Islamic Militans in Pakistan

The Janus Head of the Musharraf Regime

After 9/11, Pakistan became an important US ally in the 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

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

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, George Bush (photo: AP)
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a whole range of Islamic militant groups blossomed in Pakistan – during the 80s, ably supported by USA as well as by Pakistani intelligence

​​The foiled terror plot in London put the focus right back on Pakistan: the tip which led to the foiling of the plot did come from Pakistan, but so did the terrorists – in the sense that most of them were of Pakistani origin and had other, less transparent connections with Pakistan.

Pakistan's Home Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao was declaring at the beginning of last week that whatever was done, was being done in accordance with the "fundamental" decision taken by President Pervez Musharraf after 9/11 that "we won't let our territory be misused for terrorism".

But does that promise hold? Boris Wilke, Pakistan expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, would not like to answer with a clear "yes" or "no":

"There's a section of these militant groups who have declared war against President Musharraf and the army – it's what is often referred to as the "Al-Qaida of Pakistan". It's exactly from this quarter that some of the attacks against Western embassies and other institutions or personnel in Pakistan were launched, and possibly there's a connection to the terrorists in London as well."

Islamist militancy and foreign policy tactics

As such, the Pakistan government has every right to underscore their success in battling terrorism, in Wilke's opinion:

"There's no doubt about it that the Pakistani intelligence as well as the army is active against certain Islamic militant groups, whether in the tribal areas near the Afghan border or in the broader framework of the battle against terror through the police and intelligence."

Map of Pakistan (image: Human Rights Watch)
Much of the strong anti-US sentiment in Pakistan is a reaction to the US 'war against terror', which has produced a considerable number of victims among the civilian population

​​But as we've said, that's just one part of the militant groups and hence just one part of the story. Wilke again:

"No rigorous action is taken against the majority of these militant groups since they might prove useful for foreign policy tactics in the future, say as a threat – especially since Pakistan is sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, the one aspiring to new glory and the other, under the Karzai government, not inclined to bonhomie with Pakistan."

photo: SWP
Boris Wilke, Pakistan expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs

​​Domestic political considerations might be doing the rest: for tactical reasons, the government is not particularly eager to attack the ideological base of the Islamic militants – and close the madrasas or religious schools, say. The reaction to such a provocation might be out of all proportion to its benefits. Not that there is any imminent possibility of the Islamists grabbing power in Pakistan, a scenario often overestimated in the West. As Wilke puts it:

"Here there's this rather false impression that the government might be toppled by the Islamists any day. I think that the Islamists who openly give the call to topple Musharraf – there's a number of parties doing just that – are just one factor in the power game in Pakistan, albeit a factor which must be counterbalanced. That's why the government follows this zigzag course vis-à-vis the militant groups."

Public alliance with the Islamists

The military establishment which rules Pakistan considers the traditional civil opposition parties – especially Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – to be a much greater threat to their dominance. And to split the opposition and have them fighting one another – divide and rule, in short – the military often takes recourse to a more-or-less public alliance with the Islamists. In Wilke's analysis:

"The alliance between 'military and mullah', as it is called, is a marriage of convenience. It's not a 'natural' marriage. The military environment is radically different from the religious one. Perhaps that is how this 'marriage' was made possible in the first place, the fact that there's so little overlapping, that each retains his or her privileges and a civic society can't emerge – a civic society which is the precondition for public opinion and the control through parliament. And that's something neither side is interested."

Thomas Bärthlein

© Deutsche Welle/Southasia.de 2006

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