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Jihadi Groups, Nuclear Pakistan, and the New Great Game

Authored by Dr. M. Ehsan Ahrari. | August 2001

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The Jihadi phenomenon that is escalating in the area that covers Pakistan to Central Asia may best be handled by simultaneously introducing programs of economic development and managed political pluralism. But where should one start such programs? More to the point, who is going to persuade the autocrats of Central Asia to introduce political pluralism on an incremental basis? All of them want to be life-long rulers; only some are more blunt about it than others. What about Afghanistan, whose rulers are establishing, almost on a regular basis, their own interpretations of Islamic state enlightenment (or the lack thereof!), justice, treatment (or ill-treatment) of women, and civility?

A good starting point for economic development ought to be Pakistan. Large numbers of Pakistanis are not happy with the rising tide of Jihadi tendencies and obscurantism in their country. They will indeed welcome the strengthening of civil society, under which half-educated mullahs will not attempt to take over the government. The growing conflict in Pakistan is the outcome of the failure of the government to implement policies that will create a modern, industrial country. The abysmal failure of the modern education system has enabled the emergence of religious schools, where extremism is being taught, as if it were the flip side of Islam. The historical reality is quite the contrary. Sadly, these mullahs are ignorant of their own religious heritage that has so heavily emphasized tolerance and moderation. For the sake of peace, civility, and regional stability, the international community should do everything to help modernize the civilian sectors of the Pakistani economy and continue to engage that country in a variety of international political and economic institutions. An internationally engaged nuclear Pakistan will not become a nuclear pariah.

A good way to fight religious extremism in Central Asia is to persuade the autocratic rulers to lower the level of political repression?which, in reality, is the exercise of extremism by the government?that they are perpetrating in the name of fighting ?Wahabism.? The most difficult part of this proposition is the question of who will persuade them to do so. Even the United States?as much as it remains a strong proselytizer for political moderation and democracy?treads gingerly regarding its advocacy of human rights in Central Asia. Therein lies the rub.

If the United States will not insist that the autocrats of Central Asia lighten up on their people, no other country will. Major European states have been uncritically receptive to the propaganda emanating from the capitals of Central Asian states about how Islamists/Jihadists will take over their part of the world if they are not wiped out by whatever measures these governments deem necessary. Looking for moderate solutions from Russia and China will be a fruitless exercise. Just look at how brutal they are with their own religious and ethnic minorities. The rest of the Muslim states have not shown anyability to lead on this issue. They have largely stayed on the sidelines. Besides, there are not many Muslim states that have established trailblazing examples of political moderation. In the final analysis, the burden of leadership in finding politico-economic solutions to the growing religious extremism in the South-Central Asia falls, once again, on the United States.

Afghanistan has been proving itself to be sui generis. Thus, the only way to deal with the Taliban is by using the good offices of Pakistan. The latter is more than just a neighbor. It has been very effective in enabling the Taliban to maintain their military control of Afghanistan. If the Pakistani support were gone, then the Taliban as a political force might not last long. But, given that there is a powerful religious base of support for the Taliban within Pakistan, the approach of the international community (or more specifically, the United States) should NOT be aimed at destroying the Taliban as a ruling force. Rather, it should act with a view to moderating their behavior. That may be done only by creating sufficient incentives for Pakistan to apply behind-the-scenes pressure on Afghanistan to abandon its support of the Jihadist forces in Central Asia.