Warnings of strong Al Qaeda resurgence in Pakistan and a wave of terrorist attacks in the country have once again splashed across headlines. The National Intelligence Estimate and the seemingly uncontrollable violence have reinforced the negative perceptions about Pakistan and heightened fears of its decline into Talibanization. But should Pakistan be written off as a Talibanized state just yet?
The reality is that while the violence is undoubtedly worrisome, it denotes a threat different from the fearsome possibility of Pakistan becoming Talibanized. With a fully functional state structure and a strong presence of a secular military, the possibility of a violent takeover reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan is out of the question. For Pakistan to go down this route, Pakistani society at large will have to bite into the radical ideology. That trend so far is not evident. In fact, a closer study of Pakistani society—especially the 70 million Pakistanis who are less than 15 years of age and thus arguably hold the key to Pakistan’s future direction—presents a more complex picture. Negative trends mostly exist in some parts of the country’s northwest and north, the area generally associated with Al Qaeda/Taliban activity.
Predictions of doom usually conflate religious conservatism with militant extremism. While in the case of the tribal belt we find the two strands linked up, they are distinct and different in the rest of Pakistani society. The mistake is to apply the tribal model to all of Pakistan and perceive conservatism as necessarily reflective of militant extremism.
Religious conservatism—as perceived by mainstream Pakistani society—has a lot to do with cultural attitudes and pietism, but little to do with militant extremism which has stark political overtones. In that sense, stereotypical indicators such as the increase in the number of young bearded civil servants or military officers, or a higher number of children attending religious madrassahs are not good indicators of a negative prognosis.
The army’s performance in Waziristan and the Red Mosque crisis are two events that demonstrate continued organizational integrity. Terror attacks against security forces clearly show the extremists do not consider them allies in promoting a millenarian agenda within Pakistan. This is key, considering that the future role of the military and the professional, secular civil bureaucracy will remain strong within the state.
Moreover, the electoral preferences of Pakistanis have not changed. The Islamic political parties have traditionally been politically insignificant. Notwithstanding, their current presence in the ruling coalition, even in the 2002 election, they received only 11 percent total votes as opposed to 29 percent for the secular PPP. A fair election today is certain to bring one of the mainstream (secular) parties back to power.
Add to this the fact that a sizable segment of Pakistan’s young urban elite has been exposed to co-ed private educational institutions with secularized curricula. Products of these institutions subscribe more to western ideology than traditional Pakistani culture, which in fact they view as being highly restrictive. They have even created a burgeoning indigenous entertainment industry, manifestations of which are now being seen through highly westernized TV entertainment channels.
What is required is to ensure that the current anti-extremist outlook of mainstream Pakistanis is sustained over the long run. That can best be achieved by reinforcing such sentiments among the generation that will be in a position to influence the state’s orientation a decade from now. Here is where socio-economic polarization within the Pakistani society presents the only real threat to the state’s future.
While the urban elite have modernized at an astonishing pace over the past two decades, they have left the economically underprivileged classes completely out of the calculus. The equation becomes especially worrisome when one considers that almost 30 million boys and girls under the age of 15 belong to families that survive on less than $2 per day.
There is already a growing correlation between poverty and radicalization of the young generation. One of its manifestations is the sharp decline, over the years, in the public education system. The elite has virtually abandoned it and the dysfunctional schools cater only to children from the lower socio-economic classes. Surveys have already revealed that students at these schools show greater admiration for figures like Osama Bin Laden and express extreme hatred towards the West.
Further, owing to poor educational standards, this younger segment of the population is also one that is not well prepared for the job market. For now, these disaffected youth express their resentment in terms of complete resignation to their hopeless situation or at worse in acts of petty crime (criminals have rarely been involved in extremism). However, if this situation persists, Pakistan could in due course have a large population of underprivileged youth who could, potentially, begin to support a narrow radical vision of the state as an alternative to the failed experiment with secular regimes. If this segment of the population turns to extremism, then there will be a structural shift in Pakistan polity, for at the end of the day the military and civil service cadres are reflective of the society at large. This is a much larger threat than that posed by the extreme minority of madrassah cadres that can perpetrate violence, but have no potential to permeate the society.
The US current policy goal to focus on and reform madrassah education in Pakistan is myopic. It needs to emphasize mainstream public-education much more proactively to prevent radicalization among students in public-sector schools. This means more, not less engagement with Islamabad. Washington should continue to support Pakistan financially to ensure sustained economic growth and bring relief to these vulnerable young men and women. The US should also restore its direct role in education by immediately reviving an active public information program through its embassies and consulates, reestablishing American libraries and cultural centers, and providing open access to this pivotal Pakistani generation. Finally, it is in Washington’s long term interest to encourage further contact between the military and secular political leadership. Support to the Musharraf-Bhutto talks last week is a welcome stance in this regard.