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Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation
Report 49 / Asia

Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military

The resurgence of the religious parties in the October 2002 elections portends ill for Pakistan's political, cultural and social stability.

Executive Summary

The resurgence of the religious parties in the October 2002 elections portends ill for Pakistan’s political, cultural and social stability. For the first time in the country’s history, an alliance of six major religious parties – the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – has won power in two provinces, vowing to Islamise state and society through Taliban-like policies. The MMA based its electoral campaign on Islam and anti-U.S. slogans, targeting President Pervez Musharraf’s pro-U.S. policies and pledging the enforcement of Sharia law. It now runs the government in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), bordering on Afghanistan, and shares power in Baluchistan.

The MMA’s zeal might encourage the supporters of its component parties to take up arms against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or their Afghan allies. Pakistani military and paramilitary troops on the border should be able to contain such a threat. More significantly, however, the rise of religious parties threatens to undermine civil liberties, freedom of expression, legal reforms and religious tolerance in Pakistan. In particular, the situation of women and minorities may become more difficult in the two provinces under MMA control.

The MMA program runs counter to President Musharraf’s pledges of reform. Having taken power in October 1999, Musharraf promised to end religious extremism and promote moderate Islam – a program that would have been a revolution of sorts. His decision to join the international coalition against terrorism after 11 September 2001 did bolster his image as a reformist and secular ruler. But the general has opted to follow the path of his military predecessors, forging alliances of convenience with religious organisations to counter secular political adversaries.

The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the largest parties in the MMA, have maintained close ties with the military for decades. Musharraf’s aversion to the mainstream political parties led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and the military’s declared intent to keep those two former prime ministers out of power presented the MMA with an open political field. As a result, religious parties have gained political clout, and religion is again at the heart of debates on legislation and public policy.

The MMA’s political domain is as yet restricted to two out of four provincial governments. It has chosen not to join the ruling pro-military Muslim League – Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) – at the centre, and has adopted a confrontational stance in the National Assembly. However, the alliance shares power with the PML-Q in Baluchistan. This strategy helps it promote an anti-American agenda while avoiding direct confrontation with the military’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Aware that foreign and defence policy is the military’s preserve, the MMA restricts its opposition to the generals to rhetoric. Its goal, in any case, is not to confront the military but to consolidate its political gains.

By assisting the military’s electoral manoeuvres, including formation of suitable governments in the centre and the provinces, the MMA has obtained major concessions, such as the release from jail of party workers and the dropping of several prosecutions. In the NWFP and Baluchistan, Islamisation is now official policy. Initial steps, such as a ban on music in public, attacks on cable television operators, and police action against video shops are signs of what lies ahead as the MMA implements its program.

Though MMA leaders have tried to allay worries that their governments might adopt Taliban-style policies, their actions show preference for strict religious rule. The MMA agenda includes an end to co-education, a first step towards the total segregation of women in public life, and the addition of more Islamic texts to school and college curricula. The MMA plans to screen and register NGOs in the NWFP and Baluchistan. Moral policing by the student wings of its parties in NWFP and Baluchistan educational institutions enjoys official backing. Similar trends are visible elsewhere in public life.

It remains to be seen how much room the MMA will be given to apply its version of Sharia law in the two provinces. The MMA stresses that implementation will remain within constitutional confines. Although the constitution is Islamic, the form and substance of Islamisation is determined by the centre, and federal legislation has primacy. The provinces are dependent on Islamabad’s financial assistance. Moreover, Musharraf’s constitutional amendments empower him to override parliament.

If history is a guide, however, the MMA could succeed with its Islamisation agenda. Many Islamic provisions are already part of the legal system, enacted by previous military governments. Since the military takeover in 1999, the government has demonstrated neither will nor intent to pursue domestic policies opposed by the mullahs, such as madrasa regulation or changes in discriminatory Islamic laws. Although the MMA sits with the opposition in the National Assembly, it has assured the government of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali that it will not help dislodge Musharraf’s political order. In return, the government might just decide to reward the MMA by tolerating Islamisation in the NWFP and Baluchistan.

The mullahs’ usefulness for the military goes beyond domestic politics. The perpetual threat of war with India over Kashmir, a conflict coloured in religious hues, also brings the MMA and the military together. The more Musharraf searches for domestic legitimacy, the more he plays up the Indian threat. The mullahs are more than willing to support the military’s policies in Kashmir.

The domestic implications of Musharraf’s unwillingness to transfer power are far reaching. The President’s constitutional and political distortions have put a fragile federation under immense stress. In the absence of checks on the military’s political powers, ethnic tensions are rising, particularly in Sindh and Baluchistan where there is strong resentment of the Punjabi-dominated military. There is also anger there at Musharraf’s efforts to empower religious parties at the expense of their moderate, secular counterparts with an ethnic or regional base.

While moderate sections of Pakistani society are being marginalised, religious parties and their causes are flourishing. The military follows pro-U.S. policies but the compulsions of domestic legitimacy have resulted in an alliance of expediency with the religious sector. As a result of the military’s unwillingness to extricate itself from domestic politics, the religious right, jihad and Islamisation are again acceptable currency in political life, threatening regional peace and fundamental political, economic and social rights of Pakistanis.

Islamabad/Brussels, 20 March 2003

Students chant slogans under the shade of national flag, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, according to Pakistani officials, during a march in Lahore, Pakistan 28 February 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Q&A / Asia

Calming India and Pakistan’s Tit-for-Tat Escalation

Reciprocal airstrikes by India and Pakistan have been accompanied by shelling, troop reinforcements and small arms fire. In this Q&A calling for restraint between the nuclear-armed neighbours, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller notes that the airspace violations alone were the worst for 50 years.

What happened exactly?

