As if the troubles at home were not enough for the government, its relations with two important external actors, the United States and Afghanistan, appear to be deeply troubled. The statement by the Afghan president, in which he threatened to send troops into Pakistani tribal area, was both unexpected and unusually harsh in tone. Mr Karzai, who has often been described as at best the Mayor of Kabul, is clearly in no position to carry out this threat. The common assumption was that he was put up to this bluster by the Americans.
It surprised no one therefore when a few days later, US spokespeople repeated their government’s deep scepticism about any engagement or peace talks with the militants in Waziristan. This exposed the Karzai gambit because obviously the Americans are making him say or use a language that they do not want to use themselves. Whatever the disguise, and this one is not too subtle, pressure is being increased on Pakistan to conform to American dictates or face consequences.
It may not seem related but is it a coincidence that the western media has suddenly rediscovered Dr A.Q Khan? An obscure former official of the US defence department has been fished out to claim that the Khan network’s proliferation of nuclear know-how was more widespread than believed earlier. One breathless channel, probably Fox News, described him as more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden. This puts us in the unhappy position of allegedly having not just one OBL but two international ‘rogues’ on our territory. Are we being set up for more serious forms of intimidation?
It is important to examine the issues involved because they have such an important bearing on our future. The bone of contention for the Americans is the peace initiative of the new government and the consequent withdrawal of the military from the tribal areas. In their perception, this has given the Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterparts free run in a large strip of territory thus allowing them to rest, regroup and coordinate further attacks in Afghanistan. This is obviously unacceptable to the American/NATO coalition.
The new Pakistani government’s contention has never been coherently stated but one assumes it runs something like this. The military strategy was pursued for the last seven years but it has not worked. Instead of going down, the militancy has increased in the tribal area and there also have been consequences for the rest of the country in the shape of suicide bombings in major urban centres. The Pakistan army has also lost anywhere between a thousand to fifteen hundred men. The collateral damage in the tribal areas has been huge, with many innocent men and women children killed and a large number of the tribal people displaced from their homes. These are not signs of success.
Both the American position and the Pakistani government’s position are based on unassailable logic. Without going into the morality of whether American/NATO forces should be in Afghanistan or not, there is little doubt that the tribal areas have been a source of trouble for them. From the Pakistani perspective, the exclusive focus on military strategy has been counterproductive creating a serious security and terrorism challenge for the country. Is there any way to reconcile these two positions in such a way that both sides are reasonably satisfied?
In any such situation the way forward is to narrow down the core interests of both parties. The Americans do not want our tribal areas to be used to attack their forces or become a sanctuary for their adversaries whether Afghan or from the outside. Pakistan does not want to wage a war against its own people, and also cannot afford to be subjected to a blow back in the shape of acts of terror in the rest of the country. Is there any way to reconcile these two positions?
One thing is clear. We do not have the luxury of cutting a separate deal with the militants and not worry about the American reaction. As events of the last two months have shown, they have started to tighten the screws on the economic front in the shape of World Bank denying budgetary support funds. They have also begun to bomb our territory with impunity without caring for our response. The latest gambits in which Karzai and A Q Khan figure suggest that more drastic measures are also likely.
In this scenario, it does not require an Einstein to figure out that any deal with the Pakistani militants would have to take into account not only our core concerns but also American/NATO interests. The only other option is take the coalition on and that only an idiot can advise. The two principal concerns of the Americans would be a) no safe haven for Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda in the tribal area and b) no cross border attacks from here on American/NATO forces. These conditions will have to be included and enforced in any deal with the militants. The important Pakistani condition would be a cessation of terrorism on urban centres or any form of ingress into settled areas.
In return, the Pakistani state can promise not only a cessation of military activity but also a major development initiative, which will include better infrastructure, more education and health facilities and forms of social protection in the shape of direct transfer of cash to the vulnerable population of the poor in the tribal area. While offering this, the government will have to emphasise that if the terms are not kept then the entire deal will collapse and, to show its serious intent, the military should relocate but still remain within striking distance. It is only on these terms that a deal with the militants can be negotiated, which will also allay the fears of the American/NATO coalition in Afghanistan.
Is this possible? The answer has to be in the negative. The militants are not weakened enough to consider a ceasefire or a genuine peace deal. They will conclude any deal that removes the threat of military action against them and yet does not impede their freedom of engagement. In other words, they will promise not taking on the Pakistani state if it does not attack them but they will not give up their Al Qaeda or Afghan allies or their fight against the western coalition in Afghanistan.
This puts us seriously between a rock and a hard place. If we agree to the terms of the militants, the Americans and their allies will make life very difficult for us. If we agree with the Americans, we will again have to resort to military action. At the moment, no middle ground is visible. Doing a bit of this or a bit of that will satisfy no one. In such a situation the only way out is a reversion to a principled stand.
We cannot allow foreigners or Pakistani citizens to use our territory to wage a war against our neighbours or other external forces. We must stick to this principle with such ferocity that everyone understands it clearly. If this basis is established, and we must pay whatever price is required for it, we should be ready for peace anytime anywhere.
The News, 20/6/2008