Mar 14, 2009

Flawed strategy on the militants

Zafar Hilaly

President Barak Obama's remarks on March 7 on the possibility of reconciliation with the "good Taliban" opposed to Al Qaeda coincided with his administration's criticism of the Pakistani government's own reconciliation deal with the Taliban in Swat. This happened despite Pakistani officials' assurance to the US that the was not surrender but an attempt to drive a wedge between hardcore Taliban and local Islamists.

The ANP has handed over the Swat valley to the Taliban while boasting that the deal was meant in fact meant to drive a wedge between the two groups of militants. But the leader of the Taliban (Fazlullah) is the son-in-law of the leader of the local Islamists (Sufi Mohammad). Such chicanery is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully, Mr Obama will heed the advice of the Taliban spokesman who, in so many words, told him to stop daydreaming.

There is still time for Washington and Islamabad to get it right. Al Qaeda is the only terror organisation that has a global reach and a global agenda. It is the only terror group that can realistically aspire to the possession of nuclear weapons which, as it happens, are located where it is headquartered--Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan is the country where it feels it is most likely to prevail against its foreign and local enemies. And why not? The Pakistani military is ill equipped, and lacks a coherent strategy to take on the Taliban in difficult terrain, the civil leadership is incompetent, unpopular and divided, the economy is teetering and, to cap it all, America is hated to an extent that is irrational.

To make matters worse the middle classes of the country, to which the civil and military structure mostly belong, believe that the US will be driven out of Afghanistan by the irresistible combination of the Taliban, a high body count and America's economic woes; or when the already overstretched US is distracted by Iran much as the Americans were by Iraq. And instead of preparing for the day when Pakistan may need to confront the Taliban on its own, a daunting challenge considering how badly Pakistan is faring in the war despite liberal access to US coffers, they think that a few Swat-like deals with the "good" Taliban will suffice. "All will be well between Pakistan and the Taliban once the US withdraws from Afghanistan" is a common refrain.

Asked about the Taliban/Al Qaeda agenda of wresting Kashmir from India and despatching Israel to oblivion and the possible disaster that it may wreak on an Al Qaeda headquartered Pakistan, people prefer to dismiss it as American propaganda and instead allude to Pakistan's nuclear weapons as the cure-all for foreign threats. (Hardly a "cure-all" more likely an "end-all" as the nuclear explosion will need to occur in Pakistan if Al Qaeda is the target.)

In fact, a policy of appeasing the Taliban already seems underway, as the Swat agreement, the FATA agreements of the past, and the military's not-so-secret dialoguing with the Taliban suggest. The desire to keep open the doors of reconciliation with the Taliban, and the nod and a wink policy towards the Taliban have earned mistrust among friends abroad. But at home it resonates with the public. They, and certainly the military, see India as the main enemy and a the prospect of a two-front war is to be avoided at all costs. Thus if the choice is between the Taliban, the erstwhile friend, and India, the eternal, implacable foe, it is a no-brainer. India foolishly has reinforced the India phobia by lining up virtually its entire army on Pakistan's borders. The US too did itself no favour by treating Pakistan, and particularly the military, as an object to be used and then discarded when no longer required. This rankles with Pakistanis; being made a fool of is more hurtful for people than being abandoned.

Our present policy of appeasement of the Taliban brought on by a visceral antipathy for India and, to a lesser extent, the US, suggests that many Pakistanis would be willing to hitch their shalwars up to their ankles, lock up their wives and daughters and accept Taliban-like rule, if that were to become a reality. That kind of passivity and collaboration enabled a relatively paltry number of British to hang on to the subcontinent for as long as 200 years. Other people, reared in state schools and on madrasas with curricula designed by openly fundamentalist regimes or closet-fundamentalists, would not only welcome the Taliban but probably rush to augment their numbers. And while a tiny few with visas, and a portion of the $80-130 billion held abroad by Pakistanis, will flee to whichever country will have them. The rest, the vast majority that is, will perforce remain at home sullen, cringing and fearful, putting up with the antics of the Vice and Virtue Departments of the Taliban lest they be taken for slaughter to the scores of Qurbani Chowks that will blossom in every city.

To many the picture painted above may sound alarmist and, hopefully, matters will never reach such a pass. But that, alas, is similar to what happened in Afghanistan once the Taliban seized power and made gladiatorial spectacles of whippings, amputations and executions. Of course, some will say that "Pakistan is not Afghanistan," and dismiss the possibility of a Taliban takeover. It is true that Pakistan is not Afghanistan; it is actually an even more alluring prize for the Taliban and Al Qaeda than Afghanistan. Once harnessed to their cause, Pakistan would greatly help Al Qaeda in realising its declared goal, that of creation of a World Islamic Caliphate.

Nor is such a scenario unrealistic, considering how poorly we are faring in the war against the Taliban, who have shown that they can strike at will, and as easily, next to the Presidency in Islamabad, as the remotest border post. Indeed, such is their reach that normal life is becoming difficult for the citizenry and for government to function smoothly. Mr Zardari is hunkered down in what must be the largest war bunker in the world, the Presidency. Mr Gilani, is being braver, though he has less to worry about because, for the moment at least and till he starts acting like a prime minister, he is too inconsequential a target. Meanwhile, vast sums that would have been better utilised for the benefit of the populace in the form of socio-economic development and to alleviate poverty which, like starvation, is now endemic is being spent on fighting the insurgents. Soon the war will prove prohibitively expensive.

Notwithstanding the dire threat posed by the ongoing insurgency; the military sticks to its unfathomable logic that India will momentarily attack Pakistan and risk a nuclear holocaust. Hence, all 600,000 of the Pakistani Army (minus the 100,000 in FATA), replete with tanks, APCs, anti-tank guns, artillery batteries, surface-to-surface missiles, helicopters, with the air force on call and a plethora of nuclear-tipped missiles to boot, guards the fenced border with India unless it is to prevent a spy or more vault the fence. A strategy somewhat akin to that of the British garrison in Singapore during World War II, which had its heavy guns pointing out to sea while the conquering Japanese came overland across Malaya. It is said, and rightly so, that "those whom the gods want to destroy, they first make mad."

The only bright spot in this otherwise gloomy picture is the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still beatable. In the words of Bruce Reidel, currently responsible for devising Washington's strategy for the war, "a wise and smart policy" can defeat them. To fashion such a policy for Pakistan must surely also be our foremost priority.

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