Prepare for turbulence in Pakistan — MOEED YUSUF

Lacking a state-led effort to involve the masses at large in the debate, the poor credibility of the state in the eyes of the people would inevitably allow the Taliban to run a successful anti-state PR campaign in the wake of the collateral damage
Last week, the government tacitly accepted the fact that the militancy was slipping out of control. There are now credible threats of a takeover of Peshawar. The news comes as a shock given that the Musharraf regime had continued to maintain that the military operation was achieving its objectives.

Here, I seek to point out what I see as the real danger in the current scenario. The fear stems from the preoccupation of all involved actors to continue entertaining political compulsions ahead of the actual requirements to stifle the military threat. Political expediency has brought us to this stage in the first place and, if not corrected, will soon lead to a meltdown of the NWFP.

Arguably the single most important factor responsible for the current situation is deliberate negligence. The Musharraf regime continued to fight the war in FATA and yet remained irresolute towards expansionist tendencies of the militant enclave. The key players in Islamabad were regularly briefed about the difficulties of the military operation, the defections of planted intelligence sources, and the expansionist agenda of the Taliban. Yet they had too much on their plate to worry about the situation, especially post-March 9, 2007.

With his popularity swiftly declining, President Pervez Musharraf’s attention was squarely on his own survival for much of last year. Where he remained genuinely convinced that terrorism must be quashed once and for all, political sensitivities led him to shy away from dealing with Taliban expansion time and again. The Swat and Lal Masjid episodes were tragic; yet, developments there were well known to the authorities much before they reached proportions where concerted military operations were required.

The new militant front in Khyber Agency was also predictable. But by the time the Taliban moved to cut off NATO supply lines in Khyber earlier this year, the Presidency, civilians, and the Army were more interested in transferring the burden of action on the other rather than acting decisively. The end result is that we are staring a militant takeover of Peshawar in the face.

Now, the president has reportedly taken a back seat and according to a recent report has ‘lost interest’. Regular briefings are no longer requested and the National Security Council has not discussed the matter since last year. In essence, the individual with the greatest institutional memory of the entire 5-year insurgency (remember the COAS was not involved to this degree before he took over in October last year) has chosen to let the politicians look ugly at the expense of the state’s interests.

Unfortunately, the present government seems even less focused on the issue as it battles to save the coalition, deal with threats from the legal community, play nested games among coalition partners, and try to look good in difficult economic circumstances.

A few obvious benchmarks for the government’s comprehension of the severity of threat can be evaluated. Consider.

Appointments: The Interior Ministry, that has de facto assumed charge of FATA’s day-to-day security affairs in addition to its law and order role for the rest of the country, is being run by a political appointee with no experience in managing such a serious security situation. No notable changes have been made within the Ministry either that would hint at a genuine realisation of the gravity of the situation among the political elite.

Better yet, despite a decision to the contrary in the recent Army briefing on militancy, the Interior Advisor has issued statements suggesting that the NWFP operation will be undertaken by the FC and police, not the Army. Politically, the statement makes sense; the PPP does not want to be seen playing second fiddle to the Army. It is also probably a matter of self-pride for the Advisor, already showing signs of his determination to micro-manage, not to acknowledge that he would have to become peripheral to the larger agenda. Indeed, anyone who is aware of the current capacity of the FC and police would know that the endgame will fall on the military.

Political parties: In last week’s briefing, the Army clearly spelled out the kind of threat we are facing. Reportedly, the briefing did send a few jitters across the decision-making elite. The decision to allow the COAS and Governor NWFP expanded powers makes perfect tactical sense to a military mind. Unfortunately, however, the political angle of this decision still exposes of the reluctance in the political enclave to act responsibly.

The move to put the COAS and Governor in the limelight suits the ANP, which is unwilling to come across as the party responsible for any collateral damage in the NWFP. The PPP itself is caught in two minds. It does not want to be at the forefront of such controversy but it is also not keen on presenting the Army as the party in charge. Its recourse then has been to take a swipe at plausible deniability: it will send contradictory signals to have an exit option should things go horribly wrong (thus Rehman Malik’s contradiction of the official press release following the briefing).

The PMLN on the other hand has remained tight lipped about the insurgency. Instead, it has chosen to play a counterproductive role in another way, i.e. its efforts to hijack the judicial tussle have led the government to divert all attention to this front.

Message to the people: One of the biggest failures of Musharraf’s counter-terror strategy was to sell the idea to the Pakistanis that we were fighting America’s war. This kept the Americans off balance, it allowed Musharraf to legitimise his stance that he was the last man standing between Pakistan and radicalisation, and it comforted Pakistanis that there was no threat to their state. The end result was that citizens, who have proven through the elections to be completely averse to extremism, still remained critical of any action the state took to tame the insurgency.

The political government has not made any effort to change this. It is astonishing to see a 160 million strong nation facing a terrorist threat in its hinterland to remain so detached from the on-ground reality. The government has not attempted to present the true picture to the citizens; there have been no efforts to build support for limited use of military force; there is no explanation for what the rhetoric about a ‘political and economic’ strategy to fight terrorism actually means; and most importantly, there is no move to prepare the people for what will come: 2008 will be the most turbulent year in the country’s history — if the militants defy present ultimatums.

It is time that we realise how serious the militant threat is. Make no mistake that we are facing a potential meltdown of the state. Four steps need to be taken urgently.

First, the Ministry of Interior needs a dedicated unit to deal with the insurgency on a day-to-day basis. It should be headed by someone versed with insurgency operations.

Second, political parties must unite on this front, leaving aside the civil-military and executive-legislature debate, to build consensus on the way forward.

Third, the people of Pakistan must be brought up to speed with developments and made to realise the critical juncture we stand at.

Finally, the action plan should be clearly laid out for a public debate. This last point is key since only through such an effort will the government be able to build support for the turbulent times that lie ahead. And without such support, even the most successful of military operations will only provide temporary relief.

Lacking a state-led effort to involve the masses at large in the debate, the poor credibility of the state in the eyes of the people would inevitably allow the Taliban to run a successful anti-state PR campaign in the wake of the collateral damage. A moderate nation would once again have taken the bait and played in the hands of the very people who threaten their future.

The writer is a research fellow at the Strategic and Economic Policy Research (Pvt Ltd.) in Islamabad and a regular contributor to The Friday Times. He has written extensively on nuclear issues

Source: Daily Times, 29/6/2008

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