Radical Islam and the activities of jihadi groups have been central to Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan as well as India. But the Pakistani military was already turning against such groups for internal reasons, before the US assault on al-Qaeda and the Taliban and this winter’s confrontation with India.

Pakistan has been passing through extremely difficult times. First, the government was drawn into supporting America’s Afghan war, which was costly for it. Then, the winter saw a dangerous military confrontation with India, threatening a war that neither side wants. South Asians who are committed to values of secular democracy are faced with a paradox. A military ruler in Pakistan has declared a war against Islamic fundamentalism and is, apparently, pursuing secular values. By contrast, the once proudly secular India has been taken over by extreme Hindu fundamentalists who came to power through the ballot box. They have threatened war against Pakistan. Secularism and democracy are at odds with each other.

Islamic fundamentalism and the activities of jihadi groups have been central to Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan as well as India. But that can be misleading. Pakistani policies were already being reoriented by its military regime against such groups for internal reasons, long before George W. Bush’s declaration of war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the warlike confrontation with India that began in December. In both cases, moreover, material interests are concealed behind the ideological cloak of religious fundamentalism.

Oil and the Taliban

Islamic fundamentalism was propagated in Pakistan in the 1980s by its military dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq, recruited by Reagan and assisted by the CIA to mobilize Afghan warlords to fight the Soviets in the name of Islamic jihad. A jihadi culture was actively promoted in Pakistan (not least within the army) as well as in Afghanistan, with the help of US and Saudi money. CIA-trained jihadi groups in both counties were armed with sophisticated weapons such as Stinger missiles. After driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, rival warlords, all invoking Islam, and armed by the US and Pakistan, began to tear their country apart. Against that background of complete anarchy, the radical Islamist Taliban rose to power.

The interests of Unocal, an American oil company, lurked behind US Afghanistan policy during the 1990s. Unocal aimed to build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia, across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, bypassing Iran. But the destructive civil war being fought by warlords forestalled the establishment of an effective state that could guarantee the security of the proposed pipelines. Attempts to bring the warring Afghan factions together were unsuccessful. By the end of 1994, with help from the government of Benazir Bhutto and financial aid from Saudi Arabia, the Taliban emerged as a powerful and united force in that deeply divided country. They secured control over most of the country, driving then- President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s forces into a small enclave in the northeast.

Fazlur Rehman, head of the Pakistani Jamiat-e Ulamae Islam (JUI), had close links with the Taliban leadership and played a major part in securing the Bhutto government’s support for the Taliban. In the 1993 elections Fazlur Rehman was an ally of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. He was made Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, a position that he used to build connections with the army leadership and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), who were already deeply involved in Afghan affairs. He had close personal contact with most Taliban leaders who had been students of deeni madaris (religious schools) run by the JUI in Pakistan.

The US government soon tacitly supported the Taliban, who had effectively subordinated the sparring warlords and had also publicized their dislike of Iran as well as their determination to cut Afghanistan’s flourishing opium production. In April 1996 Robin Raphel, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia visited Islamabad, various Afghan cities and Central Asian capitals. [1] As Ahmed Rashid points out, by April 1996, “The Clinton administration was clearly sympathetic to the Taliban, as they were in line with Washington’s anti- Iran policy and were important for the success of any southern pipeline from Central Asia.” [2] Early in 1997 Unocal brought a Taliban delegation to Washington, lobbying for US recognition, while at the same time another Taliban delegation was in Buenos Aires on the invitation of Bridas, Unocal’s rival. [3]

By late 1997, however, world opinion was outraged by news of the extremely oppressive policies of the Taliban, especially with regard to women. US feminist groups mounted pressure against both Unocal and the Clinton administration, demanding a change in policy toward the Taliban. The women’s vote was crucial for Bill Clinton in the 1996 elections and he could not ignore women’s groups. The Taliban invited reprisals from the US by providing a base for bin Laden, who had declared war against the US and the Saudis and was held responsible for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Ironically, it took the petty Monica Lewinsky affair, when Clinton needed a dramatic alternative focus for public attention, to precipitate an ill-planned and ineffective cruise missile attack on Afghan territory in August 1998. At that point Unocal pulled out of Afghanistan, at least for the time being.

