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Sat. February 04, 2023
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Book Event: Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam
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Book Event: Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam
Zahid Hussein at The Frontline Club (London)
By Lucy Atkinson

Zahid Hussein talks to Kirsty Lang about his recent book ‘Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam’, and the current political situation in Pakistan in relation to the US, the Taleban and Musharraf himself. Zahid Hussein is the Pakistan correspondent for The Times, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. His book deals with Pakistan post 9/11, but in particular looking at the background to Musharraf’s momentous decision to side with the US before then turning to the consequences of that decision for Pakistan and the international community. Our correspondent Lucy Atkinson analyses what he has to say.

In the book Frontline Pakistan Hussein goes back into recent Pakistani history to explain Musharraf’s position today. As he explains, we need to remind ourselves of happenings in the period of General Zia (d. 1988), and, in particular in this period, the islamization of the security forces.

Hussein cites this process of islamization as the catalyst to wider transformation in Pakistan. For in the twenty to thirty years prior to this, Pakistan had been a moderate Muslim state, but this islamizizing process hinted at a less moderate and more fundamentalist mentality. The motive behind the islamization was one of critical expediency and should be put in the wider context of the cold war, when Hussein states, the Muslim world was being used as a US tool in the fight against the Soviet Union. With the Soviet invasion of a Muslim country, Afghanistan, Muslims as a whole were being mobilised by the government, perhaps with pressure from the US, to fight in the name of freedom against this wrong, and in the name of Islam.

The book details the effect of islamization on the army and military intelligence (ISI) in particular, illustrating how this even involved Mullahs being appointed to work with troops, which gives a clear example of the extent of the islamization. Whereas before the Pakistani army behaved more like the remnant of the British colonial army that it was (with mess life and similar), now religion played an increasingly important role in internal military dynamics. Behaving as a good Muslim could affect promotion; and although this was not obligatory, undoubtedly a trend was set. But as Hussein highlights, we should not forget the underlying opportunistic reason to the islamisation of the military.

The role of ISI at this time became increasingly important, especially as it began to serve as a crucial partner to the CIA. ISI was receiving funding from Saudi Arabia but also, and more significantly, billions from the USA. This had the result that CIA felt itself able to use ISI in any way the US wanted in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet invasion, having made Pakistani resources and weaponry so dependent on US aid and supply.

Nonetheless, ISI became internationally admired for its role in Afghanistan. This, and the heightened American influence, led to its possessing extra power over the rest of the Pakistani military divisions. It also led to its becoming, in Hussein’s phrase, a state within a state – referring to its extensive area of activity in Pakistan. There thus became two sides to ISI’s influence – both international and domestic.

Another crucial way in which ISI’s activity in Afghanistan has affected Pakistani history since is that it set in motion the development of an Islamic ideological network. For example, military leaders increasingly championed pan-islamism, (built around the objective of jihad); and certain ISI chiefs became increasingly fanatic.

There is speculation about the “friendly” relationship between ISI and Taleban; and that they shared the use of training camps to train militants to go to Kashmir. Hussein responds to such a view by reminding us of the situation in the 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and with that, how American interests ended in Afghanistan. For Afghanistan itself though, strife continued regardless, which provided the opening context for the arrival of the Taleban. So, as Hussein states, the creation of the Taleban can be linked with Pakistan to some extent, but only because of the situation existent in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s military role within this. The Taleban can not however be called the creation of Pakistan’s per se – it is therefore flawed to describe them as “friendly” in the initial stages of the Taleban’s existence. Later on indeed, ISI was completely behind the Taleban – for example from 1996-8 the Taleban provided the base for Pakistan military training. The changing point was in 1998 with the bombing ordered by Clinton and the wide speculation as to whether he had been tipped off about this by ISI – which led to a relationship of distrust on the part of the Taleban toward Pakistan and the ISI.

Regarding the relationship between Pakistan and the US, Hussein highlights the slightly tricky historical relationship, seemingly going from one extreme to the other: with the US at one stage even being on the brink of labelling Pakistan a terrorist state; whereas at other points reaching a close allied relationship. The starting point for Hussein’s book is the beginning of the new allied period so to speak, created with Musharraf’s monumental decision (made within 24 hours) to side with the US in response to Bush’s famous phrase, “you are either with us or with the terrorists”.

