Towards a regional approach —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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Pakistan will not be able to pursue a regional approach without a thorough review of its foreign and security policies. It needs to cultivate positive functional interaction with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. No doubt, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks are minority groups, but they have improved their bargaining power in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders appear to have realised that religious extremism and the Taliban militancy constitute a grave threat to the Pakistani state and society. This threat is not limited to the tribal areas and Swat/Malakand. It poses varying degrees of threat in other parts of Pakistan where local religious hard-line groups, encouraged by the success of the Taliban, often employ coercion to assert their religious and cultural preferences and suppress criticism.

Mediapersons have been caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces. They receive verbal threats regularly. Eight journalists have been killed on duty in militancy-hit areas over the last four years. The latest victim was Musa Khankhel, who was killed in Swat last week. The secretary-general of the South Asian Free Media Association, Imtiaz Alam, was attacked in Lahore while driving home at night. Earlier he had received threats for criticising the militancy.

President Asif Ali Zardari rightly said in an interview on February 15: “[The] Taliban [are] trying to take over the state of Pakistan. So, we are fighting for the survival of Pakistan.” Earlier on February 6 he said in Peshawar that the “militants would be resisted and defeated at all costs.”

The US and NATO also recognise the growing Taliban challenge to Pakistan. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement on February 17 described religious extremists as a “direct threat to Pakistan”. US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke remarked on February 19 that “the militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots.”

The current threats to Pakistan’s internal stability can be traced to the troubled situation in the tribal areas and Afghanistan. Though the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan have respective local roots, they are also inter-dependent. Instability and violence in Afghanistan has implications for Pakistan’s tribal areas and vice versa.

Any sustained effort to contain militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan therefore requires a two-tiered approach: one dealing with the issues of poverty, under-development and alienation in the troubled areas of both countries; and the other dealing with overlapping issues of linkages between militant elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan and cross-border movement of people, equipment and funds. Another dimension of the outreach of militancy is the Mumbai attack of November 2008.

There are suggestions for the adoption of a regional approach, which calls for cooperative security measures to cope with extremism and militancy. States can also help each other address the socio-economic causes of militancy. President Zardari raised this issue with Ambassador Holbrooke in Islamabad. US-NATO policymakers have also toyed with this idea, especially against the backdrop of periodic disruption of US supplies transiting through Pakistan en route to Afghanistan and the Mumbai incident. The US is already considering two alternate supply routes.

The states that matter in this regional approach are Iran, Russia, China, India and the Central Asian states. These countries want to contain militancy, stabilise Afghanistan, and help Pakistan meet the challenge. However, these states also have individual agendas that do not necessarily harmonise. Therefore, any credible regional approach depends on the ability of these states, especially the US, to downplay or temporarily put aside their individual agendas.

The first major obstacle to any regional approach is the on-going conflict between Iran and the US, and the latter’s perception that Iran is helping some Taliban groups. The US-Iran conflict has caused significant diplomatic distortion in the region. If the Obama administration discards the Bush policy of isolating Iran and initiates dialogue without waiting for the Iranian presidential elections, Iran is expected to cooperate in evolving a minimum common agenda for Afghanistan.

Another major obstacle is mutual distrust and conflict between India and Pakistan. The Mumbai incident shows that India is pursuing a twin policy of controlling militancy and humbling Pakistan. India’s active return to Afghanistan after the advent of the Karzai government is viewed with a lot of suspicion in Pakistan, where India is seen as a source of funding to dissidents in Balochistan and the tribal areas. India needs to cooperate with Pakistan and reduce bilateral tension for any meaningful cooperative interaction. Further, tension on the India-Pakistan border adversely affects Pakistan’s capacity to cope with the militancy.

US interaction with Russia, especially with reference to Central Asian states, will also have implications for any shared approach on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Similarly, China has to be on board. The US will have to address the concerns in the region about its future plans in and around Afghanistan. These states should not be expected to fully endorse US policy in Afghanistan.

Pakistan will not be able to pursue a regional approach without a thorough review of its foreign and security policies. It needs to cultivate positive functional interaction with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. No doubt, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks are minority groups, but they have improved their bargaining power in Afghanistan.

Pakistan should also seek more active ties with Russia and develop multifaceted interaction with Central Asian states. Most Central Asian states entertain reservations about Pakistan because some of them are challenged by militant Islamic movements that have linkages with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan needs to take up these militancy-related concerns and work with the Central Asian states to contain the inflow of Central Asians, especially Uzbeks, into Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Pakistan maintains cordial relations with Iran. However, the legacy of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the current activities of a militant organisation, Jundollah, are a source of unease in Pak-Iran relations. These issues can be addressed easily through active diplomacy and increased economic cooperation.

Even if a formal regional approach is not evolved, Pakistan should still work towards improving relations with neighbouring states by talking frankly on each other’s concerns. Improved relations will reduce mutual distrust, enable Pakistan to concentrate on economic development and deal more effectively with religious extremism and militancy.

Pakistan has found it difficult to cope with the pressures of religious extremism and militancy because of a lack of “unity of mind” in the official civilian and military circles on the challenge of militancy. The same can be said of Pakistani society where not all appear convinced that militancy and the Taliban are a threat to Pakistan. The divided disposition of the state and society is a major obstacle to making the required changes in domestic and external policies.

Pakistan’s current problems are accentuated by the decision of the lawyers’ movement, the PMLN and some other political parties to use extra-parliamentary methods to force the government to adopt their partisan agenda. Such a domestic confrontation will further compromise the government’s capacity to make the necessary policy changes for coping with extremism and militancy.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Reproduced by permission of DT\02\22\story_22-2-2009_pg3_2

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