Misinterpreting the Pakistani Elections

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 9 months ago

Main stream media reports almost across the board are gushing at the rejection of Islamism that allegedly dominated the recent Pakistani elections.  There are too many such reports to enumerate here, but one extreme example will suffice from McClatchy.

Pakistani voters have handed Islamist political parties a massive defeat, virtually eliminating them from regional parliaments.

The election Monday is likely to have a wide-ranging effect on efforts to rein in growing Taliban and al-Qaida influence in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province.

In 2002, fundamentalist religious parties, some openly sympathetic to the Taliban, won 12 percent of the national vote. That was enough to form a regional government in the province that borders Afghanistan. It also allowed the parties to become part of the ruling coalition in Baluchistan, another province, and to hold 57 seats in the 342-member national Parliament.

But unofficial results of Monday’s vote indicate that religious parties won only five seats in the national Parliament. In North West Frontier province, where the country’s Islamic insurgency is strongest, religious parties won just nine seats in the 96-seat provincial assembly. In 2002, they won 67.

“This is a sea change,” said Khalid Aziz, a political analyst based in the province’s capital, Peshawar. “The people have rejected the much-hyped Islamic nation concept.”

This is strong analysis – “sea change,” and “massive defeat.”  Yet this doesn’t even qualify as good surface level cursory analysis.  In order to understand what the Pakistani voters rejected and what they didn’t, it is important to go backwards in time to understand what is being called the “next generation Taliban” by the smarter analysts.  For this we must turn to Nicholas Schmidle.  His most extensive commentary and analysis from his time spent in Pakistan is entitled Next-Gen Taliban in the New York Times Magazine (a small portion of this important analysis is included below).

Efforts at democratic integration by parties like the J.U.I. have now been overshadowed by the violence of their antidemocratic Islamist colleagues – a network of younger Taliban fighting on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, jihadis pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda and any number of freelancing militants. Disrupting and discrediting democracy may, of course, be the point. The Bhutto assassination could well make moderation impossible, as Islamist radicals savor their disruptive power – and enraged mainstream parties threaten the stability of the government itself …

In Quetta, Maulvi Noor Muhammad, who is 62, sat on the madrassa’s cold concrete floor wrapped in a wool blanket as he leafed through a newspaper. Speaking in Pashto through an interpreter, he said that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the J.U.I. chief, had visited three times in the previous few weeks to persuade him to enter the election. Muhammad claimed to have refused each time because he believed the J.U.I. had drifted from its core mission: to lead an aggressive Islamization campaign and provide political support to what he referred to as the mujahedeen, a term for Muslim fighters that can shift in meaning depending on who is speaking. “Participating in this election would amount to treason against the mujahedeen,” he said. I asked about the others in the party who had decided to run for office. Muhammad shook his head in disappointment and explained how, following the government operation against the Red Mosque rebels in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, in July, President Musharraf put religious leaders under tremendous pressure. “Musharraf threatened to raid several madrassas,” Muhammad said. “The political mullahs got scared.”

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is exactly the sort of “political mullah” whom Muhammad portrayed as running scared. In the past year, the J.U.I. chief has tried to disassociate himself from the new generation of Taliban wreaking havoc not only across the border in Afghanistan, as they have for years, but also increasingly in Pakistan. At the same time, Rehman has been trying to persuade foreign ambassadors and establishment politicians here that he is the only one capable of dealing with those same Taliban. (Rehman told me that he never offered Muhammad a chance to enter the election; he even added that the J.U.I. had already expelled the Taliban guru “on disciplinary grounds.” ) In the process, some Islamists maintain that Rehman has sold them out. Last April, a rocket whistled over the sugarcane fields that separate Rehman’s house from the main road before crashing into the veranda of his brother’s home next door. A few months later, Pakistani intelligence agencies discovered a hit list, drafted by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with Rehman’s name on it.

“The religious forces are very divided right now,” I was told by Abdul Hakim Akbari, a childhood friend of Rehman’s and lifelong member of the J.U.I. I met Akbari in Dera Ismail Khan, Rehman’s hometown, which is situated in the North-West Frontier Province. According to this past summer’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, approved by all 16 official intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has regrouped in the Tribal Areas adjoining the province and may be planning an attack on the American homeland. “Everyone is afraid,” Akbari told me. “These mujahedeen don’t respect anyone anymore. They don’t even listen to each other. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a moderate. He wants dialogue. But the Taliban see him as a hurdle to their ambitions. ”

Rehman doesn’t pretend to be a liberal; he wants to see Pakistan become a truly Islamic state. But the moral vigilantism and the proliferation of Taliban-inspired militias along the border with Afghanistan is not how he saw it happening. The emergence of Taliban-inspired groups in Pakistan has placed immense strain on the country’s Islamist community, a strain that may only increase with the assassination of Bhutto. As the rocket attack on Rehman’s house illustrates, the militant jihadis have even lashed out against the same Islamist parties who have coddled them in the past.