On Tuesday, 26 February, India claimed that its air force had targeted “the biggest training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed … in Balakot”. The strikes – the most significant airspace violations in nearly 50 years – followed a deadly 14 February suicide car bombing in Pulwama in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which had been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group. India said it launched a “preventive strike” based on intelligence that Jaish intended to attack again. At a press conference, Foreign Secretary VK Gokhale said Pakistan “failed to take any concrete action against terrorists” and that the strike on the training facility had “killed a large number”. In its official statement on the airstrike in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Indian government said, “The existence of such massive training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadists could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities”.

Pakistan refutes Indian officials’ claims that more than 300 Jaish militants were killed in the attack. It acknowledges however that eight Indian Air Force jets had violated the Line of Control, which divides Pakistan’s Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Indian-controlled J&K. The Pakistan military’s spokesperson said that its Air Force’s “timely and effective response” had forced the Indian planes to retreat, dropping their bombs in an uninhabited area near Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, causing no casualty or damage.

On 27 February, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said its Air Force had conducted six strikes on “non-military targets” in India to demonstrate the country’s “right, will and capability for self-defence”. Pakistan downed an Indian jet that entered its airspace in pursuit of the Pakistani aircraft, leading to the pilot’s capture. India claimed to have downed one of the intruding Pakistani jets.

Resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

Although it is clear that cross-Line of Control attacks and aerial skirmishes between the two sides occurred, it is difficult to verify both countries’ claims and counter-claims of targets and impact. Pakistani officials have provided evidence, also circulated on social media, of the downed Indian jet and the captured pilot, but claims of six successful strikes conducted in Indian-controlled Kashmir are more difficult to verify. Despite ample evidence of its cross-Line of Control attacks, Indian claims of killing hundreds in the airstrike on a Jaish training base and downing a Pakistani jet lack credence since New Delhi did not provide any evidence.

Why did it happen?

India’s and Pakistan’s latest skirmishes are as much aimed at assuaging domestic constituency concerns as they are at convincing each other of their capacity to strike and seriousness of intent. Still, resort to military force for political ends increases the risks of escalation, no matter how unintended.

In the Indian context, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government felt compelled to react in light of the countrywide outrage in the wake of the 14 February Jaish suicide car bombing. With elections months away, Modi, responding to domestic opinion – particularly that of his hardline BJP constituency – vowed to avenge the dead in Pulwama, including at least 40 Indian paramilitary police officers. “We will give a befitting reply; our neighbour will not be allowed to destabilise us,” he said, giving his security forces “permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response”. That response came in the shape of the 26 February airstrikes across the Line of Control.

Within Pakistan, given a long history of distrust toward, and war with India, the powerful military establishment had to demonstrate to constituencies at home that India’s hostile designs would be forcefully thwarted. On 22 February, days before the Indian Air Force strikes, the military’s spokesperson warned that, if India were to attack, Pakistan would never “fall short of capacity” and would “dominate the escalation ladder”. The day of the 26 February Indian attack, reiterating these warnings, the spokesperson referred to a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, saying to India, “I hope you know what the NCA means and what it constitutes”. 

What could happen next and why does it matter?

Both sides have left themselves room to climb down. Pakistani and Indian officials insist that their governments have no intention to escalate hostilities further. On 27 February, Pakistan’s military spokesperson said the Pakistan Air Force could have targeted a major Indian military installation in the strike area but chose to attack “in open space”, causing no casualties, so as to avoid escalation. The same day, speaking at a Russia-India-China foreign ministers meeting in Beijing, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said the 26 February strike, meant to pre-empt another terror attack, “wasn’t a military operation, no military installation was targeted”. India, she said, “doesn’t wish to see further escalation of the situation”.

For his part, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for restraint and diplomatic engagement and at the same time vividly highlighted the risks inherent in the current situation. The same day as his country’s planes launched strikes across the Line of Control, Khan elliptically referenced the nuclear capabilities in a television interview and said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?” He also offered to release the captured Indian pilot and to cooperate with India in investigating the Pulwama attack.

New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

Despite Khan’s acknowledgement of escalation risks, and Indian and Pakistani claims of responsibility and restraint, their armies are continuing to clash with artillery shelling and small arms fire along the Line of Control. Meanwhile, tensions are also high within J&K due to an Indian crackdown on Kashmiri dissidents, which could provoke more alienated youth to join militants. This apparently was the case of the 14 February suicide bomber, who came from a village close to the site of the Pulwama attack.

What should be done?

The international community, including China, the EU and European governments, have called on India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and prevent further escalation. In Washington, expressing U.S. concern about the tit-for-tat attacks, a White House official said, “The potential risks associated with further military action by either side are unacceptably high for both countries, their neighbours, and the international community”.

If the two sides are to step down from the brink, their leaders, civil and military, should resist the temptation to pander to domestic constituencies and tone down hostile rhetoric.

There is little foreseeable prospect, no matter how desirable, of the top Indian and Pakistani leaderships re-establishing direct communication channels and bilateral dialogue. These have been frozen since the 2016 terror attacks in Indian Punjab and Indian-administered Kashmir, which New Delhi attributed to Pakistan-based militants. Nevertheless, New Delhi and Islamabad should immediately and urgently revive the hotline between their Directors General for Military Operations, a crucial mechanism to prevent unintended and inadvertent conflict escalation.

In the short and medium terms, New Delhi should rethink its approach toward and within J&K, ending the heavy-handed militarised response that has contributed to growing local alienation and disaffection. Pakistan should rethink its longstanding policy of supporting anti-India jihadist proxies, such as Jaish, that – as this latest round of escalation shows – are far more of a threat to national security than an asset.

This article was corrected on 2 March 2019 to place Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as first reported by Pakistan.