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How to squeeze jihadi culture out of Pakistan

Putting faith in President Musharraf hasn't worked. But here's what the US can do.

By Vali Nasr / July 20, 2007


The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this week paints a bleak picture of Al Qaeda's renewed strength and determination to attack America. And a major part of the blame, US officials charge, lies with someone President Bush has described as a critical ally in the war on terror: Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

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Since 9/11, Washington has looked to President Musharraf to uproot Islamic extremism in South Asia. Nearly six years later, however, Pakistan is still a nuclear-armed crucible of jihadi culture, exporting terrorists and destabilizing its neighbors.

For too long, Washington has coddled the Pakistani general, turned a blind eye to his crushing of democracy, and read too much into his pro-West rhetoric. The US must change course. And there are signs it's about to. "There's no doubt that more aggressive steps need to be taken," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

After almost a decade under Mush-arraf's rule, Pakistan hasn't changed much. He has initiated reforms and revamped the economy. But where he was expected to do most, fighting Islamic extremism, Pakistan's record is most disappointing.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban use Pakistani soil as a haven and training ground. Recent deals between the government and Pashtun tribes have in effect ceded the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. A big reason Al Qaeda's influence is growing, according to the NIE, is the operational capability it enjoys in Pakistan.

Musharraf speaks of "enlightened moderation," but he has done more to pulverize secular democratic parties than contain Islamist ones. It was his electoral rules that helped Islamist parties win their largest parliamentary representation ever in 2002, marginalizing the larger secular parties that threatened him.

Islamabad is happy to nab foreign jihadis when pressured by the West or ban extremist groups that get out of hand, but it has been reluctant to uproot the infrastructure of extremism.

Extremist groups proliferate and operate in the open. Musharraf finds them useful in convincing Washington and Pakistan's middle classes that the military is all that protects the country from a Taliban-like Islamic state.

It is not a coincidence that the government's recent battle against extremists associated with the Red Mosque came on the heels of nationwide antigovernment protests following Musharraf's summary dismissal of the country's chief justice. Musharraf hopes that the crisis will persuade secular-minded Pakistanis to abandon the barricades and align behind him.

The government was fully aware of what went on in the Red Mosque, just a mile from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters. Yet Musharraf chose to ignore the extremists between January and June, even as they sought to impose Islamic law on the capital city. It was not until he sensed public anger at his dithering, and confronted a diplomatic crisis when the extremists abducted Chinese nationals, that he stormed the mosque.