Unveiling the new US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on 27 March 2009, President Barak Obama stated that Al-Qaeda and its allies - the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks - were in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to him, “multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.” He described Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world for the American people.
Obama stated that it was not simply an American problem, rather an international security challenge. Referring to the instances of terrorism in different parts of the world, he warned: “If there is a major attack on an Asian, European or African city, it, too, is likely to have ties to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.”
He declared that a clear and focused goal of the United States was “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Obama cautioned: “Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.”
In the multi-pronged US strategy to counter ‘terrorism’ which Obama defined, Pakistan is required to play a crucial role.
Recognizing the fact that the tribal region is vast, rugged and often ungoverned, the United States is to focus on tools; training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists.
Instead of providing a ‘blank’ check, the United States is to observe Pakistan’s performance on the ground. “Pakistan must,” stated Obama, “demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its border.”
In a welcome paradigm shift at tactical level, the United States’ relationship with Pakistan is to be grounded in its “support for Pakistan’s democratic institutions and the Pakistani people.”
The United States has undertaken to enhance its economic aid to Pakistan to promote the welfare of Pakistani people. It has announced to work with the World Bank, the IMF and other sources to ease Pakistan’s economic difficulties.
Obama called upon the Congress to approve the Kerry-Lugar bill for an annual $1.5 billion aid to Pakistan for civilian purposes over a period of five years with more aid to follow specifically for the development of the tribal belt.
The United States is to pursue ‘constructive diplomacy’ to reduce tension between the nuclear armed India and Pakistan. This is to ensure that Pakistan is able to concentrate on its western borders and Pakhtun majority areas.
Let us examine the implications of Obama’s ‘new strategy’ for Pakistan:
In the first place there is a wide gap between the perceptions of the American establishment and the Pakistani people. Seven years down the road, there is no consensus in Pakistan that the ‘American war on terror’ is Pakistan’s war.
9/11 happened in the United States and not in Pakistan nor from. Al-Qaeda was not a threat to Pakistan that it has become. The US and NATO forces occupied Afghanistan and if the Taliban have launched a war of national liberation or what they call jihad, it is primarily the responsibility of the United States and its NATO allies to deal with the situation.
The Pakhtuns live on both sides of the border and if there are cross border incursions into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal belt, to which Obama has referred, it is but a natural response. Due to their religious and ethnic affinities, the Pakistani Pushtun considers themselves under moral obligations to assist their brethren across the border.
If the al-Qaeda elements are embedded with the Taliban, Pakistani state is already contributing more than its due share to prevent them from using Pakistani territory.
Pakistan is tolerating drone attacks that target al-Qaeda hide-outs, although they constitute a clear violation of its sovereignty. Pakistan has apprehended scores of al-Qaeda operatives and handed them over to the United States.
It is for the American- led coalition forces to strengthen the border security on the Afghanistan side.
Although there is strong disapproval of the Taliban’s tribal customs, their version of shariah and suicide attacks inside Pakistan, even the detractors have vehemently spoken out against Taliban. However, the majority of Pakistanis have reservations about Obama’s views that “the terrorists within Pakistan’s borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan – they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan.”
The people of Pakistan differentiate between foreign militants and the Taliban, and feel that it was Pakistan government’s policy to hit the Taliban from the rear that made the Taliban respond in the same coin, and if this policy is reversed the Taliban will definitely show restraint.
Contrary to what Obama claims, the popular perception in Pakistan is that, instead of the Taliban, the United States poses the principal threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity and its nuclear program, surpassing even India. Over the years, an extremely negative image of the United States has got ingrained in the Pakistani mind and not without reasons.
The role of the United States in creating and protecting Israel, its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, threats to Iran and Syria, the duplicity of its policies on the Kashmir and Palestinian issues and attitude towards Pakistan’s nuclear program have made the United States a perennial villain in the eyes of common Pakistanis. Obama needs to concentrate on this aspect of relationship if he is really for a long term strategic partnership between Pakistan and the United States.
