Extremism in Pakistan cannot be defeated until the Pakistani government, as well as its uneasy ally, the United States, focus on addressing the underlying causes of rising militancy, according to Pakistani and American journalists who participated in the East-West Center’s inaugural Pakistan-U.S. Journalists Exchange last month.
The journalists in the program visited each others’ countries and spoke with a wide variety of official and grassroots sources, then met at the EWC in Hawai‘i in late April to compare notes. Both groups agreed that deep underlying problems would have to be addressed if extremism is to be curbed in Pakistan.
“You can kill or arrest terrorists, but the extremist mindset is the real problem, and you need to look at the causes behind that,” said Malik Arshad Aziz, an editor at the Daily Aaj in Peshawar, a city that is on the front lines of military action against Taliban militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “In Pakistan, we have an energy problem; we have poverty, unemployment, lack of education. When you solve these problems, the extremist organizations will be finished.”
“As Pakistanis, we need to realize that, more than America or anyone else, we need to help ourselves,” said Mehmal Sarfraz, op-ed editor of the Daily Times in Lahore. Some of Pakistan’s problems are due to external factors, such as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, she said, “but most of the extremism is because of our own failed policies.”
“Yes, the U.S. and others nurtured jihadis during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan,” she said. “But after the U.S. left, instead of dismantling jihadist organizations, we fostered them to counter the Indian threat … and now there is this whole rising extremist mindset that threatens the basic fabric of Pakistani society.”
It’s often maintained that there is a “moderate, silent majority in Pakistan,” Sarfraz said, “but they are silent, that’s the problem. It’s either that they’re afraid to speak up, or perhaps the public mindset has totally changed and actually is more extremist – and that is something that is very, very worrying for me as a Pakistani person.”
Kamal Siddiqi, Karachi-based editor of The Express Tribune national newspaper, agreed that “one of our biggest problems is that the Pakistan government and army are selectively fighting some extremists and supporting others, which they see as a sort of wing that can put pressure on India or have influence in Afghanistan. As a state, in the long term I think we are hurting ourselves.”
Both the Pakistani and American journalists said during a public discussion panel that lack of access to education is a major driving force of extremism in the region. “My experience in Pakistan was that people have an insatiable intellectual curiosity ‑ every one we met seemed so informed and concerned about international affairs,” said Karen Fragala-Smith of Newsweek magazine. “But despite that, we know that Pakistan has an extremely high rate of illiteracy – more than 50 percent according to most sources.”
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Sarfraz agreed that education is a key issue. “Unless and until we can educate our children, we will not be able to fight this extremist mindset,” she said.
Several of the American journalists said that many people they talked to in Pakistan blamed illiteracy, poverty and other social inequities on the persistence of a “feudal” system of wealthy landlords and poor tenant farmers. To put it bluntly, said Fragala-Smith, “it’s not necessarily in the interest of Pakistan’s ruling parties to have educated lower classes, because then who’s going to do the cheap labor?”
Another issue that was raised by both groups was Pakistan’s dependence on U.S. and other foreign aid. Several of the journalists said that many Pakistanis would actually like to see the U.S. reduce its aid, since they view it as having a corrupting influence on the country’s fledgling democracy, further eroding the public’s already extremely low confidence in the relatively new civilian government.
But before Pakistan can become more economically self-reliant, several of the journalists said, it needs to solve its frequent power outages and other infrastructure barriers to development, and especially needs to reform its corruption-riddled tax collection system. According to a recent Agence France Presse news report, barely 1 percent of the Pakistani populace pays any taxes at all, and less than 10 percent of the country’s GDP comes from tax revenue – one of the world’s lowest rates.
“In Pakistan, we heard a lot about how foreign aid causes inflation, and gets siphoned off into the pockets of the rich,” said New York Times chief online producer Eric Owles. “But in order for Pakistan to become more self-sufficient, it has to solve its tax problem. Until it can do that, it will be dependent on aid.”
One thing all the journalists agreed on was that the U.S. program of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal border regions – regardless of whether or not they are effective in fighting militants – is feeding broad anti-American sentiment and rising militancy. After the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last week, suspected drone attacks have continued, with a May 7 attack on a militant vehicle reportedly killing 15 people in the North Waziristan region.
“Everybody there is against the drone attacks,” said Owles. “You see it written in Urdu on the backs of buses: ‘stop the drone attacks.’ It was a mantra we heard over and over again.”
But at the same time, Owles said, “I did not have a sense of personal animosity toward American people, even among people who hate American policy in Pakistan.”
Several of the journalists said that although many Pakistanis blame the country’s troubles on U.S. involvement in the region, if the U.S. were to pull out of Afghanistan now it would leave an even worse mess.
“If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan today, it would be a major problem for Pakistan,” said Aamir Latif Arain, Karachi bureau chief for Pakistan’s Online News Network. “Because of the U.S. war, Pakistan is now hated in Afghanistan. Pakistan is untrustable to them – like a butcher that raises and feeds an animal, only to slaughter it when it grows up.”
So from Pakistan’s point of view, Arain said, “unless there is a grand settlement and reconciliation in Afghanistan, U.S. forces should be there. If the U.S. pulls out at the moment, there would be total chaos, because there will be a civil war between factions, and every faction has its own militia. Who knows how many would be killed?”
One thing the international community can do, said Sarfraz, is to support the growth of democracy in Pakistan. She said the U.S. and others long supported military dictatorships in the country, but now “you have to let people decide. We want democracy to flourish in Pakistan. … It’s a very long process – it might take 20, 30 or 40 years – but eventually we will be able to counter the extremists, and there will be civilian supremacy.”
Democracy and education are “two things that will actually make our people more aware,” she said. “And they will help not just Pakistan, but the region and the world as a whole.”