment's support for them. It was actually fueled and created by the military establishment. But when it comes to the support base of the radical Islamist parties, we have seen in the previous elections that they have never been able to muster more than eight or nine per cent. That's the largest share they have ever had and it is much lower than the liberal political parties. And that support, too, was concentrated in one area, among one ethnic group, the Pashtun - both in the NWFP and Baluchistan.

Also I would not say that their victory in NWFP was a victory for the views of Islamic fundamentalists. No, there are several other factors -- especially the fact that the elections had taken place soon after the fall of the Taliban government and an attack on Afghanistan by coalition forces. So all those things were exploited by the Islamic parties. Pashtun nationalism was also exploited by the Islamic parties.

So I think there is no truth to it. Every military dictatorship thinks "After me the deluge!" And that's basically to perpetuate its rule. It will never happen. Pakistan can never be a fundamentalist state.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh