A year after democracy returned to Pakistan, the overwhelming feeling is disappointment. Extremist groups such as the Taliban have managed to expand their power under the civilian government, and yet now would not be the right time to call democracy itself into question, says Thomas Bärthlein.
International criticism once again rained down on Pakistan this week -- this time because of the introduction of Sharia law in the Swat valley. With reason, because the deal between the provincial government and local militant extremists is a sign of capitulation to the Taliban, who have brought the scenic north-western region of Pakistan under their de facto control. This deal will surely encourage the extremists to pursue their terror tactics so as to achieve similar aims elsewhere in the country.
To be fair, however, one has to admit that it is easy to criticise -- especially from a distance. But what would have been an appropriate alternative to an agreement with the Taliban?
The military option has not worked -- neither here nor in other parts of the country. The army has completely failed and can only claim a few choice successes here and there, at the very most, in its fight against insurgency. The army is not capable of holding onto territory. And its disproportionate treatment of civilians has had the side-effect of creating more Taliban supporters. What is especially fatal is the state’s constant wavering from a tough approach to one of concessions. The Taliban are always bound to profit from such inconsistent behaviour.
But it would be wrong to call democracy into question now and to look back on the days of General Musharraf’s military dictatorship with nostalgia. The real problem in Pakistan is not that society is becoming radical. If that were the case then the Islamists would have triumphed in last year’s free elections. They did not, however; and instead they suffered a crushing defeat. The real problem is the predominance of the army and its secret services, as well as their connections with Islamists.
The army promoted Islamism in Pakistan. Islamist parties were developed so as to keep democratic forces at bay. The army especially supported militant groups that were supposed to carry out “Jihad” in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the supposed interest of Pakistan. The recent dithering and contradictory statements in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, are also an indication of the power struggle in Islamabad between the army and the secret services on the one hand, which remain extremely influential and want to conceal the Pakistani connections to the gunmen, and the democratic government on the other, which would be willing to introduce more transparency and cooperation.
It must also be said once again that the West has no small part in this entire mess. Without its active support of the dictator Zia ul-Haq after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and of Pervez Musharraf after 11. Sept. 2001, the Pakistani army would not be in this strong position today.
Now it is time to rectify these mistakes. The West should push for a strengthening of democratic institutions and rule of law in Pakistan. Above all, the army and the secret services have to be brought under civilian control.
Disappointment about the weaknesses Pakistan has shown in its fight against extremism is understandable. Many politicians, NGOs and the media are much more critical of the army or the US than they are of the Taliban, for a variety of reasons that range from anti-Americanism to fear of the extremists.
But the solution is definitely more democracy. Pakistan will find its own way in its conflict with the Taliban because most Pakistanis do not want to live in Talibanistan. It’s just that nobody asks them for their opinion.