Saving Pakistan — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

It is a wrong assumption that the Taliban will again become friendly to Pakistan if it gives up its support to the US-led war on terrorism. The Taliban have an anarchist agenda that aims at dismantling the Pakistani state

The debate continues unabated on militancy in the tribal areas and how the United States should cope with its spillover in Afghanistan. Official circles in Washington hint at resorting to unilateral military action in the tribal areas against the backdrop of intensified military challenges to American and NATO troops from Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and the overall deterioration of the security situation in southern Afghanistan.

It may appear quite reasonable to some US military strategists to take unilateral military action in the tribal areas, including the use of ground troops. There is no guarantee that such an action can eliminate militancy in the area. Rather, it may worsen the situation and increase American losses. The US should balance the need to control militancy in the tribal areas with the importance of stability in Pakistan. Any major unilateral US military action in the tribal areas will destabilise Pakistan, which will in turn undermine the US goal of controlling militancy and ensuring stability in Afghanistan.

Despite the current distrust between Pakistan and the US on coping with militancy in and around Pakistan, they will have to work together to address these problems.

American talk of unilateral action unnerves the Government of Pakistan, which is already faltering in addressing acute internal political and economic challenges. Top Pakistani officials attempt to salvage their credibility by declaring that no foreign country will be allowed to undertake military action on Pakistani territory. These statements sound hollow to those who remember periodic US air-strikes and, at times, limited ground offensives in the tribal areas. Any new American offensive will add to the problems of the Pakistani government in the domestic context.

Pakistan is using diplomatic channels to dissuade the US from taking unilateral military action. Its Foreign Minister, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, visited the US last week to convince American policymakers that Pakistan views the war on terrorism as its own war and that Pakistan is determined to control extremism and militancy. His spirited defence of Pakistani policy was weakened by the statement of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on July 14 on the possibility of “Nine-Eleven-like attacks” on the West from the tribal areas and he admitted that Uzbeks, Chechens and other foreign militants were based there.

Pakistani officials are unable or unwilling to explain why and how these elements have become so entrenched in the tribal areas that many people talk of the spectre of another 9/11.

The war on terrorism is so closely identified with the US that a good number of politically active circles in Pakistan, especially those with strong Islamic orientations, do not view it as serving Pakistan’s interests. Their worldview is so coloured by anti-America sentiments that they are unable to comprehend the fast increasing threat of extremism and militancy to civic order and stability in Pakistan. This worldview was partly modified in the aftermath of the Red Mosque incident when the Taliban and affiliated groups resorted to suicide attacks in parts of the Pakistani mainland; some of them began to view Islamic hardliners as a threat to the Pakistani state and society.

However, there are still people in Pakistan, including some in the military and civilian official circles, who consider Pakistani security operations against militants in the tribal areas and the Red Mosque the sole reason for increased violence. They view Taliban violence as a reaction to the use of force against them by Pakistan and the US rather than a strategy to establish their hegemony in the name of Islam.

Some, including those with military backgrounds, describe militancy as the instrument of the weak to challenge a powerful adversary and they describe suicide attacks as defensive moves by the Taliban, who do not possess advanced military equipment.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership, military and intelligence cannot cope with the challenge of extremism and militancy without developing a categorical consensus that Taliban-type elements constitute the main threat to Pakistan’s existence as a coherent and effective state. Religious fanaticism and violent enforcement of a narrow interpretation of Islam will tear apart Pakistani society to such an extent that it will not be able to sustain itself as a collective social entity.

Pakistan’s salvation lies in working towards an egalitarian, pluralist and democratic political order that derives ethical inspiration from the teaching and ideals of Islam. Pakistan has to identify with and practice Jinnah and Iqbal’s vision of a homeland for the Muslims that gave equal status to the followers of other religions.

Pakistan’s survival depends on functioning as a nation-state in an inter-dependent international system. Some extremist groups cannot be allowed to hijack Pakistan to pursue their narrow and bigoted agenda.

The political circles have to first develop a consensus among themselves on the dangers of religious extremism and violence. This will make it easy for them to mobilise the people in favour of a tolerant, plural and democratic socio-political order.

People have to be sensitised to a number of issues. First, no individual or group has the right to enforce Islam by coercive means. None of the Taliban leadership is a known Islamic scholar who understands Islamic teachings and principles in their true spirit and recognises diversity in the interpretation of Quranic verses and Shariah.

Second, no group can establish a state within the Pakistani state and resort to public executions, extract money for protection or doing business in the region, kidnap for ransom and dispatch young boys as suicide bombers.

Third, Pakistan should not allow its territory to be used by any group for challenging established authority in a neighbouring state. The principle of sovereignty applies equally to Pakistan and other states.

Fourth, the time has come to finally give up the esoteric notions of ‘territorial depth’, ‘militancy as an instrument of the weak’, ‘militants as the vanguard of the Pakistan military’, and that the Taliban are now contesting the Pakistani state because it is pursuing the American agenda in the region. It is also a wrong assumption that the Taliban will again become friendly to Pakistan if it gives up its support to the US-led war on terrorism. The Taliban have an anarchist agenda that aims at dismantling the Pakistani state.

One of the Pakistani Taliban leaders, Baitullah Mehsud, is said to have delivered an ultimatum to the NWFP government to resign in five days or face his wrath. This shows that the Taliban are determined to confront the Pakistani state because they have learnt from experience that the Pakistani state caves in to their demands. If these trends continue, the Taliban will soon demand the withdrawal of federal administrative and security presence from the tribal areas.

The federal government and the military/intelligence authorities should adopt a determined and unambiguous approach to cope with the militancy challenge. However, the federal government has lost most of its momentum due to its failure to work along with its political partners on restoring the ousted judges and deciding the future of Musharraf. If the political forces continue to drift in different directions, they may not be able to cope with the current challenges to the Pakistani state and may lose the initiative either to the military or to the Taliban.

<>Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily times, 20/7/2008

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