Nov 4, 2009

Confronting the challenge

By Talat Masood

As an all-out military campaign in South Waziristan proceeds to establish government control over the area, the Taliban-Jihadis combined have responded by wrecking havoc through their retaliatory terrorist attacks in the heartland of Pakistan. This poses a serious challenge because the militants want to demoralise the public and spread despondency to build pressure on the government to stop the military operation. It is, however, not an unexpected development and the political leadership, instead of bunkering themselves, should lead from the front and give the nation confidence and resolve to face these testing times. What is, nevertheless, encouraging that public opinion has of late sharply reacted against violent militant groups that are indulging in these activities and their support is dwindling. No wonder the spokesperson for the Taliban had to say that the Peshawar blast was not their doing. Public backlash should have been capitalised to further isolate the militants, but this would be asking for too much from our politicians.

Indeed, for the first time in history, we as a nation are at war with ourselves and if our leaders do not change the country could be in the throes of a social upheaval. The insurgency in South Wazirstan and other parts of the tribal belt has both an ideological and sub-nationalist content as well as it is a class struggle. The Tehrik-e-Taliban is not a coherent unified group but each entity, especially the Mehsud tribe, are a tough group of seasoned fighters joined by the Uzbeks, who have no where to go but fight to the end. The problem is we do not have many cards to play. What the people need is forceful and effective leadership that lays down a clear direction and gives hope.

Unfortunately, at this critical juncture our political leadership is feeble, inexperienced, lacks credibility and has bunkered itself. The role of the opposition so far has been ambivalent and somewhat disappointing. The military, fortunately, has good leadership but it is overstretched and the support necessary in the follow up to the military operations by the civilian administration is weak. In these circumstances, how best can the country steer itself from this quagmire?

In our current predicament, one option may be is to form a broad-based government of national unity. The national unity government would be in a better position to meet the needs of the military and provide full support to it. It is also crucial that the militants realise that the nation is united in fighting them and rejects their violent and coercive ideology. We also need a national government because of the requirement of building a national consensus on major national issues whether these pertain to combating militancy, constitutional issues, economy, and relations with US and India. There has to be consistency in policy for sustaining them for a long period without which Pakistan cannot extricate itself from the current downward spiral. National government, apart from having an appropriate representation of political parties, could also include one or two members of the civil society and the industrial sector as advisors, the best that country can offer.

The cabinet has to be drastically reduced as has been suggested by several columnists earlier and should represent the best from the political parties. The defence committee of the cabinet should meet at regular intervals to review the situation and provide full support to the requirements of the armed forces. The present committee lacks secretarial support which should be provided to make it a more effective body and act as a war council.

There are serious matters concerning displaced persons that have to be addressed at the highest level. Then there are the long term issues of rehabilitating and assimilating the militants in society. The immediate question is: how do wehandle the hundreds of Taliban and jihadis that are being taken in custody? What would be their status and under what law will they be tried and what would be their ultimate disposal?

The other significant issue is having a comprehensive plan for those areas that are being cleared by the security forces.

Is the government finally clear as to how it plans to restructure and reorganise FATA? Does the plan broadly reflect the thinking and aspirations of the people, because the future of that area would depend how the tribal belt is integrated politically and economically with mainstream Pakistan.

What is required is a multi-faceted approach that is dominated by a socio-economic and political (and less of the military) dimension. The army is already applying the minimum force principle in dealing with the insurgents and focuses only on those that are challenging the state. Now it is for the federal government to implement the politico-economic agenda and create opportunities of education and employment for the young people to draw them away from militancy.

All this effort could be diluted if we do not guard that insurgency in Afghanistan does not continue to bleed over in Pakistan. It seems we have not learnt from past experience and our border control is a serious problem. We have given no serious thought to resolving it apart from making statements. Afghanistan is not going to stabilise for years and Pakistan's future cannot hinge on it forever. We have to create security, legal and administrative mechanisms to insulate ourselves from the turbulence of Afghanistan while maintaining good relations and protecting our national interests. Of course it is not easy to achieve this, but Iran has done a far better job than us to prevent the spill-over from Afghanistan and there are lessons that we can draw from their experience.

Cooperation with the US is crucial in fighting the insurgency as it will be a major player in the region for the foreseeable future but over-reliance on it would be counter-productive. The American approach tends to be heavy-handed and there is not sufficient sensitivity and understanding of the complexity of our current situation.

Above all we have rewritten our national security doctrine that does not support militants and acts as a catalyst for internal revolution – a great impediment against economic development and social progress. In the final analysis, we have to find our own well-considered solutions to the problems we face.

The writer is a retired lieutenant-general. Email:

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