Owning the war —Talat Masood

The counterinsurgency policy should be debated in parliament and discussed vigorously in print and electronic media to develop national consensus. It is only then that people will own and support it

Pakistanis are still not clear if the war we are engaged in is ours or America’s.

No doubt US policies during the 1980s and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to 9/11 have resulted in rising radicalism in the region.

But we cannot absolve ourselves either, as we were voluntary partners of the US in the freedom struggle for Afghanistan. Pakistan acted as a major bastion against Soviet communism and nurtured multiple Jihadi groups. It was also the first and the most enduring supporter of Taliban. In reality the tribal belt became a haven for clandestine activity and Pakistan a victim of terrorism with varying intensity ever since.

By closely aligning with the US since September 2001 in the formalised “war on terror” the situation became worse. However, that is in the past.

At this stage for any political party or group to disown the “war” and cry innocence would be tantamount to self-denial which always has dangerous consequences. Agreed that there could be different approaches to fighting militancy and radicalism but the first requirement is its ownership across the political spectrum.

Prime Minister Gilani’s efforts at garnering public support for the war have had limited impact so far. Additional measures will have to be taken by the government and political leadership to change the stereo typical perception of the war on terror.

First, the coalition partners have to be taken on board. It is not clear if the PMLN shares the same views as the PPP in countering insurgency and combating terrorism. The PMLN being more conservative and rightist has a different worldview than the secular PPP; this contradiction is apparent in their approaches to the war and the way they feel it should be handled.

Moreover, the coalition’s future is uncertain because of the judicial crisis and major differences over other issues leaving the government dysfunctional and incapable of generating the necessary resolve and commitment to fight the insurgency.

In the likely event that the PMLN walks out of the coalition in the next few weeks it would further complicate matters as it is critical that the PMLN support the war and harness national support for it in tandem with the PPP.

In fact there is also need to get support of the opposition political parties both in and outside the parliament as well as that of civil society leaders on the issue.

The counterinsurgency policy should be debated in parliament and discussed vigorously in print and electronic media to develop national consensus. It is only then that people will own and support it.

The creation of a critical mass of moderate forces is the best approach for eventually countervailing militancy. But if the government is weak and occupied in extraneous matters it will not be in a position to handle the surge of growing militancy in the country.

Moreover, without people’s support the army can never develop the requisite motivation and will to counter an insurgency successfully. Regrettably, President Musharraf’s close proximity with the US makes his support counter-productive.

Handing over responsibility for military operations and giving freedom of action to the military command is within democratic norms, but this should not imply that the civilian government has absolved itself of its responsibility. In fact, with a broad support base for the war on terror it would be relatively easy to harmonise our national interests with US policy and ward off unjustified US demands and pressure.

Additionally, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan interconnected Taliban insurgencies and jihadist terrorism are flourishing. It is therefore crucial to take Afghanistan along. After the induction of the civilian government, statements of goodwill and cooperation from top leadership of both countries had given hope that the era of blame games will end.

Since then however, President Karzai has threatened to send Afghan troops into Pakistani territory and has alleged that Pakistan was sheltering militants that were involved in the jail breakout in Helmand province.

The US is constantly egging Pakistan to do more and attributes 40 to 50 percent of the rise in militancy in Afghanistan to cross-border support of Taliban from Pakistan. According to a recent statement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates this increase has occurred since Pakistan has negotiated peace deals and eased the pressure on them.

No mention however is made of the exponential rise of opium cultivation in Afghanistan right under US, ISAF and Afghan forces’ watchful eyes. Neither is any responsibility taken for abysmal progress in building state structures or establishing security in Pushtun dominated provinces of Afghanistan.

The current military operation launched by paramilitary Frontier Corps in Khyber Agency was meant to flush out major militant groups, especially the Lashkar-e-Islam. As they had ample warning and no element of surprise was involved the insurgents melted away in the hide-outs of Tirah Valley.

The local commander has rightly decided to pursue the militants, although it is not clear why the paramilitary force did not capture or kill the militant leaders in a commando action, before they slipped away. The other two militant groups were not engaged. Maybe the force commander wants to exploit inter-sectarian and inter-tribal rivalries for weakening their hold before he confronts them.

The objective of this limited military action appears to be to negotiate peace agreements with the militants from a position of strength and to bring the majority among them in the political fold and isolate the diehards and foreign elements.

In the absence of security it is neither possible to engage in meaningful dialogue or any economic activity. Under these circumstances the government is justified in using force. Once law and order is restored, the government should sincerely address the economic and social problems that are giving rise to militancy.

The writer is a retired Lieutenant General of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at talat@comsats.net.pk

Source: Daily Times, 3/6/2008

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