Policies for FATA and Balochistan are most important and should not be formulated as a reaction to previous policies but rather on the basis of having learnt from them
Post-9/11, when the US struck the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine in Afghanistan, Pakistan became the anvil for the US-Northern Alliance hammer. While the attack was largely successful in its disruptive effect, it was not the ‘blitzkrieg’ it was supposed to be. In fact the limits of air power and hi-tech warfare were demonstrated as Al Qaeda and Taliban used the terrain and local support to their advantage to disperse.
Six years later, there is clear evidence of Al Qaeda-Taliban resurgence, most starkly manifested by the Taliban attack on the military parade in the heart of Kabul on April 27. One reason for the failure to stabilise Afghanistan, though by no means the only one, is the distraction of Iraq. Leaving perceptions aside, there are ground realities that cannot be ignored. There has been a geographic expansion of the Southern Afghanistan Taliban base into Pakistan’s western border areas both in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Balochistan. Home-grown local (Pakistani Tribal) Taliban control swathes of territory in the FATA. Just as this is a spill-over effect of the Taliban struggle against US-NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan so also there is a further spill-over of radical militant activity in the Pakistani areas adjoining FATA.
In the NWFP-administered Swat area the banned Tanzim Nifaz e Sharia Muhammadi (TNSM) launched a major violent thrust to take control over the entire territory ostensibly to enforce Sharia. The Pakistan Army thwarted this venture but the situation simmers even as the government has released the TNSM leader, imprisoned since 2002, as part of a peace agreement.
Even more ominous is the linkage that seems to exist between religious radicals in Pakistan’s urban areas and those in FATA. This is the reason why the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating from the tribal areas was able to target Pakistan’s military and other government agencies and forces in the heart of the major urban centres. The fact the TTP has demanded that their affiliates in Pakistan should not be touched is proof of this interconnection – as is the fact that one of the Taliban demands is release of the Lal Masjid cleric and those suspected of involvement in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
There are several other destabilising facts that must be added to this simmering cauldron.
The magnitude of poppy growth in Afghanistan and the national and international networked mafias that control the drug and weapons trade, the impunity with which resources and people of various nationalities move across Afghanistan, the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the porous Pak-Afghan border, the external and local sponsorship of subversive elements in Balochistan, the failure of the ‘containment and military force’ policy, the failure of peace agreements, the disconnect between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the root causes of the problem, the US ‘concern’ over the new ‘dialogue plus’ policy adopted by the elected government in Pakistan and finally the political and socioeconomic instability that is growing in Pakistan.
There are also indications that violence is spreading to Afghanistan’s northern, western and eastern areas. The Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell clearly stated this in his testimony to a Senate Committee in February. Initially the US relied on the arc formed by the Northern faction-dominated government in Afghanistan, the US-NATO-ISAF forces and Pakistan to contain and resolve the Taliban-Al Qaeda. As the militant activity spread to FATA, the US continued this policy of reliance on Pakistan as the southern bulwark – except that it pressured Pakistan to clear the safe havens in their tribal areas and carry out selective attacks using Predator drones.
With Pakistan’s urban areas coming under attack, the violence in Swat, the subversion in Balochistan, political and civil society unrest, increase in socio-economic pressures, assassinations and suicide bombings in urban areas and a declining governance situation there was concern about Pakistan’s internal security. This led to debate on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets and suggestions that the US should think of contingency planning and discussions with India on the consequences of an unpredictable situation in Pakistan.
A former US Ambassador to India suggested this in a talk at New Delhi last month. The southern part of the US-sponsored containment arc was being given to India as a back-up or fall-back option. Rather than being a negative development, this thinking underscored the enormous importance of Pakistan as an ally and a powerful nuclear-weapons state whose stability and viability was vital.
The clear message to Pakistan was that it had to put its house in order because, in a globalised world, a strategically located nuclear-weapons power could not be perceived as a failing state – especially a state with well-developed institutions that could take steps to stabilise.
There are several positive aspects of the presently evolving situation in Pakistan that need to be flagged:
The strong legislative, organisational and structural steps and control measures that have been taken to secure strategic assets regardless of the political environment, the vibrant civil society and environment that emerged prior to the elections, the largely free and fair elections held on February 18 notwithstanding fears of intervention by the military or the intelligence agencies, the political coalition that has come about after the elections and the tortuous process by which this coalition is strengthening itself to sustain itself, the comprehensive policies being forged for the western border areas, the efforts to combat the economic and power crisis triggered by international price hikes and the fact that the military as a declared policy has retreated from the political scene and is consolidating itself as an institution.
Once these problems have been overcome Pakistanis can look forward to political stability, responsive governance and sustained economic growth on the basis of a sound macro economic structure, an assertive and independent judiciary, a powerful independent media and a proactive civil society with the middle class as its backbone and a vastly improved internal security situation.
To turn this future into reality the urgency and priority should shift to establishing political and administrative structures that ensure good governance, rule of law and response to the socio-economic pressures that the people are facing.
All elements of what the Chief of Army Staff called the ‘national command structure’ are important and each has its own importance and utility; targeting one weakens all. Policies for FATA and Balochistan are most important and should not be formulated as a reaction to previous policies but rather on the basis of having learnt from them.
Foreign, economic and internal security policies are vitally important. Within these policies consideration should be given to initiating bilateral strategic dialogues with India, Iran and Afghanistan to remove the trust deficit that creates disconnects. The relationships with the US and China are extremely important but we also need to move into strong relationships with the UK, the EU and Russia even as we strengthen existing relations with Japan, the ASEAN countries, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World.
The highest priority must go to an inward look that leads us to steps that will give us internal strength and cohesion – if we do not have exploitable vulnerabilities there will be no external interference. Pakistan has the resilience, capacity and will to confront all challenges. Image is important-we cannot be seen as a country with food shortages and a high suicide rate because there is no reason why we should be.
The answer may be private sector involvement to create a ‘safety net fund’ that serves as a last resort for those who have nothing left. This is not an impossible undertaking.
The writer is a former army chief and heads Spearhead, a Lahore-based think tank (www.spearheadresearch.org)