Author Ahmed Rashid on Pakistan's Crisis 'The Umbilical Cord between the Military and Mullahs Must Be Cut'

The army won the siege at the Red Mosque, but radical Islamists are responding with terrorist attacks in Pakistan. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, best-selling author Ahmed Rashid calls for the umbilical cord between the army and mullahs to be cut and he warns of the threat of civil war.

A damaged bus at the site of a suicide bombing in Swat, a mountainous area of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

A damaged bus at the site of a suicide bombing in Swat, a mountainous area of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Rashid, the battle over the Red Mosque is over and the government in Islamabad has prevailed. But can Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, also win the greater struggle against the Islamists?

Rashid: The key to winning the greater conflict will be whether Musharraf is finally able to cut the umbilical cord that connects the army to these extremist groups. The lesson of the Red Mosque is that the nexus between the military and the mullahs has to be broken. Now is the right time to do that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How much power do the extremists have within Pakistan's army?

Rashid: Generally, extremists aren't strongly represented in the higher command. But lower down in the ranks there is a lot of sympathy for Islamic causes. Many in the army have been brought up with the philosophy of jihad and the idea that defending Islam can at times trump defending the nation. The real issue is a political one: During the Cold War, the army depended on extremists to project its support for Kashmiri insurgents and the Taliban. These extremist groups were used as cannon fodder in those wars. Today the military even allows Pakistanis in large numbers to go and fight at the side of the Taliban. Of course, the blow back effect of this is what we are seeing in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border. Today, there is a new phenomenon called the Pakistani Taliban, which has become a major threat to the state.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In order to counter the threat, Musharraf, himself a general, must find a way to bring the Islamists in the military under control. Why has he been unable to do that so far?

Rashid: Unfortunately there has been a history of officers working in the military intelligence agency of acting on their own and defying orders from above. This tendency has to be brought under control by Musharraf.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Last week in the so-called tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan, radical Islamists killed dozens of people in attacks against government troops. On Wednesday, at least 16 were killed in a similar attack. Are we seeing the start of a war inside Pakistan?

Rashid: Following the Red Mosque incident, the extremists have stood up. They are worried that the army may decide to lodge an all-out offensive against them. So the extremists are showing their teeth. We haven't quite reached the stage yet of all-out civil war, but the danger of one certainly exists.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Musharraf has said he will seek to fight the extremists more effectively from now on. How serious is the president?

Rashid: The president has said this many times since Sept. 11. And he has assured the Americans about this over and over again. Frankly, though, people no longer trust his words. He never implements what he says.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With just a few months left before parliamentary elections, will Musharraf work more closely with secular forces like supporters of former President Benazir Bhutto? Could this help the country?

Rashid: If Musharraf is serious about fighting the Islamists this time, then he has to do a number of things. He has to broaden the base of his political support. He can only do that by holding free and fair elections and by allowing the secular parties, including Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, to take part. The army can only take on the jihadists if Pakistan has a moderate, secular political base.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, Musharraf has refused to promote liberal parties in Pakistan. To what degree has this policy bolstered the Islamists?

Rashid: His policies have certainly strengthened the Islamists. In 2002, the military rigged elections in favor of Islamists, and they still govern in the Belochistan and North West Frontier provinces today. This election fraud has created the entire Taliban movement that we see today.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it possible to fight Islamists with politics rather than swords?

Rashid: This can only happen if we have a government comprised of liberal and moderate political parties that shows them that the majority of people in Pakistan reject extremism. The social sector must also be expanded, especially education, and the madrassas must be brought under control.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Pakistan's Interior Ministry estimates there are 13,500 madrassas in the country. With the madrassas spreading like wildfire, is it even possible for the government to fight these radical Koran schools effectively?

Rashid: Since Sept. 11, Musharraf has continually promised to bring these madrassas under state control. In fact, the present minister for religious affairs and government have done nothing to register the madrassas or reform their radical curriculums. Nor have they taken advantage of international funding that has been made available to them from the World Bank, the United States government and from the European Union to handle that enormous task. As a result, the number of madrassas has grown since Sept. 11 and they represent a greater threat today than they did six years ago.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The West accuses Musharraf of only half-heartedly participating in the war on terror. But in the madrassas, the president is seen as being in bed with Washington. He has thus been the target of numerous assassination attempts. What would happen to the country if he were actually assassinated?

Rashid: There is a vice-president, who is the present chairman of the Senate. He would be next in line for office. Or the army could take over, if, God forbid, Musharraf were to be assassinated. One can only hope that the army would then hold free and fair elections. I don't think there is a danger of the state collapsing if Musharraf were to go.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think the US government is correct in saying there is no alternative to Musharraf right now?

Rashid: America is completely wrong about that. The alternative to Musharraf should be a genuinely elected civilian government, which should then strike up a partnership with the military in order to curb extremism. But there has to be a sharing of power between the civilians and the military. So far, that is something Musharraf has said he would be unprepared to do.

Interview conducted by Alexander Schwabe.


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