In the film Fight Club, the protagonist states that it is impossible to speak coherently with a gun in ones mouth. The truth of the statement should hit home for Pakistan’s liberal voices, who are silently staring down the barrel of the gun held by extremists. Yet, the “bullet” in the extremists’ gun has always been Pakistan’s ultra-orthodox religious parties who have traditionally enjoyed unconditional support from the military. Recent developments should tell the Army leadership that militants are being supported by religious parties, and these groups carry the same hatred towards the military as Pakistan’s progressives. The time is now to realize that Pakistan’s progressives require the help of their well-trained military counter-parts, and unless the Army can realize this common objective- they are doomed to suffer at the hands of a ruthless band young jihadis.
Before understanding how the left-wing of Pakistan can regain its voice without fearing for their lives, we must first understand how the ultra-conservative agenda has come to dominate the national discourse. The military has been responsible for fostering the iron-grip hold of ultra-conservatives from the period of General Zia Ul Haq through to Musharraf and continuing into modern-day.
There have traditionally been two reasons for the military support of conservative religious parties: the first, that the military required the support of religious groups in order to maintain legitimacy amongst jihadis who were fighting on their behalf in Afghanistan and India. The second reason is that military leaders view progressives suspiciously due to the various uprisings against the military inspired by leftists. Thus, the religious political parties in Pakistan have been given carte blanche by the Army to intimidate and threaten their way to controlling the national rhetoric.
The reliance by the military on Pakistan’s ultra-conservative religious parties started before General Zia, but the relationship certainly escalated during his rule. When General Zia was selected as a main liaison in the CIA’s mission of expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the military began indoctrinating the nation and its service members with a militant form of Islam. The purpose of this indoctrination was to create a narrative that would inspire Pakistanis and Afghan refugees to cross over the Durand Line and defeat the Soviets ‘in the name of Islam.’ And while this strategy may have worked at the time, its lingering remnants began to eat away at Pakistan’s core.
When the USSR exited Afghanistan, so did the CIA, and Pakistan was left with a huge cache of weapons and thousands of jihadis under their control. They used these resources to begin low-intensity conflicts with India, where the Pakistani Army would train and fund jihadis to attack Kashmir. The close relationship between jihadis from around the globe with differing interests and the ISI, was held together by the dominance of the religious right-wing in Pakistan’s domestic politics. So long as the rhetoric became increasingly hostile and militant to ‘non-believers’, the Army could continue to rely on terrorist groups to attack India on their behalf without suffering any consequence.
The assumption that the ISI and the Pakistani Army could control these groups was true in the 1980’s when Pakistan was the central funding power for all jihadi groups, whose leadership appreciated connections with the Pakistani military. However, as time has elapsed, the relationship between the two groups has grown increasingly bitter. The ISI and the Army has less of a financial role for the Taliban, who have reached out to their global partners to establish financial independence from the Pakistani state. Further, the offensives that the Pakistani military launched in Wazistan, Swat, and the Red Mosque were used as beacon calls by jihadi groups to turn their suicide bombs and AK-47s on Pakistan’s Army rather than American forces in Afghanistan. A new generation of fighters in the Afghan-oriented organizations began directly assisting homegrown Pakistani terrorists like the Punjabi Taliban to carry out brazen attacks on Pakistani soil.
An example of the lack of control over the Taliban by the Army is the recent murder of the ISI’s top man during the Afghan-Soviet War, Colonel Imam. He helped to organize and train the original Taliban as an officer of the ISI. More recently, he was taken hostage by a group of young Taliban insurgents and was killed due to accusations of spying. This brazen act of murdering of an ex-ISI officer should show the military that its pattern support of extremists and the religious parties that foster their hateful ideals is a failed strategy.
The only way to address the elephant in the room is to recognize that the military-sponsored rise of the right wing has resulted in an imbalance to the society which opened the door for the jinns of militancy to enter. And while the military had mistrusted Pakistan’s left for inspiring the masses to overthrow military dictatorships, the Army’s very existence is now being threatened by extremists. If the military were to provide its full support and security to the liberals of Pakistan, the environment could be made to expel extremists rather than allow them to frighten and silence the public.