The issue of militancy and the Taliban continues to be framed erroneously — most recently as a variant of the “with us or against us” choice: either one supports the military operation in Swat and Fata or one is supportive of the Taliban. Just as the Bush choice has been largely responsible for the chaos and radicalisation in the Muslim world, so the Pakistani variant doing the rounds currently misses the real issue. After all, there is and always has been a consensus in Pakistan that militant extremism should be crushed and the writ of the state and government established.
The disagreement is over how to go about achieving this objective. Should there be an attempt to go to the root causes of militancy and then to resolve the issue through a multi-pronged strategy including dialogue backed by state power as well as policies to bring in the marginalised population by giving them a viable stake in the system? Or does the solution lie in simply unleashing indiscriminate military force to establish the writ of the state while the roots of the problem continue to fester?
Having just returned from a visit to the US organised by the Pakistani community to raise money for Shaukat Khanum Hospital, as a result of meetings arranged by the community I had the opportunity to meet with Senator John Kerry and Congressman Gary Ackerman, both influential players in the context of our region. I was surprised to find both quite open to rethinking their present Afghan strategy. In fact, they have realised that the continuation of the military-centric Bush approach has failed and new options must be examined. There is, therefore, a need to engage with those in the US seeking more viable alternatives for this region as well as with members of the Obama administration. A meaningful engagement can be done through sending a delegation of experts who understand the tribal areas and Afghanistan - not simply the self-anointed “experts” — referred to by one analyst as “native Pakistani informer(s) — who speak what the traditionalists in the US want to hear. I am convinced that a powerful presentation can be made about the need for a US exit strategy from Afghanistan and I believe the Obama Administration can be made to see the following points:
* It is costing the $60 billion a year and costs will go up with the surge - and with no guarantee of a turnaround. Simply sending more troops into a multidimensional conflict will not turn the tide in one’s favour.
* The longer this war goes on, the more chances of a radical takeover in Afghanistan and the greater the threat of radicalisation amongst the Muslim youth. These youth, especially in the Western countries, pose a greater danger to these countries including the US than al-Qaeda.
* The situation in Afghanistan has been moving in favour of the Taliban and deteriorating for Nato and US forces since the past few years.
The question is why our government does not realise that there has to be a new strategy as the current one is sheer madness? The answer is that there are those in our leadership who are quite willing to go along with the current policy of spilling Pakistani blood — both of the soldiers, civilians and militants — as long as they can get dollars and US support. Even more crucial, all the issues of bad governance and corruption (400% rise in 3 years) are papered over as the leadership hides its incompetence under the counter terrorism banner.
Like their predecessors, they also know that if things go out of control in Pakistan, they can always take off to western capitals where their wealth and properties await them.
Beginning from zero militant Taliban in 2004 before the Waziristan operation, today there are around 30 Taliban groups (according to the presentation given by the army to the Parliamentarians). No one has any idea who is backing which group; what percentage are fighting because of Pushtun solidarity; how many belong to the old jehadi groups created at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; how many are actually criminals and unemployed; how many are paid by the enemies of Pakistan to destabilise the country; and so on. In other words, there is an odd amalgam of militants and criminal elements seeking to destabilise the Pakistani state.
How can military operations be supported when our soldiers die in vain, when each operation produces more militancy as well as increasing the suffering of the local civilian population? While the government correctly claims that drone attacks are counter productive and produce more militancy, would the Pakistan military’s aerial bombardment with its indiscriminate “collateral damage” also not have the same effect?
Herein lies a basic contradiction in the government’s policy. Those who are suffering the most are the people of the tribal areas and Swat - with over three million people displaced, their homes, livelihood and children’s education destroyed.
What about the forgotten Bajaur operation earlier this year when 500,000 civilians were displaced and our soldiers suffered many casualties. Today, the Taliban control the same areas that the army had removed them from earlier. The most disconcerting aspect of the present military action is that no one is interested to know what needs to happen for us for “victory” to be declared.
As happened in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, this “war” could go on endlessly and spread across the country. After all, a brief look at the history of the tribal areas reveals how the British were embroiled in an unwinnable war for 80 years and before them the tribals confronted the Moghuls for 69 years.
Can Pakistan afford these operations for even the next five years? How will we deal with the continuing flow of displaced people - or how long will the IDPs survive living as nomads in their own country? How are we planning to stop the radicalisation of the youth in such conditions? Where will we find the resources to eventually rehabilitate these displaced families, given the massive infrastructure damage? What about the impact on the economy if these operations continue endlessly? Already the political situation in the NWFP is getting worse by the day. We have created perfect environment for our enemies to exploit tensions emerging from the current chaos- ethnic, provincial, religious (shia/sunni, deobandi/barelevi) and class (as in Swat).
The critical question is: what is the solution? In Swat, despite being a severe critic of the timing and nature of the military operation, now that it is in full swing, it has to go on till the writ of the government is established. Otherwise there will be even more anarchy as all existing infrastructure has been destroyed. But there is still a need for a more targeted focus of the military operation and a gearing up of the civil administration including the police and local judiciary.
The solution lies in pulling our troops out of Fata gradually and simultaneously reviving the tribal structure. But this means not only withstanding political pressure from Washington but also doing without US dollars - both of these seem beyond the capability of the current dollar-addicted leadership!
However there are voices within the US political and administrative structures that are becoming more sceptical about the US policy in Afghanistan. For instance, Graham Fuller, the former CIA station chief in Kabul wrote in the International Herald Tribune that there was no military solution to the problem in Afghanistan. According to him, Pakistan was “cracking under the pressure” put on it to “do more” by the US and that the Pakistan security forces could control the militancy within its borders provided Nato leaves Afghanistan. If sane voices in the US can see the writing on the wall, why is our leadership still going down a suicidal course for their own vested interests - destroying the military and the nation in the process?