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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back in Pakistan

February 19, 2009


The Obama administration has found itself caught in its first dilemma concerning the Muslim world. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was touring the globe and touting an era of new and closer relationships with the Muslim community, the Pakistani government announced that it had basically ceded the Swat Valley region to the Taliban. While Pakistani leaders see the move as a step towards peace, most of the world sees it as two steps back towards creating an area that will foster terrorists and foment regional and international unrest. The so-called “peace agreement” is a two-thrust stab in the back to Obama administration. The first thrust affects the conflict in Afghanistan (which is being prolonged by support coming out of the Swat Valley region). The second thrust is the collapse of Pakistan’s effort to rid its northwestern region of religious fanatics that promote both religious intolerance and terrorism.


As noted above, the timing of the Pakistani announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Obama administration had just increased troop levels in Afghanistan and Secretary Clinton was in the midst of tour during which she hoped to strengthen ties with the Muslim world. In Tokyo, Clinton told the press “that the Obama administration will make ‘a concerted effort’ to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world and will seek to ‘enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists.'” [“Clinton Says U.S. Seeks Unity With Muslim World,” by Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, 18 February 2009]. Some of the extremists to whom she was referring live and carry out their nefarious activities in and from Pakistan.


President Obama and Secretary Clinton had hoped to symbolically signal the dawning of a new day with the Secretary’s visit to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state [“Clinton comes to Indonesia on symbolic visit,” by Ed Davies and Arshad Mohammed, Washington Post, 18 February 2008].

“Clinton’s visit to the world’s most populous Muslim country highlights President Barack Obama’s desire to forge a better U.S. relationship with the Muslim world, where many of the policies of former president George W. Bush’s administration, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, were deeply unpopular. After talks with Indonesia’s foreign minister, Clinton said the two nations intended to move forward in areas ranging from climate change to security and counter-terrorism. ‘It is exactly the kind of comprehensive partnership that we believe will drive both democracy and development,’ Clinton told a joint news conference, adding it was ‘no accident’ Indonesia had been picked for her trip.”

President Obama spent four years in Indonesia as a child and is viewed very favorably by most Indonesians. But there are other reasons that Indonesia was selected for a visit.

“Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said Indonesia provided a successful development model. ‘Indonesia is not only (the) country with (the) largest Muslim population but, as we have proven here, democracy, Islam and modernity can go hand in hand,’ the minister said. … Some hardline Islamist groups and students opposing Clinton’s visit held rallies. But this leg of her Asian tour was expected to go smoothly given good government-to-government relations and Indonesian pride in the fact that Obama had lived in Jakarta. … While most Indonesian Muslims are moderate, the country has a small, radical fringe.”

The real point that the Obama administration is trying to make is that the test of friendship is not what religion dominates a particular country, but how that country behaves. A tolerant, secular, developing Muslim country is as welcome in the international community as any other country that adheres to accepted international standards of behavior. That is what makes the decision in Pakistan so troubling. The decision is not totally surprising. The reason the Taliban were able to come to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s was because people were tired of conflict and fear. The same conditions are now found in the Swat region of Pakistan. But people seem to have forgotten that the Taliban didn’t establish paradise in Afghanistan, they established hell. They brutalized those who interpreted their faith differently. Their treatment of women was particularly harsh as they forced them out of schools and workplaces. Afghanistan was propelled into a bright future; rather it was thrust into a darkened past. As a result, the most common response of world leaders to the Pakistani agreement has been, “What were they thinking?”


Even hardline Muslim clerics are not sure that the agreement will bring the peace and stability for which most of the people long [“Pakistanis rally for peace in militant stronghold,” by Sherin Zada, Washington Post, 18 February 2009].

“A hardline cleric led hundreds of supporters in a peace march in Pakistan’s Swat Valley … aimed at convincing Taliban militants to lay down their weapons under a pact with the government. … The regional government in Pakistan’s northwest struck the deal [on 16 February] with Sufi Muhammad, an aging pro-Taliban cleric who is father-in-law to Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Muhammad agreed to talk to Fazlullah in return for the pledge to introduce Islamic law in the valley, where militants have routed the police, beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls. Muhammad and his supporters, carrying black and white flags representing the Taliban and peace, marched through Swat’s main city of Mingora as jubilant residents chanted ‘God is great! We want peace!'”

God might be great, but fanatics have never managed to create conditions that establish lasting peace and stability. That is why the “peace” deal has drawn so much skepticism around the world. The real losers in the deal are bound to be Pakistani women and girls. As I have repeatedly noted in my discussions about Development-in-a-Box™, a society needs the strength and intellect of all of its citizens not just the male half. Pakistani explanations as to why they struck the deal ring hollow.

“Pakistani officials insist the deal is not a concession, but rather that it addresses the long-standing demands of residents in Swat and surrounding areas for a more efficient justice system. The main changes involve already existing regulations that were never enforced, for instance, allowing religious scholars to advise judges, officials said. There are no publicized plans to ban girls from schooling, as hardline Taliban would want. ‘We will not introduce the Taliban system here,’ Bashir Bilour, a senior provincial government leader, said Wednesday. ‘This is a system about justice. It is for producing swift justice.’ Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman has said President Asif Ali Zardari would not sign off on the agreement ‘until peace is restored in the region.’ The Swat Taliban, meanwhile, have said they will stop fighting once Islamic law is in place and are already observing a cease-fire.”

