Pakistan's Islamic Radicals: Defeated in the Elections
Most media and Western politicians have missed the most important message of the last elections in Pakistan: the radical Islamist MMA party lost dramatically and even in its strongholds in the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP), with its capital Peshawar, garnered much fewer votes than in 2002.
This is congruent with the recent sensational results of the opinion poll by the famous U.S.-based Gallup institute ("Who Speaks For Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think"), which surveyed 50,000 Muslims in 35 Islamic countries. According to the study, 93 percent of the Muslims hold moderate views and only a tiny minority of 7 percent are politically radical. Not only the moderate Muslims but even the radicals admire democracy, human rights and technology in the West. But the U.S. has lost its credibility and trust in the Muslim world, with a good 67 percent of moderate Muslims fearing America as an aggressive power which wants to dominate the world. The radicals are not poorer, less educated and do not pray more than the moderates- they are radical for political reasons, mainly a hatred toward the U.S. as a state and world power and a perception of too little respect of the West vis-a-vis Islam.
Back to the NWFP and the tribal areas FATA in Pakistan: the very significant development of the February 18, 2007 elections in Pakistan was the resounding defeat suffered by Islamist parties. In the 2002 election, a six-party coalition known as the Muttahida-Majles-e-Amal (MMA) won over 60 seats in the 342 member Parliament. It was feared that these pro-Taliban clerics would increase their share of power with each successive election. The results of the recent elections demonstrated otherwise; namely that the ascendancy of the MMA proved to be a "political hiccup" rather than the basis for a mass Islamist movement. Secular parties such as the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won the largest number of seats in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) along the troubled border with Afghanistan, the erstwhile stronghold of the MMA. The MMA even lost its majority in the tribal areas, winning only seven out of 96 seats, as against 31 for the ANP and 17 for the PPP.
When the MMA formed the provincial government in the Frontier last term, the Islamist parties' voting bank was a combination of hardliners calling for the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of Sharia Law and less ideologically minded supporters who were drawn to the MMA's promises of brining justice, economic development, and security to the neglected area. In the recent elections, the latter voted for the ANP.
It should be recalled that the MMA owed their 2002 victory largely to the prevailing politico-military environment at that time. The Taliban, who are Pashtuns like their brethren in the NWFP, had recently been bombed and routed by US-led forces in Afghanistan. A political vacuum existed owing to the absence of mainstream political parties (the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N, whose leaders were facing corruption charges and were in exile). One could argue that in 2002 the MMA vote was more of an anti-American/pro-Pashtun vote than an affirmation of hard-line Islamism. The Pashtuns of Pakistan were reeling from the defeat of their brethren on the Afghan side of the border and felt that a similar fate might befall them in Pakistan. The support for the MMA was thus a vote for survival in the collective consciousness of the Pashtuns. After all, the MMA stood in opposition to the US-led war in Afghanistan and projected themselves as the flag-bearers of the economic and cultural rights of the Pashtuns. But most Pashtuns have proven to be pragmatists at heart, especially those with a basic or higher level of education. The victory of the ANP in the elections can thus be described as the voice of the Pashtun consciousness rather than a victory of secularism as such. If the ANP does not "deliver the goods" in terms of alleviating poverty and stemming military action and associated collateral damage, protecting Pashtun rights, etc., they too will suffer in the next election.
One of the reasons for the defeat of the MMA was that it failed in its' role of protector - witness the large-scale military operations that were initiated during their tenure, especially in Waziristan and Swat. The MMA were shown to be ineffective in the face of massive Army action (over 100,000 troops continue to be deployed in these areas).
If anything, over this period there was an upsurge of anti-Pashtun feeling in the sense that it this ethnic group which was associated with Talibanization and terrorism, which the majority of Pashtuns clearly eschew. Many Pashtuns blame Pakistan's intelligence agencies for sowing the seeds of hard-core Islamist militancy in the Frontier. They say that these are still largely fringe elements but are quickly gaining ground owing to the misguided counter-insurgency tactics of the government and to the illiteracy and grinding poverty of the region where it was spawned - mainly the tribal areas, especially Waziristan. Nonetheless, the ANP also earned the respect of the electorate by convening a tribal assembly - a Grand Jirga, which included all parties (PPP, PML-Q, PML-N etc.) in which participants gave tacit support to the Taliban. Soon afterwards the government's retaliation against the Pakistani Taliban ceased.
It was therefore not difficult for the ANP to exploit these grievances and to reclaim their classic position as secular flag-bearers of Pashtun rights. This role of protector has proven to be the overriding determinant in the political dispensation of the NWFP electorate. Some observers argue that if there had been no sympathy factor working in favour of the PPP (Benazir Bhutto having recently been assassinated), the few seats that the PPP gained in the Frontier would have gone to the ANP.
These two parties announced recently that they are forming a coalition and that they agree on a four key points: (i) The restoration of the pre-3 Nov. 2007 judiciary; (ii) fair and equitable distribution of national resources; (iii) provincial autonomy; and (iv) continued cooperation in the "War on Terror". It is interesting to note that soon after this statement, ANP leader Asfandiar Wali Khan told the US Ambassador to Pakistan that an altogether new strategy is required in order to successfully combat terrorism. Presumably this refers to largely non-military solutions to which all the opposition parties agree. They argue that a new civilian-led government will be more effective at countering militancy than the military-dominated one under President Musharraf. The opposition parties have called for a strategy in the tribal areas similar to the new counterinsurgency strategies employed by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Americans have tried to use a combination of military force, reconstruction and political dialogue to turn local tribes against militants. There is much skepticism regarding this approach, considering that many of the elders required for tribal assemblies have been assassinated or are too frightened to participate and militants often refuse to attend altogether.
In this context, a significant development has been the agreement reached between US and Pakistani officials immediately prior to the elections. This involves an intensification of secret strikes by remotely piloted aircraft under new, much looser, rules of engagement which allow US forces to attack suspected Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles such as the MQ-1 Predator.
The question now being asked in Washington is whether this agreement will survive the new government in Islamabad. However there is a convergence of views on a long-term strategy toward convincing militants to abandon the insurgency, and toward weakening the popular support that allows the likes of Al-Qaida to maintain a sanctuary in the region by building schools, clinics, roads and other infrastructure for the three million desperately poor inhabitants of the tribal areas.