On this point, Hussein shifts to the subject of Musharraf himself, and Hussein’s perception of him - a valued one for he has interviewed the Pakistani president a number of times. Much as Musharraf is adept at appearing jovial, calm and popular in the media and public eye, Hussein goes on to cite the many contradictions and flaws in his governing policy.

One incident in particular that Hussein refers to is the incident of the kidnap and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Damien Pearl. On the 7th February 2002 Musharraf made claims in the US that he knew Damien Pearl was still alive; however Hussein suggests that actually on this date Musharraf knew Pearl was already dead, having been informed by ISI. Hussein thinks that he must have known because of the adamant contrary stance of his statement – for if he really hadn’t known whether Pearl was dead or alive he would surely have said as much. The issue suggests a deceptive nature to Musharraf’s character, and it also raises the point of the powerful role of ISI in Pakistan, to whom Pearl’s kidnapper had handed himself in, (but which they chose to keep secret); and a role which had immense influence over the President and himself, and international relations.

On the topic of the several assassination attempts that there have been carried out against Musharraf, Hussein points first to the background to Musharraf’s policy and hence the reasons why he has made so many enemies, stating that Musharraf has always believed in militancy as the means to the end goal – particularly against India. One reason for later assassination attempts therefore rests on Musharraf’s change in policy to more recently being seen to be reaching out the hand of help to India, having before only in 2002 been in a military stand off with Pakistan. This change in policy led to him being viewed as a betrayer by some Pakistanis.

Musharraf is similarly perceived for his original justification of the Taleban and the later contradiction of this. For despite arguing in February 2001 that it was important for Pakistan to support the Taliban, Musharraf’s turn around only a few months later, post 9/11, earned him the title of betrayer by many – and hence the multiple assassination attempts since. It is this somewhat self-contradictory policy and attitude that Hussein criticises.

The overall picture given in Frontline Pakistan of Musharraf is of a man living on borrowed time, the current situation of his government being described in the end note of the book as possessing “faultlines from which a dubious earthquake could erupt”. Musharraf is walking the tightrope, especially with the complete break with the Taleban actually never quite being effected, and the Kashmir problem not completely solved. Hussein tells us that the current Pakistani situation is extremely serious, drawing the parallel to the equally serious situation Pakistan found itself in in 2001.

Hussein then talks on the subject of the Taleban and Al Qaeda and the relationship between the two. He makes the important point, and a point that tends to get forgotten or is simply not understood in the west, that pre 9/11 the Taleban and Al Qaeda were in fact very different organisations, certainly by way of their ideologies. The Taleban had the end goal or ideal of a concentrated tribal state, and is not pan-Islamic. Furthermore, in the initial stages of its existence, the US sympathised with the Taleban. Al Qaeda on the other hand has always possessed the pan-Islamic ideal of a unified Muslim caliphate. Islamically – theologically and politically – the two were different. After the events of 9/11 however, and the reaction of the international community, Taleban and Bin Laden began to co-operate with one another, with the Taleban even providing shelter to Bin Laden. Thus, somewhat ironically, the US invasion of Afghanistan actually brought Taleban and Al Qaeda closer together.

Hussein wraps up his talk by saying that we need not worry about Pakistan falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalism, but there is the danger of fragmentation taking place – indeed, this is already happening. Along similar lines he argues that there is no risk of a civil war between the government and the fundamentalists in Pakistan, for the government gives a certain amount of space to the fundamentalists, and in fact such a democratic process is actually the best way of keeping the fundamentalists out. Hussein concludes by refuting the sometime mentioned opinion that the ISI knows where Osama bin Laden is; he is also not of the view that the Pakistani military lends any active support to the Taleban.

In his talk Zahid Hussein informs us of several important messages therefore. The first and most obvious is of the fragile situation of Pakistan at the moment, and not least of it’s President. The second is the reminder to always look to recent history to understand the motive and context behind current political and international situations. The third must be the message of complexity: that is, that no international situation is ever simple, and always has several different angles – Hussein’s highlighting of the US-Pakistan relationship is one example; also his mention of the difference between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is all too easy in the non-Islamic world to lump all Islamic groups under the same umbrella – in reality this is far from the case. With his rounded analysis of the past, the present, and forecasting of a future on a tightrope for Pakistan, Hussein is someone whose views should be listened to.

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