The economic rationale for a pipeline via Afghanistan and Pakistan remains. Westward pipeline routes now pushed by the US government are also insecure and more expensive than the southern route. Further, the burgeoning Southeast and East Asian markets for oil and gas could be more directly and cheaply accessed from the Baluchistan coast.

After the fall of the Taliban, Unocal may be hoping that its pipeline through Afghanistan is once again politically feasible. But Hamid Karzai’s transitional government cobbled together at Bonn, made up as it is of a makeshift collection of rival warlords, lacking any political unity, is unlikely to be the basis of the stable Afghanistan that the US and Unocal are looking for. Warlords are already back in action in the countryside, defiant of the central authority, which itself is internally divided.

Secularism vs. Islamic Fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalist parties had little influence in Pakistan until Z.A. Bhutto, with his misguided and opportunistic populism, flirted with them in the 1970s. It was Zia, however, who promoted fundamentalist Islam actively in the 1980s. With generous Saudi financing he encouraged the establishment of a chain of deeni madaris that recruited sons of pauperized peasants and Afghan refugees, offering them free room and board and “religious education.” The “education,” such as it was, was designed to turn the pupils into zealots. Some madaris also gave military training to their pupils who became militant cadres of jihadi groups and were later to provide foot soldiers for the Afghan Taliban. The minds of the pupils were filled with utopian dreams about the “Islamic” society which they would create, in which no one would be left in want. Most leaders of the Afghan Taliban were products of Pakistani deeni madaris. They maintained close ties with their Pakistani mentors, notably the leaders of the two factions of the Pakistani JUI.

More than 70 percent of the larger madaris (with more than 40 pupils) belonged to the puritanical Deobandi-Wahhabi tradition. The Saudis funded the madaris to foster anti- Shi‘a and anti-Iranian ideas. The Iranians responded in kind, but the number of Shi‘a madaris was less than four percent of the total. The deeni madaris provided recruits for extremist sectarian groups most of which were heavily armed, and sectarian violence reached a scale that Pakistan had never known before.

Islamist leaders acquired new ambitions. They began to assert that Pakistan was created to establish an Islamic state and it was they, therefore, who had the right to run the government. Post-Zia civilian governments (alternately under the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League) continued to promote Islamic fundamentalist ideology through school textbooks, universities and the media. Most Pakistanis soon came to believe that Pakistan was indeed created to establish an Islamic state.

The fact, however, is that the Pakistan movement had secular foundations. The All India Muslim League was not a religious movement at all. It was a party of Western- educated professionals and the “salariat” — those who aspired to get government jobs. These people successfully resisted attempts by mullahs to gain influence in their party. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founding father of Pakistan, spelled out the movement’s secular creed in his inaugural address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly. Speaking against the background of the long history of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India before independence, he said that in Pakistan “Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, for that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense, as citizens of the state.” It was not until the 1980s, under Zia’s regime, that “secularism”was equated with apostasy.

Musharraf’s “Secularism”

Armed jihadi groups patronized by the “democratic” regime of Nawaz Sharif dominated Pakistan’s civil society when the 1998 army coup, that brought General Pervez Musharraf into power, took place. Thanks to Zia’s policies, Islamic ideology had permeated some sections of the army as well. But the dominant ideology in the army remained that of “professionalism,” inculcated in Indian officers of the army by the British colonial rulers to insulate them from the appeal of nationalist movements. That ideology entailed “military honor” and loyalty to one’s regiment as well as a belief in the moral superiority of the “professional” army officer over “selfseeking politicians” who exploited the illiterate masses. The dominance of this ideology among the Pakistani officers’ corps was only partly lessened when Zia made his efforts to promote Islamic ideology instead.

