Feb 21, 2009

US-Pak perceptions of anti-terror war should not differ

The US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr Richard Holbrooke, has told a meeting in Washington that the “militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots” and that “the US was troubled and confused about the development in the Swat valley”. Some other reports appearing in the press on Friday implied that Mr Holbrooke was “not sure if the Pakistan military and the ISI backed President Zardari’s commitment to eradicate terrorist sanctuaries from the NWFP”.In Pakistan, most TV channels have expressed anger at the American reaction of scepticism over the latest accord reached between the TNSM’s Sufi Muhammad and the NWFP government, accusing the western media of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Reaction to Mr Holbrooke’s observations may be expected to be on the same lines, but what one may ignore while blasting Mr Holbrooke is fair comment on Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism, which binds it to other nations trying to defend themselves collectively against it. And in this context, the truth of the matter is that the Swat accord has not satisfied many even inside Pakistan although the ANP has been generally supported in its effort to find a solution to the Swat situation in the face of the failure of the purely military operations there.External scepticism about “peace accords” reached inside Pakistan’s tribal areas has evolved over a period of time as the accords were violated by the terrorists, confirming the internationally held view that you can’t negotiate with terrorists from a position of weakness. Any temporary improvement of the situation may persuade the terrorists to come to the negotiating table but only for gaining time to regroup and strike again. Some of the negative reaction to the Swat accord inside Pakistan is also based on this experience. As for Mr Holbrooke’s reported opinion that the military in Pakistan may be unwilling to back President Zardari’s approach to terrorism, it seems that, while the president and the army may be marching more or less in lockstep, the ANP government has often expressed doubt about the will of the army to fight terrorism.It is, in fact, in the realm of “threat perception” that there are persistent differences between the Pakistani military and the international community. Mr Holbrooke has expressed the general western view that “militants involved in 9/11, the Mumbai attacks and unrest in Swat have common roots”. The world is focused on the likely presence of Al Qaeda leadership inside Pakistan. Of course, we cannot deny that Al Qaeda cadres are based in our tribal areas and are frequently killed by drone attacks. But it doesn’t matter if Pakistan repeatedly says that the drone attacks kill only local people. The fact is that Pakistan doesn’t feel, or has chosen to rationalise, the threat it should actually feel from Al Qaeda.For the world outside, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are coextensive and work in tandem. There is a fourth element too, that of the non-Pashtun Punjabi militants who once worked under Al Qaeda when the latter was fighting the Soviet Union and was loved all over the world. The Pakistan army, and most politicians, do not see these elements as having sprung from the same root. Policy articulations, whenever they have come from the various state functionaries, separate Al Qaeda from the Taliban. The former are elements ousted from Afghanistan “who will return to their homeland after the Americans are gone from there”. Al Qaeda is a global entity which has to be fought by “resolving issues that constitute an injustice to the global Muslim community”. Pakistan divides the Taliban and identifies the Pakistani Taliban as elements that have arisen in sympathy for their Afghan brethren or have been alienated by collateral damage. Finally, the Pakistani national security establishment links its threat perception to a serious Indian presence in Afghanistan and thus subordinates all its policies against terrorism to the Indian factor. The mainstream political parties had tried to change this threat perception in their Charter of Democracy but have beaten a retreat from it after the Mumbai attacks and the reactive upsurge of Pakistan’s India-driven nationalism.

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