Pakistan appears to be re-radicalizing

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A British Council survey published last week found Pakistani youth disgruntled with the government, politicians and institutions of the state, while beginning to prefer Islamic law and military rule over democracy.

This is bad news.

Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terror. It has hunted al-Qaida-type militants within its borders for the past decade, most of whom were imported from various Islamic countries as part of the Cold War-era jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But before that, the Pakistani army played a major role in installing the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the 1990s as a regional security buffer. Then came 9/11, after which the United States forced the country into a U-turn, leading it to fight the same militants it had supported. As a result, Pakistan has suffered many more casualties than the United States -- losing more than 40,000 civilians and military personnel and suffering economic losses estimated at $35 billion.

The Pakistani military and intelligence services have continued to support some factions of militant organizations, however, especially allies in Afghanistan and those who have operated against India. Osama bin Laden was found less than a mile from the country's premier military academy, foreign militants are abundant in tribal areas and a number of extremist organizations work within Pakistan's political, social and military structure.

The recent British Council survey paints an even bleaker picture of Pakistan's future. It speaks of young people fed up with poverty, joblessness and insecurity even as they seek the kinds of educational and workplace opportunities common in any civilized nation. Yet most have few options, which helps explain the region's growing Talibanization and militancy.

Women are largely excluded from decision-making, with certain stereotypical roles in hospitals, schools and homes, especially in rural areas. Men and women are killed every day -- individually, in small groups and sometimes by the dozen for political or religious reasons. Health workers, suspected of spying or simply carrying Western ideas, are attacked -- some have been killed in broad daylight trying to distribute polio vaccine.

Poverty and fuel prices are rising and daily blackouts frequently take businesses offline. Meanwhile, the rich and influential build houses abroad and send their children to elite foreign universities yet refuse to pay their taxes to help their own people: Only about a million people pay taxes in Pakistan, a nation of nearly 200 million.

Pakistan's elected government just completed a full five-year term -- the first to do so in Pakistan's 66-year history -- but it has presided over a bloody era marked by religious extremism, economic decay, rampant corruption and incompetent governance. In the past, this would bring on a military coup (often with American support or acquiescence) and now has led younger Pakistanis to believe that the army may be their only savior. The failures of civilian politicians have made young people lose confidence in democratic forces.

On top of all this, the curriculum in many schools steeps students in religious extremism. Mistrusting secular leaders and seeing little economic opportunity, many young people find it easier to link their wellbeing to religion, which militant groups exploit. The politicians and the military, in turn, form hypocritical alliances with extremist organizations or their political arms. It is no wonder that the British Council survey found young people so alienated from politics and democratic norms.

There remains hope that the May 11 elections will bring in a government that can steer the country away from some of this turmoil. That is because there remain many Pakistanis who understand that radicalization is no good for Pakistan, its neighbors, the United States or anybody else.

But it won't be easy. The fear is that this period of radicalization may end up as the last one did -- setting the stage for the re-Talibanization of Afghanistan, another horrendous event like 9/11 and yet another war on terror.


Waqas Banoori is an editor for Pakistan's Independent Press Network and a columnist for The Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper based in Peshawar that circulates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is spending five months this summer working for the Post-Gazette as a Daniel Pearl/Saleem Shahzad Fellow.


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