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PPP LEADS THE MARCH OF FOLLY (By Asif Zaidi)

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I am sorry to have borrowed Barbara Tuchman’s axiom in a much lesser context. There has been much talk recently about PMLN’s overt or covert electoral accommodation of ASWJ. However, deplorable as it may be, it does not really surprise me as PMLN has manifested an increasingly right wing disposition and Nawaz Sharif, in particular, seems duly beholden to Saudi Arabia since his stay in the oil-rich desert kingdom.

Similarly the Army’s nexus with Mullahs and the Islamists, since the early days of Pakistan, has also been a well-established fact and is best exhibited in its intelligence agencies’ patronage of extremists and jihadists organisations. However what has been particularly baleful for Pakistan is that since Jinnah, in general, and in the post-Zia era, in particular, its supposedly moderate rulers have also pandered to the religious zealots.

Soon after the creation of Pakistan it led to the adaptation of the Objective Resolution as the wellspring of the ideology of the new republic. Then Daultana’s government used Mullahs for instigating riots against Ahmedis. Luckily the Bengali Khawaja Nazimuddin’s government refused to bow to the Islamists’ demands to declare the Ahmedis non-Muslims in 1953. Ayub Khan also tried to please the ultra-right wing by implanting ‘Islamic’ in the appellation of the republic and by according the religion of Islam a favoured status in the constitution made on his watch. Yayha not only showed a clear bias towards Islamists in the electoral process but also abetted them in committing atrocities against innocent Bengalis in East Pakistan. However, the lowest point probably came in 1974 when the first democratically elected secular government of Pakistan bowing –for its gain- to the extremists, resorted to every crass argument in the book to carry out the murder of reason and sanity in Pakistan by declaring Ahmedis non-Muslims. That is where the surrender of the state to the forces of extremism begins. Ever since, Pakistan has been sliding down the path of extremism. Some three years later Bhutto banned alcohol and declared Friday as the weekly holiday. Zia ul Haq, of course, was one of the extremists and the father of jihadists.

In the post-Zia era Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have pandered to the religious zealots. Both co-opted the clergy and abstained from taking measures towards stopping the growing tide of religious fundamentalism. Hence the majority in Pakistan now subscribes to pan-Islamist, anti-American, anti-Indian and anti-Israeli ideas and conspiracy theories. Benazir gave Army a free hand in cultivating the Jihadists and her second government widely took credit for the creation of Taliban in Afghanistan. Her powerful interior minister, Naseerullah Babar, used to call Taliban as ‘our children’. When SSP was on the run after Ghulam Haider Wyne’s effective onslaught on it, PPP came to its rescue by inducting a Sipah terrorist into its Punjab cabinet in 1993. PPP released all the SSP activists arrested by Wyne’s government and went on to grant hundreds of weapons licences at SSP’s behest in Punjab and Sindh. In fact PPP got so thick with the SSP that some of the SSP leaders objected to it and parted to form Lashkar e Jhangvi. Then came Musharraf, who was equally duplicitous and abundantly conspired with the Islamists, including the formation and support of the MMA, with an objective to perpetuate his rule and in pursuit of Army’s notion of strategic depth and its stratagem of instigating jihad in Indian Kashmir.

Despite the above legacy of double standards it is not every day that a sitting secular government can be so plausibly accused of colluding with Islamist terrorists. But that was before PPP came into government in 2008. When a very well-informed and well-placed friend told me that the PPP had cut a deal with Islamists extremists like LeJ and others my reaction was a mixture of disbelief and the time-tested respect for the credibility of my friend. According to him the deal had been brokered by the ‘powers that be’ and ensured that while PPP would create cosmetic measures and noises, it would not hit at the vital interest and infrastructure of these extremist groups. As a quid pro quo the extremists would not attack PPP’s office bearers and its leaders. It is easy to see that both sides have respected their part of the bargain as SSP/LeJ and other extremist organizations are stronger than ever before in their history and -while ANP, MQM, Barelvis, and Shias have been constantly assailed- not even a district-level notable of the PPP has suffered at the hands of the Islamist militants. (Needless to say that PMLN government’s connivance at the extremists’ installations and groundwork in Punjab has not helped the matters either. But PMLN, for all intent and purpose, is an overtly right-wing party now and thus its mischiefs are outside the purview of this essay.) So this pact amounted less to an exercise in mutual security than the perpetuation of the organized terrorism and Shia Genocide.

While a lot has been written about mollycoddling of the extremists by the so-called liberal journalists, what has been ignored by us and even by the mainstream media is the PPP’s collusion with the radical Islamic actors. PPP’s (and PMLN’s) contribution to the rise of the terrorist menace goes well beyond the impact Supreme Court’s leanings have had on some individuals. The more important story is that the Pakistan government led by PPP has colluded for five years with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organizations like LeJ. They have connived with them in order to ensure the safety and continuity of their regime. They have done so in the face of their weak influence on the establishment and thus being unable to unilaterally impose their will. Thus the story is intimately related to that of PPP’s popularity decline and the attempt to maintain its political dominance in Pakistan. While PMLN now seems to be in a permanent strategic association with these radical Islamic forces, PPP’s flirting with them has been a series of temporary marriages of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes. PPP did not collaborate with these forces because it agreed with them but because they were useful at specific moments. SSP and Islamist groups seem to have collaborated with PPP for the same reasons of expediency. During the last five years it has meant that Pakistani public has been deprived of key information to understand the roots of current terrorism and Shia Genocide and the role that government institutions and intelligence agencies, who pose as our protectors, have played in endangering us.

