A titanic battle for Pakistan's soul is raging in the country. The fate of this battle will decide the destiny of Pakistan. This battle will decide whether Pakistan evolves into a democratic, moderate, enlightened and progressive state in conformity with the ideals of a modern Islamic welfare state espoused by Allama Iqbal and the Quaid-i-Azam or whether it degenerates into an authoritarian, extremist, obscurantist and retrogressive state wedded to Islamic rituals but devoid of its true revolutionary and reformist spirit. In this epic struggle, the forces of religious extremism symbolised by the Taliban and other reactionary religious groups and parties are on the one side while Pakistan's mainstream political parties, enlightened and progressive religious parties, most of the educated classes and, in fact, the silent majority of the people, which has traditionally toed a moderate line, are on the other. This is not the time to sit on the fence. This is not the time to temporise or to play politics. It is incumbent on the people of Pakistan and their leaders to take an unambiguous and vigorous stand in favour of moderation, enlightenment and progress. They should not allow a small minority of misguided and semi-educated people lacking an understanding of Islam's reformist and progressive message to dictate to the rest of us. It is high time the state and its various organs, specially the armed forces, established the writ of the government if all efforts to persuade the extremist and prone-to-violence religious forces to lay down arms and operate within the framework of Pakistan's constitution and law fail. Needless to say that the government must adopt, based on national consensus, a comprehensive policy to fight the menace of religious extremism and terrorism including a judicious combination of political, economic, developmental, educational and administrative initiatives while keeping the option of the use of force as a measure of the last resort. The inability of the government to take effective measures to roll back and overcome the current wave of religious extremism sweeping the country will sow the seeds of its disintegration. There is no room, therefore, for complacency on the part of the country's leadership. The challenge must be faced head on and the cancerous growth of religious extremism and terrorism must be rooted out. Pakistan was dreamt and founded as a modern Islamic welfare state and not as a theocracy. It is surprising that a state founded on the progressive interpretation of Islam rooted in the dynamic principle of Ijtihad as advocated by Allama Iqbal has fallen victim to the ugly phenomenon of religious retrogression. The Taliban and other religious groups of that ilk are the very anti-thesis of progress and an invitation to the stagnation of the Islamic civilisation. In a major deviation from the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, they are opposed to the quest for knowledge. What else can one make of their opposition to the education for girls? Instead of using their mind to find solutions to the challenges of the modern world within the framework of Islam's basic principles, they rely on hollow rituals and archaic dogmas for guidance in today's life. The acceptance of their thinking would be a recipe for disaster for the Muslims. The forces of religious extremism gathered strength during the rule of General Ziaul Haq when Islam was exploited to prolong his stay in power and the state organs were systematically employed to build up support for the Afghan jihad. While the Afghan jihad was justified morally, politically and strategically to liberate Afghanistan from the foreign occupation, Pakistan's authorities unfortunately were not able to deal effectively with its heady after effects in the aftermath of the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The country's political leadership simply lost control over the elaborate infrastructure which had been created during Ziaul Haq's rule for the prosecution of the Afghan jihad. This infrastructure was put to use by our military establishment subsequently in pursuit of an ill-conceived and short-sighted policy in Afghanistan. Instead of following the policy of "masterly inactivity", we embarked upon a "forward policy" in Afghanistan from which the British had badly suffered during the 19th and 20th centuries. Our pro-Taliban policy pursued from 1995 to September 2001, guided by a tunnel vision, reflected the inability of our political leaders, military command, the security agencies and the foreign office to learn from the past. This policy dangerously isolated Pakistan at regional and international levels, earned us the animosity of non-Pakhtun communities in Afghanistan, badly damaged our relations with Iran virtually forcing it into India's lap, alienated many of the Central Asian Republics and aggravated religious extremism and klashnikov culture in Pakistan which are now tearing apart the social fabric of our society. The events of 9/11 forced upon us an abrupt and ignominious reversal of our pro-Taliban policy. The forcible overthrow of the government of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are mostly Pakhtuns, has led to continued fighting between the Taliban and the coalition forces led by the US. The fighting in Afghanistan also reflects the tussle for power between the Pakhtuns and the non-Pakhtuns in Afghanistan. The tribesmen in FATA, despite the best efforts of our government, have been sucked into this conflict because of tribal, cultural and historical links. The aggravation of the problem of religious extremism and the spread of terrorism in Pakistan are the direct result of our military operations to prevent the tribesmen from going to the aid of their tribal brethren in Afghanistan and the US drone attacks. The Taliban have reacted to these developments by hitting at civil and military targets in various parts of Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has also exploited the situation for the fulfilment of its own terrorist agenda aimed at the US and its supporters in Pakistan. Obviously the state cannot allow any group in Pakistan to challenge its writ by running a parallel government, to carry out its activities in violation of the constitution and the law, or to impose its own interpretation of Islam on others through violent means. The retrogressive nature of the interpretation of Shariah espoused by the religious extremists in Swat makes it that much more repugnant and objectionable. The agreement by the government to impose the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation was a good faith effort by the government to restore peace through a local arrangement to meet the popular demand for speedy justice within the framework of the constitution. However, the subsequent attempts by the religious extremists to challenge the writ of the constitutionally established organs of the state, specially the superior judiciary, and resort to the display and use of force to expand their power base cannot and should not be accepted under any circumstances. If reason and persuasion fail to achieve the desired results, the state must use all the authority at its disposal to crush the religious terrorists after having built up national consensus on the subject through political consultations. It goes without saying that the long-term solution of the problem would require necessary reforms in our educational and administrative systems as well as the economic uplift of the people not only in Swat but also in the rest of the country. The turmoil in FATA is directly linked to the continued fighting and instability in Afghanistan and the presence of foreign forces in that country. While we must do our best to get a handle on the situation in FATA, the prospects of our success in this endeavour will remain bleak in the absence of national reconciliation and a new political dispensation in Afghanistan enjoying broad-based support of the Afghan people. The measure of the success of our diplomacy vis--vis the Americans will be our ability to convince them that failing such a new political dispensation, the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan will remain a pipe dream and their pressure on us to do more will merely destabilise Pakistan with dangerous consequences for them and the whole region. What the Americans need is to do more politically in Afghanistan instead of relying on the brute use of force to achieve their goals. The writer is a retired ambassador E-mail: javid.husain@gmail.com