The next generation Taliban, unlike their predecessors in the tribal region who also want total Islamism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, completely reject democratic means to accomplish such change.  They are also more savvy technically and have no theological baggage regarding reluctance to suicide missions.  The Taliban in Afghanistan are learning from the jihadists across the globe who have travelled to Pakistan to fight, and suicide missions in Afghanistan are increasing, and increasingly carried out by Afghanis themselves.

More recently, Schmidle weighed in on what the vote from the North-West Frontier Province means.

Does this mean the end of Islamism in Pakistan? Not quite. In fact, while the defeat of Musharraf’s political allies in the PML (Q) signals a new political leadership in Islamabad, the defeat of the MMA could also signal a new political and religious leadership in the troubled areas along the border with Afghanistan. In the North West Frontier Province, where the MMA formed the provincial government last term, the Islamists’ vote bank was a combination of die-hards who desired the creation of an Islamic state and those less ideologically driven who were attracted to the MMA’s promises of justice, economic renewal, and security. This time around, the latter voted for the Awami National Party. The former, such as Iqbal Khan of the Swat Valley, joined the Taliban.

Note well Schmidle’s analysis.  The less ideologically driven voter abandoned the Islamist party, but then, he never voted for that party for the purposes of institution of sharia law anyway.  He voted for jobs, sewers, electricity, water supply and good governance several years ago and got none of what he voted for. Hence, he overthrew the clerics this time around.  The die-hards joined the Taliban.  There are various colors and stripes of jihadists the world over, from Salafism to Wahhabism, from the purist Sunni radicals in Saudi Arabia to the Shi’a Mullahs and their followers in Iran.  But one common element among them all is the utter rejection of democracy.  Democracy is deemed to be directly contrary to Islam, and the Taliban, al Qaeda and their sympathizers and advocates sat out the election.  They had no stake in it.

So what will be the likely outcome of the Pakistani elections?  No military action against the Taliban, just more talk, based on sentiment expressed just prior to the election.

“We must sit with [the Taleban], we must talk to them, we are from the same origin, we are from the same people, we’ve got the same language.”

Mardan candidates also believe a democratic, civilian government would have more legitimacy to negotiate with the Taleban than one led by a former general, like President Musharraf.

That has yet to be proven, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on the Taleban.

“I don’t think they have a strategy to deal with this,” he says.

“All are saying that if they’re in power they will negotiate with the Taleban, the extremists. That policy has been tried by Mr Musharraf. So I think the same policy will continue: military operations, peace accords, ceasefires, I think this trend will continue.”

The situation is even more shaky than that.  Combined U.S.-Pakistani operations were planned in the tribal region prior to the election and are now cancelled.  Further, the U.S. finds herself in the position of needing Pakistan more than she needs the U.S.

“Americans cannot do anything if we stop the operations in tribal areas. If they stop military aid, they are welcome to do so. We don’t need military aid. All we need is economic aid and they just cannot afford to stop it. Why? Because all NATO supply lines pass through Pakistan and if they stop economic aid, Pakistan can stop supply lines which would end their regional war on terror theater once and for all. This is the biggest crime of Musharraf – that he could not understand the strategic value of Pakistan in the region and could not exploit it.”

There are strategically difficult and tenuous times ahead for Pakistan-U.S.-Afghanistan relations.  The existence and strength of the Taliban and al Qaeda and the future of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan hangs in the balance.  Whatever the future holds, the Pakistani voters have not rejected Islamism.  They have rejected lack of jobs and financial security because leaders of the Madrasah didn’t know what they were doing when they tried to govern a society.  Islamism has nothing whatsoever to do with it.  Making up fairy tales about what they meant when they cast their vote doesn’t help the counterinsurgency campaign in this troubled region of the world.

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You are currently reading "Misinterpreting the Pakistani Elections", entry #951 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,al Qaeda,Islamists,Jihadists,Pakistan,Taliban and was published February 22nd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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