Khaled Ahmed Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Pakistan and Islamic Fundamentalism: Conversation with Khaled Ahmed, Consulting Editor, the Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan; 2/19/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Impact of Afghan - Soviet War on Pakistan

One gets the sense as a neophyte to the history of your country that there was a major turning point in the eighties with the emergence of the Reagan administration and the Afghan War, the Soviet invasion, and so on, and Pakistan's role through its ISI in that whole process. Would you comment on the extent to which a major downward spiral in your country began in that period?

What was really unfortunate in the beginning of the Afghan War was that our democracy was overthrown. The process in Pakistan is that democracy becomes extremely destabilized and there are internal disturbances, and then finally the army overthrows the civilian government, and that's what happened at the beginning of the Afghan War. And we had a general running the country who was reacting against what had gone before.

This is General Zia.

General Zia. Together with the religious parties, he thought that he should once and for all extirpate all secular socialist thinking, and to ensure that, he enforced the Sharia in Pakistan.

At the same time, he participated in the Afghan War through an army of surrogates. That was a grave mistake that we made, that our army, which in 1971 had fought in India, surrendering about 90,000 soldiers as POWs, this time fought a covert war -- a deniable war in Afghanistan -- through people who were actually mercenaries. That tended to change Pakistan's society, because these warriors lived in civil society and were exempted from the law because they carried arms and were trained as military people. They were also protected against the normal process of law by the intelligence agencies. That led to a gradual diminution of the writ of the state in Pakistan. Then we reached a point when the state did not exist at all in certain cities. For instance, in Karachi we got used to having no state jurisdiction at all. The "exempted" militias ran the city and also ran the government.

Let's explicate this a little. These warriors, these surrogates, were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Is that how this process begins? And Zia, in terms of his strategic concept, thought that by winning in Afghanistan, he would acquire for his country strategic depth.

That came along as the war progressed. He definitely benefited from the largess of the United States. The economy was in a crisis when he took over, and the money that came later was a price for his cooperation in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he encouraged the formulation of religious militias, headed by people who were of dubious character but who served his purpose. Pakistan also chose its favorites, which I think was a shortsighted policy, which finally fragmented Afghanistan as a country. If there was a feeling that Afghanistan should become the strategic depth for Pakistan, that was defeated, because we allowed that country to become disunited. As events later shwed, it was Pakistan which became the strategic depth to the Taliban ideology.

In a way, this furthered the process of "Talibanization" of Afghanistan.

That's right. I think Afghanistan was most unfortunate. They had seven major Sunni militias who were then resident in Peshawar. We chose the most radical ones and the moderate ones we rejected. Out of the seven, five were actually in favor of the Shah coming back. We didn't want the Shah to come back. We thought that we would control Afghanistan much better if we had our own man there.

You're referring to the Shah of Afghanistan.

The Shah of Afghanistan. I think we deliberately got rid of the moderate elements which could have been powerful during the Soviet invasion. We removed them from the scene, and I think the CIA also went along in that. I think there were many right-wing activists in the United States who encouraged Pakistan to go that way. But what happened in the process was that as our youth went into Afghanistan to get training, they became a certain kind of Muslims. In Afghanistan, the predominant school of thought is what is called Deobandi, which is a puritanical kind of Islam. And the Barelvis, who are a majority in Pakistan, could not go there because there was no tolerance for Lower Church in Afghanistan. And that started the conflict.

Afghanistan is unlucky in the sense that the "Taliban Islam" they got was not really their Islam. Now that Karzai is in power, he has suspended all the Taliban laws, saying, "They are not our laws at all." Which meant that this new thinking, extremist Islamic thinking, went from Pakistani seminaries, seminaries of High Church, Deobandi brand, which could not be implemented in Pakistan, but found fertile ground in Kabul and Kandahar. Now that Pakistanis complain of "Talibanization," they should realize that the new stringent laws against women and against the minorities actually went from our seminaries.

So in a way, during this phase of Pakistan, there were two components. One is within the government. The ISI, the intelligence services, became a dominant factor in the government because they were managing this operation that you just described. But on the other hand, there was a flowering of these madrasas, these Islamic schools, which were not offering secular studies, but rather fundamentalist studies in training the cadre to be warriors.

Many things happened at the same time. One is that Pakistan, which was supported by a Low Church or Barelvi religion before 1947, adopted the status of an Islamic state, and had to go back to Deobandis, who had supported the All-India Congress Party and not Pakistan. But the moment you said, "Okay, now we're going to have laws which are going to be Islamic," you had to abandon Low Church and adopt High Church.

Afghanistan has always been High Church, and the puritanism of the Deobandis came from their eighteenth-century contact with Saudi Arabia. That contact was revived when the Arab-Iranian conflict took place. In the early eighties there was an area in Pakistan where the Arab princes had extraterritorial rights for hunting, and that's when our seminaries starting interacting with them. The first seminaries were opened around the city of Rahim Yar Khan, where they used to come for hunting. That's where they received the money. And that's when, for the first time, the Deobandis in Pakistan declared that Shias should be apostatized or made non-Muslims, and be declared a minority. That was a very extreme step to take, but their incentive really was the money which came to them. This money actually increased in volume, and the jihad became a very mercenary enterprise. We have now a law which bans collection of funds, because some of these seminaries collect funds which are astronomical, and that gives them the power. Once you have money, you can actually buy up some of the state apparatus. And the intelligence services also start interfacing with you, not as minders, but as participants.

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