The cleric Sufi Muhammad is hardly a man of peace, although he tries to portray himself as one. The article notes that he was detained in 2002 after he sent thousands of insurgents into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and coalition forces. If you want peace, the people of the region need to demonstrate the same courage as the Muslims in Mumbai, India. New York Times‘ columnist Tom Friedman reports how they have taken a stand against terrorism [“No Way, No How, Not Here,” 17 February 2009]. Friedman writes:

“There are nine bodies — all of them young men — that have been lying in a Mumbai hospital morgue since Nov. 29. They may be stranded there for a while because no local Muslim charity is willing to bury them in its cemetery. This is good news. The nine are the Pakistani Muslim terrorists who went on an utterly senseless killing rampage in Mumbai on 26/11 — India’s 9/11 — gunning down more than 170 people, including 33 Muslims, scores of Hindus, as well as Christians and Jews. It was killing for killing’s sake. They didn’t even bother to leave a note. All nine are still in the morgue because the leadership of India’s Muslim community has called them by their real name — ‘murderers’ not ‘martyrs’ — and is refusing to allow them to be buried in the main Muslim cemetery of Mumbai, the 7.5-acre Bada Kabrastan graveyard, run by the Muslim Jama Masjid Trust. ‘People who committed this heinous crime cannot be called Muslim,’ Hanif Nalkhande, a spokesman for the trust, told The Times of London. Eventually, one assumes, they will have to be buried, but the Mumbai Muslims remain defiant.”

Friedman points out that Mumbai’s Muslims certainly find themselves in a vulnerable position and may be taking what appears to be a principled stand as a matter of self-defense. He doesn’t believe this is the case, however, because they are also vulnerable to attack by terrorists themselves.

“To be sure, Mumbai’s Muslims are a vulnerable minority in a predominantly Hindu country. Nevertheless, their in-your-face defiance of the Islamist terrorists stands out. It stands out against a dismal landscape of predominantly Sunni Muslim suicide murderers who have attacked civilians in mosques and markets — from Iraq to Pakistan to Afghanistan — but who have been treated by mainstream Arab media, like Al Jazeera, or by extremist Islamist spiritual leaders and Web sites, as ‘martyrs’ whose actions deserve praise. Extolling or excusing suicide militants as ‘martyrs’ has only led to this awful phenomenon — where young Muslim men and women are recruited to kill themselves and others — spreading wider and wider. What began in a targeted way in Lebanon and Israel has now proliferated to become an almost weekly occurrence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a threat to any open society because when people turn themselves into bombs, they can’t be deterred, and the measures needed to interdict them require suspecting and searching everyone at any public event. And they are a particular threat to Muslim communities. You can’t build a healthy society on the back of suicide-bombers, whose sole objective is to wreak havoc by exclusively and indiscriminately killing as many civilians as possible. If suicide-murder is deemed legitimate by a community when attacking its ‘enemies’ abroad, it will eventually be used as a tactic against ‘enemies’ at home, and that is exactly what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The only effective way to stop this trend is for ‘the village’ — the Muslim community itself — to say ‘no more.’ When a culture and a faith community delegitimizes this kind of behavior, openly, loudly and consistently, it is more important than metal detectors or extra police. Religion and culture are the most important sources of restraint in a society.”

The people in the Swat region of Pakistan live in fear. Among them lives two to three thousand Taliban extremists who are unlikely to lay down their arms or cease their tactics despite the peace agreement. In fact, in the cold light of day, those living in greatest fear have just lost more hope as the government capitulates to the demands of the extremists. Normalcy is not likely to return to the Swat Valley until “the village” works with the government to rid the area of extremists. As Friedman concludes:

“It takes a village, and without Arab-Muslim societies where the villagers feel ownership over their lives and empowered to take on their own extremists — militarily and ideologically — this trend will not go away.”

If Muslim clerics really want to help their fellow Muslims, they should work harder at generating hope than creating fear. They should devote their efforts to developing their communities rather than suppressing them. That is the message that Secretary Clinton had hoped to convey on her first trip abroad, but the message was undercut by the Pakistani government’s decision to indulge extremists. Pakistan should be a country filled with hope rather than fear. It has a long and interesting history. Given the right direction and motivation, its people could become peaceful and prosperous. At the moment, however, that dream seems to be fading into the mists of appeasement. The fact that the pact seems to have stalled provides a glimmer of hope that cooler heads will prevail and a more rational approach for dealing with the Taliban will emerge [“Pakistani Accord Appears Stalled,” by Pamela Constable, Karen DeYoung and Haq Nawaz Khan, Washington Post, 19 February 2009].

“Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan’s growing Islamist militancy, which controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless extremist forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan. ‘This is a bad idea that sends a very wrong signal,’ said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital. ‘It legitimizes the existence of violent armed groups and allows them to draw the wrong lesson: that if you are powerful enough to challenge the writ of the state, it will cave in and appease you.’ In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately that they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. ‘It’s a surrender disguised as a truce,’ one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country. Several officials said the proposed pact was evidence that the Pakistani government has no coherent plan for combating militancy. One noted that Pakistan had offered no comprehensive package of economic aid or outlined a long-term structure for the region. ‘This is signing a deal and calling it done,’ this official said. ‘What comes next?'”

What comes next is the question that Development-in-a-Box tries to address in areas that achieved enough security and stability that they can turn more of their attention to development. The Pakistani official is quite correct in his criticism that security represents a partial solution to a challenge that demands a complete answer. You can’t fault the people of the Swat Valley for the agreement. “We want peace at any cost,” [asserted] Gul Bad Shah, 46, a shopkeeper. … “We are very happy to see the hustle and bustle in the markets after a long time.” When one’s life is filled with fear and lack of security, any change appears to be change for the better. In this case, however, Mr. Shah is probably sadly mistaken. “Peace at any cost” has never been a recipe for success.

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