Islamabad: Poverty of policy-making on terrorism

Nasim Zehra

Pakistan’s role in the Washington-led “war on terrorism” promises to remain a matter of great internal acrimony until we do not formulate a policy that conceptually, politically and operationally locates it within the context of our own national interest and in keeping with our own Constitution and legal frameworks. So, is there a national interests dimension to our participation? Yes, there is. Pakistan does face an acute internal security crisis. This, and this alone, is the broad formulation of our national challenge. It is within this broad formulation that elements like suicide bombings, rising militancy, foreign militants, the Al Qaeda presence, rising sectarian killings, the receding write of the state, US pressures, Pakistan’s UN obligations, the external factor, the Pakistani-Afghan border situation, must be placed and then comprehensively examined for policy options available to Pakistan.

Instead of such a formulation there are numerous examples that manifest at best confusion and at worst the continuing poverty of policymaking, especially where tackling militancy and terrorism is concerned. Three recent examples are noteworthy. First, official Pakistan’s response to the first-ever US ground attack on Pakistani territory and Pakistani civilians was neither coherent nor sustained. The Pakistani civilians who died in South Waziristan were killed late night by US soldiers who opened fire on sleeping men, women and children. Pakistan’s response to the attacks, included the passage of a parliament resolution condemning the attack, the then presidential candidate Asif Zardari and the foreign secretary separately summoned and reprimanded the US ambassador, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee announcing that another attack will force Pakistan to take action, the army chief cancelling a meeting with an Islamabad-based US major general.

A less publicised letter was written to US government by the Pakistani national security advisor complaining to his counterpart that the ground attack was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. An initial Pakistani reaction of using the leverage it enjoys over the NATO and US forces stopping supplies through Pakistan was hurriedly reversed and the Americans were informed the supply was stopped due to security reasons. All these noises notwithstanding US aerial missile attacks have increased killing hardly any Al Qaeda operatives but leaving civilians dead. Significantly, the army chief, Gen Parvez Kayani, and the DGMO, Lt Gen Pasha, met with the US General Mullen, the CENTCOM chief and the US general based in Afghanistan on board the US carrier Lincoln prior to the ground attack. The only information regarding this meeting was that the American praised Pakistani handling of “terrorist elements.”

The second example of our policy confusion and perhaps lack of transparency are Washington’s statements about Pakistan’s cooperation convey complete satisfaction with the cooperation being extended by it. What is the basis of this satisfaction while the government of Pakistan is publicly angered by the ongoing US attacks? How does the new government explain this unless there are new unpublicised rules of engagement that have been agreed upon?

The third and most recent example of a lack of policy coherence flows from the newly elected president’s statements made at his inaugural press conference held jointly with the Afghan president. President Asif Ali Zardari’s first articulation of the problems accrued to Pakistan from internal terrorism, from a destabilised Afghanistan and from Washington’s attacks on Pakistani territory raised several questions. For example, when he was asked about the government’s response to the United States’ continued attacks on Pakistan, instead of using the opportunity to emphasise commitment to Pakistan’s sovereignty and integrity, he merely stated that the government had registered its complaint. Karzai used stronger words to reprimand the US for killing Afghan civilians. Admittedly, words do not substitute action, yet they reveal mindsets and understanding.

Somewhat perplexing was the president’s response to a rather naïve yet logical question, that would he call the US government terrorists for the deliberate killing of women and children Pakistan. Zardari said that the Americans are there in Afghanistan under the UN sanction, if you want to call the UN a terrorist organisation, then you can do so.” This rather incomprehensible statement is counterfactual too. While under the UNSC resolution 1373 all UN member-states are obliged to cooperate in UN-sanctioned international efforts to curb terrorism, equally all nations under Article 51 of the UN Charter have the right to act in self-defence.

More importantly, attacks on Pakistani territory and Pakistani civilians have been carried out by US drones and US forces, and not by UN-sanctioned forces executing a UN mandate. In fact, Washington has already informed the government that the Sept 4 ground assault was a CIA-operation undertaken by a CIA contingent–a far cry from a UN-mandated operation. Only NATO-led ISAF forces, in which only 14,000 US troops are inducted, are present under UN sanctions. By contrast, the exclusively American military mission Enduring Freedom, which commands 19,000 US troops, is in Afghanistan under a US, not UN, mandate. Pakistan’s democratically elected president must be aware of these facts as he steps into global limelight via his first press conference. More importantly, despite his humble rhetoric that he will follow in China the brief that the Foreign Office, the prime minister and the cabinet will give him, President Zardari’s direct engagement with various US interlocutors over the contours of Pakistan-US policy warrants sounder briefing of the president by relevant institutions.

Then, there was also how the President of Pakistan did not frame the regional problem of terrorism and of militancy and how his guest, the Afghan president, did. It is good diplomacy to invite a neighbouring president to attempt to amicably sort out problems of distrust. However, it is a sign of debilitating diplomacy that while allowing space to the visiting president to candidly underscore problems that he believes lie in Pakistan, the host opts not to even allude gently and diplomatically to the globally acknowledged problems that exist within Afghanistan. President Zardari needed to say more than just that “we will together solve problems together.”

It was striking that the Afghan president felt confident enough to stand by strong allegations made by him in the recent past against Pakistan’s institutions, yet Pakistan’s president did was underscore that a chunk of the problem also flowed from the political and security disarray that currently prevails within Afghanistan. Whatever the private conversation, public diplomacy, conducted for example through the joint press conference, required the president, like his Afghan counterpart, to put across the Pakistani-Afghan problem in the broader context. Surely the new president does recognise that if on the one hand Pakistan has suffered from unconstitutional military ascendancy in policymaking and internal institutional clashes, the problems within Afghanistan continue to contribute to our problems ranging from militancy to terrorism.

Pakistan’s new government must remain mindful of the fact that, while ignoring the political and security havoc created by US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, no less in Palestine, Pakistan is being increasingly framed as the root cause of terrorism and militancy. While admittedly there are aspects of our acute internal security crisis that contribute to the worsening of the regional problem of terrorism and of militancy, the vice versa is also true. The foremost task at this stage is to formulate broad policy parameters for tackling Pakistan’s internal security crisis.

Ultimately, the entire policy must be framed within the context of Pakistan’s core interests and priorities; those that will best promote and protect the rights, security and prosperity of the people of Pakistan. Until policy parameters are not laid out within the national context, while factoring in external concerns and interests, Pakistan will continue on the path of reactive and destabilising response to external pressures. If Pakistan continues to travel along such a path it risks turning into a Lebanon-like weak state, a fragmented polity and a strife-torn society. In the eighties it got sucked into a US-supported regional mess, losing the peace, progress and tranquillity that it enjoyed in the pre-eighties era.

In this age of indispensable multilateralism, in trade, security and even politics, Pakistan must not be paralysed by fear of economic meltdowns. Rhetoric aside, interdependency means nations have a stake in each other’s survival and stability. Pakistan has multiple avenues of economic and security engagements. It must make take to policymaking with competence, confidence and rationality, remain realistically mindful of the linkages and leverages and strategic realities that are available to it, and abandon fear as a policy motive.

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst. Email:

Source: The News, 12/9/2008

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