The US should encourage Pakistan’s policy of political engagement with the tribal groups. All tribes should not be viewed as an appendage to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Give them a chance to opt for peace and stability
Pakistan and the United States share the broad goal of countering extremism and terrorism in and around Pakistan but they diverge on strategies. The latest differences pertain to the initiation of negotiations by the ANP-led coalition government in the NWFP with some militant Islamic groups.
American officials have generally expressed varying degrees of apprehension about negotiations with militant groups. Non-official comments are more critical. They argue that an arrangement between Pakistani authorities and some militant groups can weaken the former’s determination to take strong action against the remaining groups. Another concern is that Al Qaeda and the Taliban will get an opportunity to regroup and rearm.
CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed in March that Al Qaeda was planning an attack on the West from its ‘safe haven’ in Pakistan’s tribal areas. FBI Director Robert S Mueller told a meeting in London in April that Al Qaeda had established ‘new sanctuaries’ in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The decision of the federal and NWFP governments to explore the dialogue option reflects the widely shared opinion across the political divide that there is a need to talk to these groups to understand their grievances and strive for their return to normal and orderly life. Surely, all groups will not cooperate with the government, but the dialogue will make it easy to separate those that accept political arrangements from those that continue to subscribe to violence for pursuing their political agendas. The major aim of the dialogue is to isolate ideological extremists from others who subscribe to dialogue and political accommodation in order to pursue a more refined and targeted policy towards militancy.
The experience of the Pakistan Army operations in the tribal areas during 2003-2007 suggests that excessive reliance on the power of the army and paramilitary forces to the exclusion of political and societal channels was a flawed policy. Pakistan’s security forces faced serious problems in dealing with militant groups because of the lack of sufficient experience in counter-insurgency in the mountainous terrain of the tribal areas and Swat.
It was not just the security forces that suffered heavy losses. The tribal people, including those who were not involved in the insurgency, lost family members and property. Normal life became impossible in the areas affected by violence. This created serious humanitarian problems in the region, which alienated the locals and made them more vulnerable to cooptation by the militants. Military action also created a refugee problem. Over 50,000 people migrated from the tribal areas to the settled areas to get away from the violence.
The new NWFP government was perturbed by the violent fallout from the tribal areas into the settled districts. It concluded that the province’s social, economic and security problems could not be effectively tackled without improving security and stability in the tribal areas. The new NWFP government rightly decided to explore the political option for improving the situation in the tribal areas.
Pakistan’s counter-terrorism has traditionally been shaped mainly by concerns articulated in Washington. Though the government of Pakistan was hardly consulted by Washington on how to pursue counter-terrorism in the region, it was expected to implement American guidelines and specific policy measures on terrorism. The US administration relied heavily on Pervez Musharraf for this purpose.
The Musharraf government pursued US advisories keeping in view its political needs (its relationship with Islamist political parties, internal security issues, the relevance of militant groups to Pakistan’s objectives at a given time, etc). The opinion of the army and intelligence top brass also mattered. This led the Pakistan government to pursue US advice selectively. Consequently, Pakistan did not meet the expectations of US policymakers who often complained of sloppiness in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts. Some commentators argued that the US was not getting Pakistani cooperation worth the financial resources it was making available to Pakistan for staying on board in the war on terror.
The Musharraf government treated counter terrorism as a bureaucratic and military exercise. There was hardly any attempt to build popular support. Consequently, most Pakistanis did not think that counter-terrorism served Pakistani interests; it was seen as an American war.
The government’s efforts to stabilise the tribal areas through three peace deals in 2004-06 did not succeed because military authorities negotiated the deals after failing to subdue the tribal groups. They did not feel the need for a separate and autonomous political civilian channel for negotiating peace. There was hardly any trust between the two sides; each wanted to outmanoeuvre the other through the peace deals.
Now, with the changed political context in Pakistan, the US needs to review its disposition towards Pakistan for pursuing counter-terrorism.
First, the US administration needs to engage the civilian government and leaders of the major political parties, especially in the NWFP government. John Negroponte and Richard Boucher, top State Department officials who visited Pakistan in March, must have realised that the strategy of relying on one person had become redundant.
Second, the US needs to seek greater Pakistani input for policy making on counter-terrorism in and around Pakistan, which can be done through frequent multi-level and multi-faceted diplomatic interaction between the two countries. Both will have lesser complaints against each other if Pakistan’s input is sought before finalising goals and strategies instead of unilaterally articulating goals and strategies and expecting Pakistan to own them fully.
Third, the US should take into account Pakistani concerns about the disposition of the Karzai government in Kabul. Pakistan’s apprehensions about growing Indian presence (especially military) in Afghanistan should not be brushed aside. Similarly, the Afghan policy (often endorsed by the US) of publicly blaming Pakistan for internal strife does not help. The Afghan government should recognise that its failures in governance and economic reconstruction are also responsible for its problems. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to promote mutual cooperation and trust if they want to contain terrorism.
Fourth, the US should encourage Pakistan’s policy of political engagement with the tribal groups. All tribes should not be viewed as an appendage to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Give them a chance to opt for peace and stability. Even if this effort does not succeed, it is worth a try.
It is interesting to note that American media reports on increased militant activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan coincides with reports of Pakistani dialogue with the militants. One wonders if this is just a coincidence or an attempt to derail the negotiation process.
The ANP is best suited to conducting negotiations because it does not suffer from the baggage of violent approach in the region. Its leaders are currently invoking their traditional ethnic Pashtun linkages for dialogue with several militant groups. They need to be given a chance to deal with the problem in their traditional way.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Source: Daily Times, 4/5/2008