Framing anti-terror policy in Islamabad

Editorial: Framing anti-terror policy in Islamabad
Daily Times, April 4, 2008

After a briefing from the Chief of the Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, Mr Yousaf Raza Gillani has decided to “formulate a comprehensive strategy based on political engagement and economic development, backed by credible military element to combat terrorism”. The briefing was not to the defence committee of the cabinet, which is the government routine, but to the ruling coalition parties and their leaders. Mr Asif Ali Zardari, Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Asfandyar Wali and Maulana Fazlur Rehman heard the army chief’s view of the situation in the Tribal Areas (FATA) and Swat and the ongoing military activity there.

Conscious of the popular reaction, the political leaders were intent on projecting a body language of seriousness, not matching General Kayani’s disarming smile with their own. Yet the press reported a variation in reactions to what the army chief had to say. The PPP seems to stand apart from the other three partners who insist that the current policy of troop deployment be reviewed to make room for a jirga-based effort at reconciliation. The ANP spearheads this option with the PMLN backing it under the banner of “not fighting someone else’s war”. In the NWFP, however, the ANP has also articulated resort to military action if the jirga approach fails.

There is no doubt that there is tolerable political posturing on the part of the leaders at the present moment. Some commentators might say that this could actually strengthen popular reactions and make it difficult for the government to use the “military element” effectively, as promised by the prime minister. But finally more information on the situation on the ground in the Tribal Areas will surely lead to a policy of firmness tempered with pragmatism. On Wednesday, a special TV report on the situation in Swat showed that the insurgents of Maulvi Fazlullah were in control of certain areas and the shopkeepers were clearly scared of naming their real tormentor as they put the onus of disorder on the troops. Fazlullah’s spokesman denied all media reports holding the Taliban-Al Qaeda elements responsible for the beheadings in Swat before the army went in.

The jirga-based approach is scuttled by a deficit of information about the “lost territory” that it seeks to pacify through talks. The jirgas have been seriously undermined by the killing of the elders who used to legitimise and direct this ancient tribal institution. One jirga was actually blown up by an Al Qaeda-style suicide bomber in Darra Adam Khel not long ago. Many jirgas functioning under Taliban control are a bunch of scared individuals who speak against the Pakistan army merely in order to survive. The warlords rule with ample resources at their disposal and dreams of creating their own mini-states. In these conditions the “credible military element” mentioned by the prime minister is therefore of crucial importance.

As if to foreclose the possibility of talks the ANP is envisaging, the Taliban Tehreek of Pakistan (TTP), based in the region of South Waziristan and Bajaur, has already spelled out the “conditions” on which the warlords will begin “talking” to the government: 1) Withdraw from the American war against terrorism; 2) Withdraw the army from the Tribal Areas; 3) Allow the use of Pakistani territory for jihad inside Afghanistan for as long as the Americans are present there; 4) Don’t expect the Taliban to disarm as long as the Americans remain in Afghanistan; and 5) Impose sharia in the country because the people want it.

In theory talks could begin with elements in the Tribal Areas that want peace and are finding it difficult to survive under the draconian warlordism of the Taliban. But here negotiation would be made impossible unless the army is first used to create spaces where such moderate elements can actually escape the beheadings that the Taliban resort to as an instrument of intimidation. The biggest negative fallout of letting the Taliban win control of territories such as Swat is the creation of zones of intimidation where people can live only if they denounce the state and pay lip-service to the warlords in the name of Islam.

A Foreign Office briefing on Wednesday said that it was “deeply concerned about Al Qaeda’s regrouping within Pakistan’s borders”. Those who think that the war against terrorism is not Pakistan’s war should seek reprieve from their hatred of America to take a close look at the situation in which Pakistan finds itself today. It is not by “siding with America” that Pakistan has hurt itself, but it might hurt itself now by not recognising that the disorder in the Tribal Areas is more dangerous for Pakistan than for America. Prime Minister Gillani’s idea of how the state should tackle the situation is therefore the right stance to take. And General Kayani’s belief that the civilians should own the tactics and strategy of this war is absolutely correct.

Time is of the essence. If such a credible policy is not fashioned and implemented consensually and effectively the US could precipitate further problems by taking unilateral action when its forces come under pressure from Pakistan-based Taliban-Al Qaeda terrorists. *

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