In 1995 Islamist ideologues led by a Major General Abbasi attempted an internal coup to dislodge the professionals. Their aim was to Islamize the army and Pakistan. The coup attempt failed, but it was a major shock to the professionals and “reinforce[d] the senior commanders’ concern with professional development.” [4] In the aftermath many Islamist officers were weeded out. But many, especially in senior positions, remained. Musharraf and the “professionals” were faced with difficulties in contending with powerful generals committed to Islamic ideology.

In opposing religious fundamentalist tendencies in the army and society, Musharraf has invoked the secular values of Jinnah. But Musharraf himself does not appear to be driven by any ideology. He is a “professional,” a pragmatic and flexible man who believes in the armed forces as the sole repository of legitimate force in society and, indeed, the custodian of the nation. He has had no difficulty in abandoning one policy and supporting another if that promises to be more profitable. It was easy for Musharraf to drop his earlier support for the Taliban and jump on the bandwagon of Bush’s war against terrorism, since he had not supported the Taliban on grounds of Islamic ideology. The Taliban’s capture of Kabul was in effect a victory for the Pakistani forces behind them — the first ever victory of Pakistan’s army in the field. As a professional, Musharraf took pride in that victory. But soon it was clear to him that he was backing the wrong horse.

Soon after taking power, Musharraf indicated his predilections by declaring that Kemal Atatürk, the great “Muslim” secular soldier, was his personal hero. He unsuccessfully tried to modify Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, one of Zia’s legacies, which was being used to persecute innocent people, especially Christians. This move was resisted loudly and angrily by Islamists still in the army. Musharraf might not have cared about mere public outcry, but resistance from within the army was another matter. The professionals had not yet consolidated their influence in the army, and Musharraf had to retreat. Musharraf ’s recent declaration that he will not make any attempt to repeal or modify any of the unjust and oppressive laws promulgated by Zia in the name of Islam bespeaks the strength of Islamists still in the army. It will take a long time to exorcise Zia’s ghost from the minds of the Pakistani public and the army.

Sectarian Killings

The heavily armed jihadi groups were a matter of great concern to the professionals in the military establishment for reasons other than Islamic ideology. These groups were rival nodes of power vis-à-vis the army, a situation that was anathema to Musharraf ’s cohort. With their sophisticated weaponry, jihadi groups were a threat to the army’s monopoly of legitimate force in society.

In the summer of 2001, armed Islamist groups went on a sectarian killing spree throughout the country, leaving hundreds of victims. Some groups targeted Shi‘a professionals, killing doctors (68 in Karachi alone), engineers, civil servants and teachers. But not only Shi‘a were killed. The head of a relatively moderate Sunni movement in Karachi was killed by rival Deobandis. Shi‘a groups retaliated, killing Sunnis. Iranian diplomats were assassinated by the Deobandis. Government officials, including some senior police officers, were also among those killed. Judges were afraid to try cases of sectarian killings (as well as blasphemy cases). One senior judge was assassinated in his office by gunmen because he had found a sectarian killer guilty of murder.

Pakistani press reports alleged that intelligence agencies were involved in the sectarian murders. Support for sectarian killers from within the state machinery was a challenge to the army professionals, placing Musharraf and his team in contention with those who sympathized with the religious extremists. This contradiction at the heart of state power had another dimension: although the professionals held central power, religious ideologues were able to manipulate the corrupt and inefficient state apparatus at the local level. The Pakistani press also reported that many activists in extremist groups were common criminals who had close ties with local police and military officers. The writ of the state ran very thin.

The Army’s Writ Restored

Universal horror at the killings gave Musharraf an opening to regain the initiative. In June 2001, he convened a national conference of ulama at which he roundly condemned them for their narrow and dogmatic conception of Islam. His hard-hitting speech asked if Islam was about sectarian killings, and warned the ulama that they were not above the law. Musharraf could not have said as much a year earlier, but he was now more confident. That warning to religious leaders was followed by the August 14 banning of two notorious sectarian terrorist groups, the Sunni Lashkar-e Jhanghvi and the Shi‘a Sipah-e Muhammad. After Bush declared his global “war on terrorism,” Musharraf knew he could depend upon the formerly hostile US to support him.

