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Pakistani Secular Leaders Alarmed By U.S. Afghan-Withdrawal Plans

Secular party leaders fear an Islamist takeover in Afghanistan will lead to the same in Pakistan.
Politicians used to enjoy star status in Pakistani public life. They grew accustomed to being greeted as celebrities by tens of thousands of supporters throwing rose petals, chanting their slogans, and patiently and loyally enduring their long, rhetorical speeches. Election season was a particularly exciting time, with political gatherings turned into noisy parties for thousands of participants.

All that has changed in a few short years. The threat of suicide bombings and rocket attacks has put an end to most large political rallies. Despite an unsympathetic public and large-scale military operations against them, Islamic radicals have emerged largely unscathed, leaving secularists to worry about their own survival.

Secular politicians, already a choice target due to their anti-Taliban stances, are now feeling particularly vulnerable amid increased talk of a U.S. troop withdrawal in neighboring Afghanistan. They anxiously watch from afar as Washington debates how many soldiers to call back from its 100,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan, hoping the drawdown does not take place prematurely or at too grand a scale.

In the insurgency-plagued northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the Awami National Party (ANP) has borne the brunt of extremist violence. A secular and liberal political group with a large following in the Pashtun regions, the ANP has lost hundreds of leaders and supporters in suicide attacks and targeted assassinations. Its cadres turned into major targets after it swept the 2008 elections on the promise of restoring peace in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Hasham Babar, a senior leader of the ANP, says a hasty Western departure of forces in Afghanistan would benefit extremists there and in Pakistan who have hedged their bets on such a scenario in anticipation of making a comeback.

"We don't want an untimely U.S. withdrawal [from Afghanistan]," Babar says. "The U.S. and NATO forces have come under a United Nations Security Council resolution. It's their duty to clean up the mess they helped create to defeat the Soviet Union. It's now their responsibility to undo their mess here."

Fighting The 'Fassad'

Pakistani secularists are most worried by the thought of a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan, which they fear would boost the prospect of surviving Islamist radicals carrying out an extremist revolution in their own country.

For secularists, this would herald another blow in a generational struggle. The ANP and other secular forces in Pakistan publically opposed Islamabad's linchpin status against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their left-leaning leaders dubbed the fight against the Red Army in Afghanistan a "fassad," or mischief, rather than a jihad as it was then called.

In public gatherings, private discussions and media interviews, they warned Pakistani leaders that the radical forces they were promoting as "holy warriors" could one day come back to haunt them. The government's response was a harsh crackdown, arresting some and forcing others into exile.

Many leaders among the ethnic Baluchis and Sindhis also met the same fate, which colors their worries over a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ishaq Baloch, a senior politician in southwestern Balochistan Province, says that the main question is whether the fledgling Afghan security institutions can take responsibility for their country's security.

Baloch says that Washington has yet to fulfill its promises of defeating extremism and bringing stability and prosperity to Afghanistan. "America is primarily responsible for restoring peace in Afghanistan. Now the question is whether there is peace and stability there. I don't see it yet," he says. "If they begin to leave Afghanistan in a couple months, who are they going to leave it to? This is the most important question."

An Important Decision

Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi takes a more cautious approach. He says that the debate within the U.S. administration about how many troops to withdraw is still inconclusive. Qureshi, who was the foreign minister until February, says that Islamabad is against a rash U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Indeed, he says, the prevailing insecurity in Afghanistan won't allow Washington to go ahead with a major drawdown. But the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, he adds, is inflamed by a sense of foreign occupation, which might motivate U.S. policymakers to quickly pull their forces out.

Western-educated Qureshi, the descendent of a 14th-century Sufi Muslim saint, is detested by Pakistani extremists who, in recent years, have bombed many Sufi shrines across the country. He urges great caution in deciding the eventual troop numbers.

"There are two sides to a picture, and they [U.S. policymakers] have to look at it from all angles and make a very calculated decision," Qureshi says.

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