Complacency was the greatest danger I faced in Pakistan last month. I didn’t visit Quetta or Jacobabad, where serious rioting took place and the police shot several people dead, and everywhere else – especially in Punjab, where the fate of Pakistan has always been decided – the demonstrations were small and easily contained. They were also overshadowed by a heavily armed military and police presence.

Everyone was perfectly pleasant to me, not just the elites, but also those I talked to on the street and in the bazaars. I’d expected a rough reception, but people would break off from cursing America and Britain to assure me that this wasn’t directed against me personally, that I was their guest, and would I like a Coca-Cola? There was something puzzling, or even shaming about this friendliness. If I had to live in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Pakistan, I’d be strongly tempted to chuck any visiting Westerner into the local drain.

The response to the general strike called by the Islamist parties on 15 October was mixed. Many areas shut down completely, but where people were better off things carried on as if nothing had happened. Yet even where the strike looked solid, things weren’t always quite so simple. In the relatively run-down G-9 area of Islamabad, where a reeking sewer runs through the middle of the bazaar, almost all the shops seemed at first sight to be closed, and certainly the great majority of the local population were bitterly hostile to the US and British campaign. Some of the shops had their metal shutters only half down, however, allowing customers to duck discreetly underneath. And when I came back that way later in the day, many of them had reopened completely, while their owners firmly declared that they were still on strike.

The influence of the Islamists is definitely spreading, to judge by anecdotal evidence from all over northern Pakistan. At dinner parties in Islamabad, women worried about its effects on their servants; one told me that she had had to get rid of an old retainer after he grew a large beard under pressure from activists in his mosque. Some of the stories were reminiscent of the familiar complaints about Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to the door asking for contributions – except that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t come back to make their arguments more forcefully with the help of a kalashnikov. Many shopkeepers have good reason to listen to Islamist demands, and long before 11 September, a combination of moral and physical pressure had led many mosques to replace their collection boxes for peaceful charities with ones for jihadi groups.

But to judge by the response to the strike outside the Pashtun North-West Frontier Province a good many activists are merely going through the motions of agitation – they aren’t fomenting revolution, or not yet. As a local hotel owner said, out of the hearing of the small crowd outside: ‘You have to remember that while no one here likes what America is doing, in the end we are Pakistanis and the Taliban are Afghans. We are not going to destroy our country for the sake of theirs. Musharraf has warned that an American alliance with India could destroy Pakistan, and people listen to that, even though they might not admit it to you.’ This is indeed the line that President Musharraf has taken again and again, and outside the Pashtun areas it seems to be having some effect.

It’s worth bearing in mind that all the Islamist parties put together have never won more than 7 per cent of the vote in an election; and some are not nearly as radical as their language would suggest. The party which has led the Pakistani protests is the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), whose power-base is the Pashtuns of the Frontier. It has split into two factions, one of which is headed by Sami-ul-Haq, whose madrasah trained many of the Taliban. The largest and best organised Islamist party is the Jamaat-Islami. It has joined in the protests against the war to avoid being outflanked by the radicals, but there are clear signs that its leaders are worried about climbing on the Taliban tiger. They may be rigidly puritanical in their ideology, but they are the kind of rigid puritans who in British and American politics have often proved remarkably flexible when it comes down to accepting government jobs and forming alliances. Munawar Hassan, the Jamaat’s secretary general, rather prided himself on the Party’s tactical opportunism when I spoke to him. He also made clear that while the Jamaat condemns the current air campaign, its version of an Islamic society differs radically from that of the Taliban, especially when it comes to the role of women. He even described the Jamaat’s approach as resembling that of Iran, which, coming from a Sunni theologian, shows a degree of pluralism.

All the same, it would be foolish to stop worrying. It was a week after I left that gunmen – presumably from a Sunni extremist group – killed 15 Christian worshippers and the Muslim policeman guarding their church in Bahawalpur (which is not in a Pashtun area). One serious danger is that extremist groups fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir will make good their threat to carry out major terrorist attacks in India. If they succeed in provoking the Indian security forces or Hindu extremists into killing large numbers of Muslims, this would have a radicalising effect inside Pakistan and above all on the Pakistani Army – on which everything depends.