Many in Pakistan believe that Musharraf began to act against religious extremist groups only at the behest of the Americans. That is manifestly not the case. Musharraf ’s crackdown on armed religious extremist groups began not after September 11 but well before that. However, we must also recognize that he was able to remove or sideline Islamists in the army only after he could count on US backing. Among the senior generals given compulsory retirement after September 11 was the very ambitious and powerful Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmad, director general of the notorious ISI. In 2000, Ahmad was able to prevent a presidential visit to Afghanistan during which Musharraf had intended to persuade Mullah Omar to yield Osama bin Laden to the US. Instead, Ahmad went to Kandahar himself and gave the green light to the Taliban’s continued refusals.

In opposition to the fundamentalists’ slogan of Islamic jihad, Musharraf has raised the counter-slogan of “Pakistan First.” To justify disarming or banning armed fundamentalist groups, he has declared that the “writ of the state must be restored,” by which he clearly means the writ of the army. For the time being the professionals have the upper hand in the army. But the effects of ideological conditioning spanning over two decades, both within the army and in society, cannot be erased overnight. Retired general Talat Masood reflected concerns among the professionals in the military when he pointed out that ideological “reforming and recasting will not be easy…and is likely to be met with resistance from disaffected groups, even from some elements within the establishment [meaning the army] itself.” [5]

A cultural revolution is called for. Musharraf has said that he wants to transform Pakistan into a “modern, moderate Muslim state.” If Musharraf and the military believe that a progressive and vibrant society can be created purely by orders from above, they will be sadly mistaken. What is needed is freedom of speech and expression that might allow creative and courageous thought to flourish. For over half a century, since independence, a culture of conformity and censorship has been enforced. Old habits die hard. There is an ingrained fear of new ideas, not least among those who rule over the academic world, the media and the police, particularly vis-à-vis public meetings. There are already some signs of a new intellectual environment, but this will not flourish in a political vacuum, nor will it be painless, achieved without a struggle.


The Kashmir issue has been the main obstacle in the way of better relations between Pakistan and India. It is time that both countries recognized that the future of Kashmir is for Kashmiris to decide. Since the beginning of the Kashmiri intifada in 1989 there has been growing consciousness of this in Pakistan. Pakistanis support the self-determination for the Kashmiris very passionately, and no Pakistani government can abandon that cause. Musharraf has affirmed this commitment. He has made a distinction between “terrorism” and national liberation struggles against an occupying power, thus justifying and supporting the struggle of the Kashmiri people. At the same time, he has categorically rejected any role for Pakistan-based jihadi groups in Kashmir. In 1989, General Aslam Beg, then head of the army, set up the ISI’s Kashmir Cell to control and coordinate the activities of jihadi groups. Musharraf has closed the cell down, saying that Pakistan-based jihadi groups were alienating Kashmiris by trying to impose the Taliban’s version of Islam on them. Secondly, he has accepted that there is no military solution for the Kashmir issue. Pakistan, Musharraf says, must give all political and diplomatic support to the struggle for self-determination of the Kashmiri people and try to secure international mediation, including enforcement of UN resolutions on Kashmir. A.G. Bhatt, chairman of the 23- member All Parties Hurriyat Conference of Kashmir, has welcomed that declaration, saying that the time had come for the political process to take over.

India’s Threat of War

By mid-December 2001, Pakistan was faced with India’s threat of war in response to a jihadi attack on the Indian parliament on December 13. The Indians instantly blamed the ISI and two Pakistani jihadi groups, namely Jaish-e Muhammad and Lashkar-e Taiba, for the attack. Not long thereafter, leaders and activists of these two groups were arrested in Pakistan. It was claimed, unconvincingly, that the arrests were unconnected with the New Delhi attack. That was the last thing the Musharraf government could have wanted. Pakistan had nothing to gain and much to lose by staging such a drama.

