In an interview with CBS last month, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan candidly told American viewers that his country was fighting for its “survival” and that the Taliban had “established themselves across a large part of the country.” Zardari also admitted that Pakistan had underestimated the Taliban threat and possessed “weaknesses” the terrorists were exploiting.
Zardari’s words proved eerily prophetic. A few weeks later, a boldly-planned, daylight ambush of Sri Lanka’s national cricket team took place in the heart of Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab state and the country’s second largest city. A dozen masked terrorists, well-trained and well-armed, killed seven policemen and wounded six players before calmly walking away, suffering no losses to themselves.
But the attack’s brazenness and startling resemblance to last summer’s Mumbai assault were not its only outstanding features. Just as remarkable was the honesty and frankness President Zardari displayed on American television regarding the terrorist threat destabilizing Pakistan was afterwards scarcely heard. Rather than acknowledge that their country is a hotbed of terrorism, large sections of Pakistani society refused to place responsibility for the Lahore attack on its most likely suspects, one of the dozens of terrorist groups operating on Pakistani soil.
Even more disturbing, one observer noted many Pakistani pundits were “quick to appear on television” and claim their country was a “victim of an Indian conspiracy.”
The blame-India game did not stop there. Pakistan’s elite class, which should know better, also helped promote the theory of Indian culpability. A former Pakistani federal minister for shipping, for example, accused India of complicity. Hamid Gul, Pakistan’s former intelligence chief, added to the conspiracy theory: “It’s all too obvious that it is the handiwork of the Indian intelligence.”
The proofs offered concerning an Indian dark hand behind the Lahore ambush possessed a similar ring to 9/11 conspiracy theories, which are also widely believed in Muslim countries. The fact India refused to send its cricket team (Sri Lanka was its replacement) to Lahore is cited as evidence it had foreknowledge of the attack. This belief rivals 9/11 conspiracy theorists who claim Jews working in the World Trade Center were warned not to go to work that day.
India, however, had cancelled its national squad’s Lahore appearance because of security concerns (which turned out to be accurate). Also overlooked is that the Pakistani army is waging war against Islamic radicals in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, where suicide bombings, beheadings and destruction of girls’ schools occur regularly. The Marriott Hotel’s destruction in Islamabad last September in a home-grown, terrorist attack was also conveniently forgotten.
It has been pointed out these conspiracy theories regarding India make their way down to street level where they are widely believed. But most damaging is that this state of denial concerning the threat Muslim extremists inside Pakistan pose to the country’s existence prevents security agencies from seriously tackling the terrorism problem.
One reason proffered for this “deep denial” is that the truth is too difficult to face. One observer draws a comparison with parents who are told their child is a drug dealer maintaining “It is easiest to find all sorts of excuses not to believe it.”
This mindset was in evidence after the Mumbai terrorist attack. Initially, Pakistan also blamed India for that massacre, in which 170 people died. Pakistan’s prime minister even fired President Zardari’s national security advisor, Mahmood Ali Durrani, for admitting the surviving terrorist attacker was Pakistani.
But there is another, more sinister reason behind this blame-India tactic that only serves to damage relations between the two South Asian countries.
The truth is that many members of Pakistan’s military and civil establishment are infused with a jihadist mindset. Blaming India for terrorist attacks allows these establishment members to escape taking action against the Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups who perpetrate such atrocities.
The reason for the hands-off attitude is that the Islamic fighters are regard as a “strategic asset” in any future jihad against India and as an instrument for expanding Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan. They are also useful for undermining Pakistan’s democracy, which jihad-supporting establishment members oppose as un-Islamic.
People possessing the jihadist mindset, according to writers Syed Ashraf and Faizullah Jan, have “permeated the state apparatus and society in Pakistan to such an extent that they are now an integral part of them.” They further declare: “A spirited jihadi school of thought has a strong influence on every sphere of life including mainstream media and political parties.” Dampening hope for the future, the two authors claim “indoctrination and education have become entangled” to the point where there appears to be “no difference between students of universities and madrassas. Both churn out militancy-minded individuals.”
This mindset, they believe, is simply weakening Pakistan from within. It also explains why India was able to identify 35 people in Pakistan, including two generals, believed connected with the Mumbai terrorist attack.
Irfan and Jan cite the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets as the reason for the jihadist mindset’s widespread existence in Pakistan. The Afghan conflict of the 1980s, they state, caused many in the Pakistani establishment to “become more jihadist” than those who actually fought in it.
While true, the Pakistani establishment’s jihadi leanings, however, existed long before the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Kashmir conflict has, for example, been called Pakistan’s “longest jihad.” Declared a religious war, Islamic fighters from Pakistan’s tribal regions, led by Pakistani officers, were already used as a “strategic asset” against India in the contested state as long ago as 1947, albeit in a losing cause.
Rather than the Taliban, fighting this jihadist mindset is the greatest challenge facing Pakistan today. As Irfan and Jan rightly state, the Islamic extremists can only be defeated after this mindset has been successfully confronted. Failure to do so will not only weaken the Pakistani nation state, but eventually destroy it.