Saturday, April 11, 2009

How to stand up to Taliban in Pakistan?

The High Cost of Surrender
Irfan Hussain, Dawn, April 11, 2009

IMAGINE that a neighbouring country had killed a leading Pakistani politician, blown up a popular hotel in the middle of Islamabad and killed thousands of security personnel and innocent civilians in a series of bombing raids.

Imagine too that the enemy’s stated goal is nothing short of the capture of state power. Surely these acts would have constituted a declaration of war.

In this scenario, all political parties would have united to face this aggression. The media would have been full of patriotic songs and messages to urge the nation to support the government and the military in defending Pakistan. And above all, the armed forces would not have hesitated in playing their role.

Anybody suggesting a dialogue with the invader, or justifying the attack, would be denounced as a traitor and a defeatist.

So my question is why isn’t all this happening now? True, the aggressors are mostly home-grown terrorists, but the damage they have been inflicting is just as lethal as any bombs dropped from the skies. Their acts must, under any definition, count as an open declaration of civil war. And yet, wide sections of public opinion and the media are sitting on the fence. Many leading politicians have yet to publicly denounce the Taliban as enemies of the state. And the army has yet to demonstrate that it is serious about fighting this war.

Talking about the situation in Lahore last week, Aitzaz Ahsan came up with a unique solution. He cited an incident from Mughal history where the emperor had his elephant tethered to the ground to send out a signal to his forces that he would not retreat. His wavering army rallied to protect him and won the day.

According to Aitzaz, this is what the president should do: instead of staying in his bunker in Islamabad, he should set up his office in Fata, as these are federally administered territories, and he is the symbol of the federation. Simultaneously, the chief minister of the NWFP should shift his office to Swat.

According to Aitzaz, the army would then be forced to protect them and move forces to the battle zone.

Aitzaz is an old friend, and I respect his intellect and his integrity. However, I pointed out a fatal flaw in his proposal: it presupposes that the army would want to take the fight to the Taliban and protect political leaders. Thus far, our armed forces have not shown that they take the extremist threat seriously. According to a recent article in Der Spiegel, the respected German daily:

‘The (Pakistan) military avoids serious confrontation with the extremists. Many officers still do not see the Taliban as their enemy. Pakistan’s true enemy, in their view, is India… Quite a few officers say that the fight against terrorism in the north-western part of the country is being forced upon them by the Americans and that they are fighting the wrong war…. A Pakistani two-star general candidly explained the mindset of his fellow military commanders … noting that although the army is fighting the Taliban at the instructions of politicians, it also supports the militants….’

Given this ambiguity and duplicity, the success of Baitullah Mehsud and his fellow terrorists should come as no surprise. In fact, this military mindset mirrors what we see in the media, and reflects the confusion that has characterised and dogged our efforts to combat the extremist threat. In this, Aitzaz Ahsan is right: our security forces have a bunker mentality that has them cowering in their barracks while the jihadis mount a series of attacks. If we are to save Pakistan, the army will have to take the fight to the Taliban, and not simply wait for the next attack.

So far, with the exception of the PPP and the MQM, most political parties have avoided taking a clear position. While they may occasionally condemn individual atrocities, they fall short of openly identifying the enemy. One senior journalist in Islamabad told me that when reporters seek an interview with Nawaz Sharif, they must first agree not to ask any direct questions about the Taliban. If this is true, it shows that the PML-N leader does not want to either condemn or support the jihadis openly. Being a canny politician, he does not wish to alienate his core support among reactionary elements. Nor does he want to upset Washington. But wars are not won through such tactical hedging.

While this jockeying for advantage goes on among politicians, millions of Pakistanis are paying the price for this procrastination. Thousands have died in terrorist attacks because the state has failed in its duty to protect its citizens. If somebody wants to know the cost of defeat, he has only to view the video of the 17-year old girl being flogged in Swat. Many have questioned the timing of the video’s release, claiming that it is an attempt to sabotage the ‘peace deal’ between the NWFP government and the Taliban. If it is, I would be happy to see this disgraceful instrument of surrender torn up.

One positive outcome of this atrocity coming to public knowledge is that it has opened many eyes to the reality of the Taliban, and what they represent. The flogging has ignited protests across the country. I participated in one in Lahore last week. I was glad to see that apart from many old friends, a large number of young people and students also took part in the march. One popular slogan was: ‘Pakistan kay do shaitan: fauj aur uskay Taliban’ (‘Pakistan’s two demons: the army and its Taliban’). My favourite banner at the rally asked: ‘$12 billion in aid to fight terrorism. Where is it?’ Where indeed?

During Richard Holbrooke’s recent visit to Pakistan, our government responded to the new Obama plan to fight the Taliban with an ill-concealed resentment.

Clearly, the establishment is not enjoying having its reluctance to fight held up under a spotlight. As in the past, it wants the promised flow of dollars to remain unimpeded by any serious questions about its will to carry the fight to the Taliban. Our television warriors echo this sentiment, and demand that the country should not follow ‘American dictates’.

But as we are about to discover, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

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