Obama has spoken about isolating “al-Qaeda from the Pakistani people.” Excepting those who might be in contact with the foreign militants in FATA and NWFP, the Pakistani people have a very vague idea of al-Qaeda or its structure or its operational capabilities. Those who believe in the existence of al-Qaeda mostly consider its ‘jihad’ to vacate infidel occupation of Muslim lands or counter infidel aggression as legitimate.
Others have such an extreme distrust of the United States and Israel that they regard al-Qaeda as a bogey that was deliberately created to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama must understand that it is a question of trust deficit, (with people of Pakistan), for which successive US administrations are responsible.
Nearly all Pakistanis concur that a sinister campaign is going on against their country to declare it a rogue, or failed state and the epicenter of international terrorism. The way Pakistan’s ISI, the defensive mechanism of Pakistani state, is being maligned is not swallowed by any.
The statements of US Generals, about the ISI those followed Obama’s seemingly conciliatory address, cast aspersions on the American motives. The stories about ISI’s links with the terrorists - the Pakistani people are constrained to think - have one aim: to incapacitate the most vital agency of Pakistan, and render Pakistan an easy prey to potential aggressor/s.
Obama has said: “There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion.” The question is how many Taliban have taken up arms under coercion.
The Taliban took upon themselves the anger and ferocity of the United States but did not surrender Osama bin Laden. It seems idiotic, but they believed they were bound by the Muslim and Pakhtun tribal traditions and values, not to hand him over. Now they have committed themselves to undo the occupation of Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world.
After the United States –led coalition forces occupied Afghanistan in late 2001; it seemed that the Taliban had evaporated in thin air and that the American dollars had purchased the loyalties of tribal chieftains. Today, Talibanization is present and creeping into more and more areas. This could not have happened without willful support and cooperation of a sizable segment of the people.
Perhaps it is not coercion on the part of al-Qaeda or the hard core Taliban, but frustration, anger and resentment against the US-led coalition troops and its allies in Pakistan that has given impetus to Talibanization.
The doctrine of jihad and idealism of establishing ‘Islamic system’ have united the Pashtuns, rendering it extremely difficult to exploit their inter-tribal rivalries. Any attempt to create fissures between different groups of Taliban is fraught with danger of igniting civil war in FATA, NWFP and northern Balochistan.
Talibanization is a trans-tribal phenomenon. By joining the ranks of Taliban the poor and downtrodden acquire a sense of importance and opportunity to hold power.
The anachronistic system of tribal maliks or corrupt western style administrative set up has failed to provide them justice or share in decision-making. The Taliban offer them equality of status in this world and promise eternal bliss hereafter.
If the United States fails to capture the heart and mind of the Pakhtuns, the ranks of the Taliban are likely to swell.
Obama considers the issue of militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan as inseparable. In doing so he is, deliberately or inadvertently, promoting the idea that the whole Pakhtun region is a unit, notwithstanding the fact that it is shared by two separate political entities.
The concept of a single Pakhtun region transcending national boundaries and up in arms with an ‘Islamic agenda’ may prove to be precursor of an ‘Islamic Emirate’ With the concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’ already on cards, the idea of ‘Islamic Emirate’ smacks of some scenario to reduce Pakistan to the status of an innocuous, denuclearized, buffer state comprising Punjab and Sindh.
Obama has called for involving other stake-holders to resolve the Afghanistan imbroglio, particularly Iran and India. Iran has sympathy for the Tajiks and Hazaras due to sectarian reasons besides, geopolitical and Economic Interests.
India is operating an espionage and sabotage network from its consulates and front offices in Afghanistan to foment trouble inside Pakistan.
Instead of Iran or India, it is more important that the Taliban are engaged in negotiation as the real stake-holders in Afghanistan.
If Pakistan reorients its defense posture from eastern to western border as desired by Obama, India will be in a position to take military advantage at the hour of its choice. See the posturing after Mumbai Attacks.
