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Meet The Featured Human Rights Defenders: Hina Jilani (Pakistan)

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Hina Jilani

Pakistan on the Brink

If Hina Jilani says the situation is bad, people should sit up and take notice.

As special representative of the U.N. secretary-general on human rights defenders for eight years and a prominent lawyer and civil society activist in Pakistan for the last two decades, she has worked tirelessly on an agenda for peace without flinching.

Yet the problems facing Pakistan today appear insurmountable even by her superhuman standards. "This is the first time in 30 years that I feel absolutely overwhelmed," she says. "Not defeated, but overwhelmed."

And the prospect that has Ms. Jilani so intimidated? Imagine a Yugoslavia-like situation in the world's sixth-largest country, but this time with jihadi extremists, unknown numbers of foreign terrorists, and a nuclear stockpile thrown into the mix.

She calls the current civilian government of Asif Zardari the "last bastion" for a stable Pakistan and warns that if military rule returns, the nation of 172 million will split into opposing factions. "If the military comes back, the country will break because there are smaller provinces that will not tolerate another (period of) military rule, and they will secede – and if that happens, there will be Balkanization."

Such a situation is not a remote possibility. Ms. Jilani explains the scenario in which one domino falls after another, leading to political and social catastrophe.

First, the United States continues the bombing of populations in the northwestern tribal regions of the country. This, combined with terrorist attacks in retaliation for the bombing, undermines already fragile economic conditions and creates an environment in which terrorists are able to proliferate further. Then, extremist elements in the Pakistani military with close ties to tribal chiefs accuse the civilian government of undermining national security by allowing the United States to indiscriminately kill civilians. A coup is staged reinstating military rule, and moderate provinces begin to break away from Pakistan. Political chaos ensues, creating an anarchic environment in which a familiar cycle of violence begins.

"There is a real danger of this occurring. The military have an agenda of supporting the extremists and are ideologically very akin to the extremists," says Ms. Jilani. "It is very important that the world understand how important it is to act in a wise way," she says.

So how did Pakistan get to this point? To be sure, the contested region of Kashmir has always been an issue, but in the 1980s and '90s, the nation was better-known for its cricket team than for its problems with extremism.

Today's situation traces its roots back some 20 years or more. When the Soviet pullout ended the Afghan war in 1989, the Pakistani military decided to use the fanatical elements left over from the struggle against the U.S.S.R. to further its security interests in Kashmir and so encouraged these groups to infiltrate the disputed northern province.

The military also wanted to have a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul, and the best candidate at the time appeared to be a group of religiously motivated people who already had links to local Muslim seminaries – the Taliban. "These were the people who the military authorities felt would always be obliged to Pakistan … so they invested a great deal in the Taliban," says Ms. Jilani.

The Taliban, in turn, was developing its own allies in Afghanistan. One of these was a group of largely foreign radicals known as Al-Qaeda. The military's efforts to cultivate the Taliban and their indirect relationship with Al-Qaeda "were all going on totally without the knowledge of the civilian government in Pakistan," says Ms. Jilani. "This is because the military has always dominated foreign policy … and never allowed civilian governments to have any stake in matters of national security."

When 9/11 occurred, the Pakistani military was reluctant to give up the Taliban, as they had developed them as allies for over a decade. "This is when a lot of the people whom the Pakistani military refers to as 'assets' were shifted from Afghanistan to the tribal areas (of northwest Pakistan). These so-called assets brought with them their allies who belonged to Al-Qaeda," says Ms. Jilani.

The Pakistani military asked tribal leaders to host the refugee Al-Qaeda fighters according to nationality. Saudi Al-Qaeda fighters were assigned to one tribal area, the Uzbeks to another, and so on. Elements in the Pakistani military resisted U.S. pressure to uproot these terrorists from the border regions due to the huge investment they had made in developing these "assets" in the first place. Soon, locals became sympathetic to their foreign guests, and a Pakistani wing of the Taliban developed, which began to commit acts of terrorism.

Ms. Jilani says there was never a serious effort to control any of these elements operating out of the tribal regions. On the contrary, the Pakistani military actively supported them. "They were throwing in money like anything, and they brought in a lot of weapons in the area," says Ms. Jilani. With a local population to terrorize, state control in the regions faltered, and extremist groups began to assume de facto rule.

To make matters worse, the United States supported a military government in Islamabad in the belief that it was the most stable option. In reality, elements in the Pakistani military under the Musharraf regime were able to continue their support of extremists in the tribal regions and weaken state authority further. Today, the terrorists in the border regions have taken control of large tracts of land and operate them as well-financed and powerfully armed proto-states.

"The United States totally misread the situation," says Ms. Jilani. "If Musharraf had been successfully countering terrorism, we would not have a situation eight years down the road where (terrorists) actually control territory. Nobody has tried to find the source of the money or the source of the weapons."

Ms. Jilani says credible intelligence must play a key role in defusing the current tinderbox of opposing interests. Rather than sending in troops and bombing the tribal regions, the civilian government in Islamabad must clarify its policy on the terrorist problem by identifying the many extremist groups currently at large and reform its intelligence structure so that it has credibility and accountability. "The government must spell out what is their political objective, and force can only be used as part of a strategy to achieve that objective."

Strengthening the court system and parliamentary rule is also key. "The current government has the political will but very little capacity, so they need to be helped," says Ms. Jilani. "And the only way they can be helped is by reducing the power of the military over the civilian government."

Another crucial factor is to counter the popular support that terrorist groups have won from the general population. The best way to do this is to show the terrorists not as the freedom fighters the current situation allows them to paint themselves as, but as common criminals.

"When you put them on trial, you show the wickedness of their crime," says Ms. Jilani. Once it becomes abundantly clear that the terrorists' victims are almost entirely comprised of Pakistani civilians, only then will sympathy for their cause be lost. "We have to deal with terrorism as a criminal element."

Much of the popular support for the terrorists stems from the perception that the fight against them on Pakistani soil is being conducted by the United States, with all the loss of sovereignty and suggestions of shadowy foreign string-pullers such an image entails. "The respect that people once had for the United States is gone – now, rather, there is fear," she says.

Like many other regions in the Muslim world, overt support from Washington for a particular political objective is often counterproductive in Pakistan. The appearance of a homegrown policy is thus essential. "If the government made some decisions themselves without visible American interference, the people would accept it because this is a popular government brought in by elections," says Ms. Jilani.

The line that the Obama administration must walk to avoid the nightmare situation that Ms. Jilani fears may develop is knife-edge thin. Not only must popular perception of U.S. involvement in Pakistan be carefully managed, principles of humanitarian and international law must also be respected even when the use of force is necessary.

Economic support, intelligence reform, strengthening democratic rule, reducing the influence of the Pakistani military – all these things are important in avoiding state failure. "Everything must be invested in a democratic civilian power," says Ms. Jilani. "The civilian government must be supported thoroughly, otherwise we will lose it."

Updated February 2009

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