Pakistan is again at the crossroads. Either the country pulls out of the ‘War on Terror’ or it does not. As I have said several times earlier it cannot do both as it has been doing in the past. Whether Admiral Mullen was right about the Haqqani network being a “veritable arm of the ISI” or not is not really the point. In any case columnists like myself are not privy to special information so I cannot pronounce any judgment on this matter. What seems to be the more relevant point to me is that Pakistani authorities have taken no action in North Waziristan even when there is evidence, in the daily press and the electronic media, that many members of terrorist outfits do reside there; that suicide bombing training is given there and hostages are taken to private jails there. Action is not taken not because the army cannot do it but because it will not. And it will not because, as some people have bluntly stated, the United States will leave Afghanistan one day, the present Afghan government will fall, and the Taliban will take over the government of Kabul. In such a scenario the Haqqanis will be powerful players in Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army’s logic says it would be in Pakistan’s national interest to have friends among the winners.
This logic ignores some realities. First,if this was always the rationale for supporting some factions of the Taliban then Pakistan should not have taken financial help for its military to pretend to be an ally of NATO. True, some al Qaeda operatives were handed over to the Americans but it was never stated by any decision-maker of Pakistan in an official capacity that this country will also favour, or at least not fight against, the enemies of those whose allies they pretend to be. As this is a moral argument I know it will cut no ice with any decision-maker in the world of realpoltik whether Pakistani or American.
I now come to the second argument: that if the Taliban really take over in Afghanistan their influence will come to Pakistan and our society will become more Talibanised. The Taliban and allied Islamist groups have an ideology in which they fervently believe and which they want to impose upon the whole country. We have seen how they actually do impose it in the areas under their command whether it be Afghanistan, parts of Fata or Swat. Do we want this to happen or do we not? This question has never been seriously debated nor are our people aware of what aspects of their lives will change and how if this happens. What we need are clear cut blueprints of what will happen based on the past models of such rule and even interviews of Islamist thinkers. Since people respond emotionally to sacred terms and the rhetoric used by the Islamist thinkers abounds in such terms people appear to favour the Taliban’s discourse or, at least, so not oppose it. Perhaps this is because by Islamic law people often mean just ‘good governance’ and democracy is often considered synonymous with political and pecuniary corruption. So, even a referendum may not tell us what people really want but it is still better than not discussing the issue at all.
The third argument is that Pakistan has lost its sovereignty in parts of FATA, including North Waziristan, where it is not possible to move without the permission of local commanders. This does not seem to bother the media but it is a point worth making because people talk so much about the loss of our sovereignty vis-a-vis the US drones (which operate by our military’s permission and were praised by a major general recently for eliminating militant leaders). So, if militant networks operate here and in Afghanistan there is the possibility of losing FATA fully to them.
The fourth argument is that most Pakistanis respond in a hysterical manner to the Americans because of anti-Americanism in our society. Now, surely the Americans are here in their perceived national interest. But to overreact to their demands — and such demands are made of allies — means that we are not taking care of our interests. Our real interest is to take as much real civilian aid from the US to create the kind of infrastructure in medicine, education, security and transport which will bring about a real relief in the lives of our people. I know that most aid goes back to donor countries in the name of experts, monitors and consultants but still there is some left to make real changes not only in the bank balances of English-knowing Pakistanis but also in the country as a whole. Someone really farsighted has to channel the aid money into projects where the infrastructure improves and not into chimerical projects of which examples abound but it would be invidious to go into them.
The matter of anti-Americanism is not a small issue. If our media goes wild at every issue we will make it impossible for our government to seek aid and to change policies which keep changing every other day because reality shifts fast. What we have to tell our people is that Pakistan and the US have both sought their respective national interest in their past relationship. Pakistan joined Seato and Cento and gave bases to the American in the fifties and sixties so as to get military aid as the governments then considered India their enemy and for that they wanted military aid. Later, in 1971 the US did not actually send troops to help Pakistan but it did warn India against continuing the war on the western front after December 16. In the 1980s, Pakistan helped the US fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union in exchange for aid, for American silence on Pakistan’s development of a nuclear weapon and support to General Zia’s rule. And now Pakistan has, since Musharraf’s days, done what it thinks is enough to ensure the constant flow of military aid without actually eliminating the Taliban. These facts are not known to our people who think all their leaders are paid stooges of the Americans.
So now that we are on the crossroads let our leaders make an informed choice but, for a change, make it public and honest. Let its pros and cons be clearly stated. If we had always been neutral we could also have avoided all American wars in this area and not have terrorist groups on our soil to begin with. But then we would have made friends with India and not initiated wars ourselves. But now even if we opt for neutrality we would still have to impose the writ of the state in Pakistan. This would mean not having armed groups or no-go areas on our soil. But we do not seem to care about these things. Can it true that nobody really wants peace and nobody is afraid of the militants or even Talibanization and that I am out of tune with the real strategic minds of the country?
Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2011.
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