Op-Ed: What to do About Pakistan
Since the killing of Osama Bin Laden (OBL), much speculation has arisen on whether elements of the Pakistani military or intelligence (ISI) played a role in providing shelter for OBL as early as 2005. There is of course nothing wrong in asking such a question. We have every right to be suspicious in light of the fact that the compound in Abbottabad, a town primarily known in Pakistan for the presence of the country’s army, was situated just a few hundred yards from the nation’s leading military academy.
Could Pakistan’s security forces really have been unaware of his presence for several years? Naturally, the question of what the future holds for US-Pakistan relations has been raised. In particular, we need to ask how, if at all, should US policy towards Pakistan should be changed, as the country is at present the recipient of billions of dollars in aid every year, while Obama and other American politicians have had no problem with routinely calling Pakistan an ‘ally’ in the War on Terror.
Unfortunately, the reality turns out to be more sobering. Yet it is important that a precise picture be built up of what characterizes Pakistan’s policies towards the various Islamist militant groups operating in its territory. To begin with, for more than half of Pakistan’s history, military officers have ruled the country, and it is the military, along with the religious groups, who have always dictated the agenda for Pakistan’s foreign policy, not the civilian leadership (regardless of whether it has backed their outlook).
This is not at all surprising, for secularists and liberals in the country have consistently lost the debate over the nature of Pakistan’s identity. Indeed, there is little doubt that the problem is rooted in the initial creation of Pakistan as a state for Muslims. How can such a purpose be reconciled with divorcing from politics the Islamic faith, which in its traditional forms does not separate religion from the public sphere?
As the military and clergy increasingly set Pakistan on the path of a full-fledged, artificial Islamic identity that ignores the vast differences between the nation’s ethnic groups, the country inevitably turned into an expansionist state, which is today the foundation of Pakistan’s behaviour towards Islamist militants.
At this point, some distinctions need to be made, as the manner in which the Pakistani military and ISI have dealt with armed Islamist groups has varied by region. Currently, the Pakistani security forces are engaged in an active campaign against the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TeT) in Waziristan. The TeT is commonly known as the ‘Pakistani Taliban,’ though even here a grey area exists as the TeT’s deceased former leader- Baitullah Mehsud (killed in a drone strike on August 5 2009)-pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban Shura in Quetta that directs the Taliban’s operations in Afghanistan, even as Mullah Omar has urged the TeT not to attack the Pakistani army or ISI.
The TeT’s immediate aim is to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish its ideal Islamic state. It then seeks to expel foreign troops from Muslim lands and, in Mehsud’s words, ‘attack them (non-Muslims) in the US and Britain until they either accept Islam or agree to pay jizya.’ The word ‘jizya’ will be familiar to anyone who has read Qur’an 9:29 and the commentary of traditional jurists like Ibn Kathir on how that verse relates to the doctrine of offensive jihad. It is a poll tax non-Muslims must pay as part of an agreement to accept second-class citizenship status in a state governed according to the Shari’a (Islamic law).
The relationship between the Taliban Shura and the TeT is rooted in the fact that during the Afghan Civil War (officially 1992-1996, though in reality Afghanistan has been plagued by a continuous state of civil war for more than 35 years), many militants who now form the rank-and-file of the TeT fought to secure Taliban rule in Afghanistan, backed then by the civilian government of Benazir Bhutto as well as the Pakistani military and ISI.
The TeT’s members are incensed at what they see as treacherous cooperation between the Pakistani security forces and the US. Such a belief, however, is erroneous, and derives from the double game the Pakistani military and ISI play with Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan and Swat Valley, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-e-Islam, all of whom have hideouts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly North-West Frontier Province).
This double game has consisted of allowing the CIA’s Special Activities Division to conduct drone strikes against militant hideouts on the one hand, while frequently providing early warnings and escape routes for the militants on the other. Part of the motivation for playing this double game is to continue receiving financial aid from the US.
Meanwhile, the Taliban Shura, which is behind Taliban activities in Afghanistan and is based in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan,, is safeguarded by the army and ISI. Here, a further reason behind the military and intelligence’s behaviour is to be noted. Pakistan has a strong interest in backing the Taliban Shura and its followers to suppress the Baloch secular-nationalist insurgency being waged against the state.
The Pakistani government cannot afford to lose control of Balochistan, given the close ties Pakistan has forged with China in allowing the Chinese to construct a port in Gwadar with nearer access to the Persian Gulf and to develop the province’s huge copper reserves at the expense of distributing revenues amongst the indigenous population.