The apprehension is, if somehow the Pakistan armed forces are able to soften the Taliban through military action, the United States-led coalition forces may walk into FATA, NWFP and Balochistan on some flimsy pretext to bisect Pakistan as feared by many in the country.
The Pakistani troops are not mentally and psychologically prepared or trained for any war against their co-religionists. They have been indoctrinated to fight the enemies of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
If any major military action against the Taliban, with its own brothers in faith and Nation, is ordered at the behest of the United States, the Pakistani troops will fight under great strain and stress. Such decision may be at the peril of even defections and desertions.
Pakistan’s military doctrine and preparedness has remained India specific. The security of its western borders hardly figured except when Afghanistan was under the Soviet military occupation. Now Obama wants to impart training to the Pakistan army to fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban in a rugged and difficult terrain. It cannot be an easy task.
History is witness that the British and Russians failed in Afghanistan, the United States is losing there, and Obama has announced a surge of 21,000 troops and trainers to arrest the trend.
What chances are there of Pakistan army winning under similar conditions? Why should then Pakistan army get sucked into a costly, protracted and nerve-wrecking war that is ultimately to be lost?
Have the Pakistan armed forces forgotten the lessons of East Pakistan? Do they yearn for another abject surrender? If and when this war is lost will the country remain united?
The military action against the Taliban is likely to promote sectarian rift in the country. Apparently, look at the rise inhuman attacks targeting our Shia brothers in faith. The society and state institutions need to be protected against the menace of this creeping sectarianism at all cost.
In the Taliban theology, war against even Muslims is permissible who obstruct jihad against the infidels and its supporters, whomsoever. They will play havoc in Punjab and Sindh, if Pakistan opts for all out war against them. They have their own concept of collateral damage, the loss of innocent lives.
Pakistan government has witnessed that frequency of suicide attacks increased manifold after the military action was launched in Swat and other places in August last.
In the indiscriminate use of fire-power against the alleged Taliban and their hideouts, innocent Pakhtuns were martyred in hundreds, maimed in thousands and several hundred thousands had to leave their homes; and all this played out to the advantage of the Taliban.
Already there has been an influx of migration in some localities of Karachi, like other urban centers of Pakistan. The tide of migration continues due to warfare in Pakhtun areas uprooting huge number of people. The economic hub of Pakistan may witness ethnic riots reminiscent of 1980s and 1990s.
MQM’s anti-Taliban posture and rhetoric is reflective of sectarian, ethnic bias and apprehensions, while there are, transcending, segments of population in Karachi, a city of 17 million people from allover Pakistan and other parts of South Asia, who know why people migrate and migrated in the past. There are reports that some elements amongst the Mohajirs and Pushtuns are preparing for showdown. Anything can ignite the riots.
Given the risks involved it is in the national interests that the Pakistan, that the government adopts a policy of negotiations and truce with the local Taliban and persuades the United States to take Taliban on board in Afghanistan without unnecessary fuss, allowing them to have social, political, economic and legal system decided by Afghans. The US and the world may seek of Guarantees, that Afghanistan territory will not be used for planning of any terrorist attack anywhere in the world, as they are exacting from Pakistan. This is in the interest of the peace in the region and the world.
In case Pakistan turns down Obama’s offer of the check, ‘blank’ or otherwise, the most the United States may decide to cut off Pakistan’s economic and military assistance and increase drone attacks on selected Al-Qaeda targets.
If the United States takes the unwise decision of sending troops inside Pakistan to fight the Taliban, it is likely to be sucked up into a protracted war at the cost of ‘precious’ American lives rather than Pakistani troops whom it, regrettably treats at best as mercenaries, despite our troops having sacrificed the most, then US and its partners collectively.
If the leadership were to rise to the occasion, any violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty will unite the nation to face all odds, be that economic or military. It is important that Pakistan remains committed to its ideological moorings and says no to Obama, if it comes to killing our own people.
About the author: Amicus is the pseudonym of Advocate Mohammed Yousuf, lawyer based in Karachi.