IF you nurtured a nest of snakes in your backyard, would you be surprised if the snakes slipped through the fence or underneath the doors and bit your neighbours and friends? Apparently, if you were one of this country’s foreign policy mandarins, you would be.
As the resident sponsor of jihad in South Asia for nearly three decades, Pakistan has been reeling from the blowback since 9/11. Relations with the US, India and Afghanistan have altered dramatically, and perhaps permanently, this century, but our policymakers have struggled to comprehend these changes.
China has been a different matter. That the jihadis have anything to do with relations with China will surprise many Pakistanis. But that’s because most Pakistanis have never heard of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a vast region which shares a border with our own Northern Areas and is home to the Uyghurs (pronounced ‘wEEgers’), a Muslim population which has been the source of occasional friction between Pakistan and China for nearly two decades.
The latest statements by Pakistan’s highest officials praising China and waxing lyrical about our deep relations with it have, at least in part, something to do with renewed nationalist protests in Xinjiang this year.
Pakistanis may not have given much thought to why the Olympic torch ceremony in Islamabad was blanketed in such heavy security. After all, all public events are now assumed to be a potential target of terrorists and Chinese nationals have been victims of terrorism in the past, most notably in Balochistan. But Baloch nationalists are far away from our nation’s capital. In truth, the government was worried that the Lal Masjid brigade and Al Qaeda/Taliban elements would disrupt the Olympic torch ceremony and damage relations with China.
To connect the dots we have to begin in Xinjiang. The autonomous region is home to a sparse Turkic Muslim population of Uyghurs who are ethnically different from the majority Han Chinese and have a long list of grievances against the Chinese state. In the run-up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Uyghurs have once again been protesting and stirring the nationalist pot, calling attention to perceived Han oppression and rekindling China’s fear of militancy in the region. Ethnic nationalism amongst the Uyghurs is a hydra-headed creature, but, you guessed it, one strain is fervently Islamist and has links to Afghan and Kashmiri militants.
China, of course, is far from blameless for the present state of affairs. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s caused alarm in China, a communist rival, and the Chinese government was more than happy to facilitate Uyghurs wanting to join the Afghan jihad. After the war ended, the Uyghurs predictably stuck around in Pakistan’s madressahs and Afghanistan’s militant camps, eventually joining the Taliban and becoming yet another ingredient in Pakistan’s toxic brew of militancy.
The Chinese are also disingenuous about their ‘problem’ with Uyghur ‘splittists’. Not all Uyghurs are Islamists, some are pro-western, and, since a cycle of Uyghur violence and Chinese repression in the 1990s, dissent has been muted. In some ways, the Uyghurs have become yet another victim of the 9/11 stick that many countries have used to suppress legitimate dissent.
Now, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China is worried that the global spotlight will encourage all sorts of extremists to crawl out of the woodwork. Chinese concerns about Pakistan’s connections with the Uyghurs would have shot up when two passengers carrying Pakistani passports were arrested for attempting to blow up a plane that had taken off from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
So when the Olympic torch arrived in Pakistan, the government worked overtime to ensure that nothing disrupted the relay ceremony. Similarly, President Musharraf visited Urumqi earlier this month at the Chinese government’s behest, a signal to the Uyghurs that the Pakistani state was firmly behind China.
According to Ziad Haider, a research analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Centre in the US, Pakistan has “maintained a sympathetic, yet never openly friendly, posture towards the Uyghurs from the earliest stages of Pakistan’s relationship with China”. Keen to maintain good relations with China, Pakistan has closed Uyghur settlements, arrested and deported Uyghurs and killed alleged Uyghur militants.
Today, relations with China are undoubtedly strong, but Pakistan’s policymakers cannot have failed to taken note of changes in the region since 9/11. China and India have drawn closer, while Pakistan has been once again been sucked into the US orbit, dependent on the country for vast amounts of military aid. With Pakistan keen to deepen trade and security links with China, the last thing it needs is for jihadis to traipse up and down the Karakoram highway, which terminates on the Chinese side in Xinjiang, and strain relations between the two countries.
In a conversation with one of the country’s top ex-spooks, I used the nest-of-snakes analogy to describe our country’s Taliban policy and, more generally, our support for jihad over the years. It was the quickest, cheapest and most effective way to meet our strategic aims at the time, he told me. If later it has turned out to be a millstone around our neck, then so be it. Besides, wouldn’t the world be a very boring place if humans were always right, he asked. He was only half joking.
Pakistan has been the resident sponsor of jihad in South Asia for nearly three decades because policymakers calculated that it was a resounding success. Defeat of the Soviet empire, protection from American ire while the nuclear bomb was pieced together, tying down the Indian army in Kashmir and keeping Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir alive are just some of those ‘successes’. However, the basic flaw in the strategy was always apparent: what would happen if the monster got out of control and turned on Pakistan? The institutional response was: we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
Well, we are at the bridge now and have few ideas about how to cross it. The sad truth about the Uyghurs is that instead of acting as a force for the good of a Muslim population along our borders, Pakistan’s jihad policy has forced us to line up with China against a Muslim community with genuine economic and social grievances. Yesterday’s national interest has become today’s national shame.
Perhaps Pakistan’s next foreign secretary, fresh from a stint as ambassador to China, will advise caution to the cowboys in his world who, in search of short-term benefits, have never been able to see the wood for the trees.
Source: Daily Dawn, 30/4/2008