The U.S. government resorted to military action in Afghanistan in order to put an end to the terrorist organization al Qaeda and the Taliban regime. Although both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, are still at large, the operation was a success. The quick crumbling of al Qaeda and the Taliban was impressive, although this was partly because their strength had been overestimated in the first place. The ramifications of this U.S. intervention are indeed far-reaching. A one-track but lucky president in the White House may not even be aware of some of the positive side effects.
Afghanistan’s population is almost certainly less than the 22 million usually mentioned. In all likelihood, there are no more than 15 million Afghans. Neighboring Pakistan has 10 times more population and is the leading Muslim country in terms of technical capabilities and industrialization. From 1977-90, it chafed under an Islamist dictatorship, the grip of which continued ever afterward. That Islamist regime was bent on controlling Afghanistan. After failing to install its protege, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in Kabul, Islamabad tried another horse, the Taliban. Pakistan’s powerless but articulate elite used to severely criticize their government’s Afghan policies as counterproductive. Now they see themselves vindicated. By cooperating with Washington, Islamabad has finally started to pursue a policy in line with the aspirations of the Afghan people. Given the close links between the two nations, there can be no stability in the region without good neighborly relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, mustered the courage to rid himself of Islamist officers who were dominating the armed forces and especially the military intelligence. He had four major Islamist agitators arrested, including Qazi Husain Ahmad, head of the Jamaat, the country’s leading terrorist organization (its U.S. branch goes by the name of Islamic Circle of North America). These measures have encouraged the hitherto intimidated majority in Pakistan to become politically assertive again.
In elections, the Islamist share of the vote has always been negligible. But thanks to funding from Gulf countries they are immensely rich, which has allowed them to wield influence out of proportion to their numerical weakness. For many years, they have maintained the illussion that they were a major political force in Pakistan. This is over now. Islamist demonstrations in favor of the Taliban impressed some Western reporters, but by Pakistani standards those demonstrations were insignificant. Like many other Pakistani intellectuals, historian Sayyid Fatimi used to be depressed by his country’s appearance as “a failed state.” Now he says jubilantly that “the bluff of the Islamists has been called.”
People steeped in traditional religion find it difficult to revolt against religious leaders, no matter the degree of corruption and manipulation of the pious for worldly ends. But in some parts of Pakistan, leading clerics have been chased by parents furious that their sons were seduced into going to join the jihad in Afghanistan against the Americans, sacrificing their lives in defense of criminal mullas. This experience has been like an earthquake, leading to a profound reorientation in people’s thinking. And we are not only talking about the educated class or intellectuals. Utopian fanaticism has been replaced by the sobriety of rationalism even on the village level.
This change of attitude does not remain confined to Pakistan. As the crimes of Taliban rule get to be known in all their gruesome details, people become more vocal in their rejection of Islamism. They have come to understand that this totalitarian ideology shares only the name with the old religion of Islam. Some still insist that the Taliban horror stories are nothing but Western propaganda, but their numbers are shrinking. Muslims in other parts of the world draw their conclusions from the rejoicing of liberated Afghanistan and Pakistani Islamism vanishing like a soap bubble. The sociopolitical transformation taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan has its effect on neighboring countries. The Iranian regime has become panicky because of the events next door, where the people have been able to shake off Islamist dictatorships. Worst of all, this became possible thanks to American intervention. After the fall of the Taliban, the demand to exchange “mullacracy” for democracy has become louder in Tehran, too.
If the United States remains true to the promise of massive economic help for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new secularizing mood will not only be maintained, but could also lead to a complete overhaul of the educational system. In Islamabad, Gen. Musharraf, an admirer of Kemal Ataturk, has promised school reform on the lines of steps recently taken in Turkey. Such a reform is the precondition for a lasting liberation of the region from the shackles of Islamism and similar extremist ideologies.
Khalid Duran is director of the Council on Middle East Affairs and a former chairman of the Solidarity Committee for the Afghan People.