Feb 26, 2009

Critical exchanges on terrorism

Currently, we have two important interlocutors in Washington. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani.
Their visits may be independent of each other but are nevertheless critical for Pakistan to articulate its views on issues that merit immediate attention, and gain a better understanding on the Obama administration’s stance on them.
Obama has approached the issue of terrorism in general and Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular, with clinical objectivity However, once he reaches a conclusion, he will ensure its implementation with a resolve that could prove unpleasant for us.
We may not like it when foreign observers describe Pakistan as the ‘epicentre of global terrorism’ or an ‘international migraine’, but it is a fact that the country is causing global concern, even to our friends. This was corroborated at the 2009 US-Islamic World Forum, organised by the Washington-based Brookings Institution in Doha recently.
The Forum brought together representatives from Muslim countries and the US for three days of intense dialogue and discussion. While the agenda included items such as art and culture, the global economic crisis, governance, human development, science and technology, and energy security, Palestine and terrorism occupied centre-stage. The focus on Palestine was understandable but the manner in which the issue of terrorism and, by extension, Pakistan came to dominate the debate was disturbing.
It was widely observed that expectations raised in the wake of the orderly transition of power in Pakistan had not been met and Pakistan’s political elite had failed to demonstrate the required degree of maturity and tolerance. Resultantly, the country’s myriad problems had intensified and there was growing fear of the collapse of institutions. Words such as ‘collapse’, ‘disarray’ and ‘disintegration’ were used about Pakistan.
Similar voices of doom emerged in a report prepared by Gallup on what the Muslim world’s youth regard as priorities for the future. On every count, whether anti-American sentiments, confidence in national leaders and satisfaction with governance or belief in the future, the findings for Pakistan were abysmal, occasionally even worse than those for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. This added to the impression that Pakistan’s prospects of becoming a constructive team player in global affairs were receding rapidly.
Meanwhile, a report on The US and the Islamic World in 2025, from Thomas Fingar, former chairman, National Intelligence Council of the US, said that while the Islamic world should not be viewed as ‘a unitary actor, with undifferentiated interests, objectives or priorities’, the challenges for the US will not arise one at a time but ‘escalate simultaneously and exacerbate one another’. As regards South and Central Asia, the report cautioned that ‘US efforts to play a leading role will be viewed’ in the light of a latter-day ‘‘great game’ competition for resources and influence’.
The section on Pakistan carried the warning that ‘terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, especially in the region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, have enabled insurgents and terrorists to hone their skills and support the insurgency in Afghanistan … and make preparations to attack European and American targets’.
Pakistan also figured in the deliberations of a Forum task force, enabling one to stress that Pakistan-US relations should not be viewed through the prism of the war on terror, nor as one-dimensional. Terrorism was the outcome of faulty policies pursued not only by Pakistan, but by friends including the US. What we are seeing today is the inevitable ‘blowback’ from the world’s largest covert operation, which used Islamic extremism to galvanise the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Two clear messages emerged from the Doha exchanges. One, that it is not the US alone that is deeply worried about Pakistan; this concern is shared the world over. Even friends are losing patience with us, unable to understand if it is our inability or unwillingness to take on the extremists. Secondly, the Obama administration will devote far more of its resources and energies to the Pak-Afghan region, while intensifying its demands because expectations are higher and fears greater.
Holbrooke alluded to this when he claimed that ‘the militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots’. More significantly, Holbrooke remarked that the military was not totally in sync with Zardari’s anti-terrorism policies and that the US was ‘troubled and confused’ about the Swat deal — powerful evidence of growing unhappiness in Washington. Of course, we have to determine when and how to engage with the militants, but the Swat agreement has added to the concerns of major capitals.
All this makes it imperative that our representatives use the Washington talks to impress upon their interlocutors that terrorism cannot be countered by force alone, a point made recently by Obama when he said that the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the spread of extremism could not be contained by military means alone. He stressed ‘more effective coordination of our military efforts with diplomatic efforts, with development efforts … more effective coordination with our allies for us to be successful’.
This is the holistic approach that we should advocate, namely meaningful massive economic assistance, including greater market access and higher investment in employment generation and social sectors, coupled with military operations only when required. We must also continue to emphasise the regional approach which Obama did during his election campaign.
In other words, the problems need to be seen in the context of a regional approach, a point elaborated by Holbrooke when he described his exchanges in this region as ‘a manifestation of a new, intense, engaged diplomacy, designed to put Afghanistan and Pakistan into a larger regional context and move forward to engage other countries in the efforts to stabilise this incredibly volatile region’.

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