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October 24, 2009



The imaginary republic of Extremistan

The imaginary republic of Extremistan

Every school, college and university in Pakistan is closed. The seemingly most impenetrable building in Pakistan, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army was breached, and breached emphatically. Mosques, police stations, hospitals, street corners, market places. Every imaginable area of public interaction in Pakistan has been targeted by terrorists. Oh and in case the PPP has forgotten, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated less than two years ago, ostensibly by the same terrorists that are now devouring Pakistan like a cancer.

In these desperate times, defining the conflict properly is of vital importance. One recurring theme in the English language press in Pakistan, and across the Western media, is the shaping of the current crisis as a war against religious extremism. This is erroneous at best, and disingenuous at worst. An irrational national discourse is not the same thing as the ascendancy of extremism. When we repeatedly shape the conflict as a contest between extremists and non-extremists (we should avoid the word moderate, given its enormous baggage), we validate and certify our approval of the Pakistani state's utter incompetence and failure in dealing with crises that have been manufactured by its own stunted volition. The focus on extremism allows state machinery to easily escape any scrutiny or accountability for the horrific counter-terrorism, and law and order failures that have produced episode after episode of successful terrorist strikes.

More importantly, when we decry the lack of support for Pakistani military action against terrorists because of innate Pakistani extremism, we do a massive disservice to the truth. Fighting terrorists is not the same thing as fighting extremism. The entire gamut of extremism needs to be addressed in Pakistan -- particularly the misogyny that extreme tribalism, feudalism and religious symbolism enable in this country. If this war on extremism was an honest war, it would have been on-going for many decades, and Pakistani connoisseurs of The New York Times, wouldn't need Nicolas Kristoff to awaken us to the incredibly disgusting manner in which some of Pakistan's most unfortunate women are treated.

The best proof that the shaping of the war as one between extremists and non-extremists is a spurious formulation is in the irrefutable numerical evidence that demonstrates Pakistan's comprehensive rejection of religious extremism. The most recent research from two different and globally well-regarded sources, both demonstrate that Pakistanis are overwhelmingly against religious extremism, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and all related manifestations of violent expressions of political Islam.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project published its survey of Pakistani public opinion on August 13, while the International Republican Institute (IRI) produced its quarterly public opinion poll on October 1. The polls reveal a startling similarity of trends that should, for anyone interested in facts rather than fiction, give rest to the notion that there is some deep inexplicable love in Pakistan for demonic extremists that are interested only in waging indiscriminate death and destruction. The Pew survey reports, among other things, that:

* Seventy-nine per cent of Pakistanis are concerned about extremism in Pakistan,

* Nine per cent of Pakistanis have favourable views of the Taliban,

* Ten per cent have favourable views of Al Qaeda,

* Seventy-three per cent of Pakistanis say that the Taliban pose a threat to their country,

* Eighty-seven per cent of Pakistani Muslims feel that suicide bombing is never justifiable (that by the way, is the highest rate rejection of suicide bombings out of several countries, including Israel, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan).

The IRI survey confirms these findings, and reports that:

Ninety per cent of Pakistanis feel that "religious extremism is a serious problem in Pakistan";

Eighty-six per cent of Pakistanis feel that "the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan is a serious problem";

Sixty-nine per cent of Pakistanis support the army's operation to clear terrorists from Malakand.

It would be hard, in the face of this data, to continue to shape the debate as extremist versus non-extremist. Yet, despite access to these statistics, both Pakistani and western observers find it more convenient to pin responsibility for this orgy of death that has been unleashed upon the Pakistani people on an abstract (and totally false) notion of Pakistani sympathy for extremism. One of the most disturbing outcomes of these falsehoods is that it completely undermines the massive price that Pakistanis have paid in prosecuting their resistance to extremism. According the New Delhi-based, South Asia Terrorism Portal (maintained by the Institute of Conflict Management), since 2003 Pakistan has lost over 7,000 civilian lives and over 2,600 soldiers to terrorist violence.

The reason Pakistanis are opposed to the Taliban, to Al Qaeda and to religious extremism is obvious – all three are responsible for the killing of Pakistanis left, right and center.

The total casualties from terrorism in Pakistan of course, do not include figures for the loss of life sustained during efforts to kill terrorists, or what the US war machine fondly referred to as collateral damage, during the Bush years. Of the different estimates, the latest have been made by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann at the New America Foundation. They estimate the total number of civilian deaths from drone attacks is anywhere between 252 to 316 -- a much lower figure than the more widely cited estimate of civilian deaths made by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in The New York Times, back in May this year (700).

If the number of victims of terrorism explains Pakistani opposition to terrorism, then the number of deaths caused by collateral damage might explain the other important aspects of both the Pew and the IRI surveys.

The IRI poll reports that 80 per cent of Pakistanis do not want to cooperate with the US war on terror, 77 per cent oppose US incursions into the tribal areas and 76 per cent oppose Pakistan's support of US drone attacks. The Pew numbers are even more emphatic. Ninety-five per cent of Pakistanis feel the drone attacks are a bad (33 per cent), or very bad (62 per cent), thing.

In essence, collateral damage -- whether it is inflicted by terrorists, or by the US drone strikes -- tends to generate opposition. Terrorists have killed more than 7,000 innocent Pakistani citizens. The result? Total rejection of extremist groups. Predator drone strikes have killed between 252 and 700 innocent Pakistani civilians. The result? Total rejection of predator drone strikes.

What will the impact of raining down ammunition on South Waziristan from F-16s be on the perceptions of battle-hardened, proud and tough-as-nails young Waziri men and boys? How many innocent Pakistanis will die as a result of the operation on South Waziristan? And what will be the response of their family and their kinsmen?

No reasonable person should argue about the absolute necessity to physically eliminate terrorists. But reasonable people should be able to come up with a more sophisticated solution than a Vietnam redux. An irrational tolerance of dysfunctional governance for many decades has brought Pakistan to its current situation. An irrational exuberance for war among Pakistanis today is taking it into an uncertain future. Most immediately, this exuberance is preventing a cold assessment of the ramifications of a country carpet bombing its own territory. Of course, irrational exuberance has its origins in an over-archingly irrational national discourse.

And the best punchline for an irrational national discourse? Consider this. Of all the data I've cited here, not a single one of the data sources is a Pakistani individual or organisation. The best data on Pakistan's most important struggles is coming from New Delhi, and from Washington DC. Surely, a 21st century nuclear power can do better?

The writer is an independent political analyst based in Islamabad. Email: raoofhasan