Most in Pakistan refuse to see the danger of Islamist expansion

January 01, 2008|By TRUDY RUBIN

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- On Friday, the day of Benazir Bhutto's burial in her ancestral village, Pakistanis were still struggling to grasp that she was dead.

The capital city and the military seat of Rawalpindi, where she was killed, were shut up tightly, with security forces guarding key roads. Except for a few small demonstrations, the streets were silent as people stayed glued to TV scenes of her storied career and the cortege bearing her home.

We will probably never know the identity of the assassins. There is no credible government investigating body, and many Pakistanis will doubt official assertions that al-Qaida did it. But, whoever killed her, we do know who stands to gain most: Islamic militants who threaten neighboring Afghanistan and want to carve out bases inside a nuclear-armed Pakistani state. They will cheer Ms. Bhutto's demise, because she was the leader most committed to fighting them if she had become prime minister for a third time.

Her slaying is a warning to Pakistanis - and us - of the growing threat posed by Islamist expansion. But most Pakistanis still don't seem to realize they're in the midst of a widening war that threatens their country. Rather than wake them up, Ms. Bhutto's death is likely to make it harder to fight that war.

"It is the rare person," said Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of Lahore's Friday Times newspaper, "who admits that the principal contradiction in Pakistani life, which will destroy us if we don't do something about it, is religious extremism."

It is more comfortable for Pakistanis, including much of the intellectual elite, to blame America for creating Pakistan's jihadi problem. They have reason. But what Ms. Bhutto recognized was that these extremists were not just reacting to U.S. policy but also actively threatening her country.

Yes, America helped create Pakistan's current mess. Back in the 1980s, the United States and Saudi Arabia funneled billions of dollars via Pakistan's intelligence agencies to Afghan and foreign jihadi groups fighting the Soviet Union. After the Soviets lost, many of those foreign jihadi fighters migrated over the porous border to Pakistan. After 9/11, they were joined by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters that America drove out of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden supposedly is hiding in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

These tough fighters have taken control of portions of Pakistan's tribal territories and have begun moving into settled areas of Pakistan proper. They recently tried to establish a fundamentalist mini-state in the beautiful tourist valley of Swat.

In the last two years, this jihadi core has been expanded by Pakistani extremists who were trained by Pakistan's intelligence agencies to fight against India in Kashmir. Muslim extremist groups have amalgamated into a Movement of Taliban in Pakistan.

Based in Pakistan's tribal lands, they are trying to establish Islamic "emirates" in rural areas from which to destabilize the country. Some travel back across the border to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan. But their ultimate goal, say Pakistani experts, is to establish a radical Islamist foothold in Pakistan.

"I don't think it's America's war," I was told by Khalid Aziz, a leading expert on the tribal areas, who was chief secretary of the Northwest Frontier Province. "America has highlighted an issue the region was threatened with. If 9/11 had not happened, the same situation would have occurred. It's our problem. The next atrocity can be in Lahore or Islamabad."

His words proved prophetic. Two hours after our conversation, Ms. Bhutto was killed, close to Islamabad.

Ms. Bhutto recognized that the key to fighting the jihadis lay with Pakistan's political leaders. Pakistan's military has been ambivalent about the fight in the past. Many suspect its intelligence agencies, which once trained the Taliban, of harboring some sympathies for the group. President Pervez Musharraf has let the domestic jihadi problem expand immensely on his watch.

Only an elected Pakistani leader can lend legitimacy to the fight and convince Pakistanis (and maybe the military) that it is their war. A committed civilian leader such as Ms. Bhutto might have encouraged tribal leaders to fight back against encroachment by jihadi groups.

Mr. Musharraf has shown little interest in visiting the tribal areas. But Ms. Bhutto's father, the charismatic Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who was hanged by a previous military dictator), used to visit tribal chiefs regularly to hear their problems and offer aid. Ms. Bhutto might have renewed the contacts and given them the support they need.

What she seemed to have grasped, unlike other Pakistani leaders, was the need for a strategic campaign against extremists in her country. "We are prepared to risk our lives," she said not long ago, in a TV clip replayed endlessly since her death, "but we are not prepared to surrender our great nation to the militants."

No other Pakistani political leader seems ready to make that commitment.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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