Two options for Pak military: Najam Sethi

Two options for Pak military
Najam Sethi's E d i t o r i a l
The Friday Times, January 19-25, 2007 - Vol. XVIII, No. 48
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Until recently, US-Pak relations were hunky-dory. But a question mark has just cropped up. President Bush’s “democracy” project in Iraq has crashed. Worse, his “nation-building” project in Afghanistan has stalled at the hands of resurgent Taliban. Consequently, his ratings have plunged and he desperately wants to show some good results. So he is rushing 22000 additional troops to Iraq and considering the same option for Afghanistan. But there’s a difference. In Baghdad, he has only himself to blame for his woes while in Afghanistan he is inclined to blame Islamabad because the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists are operating from borderland sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The “Taliban problem” in Afghanistan has resurfaced in 2006 with a bang. In 2003-04, the Americans prodded General Pervez Musharraf to use the Pakistan army to crush them in Waziristan. But the army’s high losses, followed by a popular backlash, forced it to opt for dubious “peace deals” to maintain the status quo in 2006. But when the Taliban launched a wave of ferocious attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan, Washington’s patience ran out. Shorn of additional NATO troops and expecting a renewed Taliban offensive later this year, President Bush wants General Musharraf to “do more” to clamp down while he sends more troops to defend Kabul. A “hearts and minds” project is also underway simultaneously – there is more US money for “rehabilitation and development schemes” in Waziristan and “reconstruction” in Afghanistan.

Until now the US has nudged the international media to accuse Pakistan of “hosting” the Taliban. It has also played “good cop” in Islamabad who praises General Musharraf and bad cop in Kabul who clucks sympathetically with President Hamid Karzai when he blasts Pakistan. But that “soft” approach may be changing. Recent statements by top US officials and generals claiming that Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are holed out in sanctuaries inside Pakistan are meant to signal that if Pakistan doesn’t stop the Taliban then America will conduct pre-emptive strikes against them inside Pakistan.

Islamabad’s ambiguous response lacks credibility. It denies Taliban and Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan but cracks down on foreign or Pakistani journalists who try to verify its claim. It has signed “peace deals” with Talibanised elements in the tribal areas but is not averse to occasionally rocketing them at American insistence. Last week, two such “strikes” were carried out. This approach is wearing thin. The Americans are not appeased while the local tribal backlash against the Americans, General Musharraf and the Pakistan Army is spilling over into the rest of the country. Why is General Musharraf clinging to this “failing strategy” which is alienating his international friends without diminishing the hatred of extremists for him?

The answer lies in a national security doctrine long nourished by the Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies. It says that (1) Afghanistan must not be allowed to fall into the hands of pro-India elements, like the Northern Alliance Uzbek-Tajik ethnic combine (2) It should therefore be dominated by pro-Pakistan Pakhtuns who have historically straddled both Pakistan and Afghanistan (3) These Pakhtuns should not be secular, or pro-Russia or pro-India like earlier Pakhtun regimes until 1990 and the current Karzai regime (4) The Islamic Pakhtun Taliban should be supported as the least objectionable option. It is this doctrine that has spawned sectarian violence and fundamentalism in Pakistan and enabled Al Qaeda to take root in Afghanistan. In short, it is the Pakistan military’s obsession with India on its eastern border that is at the root of its Afghanistan policies on its western border.

Until now, the price of this doctrine was paid by Pakistanis because the military is all powerful and unaccountable. But the Al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus has sucked the US into the region and pitted the Pakistani military’s regional interests against the American military-industrial complex’s global ambitions. The Pakistani military’s assessment is that the Americans have no long term staying power in the region, as demonstrated by their impending retreat from Iraq, and that Pakistan is sure to rebound as the key player in Afghanistan, hence the need to retain its Taliban assets.

This means that Mush-Bush interests may diverge in 2007-8. Mr Bush wants an outright “victory” over the Taliban while Mr Musharraf means to deny him exactly that. Meanwhile, anti-Americanism is growing in Pakistan and the political opposition is ready to exploit any opportunity to weaken the Musharraf regime. We should therefore expect a chorus of foreign and local calls for “democracy” and taming of the Pak army by Democrats and Republicans alike.

There are two options. The Pakistan military establishment can continue to play devious “power games” at home and abroad, deepen ethnic and religious fissures in the country, demean and weaken the democratic impulse of the people and lead Pakistan into isolation and despair. Or it can bury its obsession with India, allow Afghanistan to acquire an autonomous, moderate, pro-West centre of gravity, focus on rolling back the tide of religious extremism and build a stable and sustainable economy.

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