Musharraf’s Coup

Despite Bill Roggio reporting an eroding situation in Pakistan’s Tribal Territories and within Pakistan itself for the past few years I responded with some optimism to Benazir’s Bhutto’s return and her strong speech after a Taliban attempt on her life. Furthermore, I hoped that a report by Syed Saleem Shahzad claiming a Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban stood a real chance of success was true. The army did attack but that did not do well. Just the opposite. If President Musharraf hoped to strengthen his hand before reinstating the democratic process with elections in January of 2008 then he clearly failed militarily. He has ended up suspending the constitution and declaring another state of emergency. Naturally enough he is criticized for simply clinging to power, but I don’t think he would have done it if he had a good alternative. He himself claims to be caught between the Islamists and the judiciary which is apparently hostile to his regime and often sides with the Taliban. Jeffery Imm of the Counterterrorism Blog sums up the recent military situation here:

The Pakistan Army has faced a series of humiliating defeats in recent days, with 48 soldiers surrendering to the Taliban on November 2, and 120 policemen and paramilitary soldiers surrendering to the Taliban on November 3. The surrendering Pakistanis were released after being paraded and announcing their surrender to the “mujahedeen”. Moreover, the surrendering military have stated publicly that “[w]e did not want to fight these Muslim brothers who are striving for the enforcement of Islamic sharia”.

It is hard not to imagine that a major reason for Musharraf declaring the state of emergency was to head off the Supreme Court disallowing his recent election victory because of his position as head of the Army. At the same time, major military setbacks have weakened him and perhaps his opponents in the Judiciary felt they had to opportunity force him from office. Imm addresses the issue directly in the same article:

While some view Musharraf’s declaration of emergency to be a ploy to retain power, there remains a very real battle for the identity of Pakistan between Islamists and moderates, a battle in which the Islamists are gaining ground and influence in this nuclear nation. The Pakistan Taliban’s goal of enforcing Islamist Shariah throughout Pakistan is one that a majority of Pakistanis would agree with based on recent public opinion polls.

Given that Pakistan was founded with the specific intention that it be governed under Shariah the polls do not necessarily mean that most Pakistanis wish to be ruled by the Taliban or live under an Islamist dictatorship. As a Westerner my primary concern is that violent religious fanatics do not get their hands on nuclear weapons or otherwise spread death and destruction. Therefore, I think it is critically important to distinguish between the devout and the dangerously destructive.

It is precisely that distinction that seems blurred in the minds of so many Muslims. I believe that Muslims are beginning to make the distinction, most obviously in Iraq with the Sunni awakening. Benazir Bhutto clearly did in her recent speech, but I think the distinction is far from clear in the minds of Pakistanis. An October 22 report in the Christian Science Monitor quoted by Imm describes the Pakistani perspective

To be sure, the Taliban are viewed differently here than they are in the West, not least because they are Pakistani. While the West sees an Islamist war against its liberties, many here see a US-led war against Islam itself.

The article goes onto say that any solution will take time:

…the way forward is not militarily – it is by developing the region economically over the next 15 to 20 years, undercutting the poverty and lack of education that feeds extremism.

I agree it will take time and that economic progress would help but I think this view fails to see the prime importance of religion in the situation and the profound resistance Muslims have to rejecting the violently devout. They are viewed as brother Muslims first – until their violent behavior forces ordinary people, as it did in Iraq, to realize they are dealing with dangerous fanatics. Entire communities can become fanatical for a time but no human collective can sustain fanaticism indefinitely. That is why time is important. Economic development is important because successful engagement in economic activity erodes the single mindedness of fanaticism. However the behavior of the fanatics themselves is more important than either because it eventually puts an end to the view that fanaticism equates with holiness.

Until things become clearer in Pakistan I have to view Musharraf’s emergency as a genuine attempt to prevent a takeover by the Taliban and their supporters. Unfortunately, in the short run his action seems likely to make the Taliban more popular, and more difficult for Pakistan’s ruling elite to unify against the jihadis.

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