analysis: Rising to the challenge —Talat Masood

It would not be long before the US decides to terminate the war in Iraq and declare Afghanistan and Pakistan as the epicentres of the global war on terrorism

These are challenging times for Pakistan, even in comparison to its highly turbulent and precarious past.

The US is getting impatient for us to “do more” or risk unilateral military action by the US in FATA. There is a sharp increase in US surveillance activities and air strikes have become a common occurrence. Pressure has also mounted after the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was moved to the Arabian Sea from the Persian Gulf.

Hype is being generated by congressional hearings, media and think tanks. This dangerous dynamic could lead to President Bush authorising intensification in air strikes and even limited ground operations in the tribal belt. Perhaps President Bush believes this would improve his legacy and increase prospects of a Republican victory in the forthcoming presidential elections.

From the US perspective the immediate threat of Islamic radicalism rests along the Pak-Afghan border; the Iranian nuclear danger could be dealt with at a more opportune moment. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has also been saying that Iraq is the wrong war and Afghanistan the right one. It would not be long before the US decides to terminate the war in Iraq and declare Afghanistan and Pakistan as the epicentres of the global war on terrorism.

Clearly, any such move will inflame passions in Pakistan. Anti-American sentiments will rise exponentially. The civilian government would be destabilised and moderate forces will be further marginalised. For the Taliban and Al Qaeda this would be an ideal situation.

Already the Tehrik-e Taliban has consolidated its hold in FATA and increased its activities in several districts of the NWFP. The writ of the state is shrinking and according to western intelligence sources cross-border support to Afghan Taliban by these groups is increasing.

On the eastern front, things are no better. In the last few months, there have been a few instances of firing across the LoC that do not augur well, since faithful adherence to a ceasefire has been the most successful CBM between India and Pakistan. National Security Advisor of India, Mr Narayanan has accused the ISI of masterminding the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. The Indian strategic community is harping that militancy in Kashmir has increased since General Kayani has taken over as COAS and Pakistan is falling back on militant proxies.

On the contrary, Pakistan claims it has concrete evidence that the Indians are fuelling the insurgency in Balochistan, supporting militant groups in FATA and increasing anti-Pakistan activity in Afghanistan.

All this distrust will cast a deep shadow on the India-Pakistan peace process and our military could get locked up on two fronts.

Similarly, there are serious misgivings in the US military that our army, intelligence services and society are supportive of the Taliban. Pakistan has its own list of misgivings that the US is supporting the Northern Alliance at the expense of Pashtuns and encouraging India’s growing influence in the region.

Islamabad also considers it highly unfair that the resurgence of the Taliban has been attributed to Pakistan. After all Pakistan at one time supported Hikmatyar’s Hizb too but its influence remains limited.

It appears that the US, India and Afghanistan have synergised pressure on Pakistan’s military and the ISI. In the process they are creating enormous difficulties for the new government that has yet to take charge and formulate a coherent policy on terrorism and counter insurgency.

Over the years domestic politics in Pakistan has been skewed to a point wherein people are unable to differentiate between what is good for them and what is detrimental to their interest. Our leaders, also, have failed in harmonising individual, community and national interests.

These shortcomings are reflected in our foreign policy. Pakistan after sixty-one years of independence is still grappling with its identity and value system. The reality is that the nation is not clear where it stands with the US in the war on terror. It is as confused about its relationship with the Taliban.

The majority in Pakistan abhor the medieval and obscurantist worldview of the Taliban and consider it the antithesis of the vision of the Quaid-e Azam.

But there are elements in Pakistan who genuinely feel that it is not prudent to antagonise the Taliban. There is a strong perception among influential sections in Pakistan that the rise in militancy is a direct consequence of the unjustified American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The dilemma is that if Islamabad pays heed to this view, it invites international (and US) wrath and also indirectly assists the spread of Talibanisation in its own territory.

The Taliban have tasted power, are well-armed and have access to finances generated through drug trafficking, timber smuggling and levying of taxes. They are unlikely to give up power voluntarily to a state that is soft and incapable of providing the basic requirements of personal security, justice, employment and other aspects of governance in these neglected areas.

In this highly complex situation the civilian government finds itself overwhelmed.

The military leadership too is new and has clearly indicated that it would formulate the counter insurgency plans on the basis of government’s policy and will abide by democratic norms to gain people’s support in this fight.

The only viable strategy is to unite at the national level and actualise the full democratic potential of Pakistan. We have been hoping that the civilian leadership and the institutional strength of political parties will provide a new direction and steer us from this quandary. It seems we will have to wait, but is time on our side?

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

Source: Daily times, 17/7/2008

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