Friday, June 27, 2008

FATA, Taliban and the Future of Pakistan?

Are the woods approaching?
By Palvasha von Hassell, Dawn, June 27, 2008

IN Shakespeare’s play, a desperate Macbeth is reassured by the three witches that the likelihood of his losing power is as high as that of a forest some distance away moving to the castle gates. Reassured by this, Macbeth feels secure until the day of his downfall, when his incredulous eyes witness the said forest making steady and unrelenting progress towards him. It is enemy soldiers, camouflaged by the branches of trees.

Similarly, until some months ago no one in Pakistan would have seriously believed that certain areas of the country could possibly be in danger from Pakistan’s Taliban elements. True, the Jamia Hafsa stand-off in Islamabad and bombings in Lahore and Rawalpindi were alarming examples of disruptions the militants were capable of in areas hitherto regarded as beyond their reach. But what is currently happening in the NWFP raises nothing less than the chilly prospect of fanatics from tribal areas taking control of Peshawar.

Let’s be clear about one thing: whereas Macbeth is a moral play about a power-hungry murderer and disrupter of law and order who is defeated by the forces of good and all else that is orderly in society, people who threaten to overrun Pakistan are forces of ignorance and regression. As I write, they have set fire to eight girls’ school in Swat. They must be resisted at all costs.

Although the Taliban movement would, in all likelihood, have caused Pakistan tremendous problems at some stage or another, the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 served as a major catalyst. Who knows, Osama may indeed have been handed over to an Arab country, with Washington in negotiations about him. And had the blunder of Iraq been avoided, Al Qaeda would have lost support anyway.

Would the Taliban have survived perpetual international isolation? My guess is, not. But of course, many interests of important people would not have been served that way. The way to hell, it just occurred to me, is paved not with good intentions but with evil ones, as it should be. So all this did happen, as we do not need to be told, and Pakistan is bearing the brunt of it. For where were the Taliban to go when bombed, if not to the tribal areas?

Don’t forget, Washington had it all figured out: their ally Gen Musharraf would put paid to them on the other side of the border, as this was Pakistani territory after all. After having threatened to “bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age”, they were allegedly paying him large sums of money to do the job so they could get on with business in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What was left entirely out of the equation was that the tribal areas had always for a number of reasons been largely beyond the writ of the Pakistani state; to expect them to suddenly be brought under unprecedented military control under the newly created situation in Afghanistan was seriously delusional. To compound the mistake, and while all of us were still recovering from the shock of the illegal and mendacious attack on Afghanistan, Iraq was invaded.

As a result, Taliban and Al Qaeda had a field day. Greatly strengthened, they decided to respond to Musharraf’s ineffectual pounding by declaring a war on the Pakistani state, which has since had to negotiate from a position of weakness with ruthless elements that have decimated traditional tribal leadership.

The situation today is that we have a democratically elected government that is dealing with a number of problems such as the judges issue and a food crisis. There is chaos to some degree, which the militants are taking advantage of. They sign agreements one day, and burn schools the next. Pakistan is vulnerable at this stage, and it is time for all political and societal forces to show a resolute front to those trying to blackmail the country.

While it is inadvisable to take military action in the tribal areas and Swat at Washington’s behest, as that would be counter-productive, Pakistan must meet the militant threat by mobilising political forces. There is no alternative to Fata becoming a part of the Frontier province and thus being brought into the political mainstream. Socio-economic uplift is all very well, but it is a long process. Pakistan needs an urgent solution.

The question is, considering the demographic changes that have taken place in the years since 2001, how strong is the support in the tribal areas for fusion with Pakistan? An even more vexed question that will have to be settled is: is Afghanistan willing to recognise the border with Pakistan? What about tribes with members on both sides of the border? These are the questions Pakistan has put of for a long time. Now it has to find answers in a hurry. It is a daunting task, but must be undertaken.

Chances of success are fair in the short run if, firstly, priority is given to the threat from extremists. Second, if foreign interference is kept to a minimum. Third, political parties are allowed to operate in Fata — not to forget, an ANP-supported candidate won in Bajaur last year. This would, to some extent, dilute the necessity of Washington dealing with the Pakistani president because he appoints the provincial governors, who appoint the PA in charge of the tribal areas. Then, the writ of the state is extended to Fata and Swat, which means no Sharia law and lastly, terrorist activities are severely dealt with. A recent poll has shown that support is seriously declining worldwide for such activities.

Sounds unlikely? That’s what people said about the Berlin wall coming down, but it happened because there was a will to make it happen. Those who witnessed and suffered the horrors of Partition didn’t do it for the sake of a Pakistan ruled by fanatics. No, the woods that are approaching won’t provide shade. They will darken the skies until no light can be seen.

The writer is a Cambridge-educated analyst based in Hamburg:

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