A new approach to counter-terrorism
Daily Times, March 30, 2008
The government will have to articulate a new perspective on counter-terrorism as an alternative to the Islamist discourse. It needs to highlight Pakistan’s responsibility to cope with extremism and terrorism as a nation-state and a member of the international community
The visit of two senior American officials to Islamabad before the new government is fully installed in Pakistan shows the US government’s nervousness and concern about the future of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy. They do not expect Pakistan to drop out of the on-going global counter-terrorism efforts but are concerned about possible changes in the formulation and implementation of specific strategies to address the problem.
Of late, the US intelligence community got convinced that Al Qaeda and related elements are entrenched in Pakistan’s tribal areas and they want either Pakistan to adopt effective measures to extricate the militants from there or allow the US to directly deal with the matter.
In the past, US military authorities have periodically used unmanned aircraft (Predators) to target militant strongholds. On a couple of occasions, ground operations were also launched. However, their latest demand to use Predators more freely or resort to military/intelligence operations to target militant concentrations is not likely to be accommodated by the new Pakistani government.
The new government will take time to articulate new operational strategies for pursuing counter-terrorism. Its first priority is going to be to restore the judges and clip President Pervez Musharraf’s power, if not remove him altogether. Once the government has stabilised itself, the new contours of counter-terrorism policy will be clear.
The US needs to re-orient its approach towards Pakistan. In the past, power was concentrated in Musharraf and his close affiliates in the military, bureaucracy and intelligence agencies. The prime minister and the parliament played a peripheral role and the Foreign Office was assigned the task of policy implementation, or the FO made recommendations to the presidency, which took the final decision. Such centralised decision-making made the task of US policymakers somewhat easy and they devoted more attention and resources to the presidency and the army.
Now, Pakistan is going to have an amorphous decision-making structure. This involves three new players: a prime minister who will function as the first among equals rather than an overpowering leader; top leaders of the coalition parties, especially the PPP and the PMLN; and Parliament. Traditional players like the army, intelligence agencies and the Foreign Office will also make their inputs.
As these institutions and entities do not have much experience of pluralist decision-making and management, they can face problems. This process is expected to be noisy as Parliament seeks a greater role. US diplomats and policymakers will now have to focus on several points in Pakistan’s state system, which makes the task more complex.
American guests got an inkling of what they will be facing in their meeting with Nawaz Sharif, who is known for weak diplomatic skills and is surrounded with advisors with Islamist orientations. He took exception to American disregard of Pakistani sensitivities about counter-terrorism. Later, American officials met with PPP and ANP leaders and found that the US would need strong lobbying with the political class for its worldview on terrorism.
The prime minister, while reiterating his government’s support for counter-terrorism, declared that all important policy matters would be decided by Parliament. This must be a new message for the US. The major hazard of parliamentary debate on counter-terrorism and the problems in the tribal areas is that American policies are going to be subjected to sharp criticism.
In the past, the US identified with Musharraf very closely for understandable reasons. He was the pivot of power in Pakistan but this policy alienated the opposition and independent political forces. What appalled the opposition was that even after Musharraf loyalists lost the elections and the opposition demanded the president’s resignation, the US, especially the White House, continued to support Musharraf and lobbied for retaining him in the new political arrangement.
Musharraf is holding on to the presidency because he expects the political forces to divide in a couple of months and the US to continue supporting him as part of its counter-terrorism policy. The latest visit must have made it clear to them that Musharraf is increasingly becoming irrelevant to policy making and implementation in Pakistan. Short of a dismissal of the political government, Musharraf is not expected to retrieve the initiative which will not be possible without the support of the Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.
Musharraf managed counter-terrorism as an administrative and military affair without bothering to cultivate popular support. Consequently, there was a major disconnect between what the government was doing pertaining to counter-terrorism, including its close interaction with the US, and how people perceived the whole affair. His government could not convince the people that the ongoing war on terrorism served Pakistan’s national interests.
Liberal and moderate political parties and societal groups that viewed terrorism as a threat to civic order and stability were kept at bay by the government because they questioned Musharraf’s legitimacy as the military ruler. They were discouraged from engaging in popular mobilisation.
Instead, Musharraf developed partnership, albeit reluctant and uneasy, with the Islamists who opposed Pakistan’s role in US sponsored war on terrorism. These Islamists got a free hand to build public opinion against the US and the war on terror. Their views became the most popular discourse on terrorism in Pakistan. This perspective was supported by many inside official circles who were not convinced of the genuineness of Pakistan’s counter-terrorist policy.
The Islamists and the Musharraf government developed an understanding on counter- terrorism: the Islamist projected their perspective on terrorism without actually challenging government measures on the ground. On the other hand, the government pursued its counter-terrorism policy in a manner that left some space to militants to survive. This also satisfied those in official circles who viewed some (not all) militants as a possible asset in the future.
Musharraf’s reluctant partnership with the Islamists broke down with the Red Mosque incident as Islamist hard liners viewed it as a shift in government policy. They decided to take on the government to deter it from applying the Red Mosque strategy elsewhere.
Another factor that built resentment against counter terrorism was the large-scale use of force in the tribal areas without taking into account its injurious implications for ordinary Pashtuns who were not directly involved in terrorism. Instead of protecting them from the terrorists, security forces often used force indiscriminately. Over 50,000 people migrated from the tribal areas to the rest of Pakistan to save themselves both from the militants and from the military.
These issues will be fully reflected in parliamentary debates that will then influence new government’s policy options. These developments have also built strong pressure on the government to open negotiations with some militant groups through newly elected representatives from the tribal areas and the new NWFP provincial government. Further, immediate steps need to be taken to increase economic opportunities for people in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan.
The government will have to articulate a new perspective on counter-terrorism as an alternative to the Islamist discourse. It needs to highlight Pakistan’s responsibility to cope with extremism and terrorism as a nation-state and a member of the international community.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst