How to root out the poison of extremism in Pakistan

The slaughter of 132 schoolchildren and nine adults in an army school in Peshawar on Dec. 16 by the Pakistan Taliban marked a new low in terrorist depravity. The massacre of the innocents brings to a head several pathologies that need addressing and to that end could prove a catharsis for Pakistan.

The intertwining of religious terrorism, colonization of the state by the army, and obsession with India as the existential threat has mutated into a virulent toxin feeding parasitically on Pakistan. The shock and horror must be channeled into a determination to do whatever it takes to root out the poison.

An Indian, even an expatriate Indian, writing on Pakistan is always a tricky issue. Only Pakistanis can change their national narrative.

The dominant narrative is that India is Pakistan’s mortal enemy which is kept in check by a powerful army and lately by nuclear weapons.

Jihadists have been nurtured as strategic assets in an asymmetric war with the bigger neighbor. The Peshawar massacre proves that the existential threat is from jihadism, not India. The latter can help to contain and then defeat the former, not the other way round.

If it is to purge the toxic Quran-Kalashnikov culture and escape the seemingly inexorable descent into the nightmare of a jihadi state, Pakistan must confront three demons: the false distinction between good and bad jihadists; the excessive influence of the military; and the obsession with India as the enemy.

The last will require a matching change of mindset in New Delhi.

Pakistan produces more religiously motivated terrorism than can safely be exported. Its primary validating argument was negative: The Muslims of the subcontinent cannot be ruled by a Hindu-majority government.

By contrast, an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan posture is irrelevant to India’s core identity. The only other glue that could bind the new country was Islam. Pakistan is the only country to name its capital after a religion.

Starting with the dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military has harnessed religious hatred to its strategic goals against Afghanistan and India. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said in 2011, if you keep snakes in your backyard trained to bite your neighbors, some day their venom will be aimed at you.

Just as, externally, India might prove to be the main salvation rather than the threat, so, domestically, the anti-jihadists might prove to be Pakistan’s saviours, not traitors.

There are cautionary warnings for Hindu zealots in India, too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thus far failed to confront obscurantists in his own party. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead-end of religious extremism, Modi must act decisively against them and reaffirm that India has no future other than as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.

The genius of its greatness lies in a central tenet of Hinduism: Sarva dharma sambhava (all dharmas — truths/religions — are equal and in harmony).

To rescue the state, Pakistan’s military must be brought under full civilian control and all intelligence links to the Islamist militants severed.

Historically Pakistan has been triangulated by the three “A’s”: Allah, the army and America. A common saying is that in other countries, the state has an army. In Pakistan, however, the army has a state.

The enmity with India explains the role of the army as an enduring force of Pakistani politics that rules the country even when civilians are in office. The inflated threat from India validates its size, power and influence, dwarfing all other institutions (just as the alleged threat from Muslim Pakistan validates the militant Hindutva agenda).

Pakistan has always thought of itself as India’s equal in every respect. At the heart of this emotional parity lies the ability to match India militarily. This could not have been done without the alliance with the United States to begin with, and then sustained subsequently with a de facto alliance with China.

Pakistan’s record of double dealing, deceit and denial of Pakistan-based attacks in Afghanistan and in India was based on a four degrees of separation — between the government, army, ISI and terrorists — whose plausibility has steadily faded: It was exploited as a convenient alibi to escape accountability.

While the U.S. viewed Pakistan as an ally against international enemies, the alliance was useful to Islamabad principally in an India-specific context.

Control over Afghanistan through the Taliban gave Pakistan strategic depth against India

Pakistan’s army harnessed Islamism against civilian political parties at home, to maintain control over Afghanistan, and against India.

Washington never confronted the core of Pakistani duplicity under General Pervez Musharraf who deposed elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and controlled both the military and the state until 2008.

During his rule ,the Islamists survived, regrouped, built up their base and launched more frequent raids across the border in Afghanistan, and increasingly deep into the heart of Pakistan itself. Slowly but surely, Pakistan descended into the failed state syndrome.

What kind of Pakistan does India want?

Is it one that is on the brink of state collapse and failure, splintered into multiple centers of power, with large swaths of territory under the control of religious zealots and terrorists?

Or, is it a stable, democratic and economically powerful Pakistan minus the influence of the three “Ms”: the military, militants and mullahs?

Fearing ripple effects on its own turf because of many potential separatist movements, India has often professed to having a vested interest in preserving a united and stable Pakistan. The answer is no longer so straightforward.

For more than a decade, even as Pakistan has teetered on the brink of collapse and disintegration, India has prospered and emerged as a major player in world affairs.

Yet, South and Southwest Asian terrorism are indeed indivisible.

Many reminders of the enduring relevance of the India equation to Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan have come from U.S. intelligence confirmations of the links of Pakistan’s ISI to the terrorist attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.

India, too, has suffered political blowback in the past. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stoked the embers of Sikh religious extremism as a tool of domestic politics.

When she tried to put out the fire once it grew into an out of control monster, she was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in bloody vengeance in 1984.

Her son Rajiv was killed in 1991 by Tamil Tiger suicide terrorists who had been nurtured as an instrument of state policy by his government.

The saying that one country’s terrorist is a neighbor’s freedom fighter no longer applies.

South Asian countries must recognize that terrorism is a common menace and combine forces to exterminate the scourge from the region.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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