Finally, we come to the militant groups based in Punjab such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is widely suspected of being responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The policy of both the local civilian government and the security forces has been to protect these groups.
In fact, with the support of the ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba has formed the Indian Mujahideen to recruit Indian Muslim youth to conduct terrorist attacks in India. The main goal here has been to use these militants as a bulwark against India in the territory of Kashmir, to be contrasted with support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants in Afghanistan as a way to prevent India from asserting its interests in the country and supposedly using Afghanistan as a base against Pakistan. India, of course, has been one of the chief financial backers of the Karzai regime in Kabul.
The inevitable consequence of these policies towards the militant groups has been the increasing destabilization of Pakistan. For instance, many Taliban militants based in FATA and KP who were granted the opportunity to escape during security operations by the Pakistani army have found refuge in southern Punjab, hosted by the Sunni jihadist groups there. These Islamists have set up seminaries and created the ‘Punjabi Taliban,’ which attained a reputation for bombing Sufi shrines in the region.
Also of note is Al-Qa’ida’s well-established presence in Pakistan. For instance, in an article in the Pashtu-language daily Wrazpanra Wahdat of November 17, 2009, former Pakistan Army chief General Aslam Baig estimated that Al-Qa'ida's Brigade 500 alone has about 3,000 fighters.
So just what can the US do about Pakistan? No doubt many feel an urge to declare Pakistan an ‘enemy’ or ‘terrorist’ state and suspend all financial aid to the country. As one angry reader put it to pundit Jeffrey Goldberg:
‘How thick are you? Do you really believe that the Pakistani government didn't know where Bin Laden was? He was in the middle of Pakistan, for God's sakes. Why can't you face it that Pakistan is an enemy nation and should be dealt with like one? Are you tired of war? Is that it? Do you wish everyone would just get along already?’
Nevertheless, an option of hostile belligerence is simply not viable, and no serious policymaker can consider the possibility of war with Pakistan. After all, the country is a nuclear weapons state with a population of over 187 million. One could launch a strike on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stocks, but to enact such a plan is definitely not easy..
At the same time, it is folly to heed Goldberg’s suggestion that we should just continue to ‘provide aid and support for government and economic reform, health care, and universal education.’ The US has been doing this for years on end.
Have such measures induced the Pakistani military and ISI to abandon their expansionist policy of ‘strategic depth,’ or reduced support for Islamists in the country? As the reactions to the assassination of Salman Taseer showed, the consensus amongst the Pakistani people (with the exception of the Baloch people, who comprise just over 6 million of the country’s population), is overwhelmingly Islamist.
The fact that over 500 clerics and scholars from the ‘moderate’ Barelvi sect, which has traditionally defended Sufi practices, issued a declaration forbidding Muslims to mourn Taseer’s death illustrates how, as Western aid has increased, so has the tendency towards Islamism in Pakistan. Similarly, offering financial incentives for the Pakistani military and intelligence to change their policies towards the various militant groups has proved a failure. Officials in the Obama administration have tried to propose a deal that the ISI end its support for the Taliban Shura in return for more aid, but the offer was snubbed.
The only realistic alternative is to make it clear to Pakistan that financial aid is not unconditional and will depend upon restarting peace talks with India. The aim must be to end the cold war between the two countries, specifically with a détente agreement that should require both nations to respect the military neutrality of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Of course, the burden of initiative is overwhelmingly on Pakistan’s shoulders, but it would helpful if the US could act as a mediator in peace talks.
Key issues that must be raised include the increasing destabilisation of Pakistan at the hands of militant groups, and the fact that India does not really need to back the Karzai regime, which, being extremely corrupt, not only struggles to exert authority outside of Kabul but also makes a mockery of human rights. ? Is it really in India’s interest to provide massive aid to such a government? If India can agree not to back Karzai, Islamabad will no longer have reason to fear that India will use Afghanistan as a base against Pakistan. As part of a lasting détente treaty with India, Pakistan’s military must agree to act decisively and firmly against all Islamist militants based in the country, besides reining in the ISI.
Furthermore, we ought to highlight to Pakistan’s civilian government that it must expand and change the state education system by reforming it according to the model introduced by Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia. Tunisian religious textbooks have traditionally taught liberal-democratic, secular values and have encouraged students to question blind obedience to Muslim clergy and look towards Europe as a source of enlightened culture.
Now, it should not be thought that the US is omnipotent here. What I have outlined is not a full-proof plan, because much will depend on the willpower of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership. However, the solution proposed above is the only realistic way of safeguarding our security interests in the region. The other oft-debated alternatives are either impractical or will do nothing to change the already dire situation.