The scale of Indian troop mobilization at the Pakistani border has been unprecedented. On January 14, the Washington Times quoted US officials saying that “90 percent of India’s military forces are now deployed outside of peacetime garrisons.” India has a far bigger and better-equipped army and a much larger nuclear capacity, than Pakistan, and its economy is much larger and stronger. A war between the two nuclear South Asian countries would be a terrible disaster all around. Pakistan has few illusions about the ultimate outcome of such a conflict. Musharraf has been appealing for talks and for the return of troops on both side of the border to peacetime positions. Analysts have stressed that a war would not be easy for India either, whatever the final outcome may be. The Pakistani army has the capacity to inflict unacceptably heavy damage in return. As someone who has spent the best part of his life promoting friendship between India and Pakistan, I find the way in which the present government of India has dismissed every approach made by the Musharraf government (and by an anxious US) for a peaceful settlement to be extremely sad and very worrying.

Immediately after the jihadi attack on the Indian parliament, Musharraf condemned it unreservedly. He offered joint Pakistani-Indian investigations to identify the culprits and bring them to justice. That offer was turned down by India. Pakistan then asked India to provide evidence that might enable a full Pakistani investigation. That request too was dismissed. Instead, the Indian government demanded that about 20 persons named in a list consisting largely of Indian nationals should be deported to India. Musharraf said that Pakistan had not given asylum to any Indian subjects, and that no Pakistani national would be handed over to another country. If action against anyone was called for, that would be done in Pakistan, under Pakistani laws.

India might have felt reassured by the measures taken by the Musharraf government against Pakistan-based jihadi groups, as detailed in Musharraf ’s major speech on January 12. Five Islamist and jihadi groups were banned. There were large-scale arrests of jihadi leaders and activists, perhaps more than 2,000, and the arms of jihadi groups were ordered confiscated. Leaders of India’s main opposition party, the Congress Party, and two communist parties generously acclaimed these measures. But the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) responded coolly, repeating the overworked mantra that they wanted “action, not words.” It took a three-day visit from Secretary of State Colin Powell to persuade the Indian government to soften its line. At a joint press conference with Powell, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh expressed his appreciation for the January 12 speech and said that India was ready to cooperate with Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. But the very next day Interior Minister L.K. Advani, while acknowledging the importance of Musharraf ’s speech, reverted to saying that “mere speech is not enough.” Indian troops would not withdraw until Pakistan handed over to India those whom he had named.

Musharraf, referring to his own far-reaching actions against jihadi groups, declared: “We will not allow anyone to sit on judgment [on us]. Whatever measures we are taking for eliminating terrorism and religious extremism are aimed at reforming our own society and not to appease anyone.” He was also conciliatory. “We need patience,” he said. “You have to realize that they are a 20- party alliance and often speak with different voices. It takes them time to arrive at an agreed position.” He added, “There will be no war.”

Explaining the Hard Line

The present confrontation between India and Pakistan has occurred in very different conditions from the past. In recent years, fundamentalist Hindutva ideology, anti-Christian as well as anti-Muslim, has overtaken India’s once proud secularism. Atrocities have been committed against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities with impunity. Many in Pakistan feel that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is not himself a warmonger. But he is under great pressure from his senior colleagues, especially, the Hindu fundamentalist Advani and George Fernandes, the chauvinistic minister of defense. Advani may be adopting an extreme hard-line position as part of a bid to succeed the aging and ailing Vajpayee. If that is Advani’s ambition, his extreme fundamentalist views make it unlikely that he can hold together a fractious alliance of 20 parties.

