PESHAWAR, Pakistan—A dozen men sat in a circle in a village outside Peshawar on a recent afternoon. Wearing red caps, they gossiped and drank green tea. The sun fell behind a roof, and several of the men wrapped wool blankets around themselves. All belonged to the Awami National Party, a secular political party based in the North West Frontier Province. The ANP is predicted to win big in the coming elections, mostly at the expense of the Islamist parties who’ve frightened U.S. policy-makers for the past five years. “This election is a straight fight between those who want war and those who want peace,” Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the ANP, told me. He drew a line between Islamic militants on the one hand, and his own party on the other. “It is between fundamentalism and moderation.”
In the last elections, which took place in October 2002, the Muttahida Majles Amal, a six-party Islamist coalition, defeated the ANP, the Pakistan Peoples Party, and all other contenders by a wide margin in the North West Frontier Province and went on to form the provincial government. The MMA’s critics, led by the ANP, allege that the Islamists’ rhetoric and sympathies allowed so-called “Talibanization” to spread throughout the regions bordering Afghanistan. Sitting in the circle of red-capped men, I asked if any of them had voted for the MMA last time around. One man sheepishly raised his hand. “That was a vote for paradise and the Quran,” he said, as if excusing himself. “When they shoved the Quran in my face and said ‘Vote!’ I had no other choice. But once the MMA got their bungalows in Islamabad, everything changed. They went to Islamabad, not to Islam.”
The World Bank praised the MMA government for its fiscal responsibility and health programs, but local perceptions of corruption, broken promises, and excessive politicking tarnished the coalition’s image at home. “We expected them to implement Islamic law and establish a system of justice,” said Salauddin, a middle-aged civil servant from Chardsadda. In 2002, the MMA pledged to implement sharia law and support the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, people couldn’t have cared less about fiscal restraint. Now they have turned from the MMA, not because the Islamists were too hard-core, but because they failed to fulfill their campaign promises. What did they have to show for their time in government? “Acts of terrorism only increased under the mullahs,” Salauddin exclaimed. During 2007, 60 suicide-bomb attacks killed more than 770 people in Pakistan, according to a recent report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. Most of the incidents occurred in the North West Frontier Province.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the ANP is the desire to rehabilitate the image of Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Street-level supporters, such as the men in red caps, and party leaders cited this as their greatest concern. More than 25 million Pashtuns live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they’ve been renowned as fierce fighters for centuries. Pashtun militias have repelled British armies, Sikh armies, Soviet armies, and now American, NATO, and Pakistani ones, too. The majority of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan today are Pashtuns. “At this moment, if you talk about Pashtuns, the world thinks he is a terrorist, has a beard to his navel, hair to his shoulders, and holds a Kalashnikov,” said Khan, the ANP chief. “Islamic fundamentalism is destroying the basic fabric of Pashtun society.”
But the success of the ANP’s election campaign signals a shift in the politics of the North West Frontier Province, where the rhetoric of secular nationalism is finding more appeal than that of Islamic fundamentalism. For instance, the ANP proposes changing the name of the province to Pashtunistan (“Land of the Pashtuns”) or Pakhtunkhwa (“Pashtun Nation”). (The MMA tried to change the name to Dar-ul-Islam, or “Domain of Islam.”) Khan said that all the other provinces of Pakistan shared “frontiers” with Iran, Afghanistan, or India. “But if they—Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan—can have their own names, why can’t we? This is a matter of our identity.”
According to Khan and the ANP, Pashtuns are not naturally brash, militant people—an impression that’s been created by the Taliban. If anyone can reform the Pashtuns’ image, Khan’s family history suggests that he’s the man for the job. His grandfather Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan earned the nickname “Frontier Gandhi” for his role in leading the Pashtuns in a nonviolent resistance movement against the British Raj during the 1930s and ‘40s. His organization became known as the “Red Shirts,” which is why the ANP’s flag is red and its supporters wear red caps. Ghaffar Khan opposed the Muslim League, the main outfit lobbying for the creation of Pakistan, and supported Gandhi’s Congress Party. Ghaffar Khan argued that religious identity shouldn’t determine the country where a person should live—and thus denied the rationale for the creation of Pakistan. Instead, Ghaffar Khan contended that ethnic identity was more important, and he called for the creation of an independent Pashtunistan. A year before the birth of Pakistan, fellow Muslims physically attacked him for being, in their minds, anti-Muslim, illustrating the tension that’s long existed between Pashtun nationalists and Islamists.
To find out how the Islamists felt about their fall from power, I went to Mardan to meet Ata-ur-Rahman. Rahman is a senior leader of Jamaat-i-Islami and a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. Jamaat-i-Islami is one of the main component parties in the MMA. In December, Jamaat-i-Islami opted to boycott the coming elections in protest against President Pervez Musharraf’s regime and what they believe are destined to be rigged elections on Feb. 18. I had met Rahman several times in the past, but when I arrived at his madrasah in late December, he appeared pensive and distracted. He didn’t agree with the party’s decision to boycott the elections and had argued that doing so would leave the field wide open for the ANP. He lost the argument, and now Jamaat-i-Islami expected him to convince local people of the merits of a boycott.
But what worried him most was the legacy that the Islamists had left behind. “The worst result of our rule was the rise in militancy throughout the region,” he said. Rahman is a moderate, with a Ph.D. from the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as comfortable speaking English or Malay as he is speaking Urdu or Pashto. He is one of the only Islamists I’ve heard admit that so-called “Talibanization” was a product of the Islamists being in government.
We discussed the pro-Taliban uprising in the nearby Swat Valley, where a radical cleric determined to implement sharia is waging an insurgency against the state. I asked Rahman if he believes that people’s disappointment with the MMA’s failure to implement sharia had led some to turn to the Pakistani Taliban, believing they were the only ones capable of doing so. He nodded his head slowly and stared out the window. “If the MMA had been able to bring sharia to Swat, that would have definitely weakened the militants,” he said.
With those alternatives, does anyone wonder why U.S. policy-makers are paralyzed when it comes to Pakistan?