Even when we talk of being fully prepared to face any external threat, we must acknowledge that the real threat is internal, and it is this internal threat that is generating the external dimension with which we are currently preoccupied
Most recent headlines reflect the problem we have with India and, associated with it, the problem we have with the United States. There is no denying the seriousness of the issue: there is public anger in India aimed both at Pakistan as the suspected country from where the Mumbai terrorists originated and at the Indian government for failing to provide security. There is anger in the US administration as well, not only because of the six Americans that died in Mumbai, but also because their entire strategy for the region is being jeopardised.
On the normally festive occasion of Eid, the prevalent sentiment on the streets of Karachi and, perhaps, Mumbai was that war is imminent. Wednesday night, news channels highlighted unconfirmed news from Indian sources that the Indian Air Force had been placed on high alert, only for the news to be contradicted by an Indian defence ministry spokesman a couple of hours later.
The fears engendered by such reports and learned discussions on ‘surgical strikes’ or the Indian military’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine are unwarranted. There will be no such attacks nor is there going to be any substantive change in the American efforts to reduce infiltration from our tribal areas into Afghanistan despite the stark warning contained in President George W Bush’s speech at West Point on December 9:
“One of the most important challenges…is helping our partners assert control over ungoverned spaces. This problem is most pronounced in Pakistan, where areas along the Afghanistan border are home to [the] Taliban and to Al Qaeda fighters… And at the same time, we have made it clear to Pakistan — and to all our partners — that we will do what is necessary to protect American troops and the American people.”
The Indians, the Americans and other members of the international community know that the current Pakistani government has been working to improve its relations with India even when India has been les than responsive. The day the Mumbai carnage started was the day the Pakistani foreign minister was in Delhi, talking of adding “a new leaf to Indo-Pak relations after six decades of acrimony”. Earlier, President Asif Zardari had, in a dramatic reversal of policy, even spoken of fighters in Indian-held Kashmir as ‘terrorists’. This is not a government that India, despite its rage, will want to undermine through military confrontation.
Our real problem, one that the media and a part of the establishment appear to ignore, is the extent to which Pakistan is itself threatened by non-state actors. What is even more unfortunate is the effort to suggest that these non-state actors are in fact ‘patriots’ with whom we have no real differences and whose help we can count upon to confront Indian aggression. Many of us are encouraging the cuckoo-land thinking that the innocent civilians that are dying at the hands of the militants in the tribal areas and Swat are victims of the war that America has foisted upon us, and that peace and harmony will return as soon as the Taliban have been restored to power in Afghanistan.
Let us face it: for the inhabitants of Peshawar, what matters is that their way of life faces extinction at the hands of the Taliban, who have now established a stranglehold not only on the entry and exit points but also on the main suburbs of the city. When the Taliban can attack truck depots four times in a fortnight, interdict whatever traffic they choose between Pakistan and Afghanistan, assassinate politicians and officials, set off explosions that threaten to unleash another round of sectarian violence, and can murder tribal maliks and elders, the people of Peshawar can be forgiven for not sharing the abovementioned sentiment.
In the past weeks, they have been reassured by the determination with which military action was pursued in Bajaur and Swat, even though they were discomfited by the discovery that the army had not progressed as fast as was hoped. Now, however, they hear of unnamed intelligence officials talking of the same Taliban that are wreaking havoc in the NWFP as patriots with whom the government does not have insuperable differences.
Now they also hear that the Indo-Pak crisis may lead to a withdrawal of army units from the western border to guard Pakistan’s eastern borders. Such things only reinforce the belief that some parts of the power structure in Islamabad are still unconvinced that fighting extremism in the tribal areas is and should be Pakistan’s top priority if it is to survive as a modern, tolerant state, one where the same law prevails in all parts of the country.
At the other end of the country in Karachi, the palpable rise in tension since the events of May 12, 2007 has not abated. The recent riots and selective killings may be portrayed as an effort to protect Karachi against the influence of fundamentalist forces. In fact, they are probably an effort to prevent encroachment on the ‘protection and extortion’ rackets that have been the bane of life in Karachi, and which are run with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the worst days of the Chicago mafia wars.
This violence has a definite ethnic colour. One cannot even argue too strongly against this because it is not being discovered belatedly that despite official claims to the contrary, many of those seen as threatening the present power structure are in fact Afghan refugees. One can, however, argue against the public exhortations for the people to arm themselves. The government has issued an order that all arms must be licensed and that those not surrendering unlicensed arms will be prosecuted. But Karachiites treat this as a joke. South Asia, it is said, is the region of the world with the most arms in private hands, and in South Asia, the largest unlicensed arsenal is in Karachi.
Even when we talk of being fully prepared to face any external threat, we must acknowledge that the real threat is internal, and it is this internal threat that is generating the external dimension with which we are currently preoccupied. If we are to safeguard our territorial integrity, we have to take the drastic action needed to take extremists off our streets and to unearth and confiscate the hidden arms caches that will otherwise appear on the streets and confirm the dire foreboding that Pakistan is a failing state that is imploding from within.
Let us consider moving another army corps into the NWFP to clean up Khyber Agency, take further steps to reinforce law enforcement agencies — the Rangers and the police — in Karachi, start to implement what has been said repeatedly about madrassa reform, and genuinely disband extremist organisations.
The writer is a former foreign secretary