A wake-up call —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Just as our failure to prevent the movement of Taliban into Afghanistan hurts the coalition, their attacks inside Pakistan cripple our will and ability to isolate the militants from the public and convince Pakistanis that it is our war

Analysts are unsure about the recent ground assault by US forces on a Pakistani village in South Waziristan. Is it a wake-up call for the political and military leadership of Pakistan to get serious about the Taliban insurgency? Or does it indicate that Washington has decided to extend its counterinsurgency operations to the border areas of Pakistan?

Whichever way one interprets the motives behind the Angur Adda attack, it has shocked the government as well as the general population of the country, and may have serious ramifications for our partnership with the US. If this is the new strategy being adopted by NATO-ISAF, it is surely going to add to the political troubles of the elected government in the coming days and months.

The chaotic conditions in the tribal belt are well known: breakdown of the old socio-political order; inflow of foreign militants; and now the rise of the Pakistani brand of the Taliban movement with transnational links to likeminded groups in the region. With the militancy growing and American patience running out, Pakistan faces a complex security situation in the region that can have adverse spill-over effects for other areas of the country as well as Afghanistan. And while our security forces are battling the Taliban, suffering major losses, NATO and the US have not made things easier for us by regularly attacking targets inside our territory.

To begin with, American attacks on Pakistani villages indicate a lack of trust in the ability of Pakistani forces and the political will of the government to use force against the militants. They also go against the understanding between Washington and Islamabad on sharing responsibilities and tasks in combating terrorism, i.e. the US would help Pakistani forces build up their counterinsurgency capacity, but the actual fighting would be done by the Pakistani forces.

The decision to send troops into FATA to interdict and apprehend Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001 was politically controversial and one of the most difficult decisions made by the Musharraf regime.

It is widely debated whether or not Pakistan had any option but to give in to American pressure. But the decision to take a U-turn on Afghanistan and turn our backs on the militants who had played a significant role in evicting the Soviets from Afghanistan was taken in haste by a few military men at the top, without weighing the long-term costs and benefits.

In pledging Pakistan to the war on terror, Musharraf had his own survival and interests in mind. In his scheme of things, it was never easy to figure out whether self-interest came first or the country. Having been isolated in the first two years after his 1999 coup, Musharraf saw the opportunity of aligning with the US as a guarantee for a longer tenure.

The economic and military assistance to Pakistan, estimated to be in excess of 11 billion dollars; debt rescheduling by other allies; and softer policies of international financial institutions under American influence did contribute to stable economic and political conditions. Musharraf ruled without much opposition, bending rules and the constitution to his benefit. Perhaps it was this overconfidence that finally pulled him down.

Why such a big shift in American policy towards the frontier regions of Pakistan, then? One explanation is that the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has increased at an alarming rate over the last two years. This year has been the worst for Afghanistan and ISAF in terms of the frequency of attacks, casualties and the audacity of Taliban assaults. The burning question is how much the surge in Taliban operations us down to cross-border infiltration from Pakistan and how much is due to the failure of state- and nation-building in Afghanistan.

The failure of the coalition in Afghanistan in winning the trust and confidence of the Pashtun population, and the widespread corruption and inefficiency of the Karzai government are widely recognised. It is also a fact that the Taliban movement in FATA, which has ideological and strategic ties with Al Qaeda, has grown more threatening. And no country, including Pakistan, can turn a blind eye to this nexus, or allow these elements to carve out a safe haven for themselves. These are the realities Pakistan and the international coalition have to deal with.

There is yet another factor that cannot be ignored: the FATA region was quite peaceful and stable before the American-led coalition attacked Afghanistan. It is true that foreign elements had lived among the Pashtuns on both side of the border since the days of the anti-Soviet Jihad, and had backed the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. But they posed no threat to Pakistan. Facing regional rivals in the Afghan civil war, Pakistan defended its interests by siding with the Taliban.

This policy was as good or bad as the policies of other regional players that were backing their favourites in the Afghan power struggle. In the power-games of nations, there have never been any self-abnegating saints. Nor are there any today, and will never be as long as the nation-state continues to exist in its present form.

Something has gone wrong in Afghanistan. Seven years of war, and billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance have failed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans. Pakistan’s Pashtun regions are directly affected by the internal and external power politics of Afghanistan. For hundreds of years, since the founding of the Afghan state, the Pashtuns on both sides of the border have fought their common foes together.

Therefore, fixing the template of a territorial nation-state on such a complex mix of ethnicities, tribal affiliations and transnational ideological movements has proved difficult, and our border with Afghanistan remains as porous as ever.

With all the operational difficulties, Pakistan, Afghanistan and ISAF-NATO share a common objective: the stabilisation and reconstruction of Afghanistan and FATA. Progress on either side of the border will help form an enabling environment on the other side.

While recognising that we are in the same war, and need each other’s assistance, we need to have a better sense of how any partner’s action or inaction would help or harm efforts of the other side. Just as our failure to prevent the movement of Taliban into Afghanistan hurts the coalition, their attacks inside Pakistan cripple our will and ability to isolate the militants from the public and convince Pakistanis that it is our war.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at rasul@lums.edu.pk

Source: Daily Times, 9th September, 2008

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