For the moment, however, the major threat of rebellion and destabilisation in Pakistan is confined to the Pashtun areas, which include not only the North-West Frontier Province but parts of Baluchistan and the city of Karachi. The Taliban have always relied on Pashtun hostility to the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras – the minorities which now make up the Northern Alliance. The enmity is long-standing but intensified following the atrocities committed by members of these groups after the Communists fell in 1992. This dislike is shared by many – though not all – of the Pashtuns of Pakistan. After my return to Washington several thousand armed Pashtun tribesmen assembled on the Pakistan side of the border declaring that they wanted to enter Afghanistan to fight the Americans. The Taliban told them to stay put – it might well be more use to them if the tribesmen carry out an uprising in Pakistan. When, a few days later, the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera produced a letter said to be from bin Laden which called on Pakistani Muslims to defend Islam against the ‘crusader war’, it seemed clearer than ever that the US badly miscalculated the strength of the Taliban and their support among the Pashtuns who make up half of Afghanistan’s population. Shortly before he returned to Afghanistan and his death at the hands of the Taliban, the leading anti-Taliban commander Abdul Haq – a Pashtun himself – told me that the bombing was consolidating support behind the Taliban and making his task in stirring up rebellion against them vastly more difficult. The extent of that difficulty was demonstrated by his own capture and execution, in the area that had been his power-base.

If no serious anti-Taliban force can be mustered among the Pashtuns, and if bin Laden has not been killed or captured by the spring, the US and Britain may well feel compelled to send in an army from the north to conquer southern Afghanistan – and that would have appallingly dangerous consequences for Pakistan. The only alternative might be to persuade Pakistan itself to invade southern Afghanistan and take it over as a client state. (This would occasion a split with the north, but any Western-supported solution is bound to involve de facto partition.) It’s a solution that would defuse much Muslim hostility – but no Pakistani with whom I have talked finds it plausible.

Muslims themselves have been targeted by jihadi groups operating within Pakistan. The authorities have not encouraged the attacks, but the fact that their perpetrators had links with the jihadi forces fighting in Kashmir seems to have lent them some protection. That protection is now being lifted, and it seems that many high-ups in the Army are at last beginning to realise the danger of allowing these groups to operate inside the country. In recent years, more than 3600 members of the Shia minority have been killed by Sunni militants, mostly from the Taliban-linked Sipah-e-Sahaba group. (Several hundred Sunnis have also been killed in Shia reprisals.) Shias are seriously worried, and have good reason to be. They also point out with some bitterness that such attacks carried out by Muslims against other Muslims rarely make it into Western media reports of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

A Gallup poll in October, which put the proportion of Pakistanis who sympathise with the Taliban at 83 per cent, was an indication only of sympathy in the context of the war, and doesn’t necessarily indicate support for the Taliban’s ideological programme. Of the remaining 17 per cent, the bulk probably consists of the Shia minority (around 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population), with the Christians and English-speaking elites making up the rest. The Shias have also been influenced by Iran’s relatively supportive attitude to the present campaign. On the other hand, if you were to ask how many people in Pakistan actually support that campaign, and are confident that it will achieve its objectives without causing far worse problems throughout the region, then to judge by my experience the figure would be not 17 per cent but vanishingly small. What makes this worrying is that one of Musharraf’s chief arguments has been that Pakistan will gain major economic benefits from the West as a result of helping it now. But even pro-Western Pakistanis are sceptical that these benefits will outweigh the direct and indirect damage resulting from the war – and in the light of past experience, they have good reason to be.

As a couple of Pakistanis ruefully pointed out to me, Pakistan itself has nothing to be proud of: its elites squandered US aid in the 1980s (not to mention the fact that the country also helped build up the Taliban). Nonetheless, the US (and Britain) must now regret turning their backs on Pakistan after the end of the Cold War. Nor was there much to commend their moralising to the Musharraf Administration, which may have come to power by a military coup, but is also by several measures the most progressive Pakistan has had in a generation.

