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Fear the Islamic State

Al-Qaeda is a thing of the past. Its appeal has gone and its recruiting banner has lost its lustre. It was a product of the CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which is now part of history. Afghanistan has new problems to face and Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, no longer commands the influence he once did.

The new force on the horizon is the Islamic State or Daesh. Unlike Al-Qaeda whose central creed was faraway terrorism and senseless violence – against US embassies, an American destroyer, the Twin Towers – Daesh has already established a state, its caliphate. In the territories under its control, it runs a government, delivers services and provides stability. People are getting used to its rule.

It has adherents in crisis-racked Libya and in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In a demonstration of its outreach it has carried out bombings in Houthi-controlled Sanaa in Yemen. Taliban commanders in Pakistan have pledged allegiance to it, and in war-torn Afghanistan too its presence has been felt.

Daesh is a far more sophisticated venture than Al-Qaeda ever was. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its leader, has a PhD in Islamic history from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Ex Baathists in Saddam Hussein’s army (as I learn from a Reuters report) hold key positions in Daesh and there is an advisory council whose members run ministries very much as in a conventional government. It has ample revenues at its command (the same report citing a figure of 8-9 billions). Soldiers and officials in the Daesh structure are paid regular salaries – if I may point out, attractive by Pakistani standards.

Many of the people who now lead Daesh, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were together in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq during the American occupation. There they got to know each other and develop links, and talk aims and strategy, which were later to prove useful when Daesh was being formed. Camp Bucca was thus the incubator, the university, of the Islamic State.

There is so much we have to be grateful to the Americans for. Through the Afghan ‘jihad’ they gifted the Islamic world Al-Qaeda and the likes of Osama bin Laden. And they served to introduce Islamist militancy into Pakistan. Through the invasion of Iraq, and its subsequent occupation, they drove the Sunni population of Iraq, and remnants of the Baathist regime, into violence and militancy. The fabric of Iraqi society was torn apart. And conditions were created for the birth of Daesh.

These are not small achievements. Horace’s observation comes to mind: “Brute force bereft of reason falls by its own weight. Power with counsel temper’d even the gods make greater; but might which in its soul is bent on all impiety, they hate.” The Americans were visionless in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Syria. It is not just they who are paying the price for this.

Admittedly, the Soviets were the first blunderers. What evil genius brought them into Afghanistan? But did we have to respond to them the way we did? I still come across senior officers who say we had no choice: otherwise the Soviet army would have come down to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. How does one answer such thinking? The Soviets were in no position to pursue any warm water design. They were led by a gerontocracy, the Brezhnev politburo, which was incapable of such calculation. The failure of their protégés sucked them into Afghanistan. They blundered. But what got into us to do the things we did?

Pakistan was already into a form of religious revivalism thanks to Gen Zia and his Afghan policy. After the American invasion of Afghanistan post-Sep 11, the fleeing Taliban sought refuge on this side of the Durand Line. Fata became militarised. Just as the Americans were to sow the seeds of a Sunni insurgency in Iraq, their Afghan invasion scattered the seeds of militancy across our border regions.

The army which had earlier promoted this lethal stuff has had, mercifully, a change of heart and mind. (Or it was just lucky to get a chief who thought that way.) It is now retracing the steps earlier taken. This is not just about territory. The war the army is fighting is about the direction and future of Pakistan.

What has Daesh got to do with all this? It may be a distant proposition at the moment but, as already stated, its first footprints have been detected in Afghanistan. And proclamations of allegiance to it have been heard from within the borders of Pakistan.

The danger is that as Al-Qaeda’s star wanes and a new Taliban generation comes to the fore, Daesh may come to be seen by Islamist radicals in our region as a more attractive alternative. This may sound far-fetched today, and I hope it is, but I remember that at one time no one had heard of the Taliban and wise pundits would say that there was no room for religious extremism in Pakistan. It was hard to imagine then the horrors that lay ahead.

But whether this threat is near or far, how Pakistan must transform itself should be clear to those who take some interest in these things. It has to become a modern and efficient republic, or it remains a country living from crisis to crisis, surviving on its supposed, and at times over-magnified, credentials.

I was just reading that in the areas under its control Daesh, among other things, has revamped the academic curriculum. This shows drive and initiative. Apart from the army which is out there in front and rendering tangible sacrifices, where’s this drive in the rest of Pakistan? What about the academic curriculum here? What about our multiple systems of education?

There was an article I was reading just this morning by Khurram Hussain saying that the only budget with a difference this year was that passed by the KP Assembly. Good for it. There has been a real shift of resources to local councils…which means real devolution. A few days ago an article by Adnan Adil spoke graphically about the pollution of Lahore’s underground water supply. Shouldn’t this be of concern to somebody? Underground water supplies in the Indus Basin, which is our home, are amongst the most ‘over-stressed’ in the world. Does this at all worry us?

Forget about everything else, will it take the arrival of Daesh before we can get rid of the disaster called the plastic shopper? Why don’t people at the helm of authority think about these things?

And then what is appearing in the media about plans to turn the 1200 acres of the Agricultural Research Council in Islamabad into a housing estate. How can such things even be contemplated? Don’t those in positions of authority read newspapers? Does no one amongst them read any books?

The army can fight militancy. It can defend national borders (or should). But root-and-branch administrative reform is not its area of expertise. (Corps commanders, therefore, would be well advised not to deliver lectures about the failures of civil administration.) The rest has to be done by governments and the bureaucracy.

Asif Zardari is blustering. He can’t close down Larkana, let alone the rest of Pakistan. But the army should be mindful that whereas much that has been done recently in Karachi is worthwhile, and needed to be done, the MQM remains a political force and there is no point in alienating, and driving into a bitter state of mind, its cadres and youthful supporters. From the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq we should know where such bitterness can lead.

The gun alone solves not much. Politics and the gun must go hand in hand…force, yes, where necessary but tempered by reason.

Email: bhagwal63@gmail.com

Ayaz Amir, "Fear the Islamic State," The News. 2015-06-19.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social problems , Terrorist attacks , International terrorism , Al-Qaeda , Islamic state , Afghan policy , American invasion , Sunni insurgency , Iraq war , Political issues , Political leaders , Politics-Pakistan