The hard line of the BJP in the dangerous military standoff with Pakistan was attributed to posturing before the February elections in four Indian states. The BJP badly lost the election in all four states (losing half of its seats in the key state of Uttar Pradesh with its 99 million voters). Jingoism did not work, for the winning opposition parties stressed bread-and-butter issues. Nevertheless, the initial signs are that the BJP has moved even further to the right. The situation is quite unstable. Only four of India’s 28 states now have a BJP government. BJP leaders have declared that this does not alter their position at the center. Hopes of a postelection détente have been dashed. The speech of the president of India, when inaugurating the budget session of the parliament on February 25, was hostile and aggressive. He reiterated that “dialogue with Pakistan…and terrorism cannot go together” in demanding that Pakistan should first end terrorism in Kashmir and hand over the 20 persons whom India has named. Meanwhile the warlike confrontation stays. The results of the election are such that there will be a great deal of wheeling and dealing between parties before a clear pattern emerges.

Over and above electoral sloganeering there is one new long-term factor that is shaping India’s global policies: its ambition to be recognized as a world power. As the largest economic and military power in South Asia, India now desires to extend its influence elsewhere in Asia, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair have announced their support for India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The US wants India to play a key role in its strategy for the Middle East and Southeast Asia, not least in its policy to contain China.

In pursuit of its global ambitions, India has been developing close ties with Israel, especially in the field of military cooperation. In November 2001 alone, three official Israeli delegations — representing the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry and, crucially, the Ministry of Defense — visited India. These were followed in January by a three-day visit by Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, to New Delhi. Israel is scheduled to provide state-of-the-art weapon systems and military technology to India, including the Phalcon airborne early warning system, which in the past the US had refused to allow Israel to supply to third parties. India already has massive military superiority over its neighbors, raising the question of the purpose of such huge investment in military technology. The declaration by Fernandes at the time of India’s nuclear test in May 1998 may be a clue. India’s nuclear bombs and delivery systems, he said, are intended for deployment against China.

Military Rule and Democracy in Pakistan

In Pakistan the military has exercised power, de facto, even when civilian governments have been in office. Successive “democratic” leaders have depended on the army’s support and approval to stay in office. The military has wielded a pervasive influence on the shaping of state policies. Retired general Talat Masood acknowledged as much when he spoke of a “monumental failure of our past domestic and foreign policies in which, ironically, the military has had a crucial role to play.” [6] The army’s unshakable grip was revealed when the right-wing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to dismiss Musharraf and put his own nominee in his place. Sharif was promptly removed by the 1998 coup, which was the army’s way of preserving its institutional autonomy. The exprime minister’s coziness with the US did not save him from being ousted. The US angrily led international pressures on Pakistan to restore democracy.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan, which initially legitimated Musharraf ’s coup, has now mandated that the army should restore parliamentary government by October 2002. Musharraf has agreed to do so. It is too early to see precisely how that will be done. The fact that Musharraf has appointed himself President of Pakistan for “at least five years” is not a good beginning. The constitution must also be reinstated, but no one knows how that will happen.

The army has promised elections, despite its unconcealed contempt for politicians. Religious parties will not be a threat; in the past they have been unable to take more than two percent of the vote and they are unlikely to do better. Neither will the two main political parties present much of a challenge. The Muslim League has been successfully fragmented and its rival, the Pakistan People’s Party, is demoralized, its leader in exile. There are few signs that this political vacuum will be filled soon. One of Musharraf ’s ministers has given up his post to set up a new party. Indications are that the new system will have two components, one of them rather lame. The first part is likely to be based on local bodies along the lines of General Ayub Khan’s discredited “basic democracies,” which were ideally suited to control and manipulation by the central bureaucracy. Elections for these bodies were held in 2001. The second component would be a moth-eaten national assembly, without significant powers, which would be held up for international acclaim as an exemplar of army democracy. All of this bears watching.


 [1] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), p 45.

 [2] Ibid., p. 46.

 [3] Ibid., p. 170.

 [4] Stephen Cohen, The Pakistan Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 171.

 [5] Dawn, January 26, 2002.

 [6] Dawn, January 26, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Hamza Alavi "Pakistan Between Afghanistan and India," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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