Past attempts by the West to isolate Pakistan make a ludicrous contrast to the current behaviour of US and British ministers. Now, when they visit the country, they refuse to listen to legitimate criticisms of Musharraf’s policies, and lecture Pakistani politicians on their duty to support the military Government. This kind of thing gets an ethical foreign policy a bad name – and only one person I met (a human rights activist) thought that the US had any right to lecture Pakistan on any subject at all. Despite the shocking failure of Pakistani politicians, we should continue to urge Musharraf to bring the secular parties back into government, perhaps under military supervision, as in Turkey, not so much for the sake of ‘democracy’ as to cushion him against public discontent by introducing local intermediaries capable of managing problems in their own districts.

It is the decline of the economy which may in the end give the Islamists their best chance. Given the failure of every other group to develop the country and raise the living standards of the mass of the population, their ideology offers a default position. If the military regime also now fails – and in the midst of a global economic downturn, it can’t succeed without massive Western aid – then, as in Algeria, the Islamists will be the last ones left standing.

The 1990s were an especially damaging decade, as the two main civilian political parties succeeded each other in office and seemed to compete in venality and incompetence. Now we are back with military rule, albeit of a mild kind and with, on paper at least, a strongly reformist agenda. Musharraf himself comes from a progressive family, and among other things – another fact rarely reported in the West – he is doing his best to improve the position of women, notably by reserving 33 per cent of seats for them on local councils.

He is a career soldier from a middle-class family in a country dominated by essentially pre-modern social, ideological and political forces, usually summed up by the term ‘feudal’. A certain aristocratic air is one of the most striking things about Pakistan, especially compared to India and Bangladesh, which are ruled by the middle classes (in the broadest sense) and the upper peasantry. When a member of the Pakistani political elite speaks of spending time in ‘my village’ he doesn’t mean ‘the village I come from’, but ‘the village I own’. At a dinner in Islamabad, I listened as a Punjabi landowner explained how seats in the local electoral district rotated between the members of his extended family (the women now included). Party allegiance was of little significance, it seemed, except when used opportunistically to extract the best jobs in government and the bureaucracy. I had a powerful sense of being transported back to the England of a previous age: the aristocratic atmosphere seemed Georgian but the background violence and religious fanaticism made the 16th century a more appropriate comparison. There is a curious mixture of genuine respect for legal forms and a feeling that, in the last resort, burning a witness’s house down or abducting his family might make sense. This sentiment is decently veiled in the main cities, but stated with remarkable frankness the further you go into the countryside. It would be wrong to blame the ‘feudals’ for too much, however. No one who has studied rural north India can be under any illusion that rule by kulaks is any better when it comes to the workings of politics, administration and the law – though it may in the long run be better for the economy.

Feudalism is in any case a mistaken description of the Pakistani system. Most of these people are not great landholders but minor gentry. Their local power derives partly from property, but even more from their position as chiefs, or at least figures of weight, within their clans – much as in most of north India. The real root of the problem is the absolute supremacy of family interests over those of the state.

There is one other element which, if not classically feudal, could be described as ‘bastard feudal’: physical protection. Both in the countryside and in the cities, you have to be able to protect your own people in the last resort, whether by using your influence when they are in trouble with the police, or by more direct methods. How far these methods are necessary varies from area to area, with Sindh the most archaic and northern Punjab the most ‘modern’ province – but the threat of force is always present.

By comparison, Musharraf represents modernity – modernity in a military uniform perhaps, but then the Army is probably the only successful modern institution Pakistan possesses. That is why even before the last coup, the Army had been put in charge of electricity distribution and many other public services. The old aristocratic politicians are often immensely attractive individuals, of tremendous panache and personal honesty, but the evidence of their failure is everywhere. As for the Islamists, they represent nothing more than a bleak and bloody dead end.

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