The situation today is that LeJ or ASWJ –along with fellow Deobandi and Shia-hating Jaish-e-Muhammad—are the de facto masters of south Punjab and no one can survive, let alone win elections there, without the cooperation of these overtly sectarian outfits once known for supplying cannon fodder for Pakistan Army’s covert wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The feudal lords, despite their large landholdings, no longer dominate south Punjab; instead they are toothless in the face of radical Islamist organizations. They can only exercise their feudal authority if they are on the right side of the formidable local clerics. There is no doubt that Shah Mahmud Qureshi (now with PTI), Qamar Zaman Kaira, Jamshed Dasti etc. all won their seats in 2008 with the ‘clearance’ from the local militants. Qamar Zaman Kaira’s sympathy for the SSP is known to all who are close to him. When Rehman Malik fulminated in Karachi on February 25: “I will go to court against the government of Punjab to prove that it is facilitating Lashkar-e-Jhangvi”, he got a scolding studded with factual allegations from the PMLN the same day. It reminded the PPP how the PPP enlisted the support of Azam Tariq in getting south Punjabi Farooq Leghari elected as president in 1993. (Tariq was allowed to contest the National Assembly election by the Election Commission “through a mistake.”) In return, the PPP government issued 12 Kalashnikov licenses to Tariq, the PMLN further mentioned.

While the PPP helped SSP resurrect itself in its second tenure in the 1990s, this time round it allowed Malik Ishaq free movement in and out of the country, especially to the Gulf, where the Arabs financiers of his organization reside. It is quite apparent that no serious attempt has been made to undermine SSP and LeJ even outside of Punjab. Today SSP is stronger than ever before in places like Karachi and interior Sind. Its fear drives the politicians and the media. SSP (ASWJ) and its derivatives like LeJ and Jaish are closely conglomerated with Al-Qaida and TTP. The identities and the operations of Al-Qaeda, SSP, TTP, LeJ, Jaish, and Jandullah in the tribal areas are inseparably intertwined. The current leader of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killing Shias before being elevated to his current position, as the massacres in Kurram, Orakzai, Kohat, and Hangu were carried out by his faction under the personal supervision of his lieutenant warlord Tariq Afridi.

By striking a modus vivendi with SSP and LeJ, the PPP not only ensured safety for its party members but also earned some brownies with the establishment, a large part of which still thinks that Pakistan will need these Shia-killing parties in Afghanistan subsequent to the departure of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban, who could not muster more than 30,000 armed fighters at their peak in the period 1998 to 2001, have always been dependent on the supply from Pakistan to swell their ranks. In the wake of the US’s departure, they will more than ever before need the support of their Pakistani comrades as Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara forces now stand much better armed and trained than before. Hence, Shias are being offered as a sacrifice on the altar of Pakistani establishment’s grandiose regional and strategic objectives. PPP has been fully complicit in this scheme of things. It is unfortunate that the party has learned virtually nothing from the assassination of its own leader, Benazir Bhutto. It never passed the Anti-Terrorism Bill till it did so on its last day in the office. It was callous and indifferent to the murder of Salman Taseer in the seat of its government. Barelvis, Ahmedis, and Christians were left to be systematically persecuted. Shia killing escalated into genocide.

Above all, the ‘March of Folly’ manifests that man learns nothing from the history. PPP has gone one step further in refusing to learn from its own history from Z A Bhutto’s abject failure to placate the Islamists culminating in his murder at their hands to Benazir’s tragic assassination by the same forces. The latest piece of folly, as we saw above, has been that its stumbling into expediency in dealing with the extremists during the past five years has made these Islamists –who see PPP as their main foe- too strong and entrenched for PPP to be able to confront them in future. These extremists will never have any incentive to allow any space to the biggest secular-democratic party in the country.

It is the dirty open secret of Pakistan’s present day existential conflict that large sections of our elite, establishment, media, and ruling classes are ambivalent about the jihadists as they see them as allies in their own strategic pursuits. PPP should have known better. This marriage of convenience may have served it myopic objectives during its last tenure but it is highly counterproductive for the PPP in the long run. In fact, liberals’ attempts to co-opt and manipulate Islamists have always fared badly in the history of Pakistan. Decades of appeasement for the Islamists -whenever they were deemed useful for the state, army, or the government- has only led to the worst imaginable terrorist outrage in Pakistan. The denial of this fact is as irrational as the culture that breeds it. Changing this self-defeating trend demands recognition that Pakistan is in a state of war against the terrorists and jihadists, whether or not the country wants it or however much it hates this fact. This war is being fought on the terrorists’ side with a deep and unshakeable conviction that the pluralistic society in Pakistan is on its last legs.

These militants regard threats, violence, and terrorism as legitimate means of gaining political and militant ends. The only capacity of state they respect is its capacity to use force successfully against them. The apologists are dead wrong on this issue – the choice is not to fight or appease, but to fight or surrender. The more they gain space the more radical Islamists will try to attack our society whenever we refuse for a moment to give in to their demands. Delaying the battle will only make it more uphill. Pandering to their designs and sacrificing ‘lesser’ groups –Ahmedis yesterday, Shias and minorities today, Barelvis tomorrow- is counterproductive; such morsels will only whet the militants’ appetite, paving the way to a major confrontation for the control of the state sometime down the line.

The price of delusions is going up. The time to sell off is now. Have we even lost the biological urge for self-perpetuation?

 

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