Thursday, January 24, 2008

Understanding the Nature of Crisis in Pakistan

Thinking for ourselves By Ayaz Amir
The News, January 25, 2008

General Ashfaq Kayani, the new army chief, visits forward positions in Swat, which is as it should be. If the army is embroiled in fighting (of any kind), a chief's duty is to be with the troops and to concentrate on the task at hand, not play politics, give meaningless interviews to foreign media or lose himself in extraneous undertakings.

Swat has been in the frontline of fighting for quite some time now. Did Generalissimo Pervez Musharraf ever find time to visit troops in the scenic, now embattled, valley? Memory fails.

This is as good an argument as any against the wearing of civilian and military hats by the same person, a malady which has struck Pakistan at almost regular intervals. The generalissimo, now reluctant retiree, took too many things upon himself, involved in political matters and devoting most of his time and energy to surviving in office, while also being head of the army. Small wonder he came to resemble the hero in Faiz's poem 'Kuch ishq kiya, kuch kaam kiya', who split his time between love and work, and who ended up being good at neither.

Fighting is also intensifying in South Waziristan where a major operation, involving the use of tanks and heavy artillery for the first time, appears to have been launched against the tribal guerrillas of Baitullah Mehsud. After the change of command in General Headquarters we are witnessing a more proactive military policy, the new army chief making his induction into the top slot felt in more ways than one. The warning to army officers to keep their distance from politics is aimed at cleaning up the army's image, compromised in the eyes of the people by its involvement in government over the last eight years. It shouldn't be surprising if after Swat Gen Kayani puts in an appearance also in embattled South Waziristan.

The two Waziristans constitute the heart of the territories in the tribal belt which have slipped out of central control. We have a heavy military presence there but our troops are mostly confined to their locations. The countryside is dominated by tribal militants. Troops are regularly ambushed and sometimes captured, only to be released after protracted negotiations and embarrassing concessions. No doubt about it, Pakistan needs to regain control over these 'lost' territories. Or else we will be inviting foreign intervention, something almost calculated to make things worse. So the end is not in doubt but what is the best way to achieve it?

As any number of examples, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, testify, it is easy to launch an operation against a largely invisible adversary, less easy to bring it to a successful conclusion. North and South Waziristan constitute classical guerrilla territory and the tribesmen there are natural fighters. Until the Pakistan Army was pushed into launching largely ill-conceived and ill-prepared operations in our tribal belt by our American godfathers, we never had to station regular troops in that area.

The British kept a brigade there prior to 1947 but it was pulled out on Quaid-e-Azam's orders when he visited the tribal areas soon after independence, leaving the tribesmen to police their territory themselves, something which they did admirably, at little cost to the state, until our present troubles overtook us.

Frontier tribesmen, many of them from Waziristan, voluntarily went to Kashmir when fighting broke out between India and Pakistan over the status of the disputed state immediately after Partition. Barring Gilgit and Baltistan where there was a local uprising against the Dogra rule, the portion of Kashmir in our control wouldn't be with us but for these hardy warriors. They were Pakistan's first line of defence along the Durand Line. By what ill-starred diligence have we or our masters managed to turn them against Pakistan?

Is Al Qaeda responsible for this state of affairs or our own folly? The British had perfected a way of handling these unruly and, it must be said, freedom-loving tribesmen through methods that were political in nature: a combination of guile, money, persuasion and the occasional use of force (force, if well-directed, becoming, according to Clausewitz, the continuation of politics by other means).

We inherited those methods and they served us well for almost 55 years. Then arrived the Americans and it is largely under the impact of the military options they forced down the throats of our senior commanders--much against the best instincts of those same commanders--that the two Waziristans have turned into hostile territory. A hundred thousand troops are now deployed against the Frontier Taliban and for all the good they are doing they needn't have been deployed at all.

The threat of 'terrorism' instead of diminishing has vastly increased. Much like Iraq where there was no Al Qaeda presence or threat prior to the American invasion. Now Iraq is the world's most advanced academy for all kinds of violence: another example of the fruits of wrath which grow when brute force is deployed without an underpinning of some measure of wisdom.

The United States, the mightiest power on earth, leads in so many things: science, invention, ingenuity, the mobilization of money etc. But its record in sympathizing with the forces of popular resistance, or its record in fighting guerrilla insurgencies, is not spectacular. If it has screwed up Iraq, which it definitely has, and if in years past it reaped disaster in Vietnam, what makes our military command think that by following its advice in our tribal areas we will be writing a new history?

In 2001 there may have been a few (a couple of hundred?) Arab/Chechen/Uzbek fighters or former fighters (and remember it is we and the CIA who sent them into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army), but there was a way of dealing with their presence. We should have asked the tribes to resolve the problem instead of launching a military operation which far from doing any good turned what was admittedly a problem, but a passing one at that, into a full-blown catastrophe.

The Pakhtoon has a psyche of his own. He can be loyal and devoted, sometimes excessively so, to a master or a cause. But he doesn't take kindly to threats or bluster. And the spirit of vengeance runs deep in him. The unthinking exercise of arms--and not all from our side because the Americans have often been too ready to launch missile strikes from their Predator drones--has led to a great deal of destruction and the loss of innocent lives. This has been one factor in bringing recruits to the Taliban cause and also in stoking tribal anger.

'Never reinforce failure' is a dictum that even otherwise not very literate army officers know by heart. We should be rethinking our approach in the tribal belt instead of doing more of what we have already been doing there for the last three or four years. No doubt the more we get involved the more we prove to our American friends (now also our military tutors) that we are indeed doing more, as they are constantly asking us to do. But is this in our best interests? Can we afford for our army to be bogged down in that inhospitable terrain amidst a population once friendly now tragically hostile?

Yes, 'terrorism' is a dirty word and we should be all out for eliminating it. But not by pursuing policies that end up producing more Nek Muhammads, more Baitullah Mehsuds and more suicide bombers.

The mention of tanks and heavy artillery makes one shudder. Unless I am grossly mistaken, that is not tank territory. In the face of overwhelming odds, the guerrillas will just melt away or take to the hills and hit at targets of opportunity at a time and place of their choosing. No one needs to give elementary lessons in guerrilla warfare. These are known things. But why do we seem so resolute in closing our eyes to the obvious?

Admiral Fallon, the Centcom commander, was in Rawalpindi a few days ago where he met Gen Kayani. From the time of Gen Tommy Franks, the Centcom commander who led the American attack on Afghanistan, Centcom commanders have visited Pakistan too often for our good. High time we started learning to think for ourselves.

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