The future divide-By Ayesha Siddiqa

SOMEONE once asked his friend what he would do if a tiger entered his room. The friend replied that whatever had to be done would be done by the tiger, so why ask him.

This joke fits in well with the current state of US-Pakistan relations. The media was first excited by Gen Kayani’s statement about the army not tolerating American intrusions into Pakistan’s territory and then by President Zardari’s visit to the UK and his forthcoming one to the US.

There are many who believe that Islamabad’s forthright reaction to the US attacks on the tribal areas will stop the incursions. The question is that will these statements and visits have any effect? And will it end the war?

The answer is a simple no. Washington will not be impressed by Islamabad’s reaction for the following reasons.

First, US policymakers know that given Islamabad’s dependence on Washington there is nothing much it can do other than issue statements. The few demonstrations in Peshawar or other parts of the country constitute minimal cost which is not to be borne by the US but by the new government in Pakistan. Other than this, there is no evidence of any intense reaction.

The Pakistani government is begging for more weapon systems such as the upgraded F-16s, and there is not even any boycott of symbols of the American economy including well-known eateries. The queues for American visas have not diminished either.

Second, the American government knows that Pakistan’s so-called liberal elite and many among the Pakistani expatriate community would be happy with the removal of the Taliban or other militants. If the Pakistan Army can’t do it then let the US forces achieve the objective. Moreover, eliminating this threat would fundamentally readjust the military’s power vis-à-vis the civilian establishment because it would essentially mean roping in the intelligence agencies as well. This means that Pakistani society is divided and will not be able to pose an extensive threat to American attacks.

Third, Pakistan’s poor are so depressed by their poverty that despite their unhappiness with the attacks there is nothing much they would be able to do that would cost the US heavily.

Finally, considering that Washington has played a significant role in restoring democracy in Pakistan, the new government will not do anything excessive to counter the American position. The NRO is owed to American assistance. Therefore, it took Mr Zardari quite a while to issue a statement condemning the attacks.

From Washington’s perspective, it is simply protecting American security interests. Even if the Americans are told that they were responsible for creating the threat of militancy, this harping on the origins of the threat would not solve matters from their standpoint. The American-cum-Pakistani liberal point of view is that since negotiations will strengthen the militants, who use peace as an opportunity to demand the implementation of the Sharia, war is the only way to contain matters.

The American war, however, will further weaken Pakistan because it will clearly divide state forces and society. There is a division within the establishment regarding the threat and how it must be handled. Resultantly, we are now caught in a quandary regarding the future of the threat. Should we handle it ourselves or let the American forces do so for us?

Washington had been threatening Islamabad with direct intervention but was being pushed back up until now with the argument that such an action would destabilise Pakistan. Having helped remove Pervez Musharraf, who had lost credibility internally, Washington now believes it can conduct a military operation directly, leaving the political government to bear the cost. After all, there is hardly any evidence of a direct cost to American security in launching a military operation.

Having returned to democracy after nine years, society will remain divided on the issue of pushing the elected government to take serious measures to stop Washington. The calculation is that patronage politics will work quite well to minimise the reaction. People will be too concerned about putting food on their tables than doing anything serious to stop American action. So, Gordon Brown can happily put the responsibility in the lap of both Afghanistan and Pakistan whose leaders are still too weak to sort out the problem.

Recently, a senior Pakistani bureaucrat told me the good news that Pakistan was now moving towards a stable future. His assessment was that a decision had been made by the country’s ruling elite that Pakistan has to be stabilised through the partial restoration of democracy and the judiciary and the elimination of militants and extremists.

Such a calculation is linked to another assessment that the more capable upper middle and middle classes of the country want a liberal social system that would be a complete departure from the one introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq. Such an assessment perceives the middle class as being liberal and progressive.

However, this in itself is an erroneous calculation that does not consider the fact that we all tend to forget about a large proportion of the middle class that is highly conservative in its world view. The middle class in Pakistan is not confined to graduates who have qualified from abroad or those working in the NGO sector or making their millions working as consultants for multilateral aid donors. It also comprises the trader-merchant class and similar groups that show a very conservative mindset.

What does one make of the numerous affluent shopkeepers in Islamabad and other cities and towns who fund jihad in the quest for spiritual forgiveness or those who fund militants and madressahs because, according to them, orthodox Islam is the only way to negotiate power in a politically stagnant society?

These people might not jeopardise their interests in the short term as they continue to put faith in militancy and religious extremism. But it does mean that the threat of militancy is not likely to dissipate in the medium to long term and that what we will get is a more divided society. There are those who support American action or keep silent and others turn more adamant in their dislike of the US and the West in general.

In short, Washington’s direct intervention is likely to prolong the conflict and deepen its roots in Pakistani state and society. There is enough poverty and underdevelopment in this country to provide fresh recruits for future jihad. Tolerance, of course, would be one of the primary casualties of military action. This is a conflict that might not end with dialogue or war. It is difficult to turn back the clock.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Source: Daily dawn, 19/9/2008

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