Islamabad diary: The gathering tempest

Ayaz Amir

The government is unworried by the worsening security situation on our North West frontier. It is in a happy position because it has neither time nor inclination to think about such unpleasant matters. For now it is grappling with its own ineptitude. Let this battle be over—and there is no telling when this will be—before it can shift its attention to other issues. The army, however, is deeply worried, and for good reason because it is the army which is bearing the brunt of the undeclared war now raging along our western border. And it is the army which has to deal with the American pressure to “do more”. The luxury of indifference available to the government—and one which the government is enjoying to the full—is not available to the army.

Of the two quagmires the United States is stuck in—Iraq and Afghanistan—the latter looks set to be the one America will be paying more attention to as time passes. There are more American troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan. But Iraq is already a doomed enterprise in many American minds. That is why the focus is shifting to Afghanistan. The focus is also shifting to a slice of Pakistani border territory—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA—hitherto unknown to most Americans but now increasingly a familiar name. In American eyes FATA is now the central front in the ‘war against terrorism’, a theory much propagated by such American and Karzai apologists as friend Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the most influential Pakistani journalist writing for the foreign media.

The Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has become an instant expert on FATA. “We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary (he has FATA in mind) and as president I won’t,” he says. “If another attack on our homeland comes,” he says in a related remark, “it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned.” Deeper into the US presidential campaign we are likely to hear more of FATA, almost a buzzword to prove one’s foreign policy credentials.

Not to be outdone, Pakistan’s helpless prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, joins the swelling chorus. There are foreign fighters in FATA, he says, and another 9/11 could well originate from this region. With sentinels at the gate like him who needs detractors?

During the Vietnam War, as it ground on and hopes of a quick victory faded, the American military establishment came to believe that the war could not be won as long as Viet Cong supply routes through Cambodia were not interdicted. The CIA got into action. Prince Sihanouk was removed from power, a compliant general being installed in his place. American forces moved into Cambodia. The Viet Cong were not defeated but Cambodia was ravaged. It has yet to recover from that ordeal. Shades of Cambodia can be detected in the wild talk now raging in America about FATA being a ‘terrorist sanctuary’.

Question is, is it a ‘terrorist sanctuary’? It undoubtedly is. For all practical purposes FATA is now an extension of the Afghan war, just as Cambodia was an extension of the Vietnam War. But just as going into Cambodia solved nothing and indeed in some ways made matters worse for the US by opening another front in the war, going into FATA and bombing ‘terrorist sanctuaries’ or sending in ‘special forces’ will solve nothing. More likely, it will make things worse, both for the US and Pakistan. Jihadi sentiment will grow. The Talibanisation of the tribal areas is already well underway. Expect this process to accelerate if there is any serious American incursion into this region. And what will happen to the rest of Pakistan? I think it is no exaggeration to say that it will be shaken to its foundations.

But the US is desperate. The Taliban were supposed to have been defeated and Afghanistan pacified way back in 2001. But far from being vanquished the Taliban are stronger than ever. Such a climate fosters the need for scapegoats. Victory proving elusive somebody must be to blame. Who more convenient to blame than Pakistan and its ‘terrorist sanctuary’, the badlands of FATA? No wonder Pakistan, especially its army, is coming under increasing pressure to “do more”. When Pervez Musharraf was in command the army did try to do more, with disastrous results. If the army is now trying a different approach—talking to some of the militants—it is not out of choice but necessity, the militants having fought the army to a standstill and inflicting heavy casualties. But trust our American friends to be deeply unhappy with this approach.

To keep Pakistan in line and to ensure that there is no weakening in Pakistan’s resolve to serve American interests, Pakistan is being fed a steady diet of half-truths. It is being told that the war it is being asked to fight is as much in its interests as in America’s, that ‘terrorism’ is as much a threat to Pakistan as to the US. Most of Pakistan’s ruling elite, including the army high command, swallows this argument. There is an active lobby in Pakistan’s English press assiduously spreading the same message.

Terrorism is a threat to Pakistan, no question about it. The Talibanisation of the tribal belt has eroded the authority of the state, no doubt about this too. But how has this come about? What is the sequence of cause-and-effect behind this phenomenon? Just as there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq prior to the American invasion of that country, there was none of the unrest or challenge to central authority we now witness in FATA prior to the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

It is not Osama bin Laden stoking the fires of resistance in Afghanistan. It is the American presence, the American occupation of Afghanistan, which is doing that. The Americans should have read up on the history of Afghanistan before moving into that country. If the Afghans did not take kindly to British intervention in the 19th century, or to Soviet occupation in the 20th, what made the Americans think that their invasion would be welcomed and that the atrocities they unleashed upon innocent Afghans would go unpunished?

Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were small-time players. It was not in their power, perhaps not even in their imagination, to have unleashed the full scale of horrors set in motion by the strange warriors of the Bush administration. 9/11 was just an excuse these warriors seized upon. Their ideas of Middle East conquest, of redrawing the map of the region, existed prior to that tragedy.

Are the Americans prevailing in Iraq? No. Are they likely to prevail in Afghanistan? If Afghan history is anything to go by, the answer again is no. But the problem for Pakistan is that it will keep being burned by the Afghan conflict as long as the US remains in Afghanistan. What is more, the Taliban grip on FATA which is already strong will become stronger, putting further strains on the civilian edifice which came into being after the Feb 18 elections

What is the solution to this predicament? The Americans are propounding a military solution and they want the Pakistan army to be very much a part of it. But there is no military solution to this conflict and if against better judgment Pakistan’s leadership, military and political, is too weak to resist American blandishments or pressure, Pakistan risks being ravaged, just as Cambodia was, by a conflict initiated and now being fuelled by American blundering. Part of our problem is that we want to have our cake and eat it too. We don’t want to fight America’s war but at the same time we don’t want to do without American economic and military aid. This is a contradiction. If we accept American largesse we put ourselves under an obligation to do America’s bidding. If we want to reclaim national sovereignty then, whatever the pain, we must learn to live without American crutches.

We face a serious problem in FATA. Terrorism is a threat. We must do what we can to bring peace to the Frontier and to see that FATA is not a staging post for the Afghan insurgency. Let the Afghans settle their own affairs. We should wish them well but it is none of our business to interfere in their affairs. But we have to deal with the problems of FATA on our own, with our own resources and our own judgment. The moment the army or the state appears to be an extension of American policy, we land ourselves in trouble. The Biden aid package being pushed through the US Congress will be absolutely fatal for Pakistan for it will tie us irretrievably to American interests. We should be friends with America, not its unthinking appendage. That is, if we are to save Pakistan from the typhoon gathering along its western marches.

Source: The News, 18/7/2008

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