The reason why there is so much despondency in Pakistan is because there is no road map to get out of the so-called War on Terror – a nomenclature that even the Obama Administration has discarded as being a negative misnomer. To cure the patient the diagnosis has to be accurate, otherwise the wrong medicine can sometimes kill the patient. In order to find the cure, first six myths that have been spun around the US-led “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) have to be debunked.
Myth No. 1: This is Pakistan’s war
Since no Pakistani was involved in 9/11 and the CIA-trained Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, how does it concern us? It is only when General Musharraf buckled under US pressure and sent our troops into Waziristan in late 2003-early 2004 that Pakistan became a war zone. It took another three years of the Pakistan army following the same senseless tactics as used by the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan (aerial bombardment) plus the slaughter at Lal Masjid, for the creation of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). If our security forces are being targeted today by the Taliban and their suicide bombers, it is because they are perceived to be proxies of the US army. Iran is ideologically opposed to both Al Qaeda and the Taliban yet why are its security forces not attacked by terrorists? The answer is because their President does not pretend to be a bulwark against Islamic extremism in return for US dollars and support.
Michael Scheuer (ex-CIA officer and author of the book Imperial Hubris), writing in The Washington Post in April 2007, cited Musharraf’s loyalty to the US even when it went against Pakistan’s national interests by giving two examples: the first was Musharraf helping the US in removing a pro-Pakistan Afghan government and replacing it with a pro-Indian one; and, the second, for sending Pakistani troops into the tribal areas and turning the tribesmen against the Pakistan army. To fully understand Musharraf’s treachery against Pakistan, it is important to know that almost a 100,000 troops were sent into the tribal areas to target around 1000 suspected Al-Qaeda members – thus earning the enmity of at least 1.5 million armed local tribals in the 7 tribal agencies of Pakistan.
The most shameful aspect of the lie that this is our war is that the government keeps begging the US for more dollars stating that the war is costing the country more than the money it is receiving from the US. If it is our war, then fighting it should not be dependent on funds and material flowing from the US. If it is our war, why do we have no control over it? If it is our war, then why is the US government asking us to do more?
Myth No. 2: This is a war against Islamic extremists ó an ideological war against radical Islam
Was the meteoric rise of Taliban due to their religious ideology? Clearly not, because the Mujahideen were equally religious – Gulbadin Hekmatyar (supported by the ISI) was considered an Islamic fundamentalist. In fact, the reason the Taliban succeeded where the Mujahideen warlords failed, was because they established the rule of law – the Afghans had had enough of the power struggle between the warlord factions that had destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure and killed over 100,000 people.
If the Pushtuns of the tribal area wanted to adopt the Taliban religious ideology then surely they would have when the latter was in power in Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001. Yet there was no Talibanisation in the tribal areas. Interestingly, the only part of Pakistan where the Taliban had an impact was in Swat where Sufi Mohammad started the Shariat Movement. The reason was that while there was rule of law (based on the traditional jirga system) in the tribal areas, the people of Swat had been deprived of easy access to justice ever since the traditional legal system premised on Qazi courts was replaced by Pakistani laws and judicial system, first introduced in 1974. The murder rate shot up from 10 per year in 1974 to almost 700 per year by 1977, when there was an uprising against the Pakistani justice system. The Taliban cashed in on this void of justice to rally the poorer sections of Swat society just as they had attracted the Afghans in a situation of political anarchy and lawlessness in Afghanistan. It is important to make this distinction because the strategy to bring peace must depend on knowing your enemy. Michael Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the US is facing the same Pushtun insurgency that was faced by the Soviets in Afghanistan. According to him, as long as NATO is in Afghanistan, the Taliban will get a constant supply of men from the 15
million Pushtun population of Afghanistan and the 25 million Pushtuns of Pakistan. In other words, this Talibanisation is not so much religion-driven as politically-motivated. So the solution to the problem in the tribal belt today does not lie in religion and “moderate” Islam but in a political settlement.
Myth No. 3: If we keep fighting the US war, the super power will bail us out financially through aid packages.
Recently, the Government’s Adviser on Finance stated that the war on terror has cost Pakistan $35 billion while the country has received only $11 billion assistance from the US. I would go a step further and say that this aid is the biggest curse for the country. Not only is it “blood money” for our army killing our own people (there is no precedent for this) but also nothing has destroyed the self-esteem of this country as this one factor. Moreover, there is no end in sight as our cowardly and compromised leadership is ordered to “do more” for the payments made for their services. Above all, this aid and loans are like treating cancer with disprin. It enables the government to delay the much needed surgery of reforms (cutting expenditures and raising revenues); and meanwhile the cancer is spreading and might become terminal.
Myth No. 4: That the next terrorist attack on the US will come from the tribal areas.
First, there is an assumption, based purely on conjecture, that the Al Qaeda leadership is in the tribal areas. In fact, this leadership could well be in the 70 % of Afghan territory that the Taliban control. More importantly, given the growing radicalisation of the educated Muslim youth – in major part because of the continuing US partiality towards Israeli occupation of Palestinian land – why can it not follow that the next terrorist attack on the US could come either from the Middle East or from the marginalised and radicalised Muslims of Europe, motivated by perceived injustices to Islam and the Muslim World.
Myth No. 5: That the ISI is playing a double game and if Pakistan did more the war could be won.
If Talibanisation is growing in Pakistan because of the covert support of ISI in the tribal areas, then surely the growing Taliban control over Afghanistan (70 % of the territory) must be with NATO’s complicity? Surely a more rational understanding would be to see that the strategy being employed is creating hatred against the US and its collaborators. Aerial bombardment and its devastating collateral damage is the biggest gift the US has given to the Taliban. According to official reports, out of the 60 drone attacks conducted between 14 January 2006-April 8 2009, only 10 were on target, killing 14 alleged Al Qaeda. In the process almost 800 Pakistani civilians have been killed, while many lost their homes and limbs.
Despite its military surge effort, the US will eventually pack up and leave like the Soviets, but the “do more” mantra could end up destroying the Pakistan army – especially the ISI which is being targeted specifically for the mess created by the Bush Administration in Afghanistan.
Myth No. 6: That Pakistan could be Talibanised with their version of Islam.
Both Musharraf and Zardari have contributed to this myth in order to get US backing and dollars. Firstly there is no such precedent in the 15-hundred years of Islamic history of a theocracy like that of the Taliban, outside of the recent Taliban period of rule in Afghanistan. However, as mentioned earlier, the Taliban’s ascendancy in Afghanistan was not a result of their religious ideology but their ability to establish order and security in a war-devastated and anarchic Afghanistan.
In Swat, the present mess has arisen because of poor governance issues. Also, it was the manner in which the government handled the situation – simply sending in the army rather than providing better governance – that created space for the Taliban. Just as in Balochistan (under Musharraf) when the army was sent in rather than the Baloch being given their economic and provincial rights, similarly the army in Swat aggravated the situation and the present mess was created.
What Pakistan has to worry about is the chaos and anarchy that are going to stem from the radicalisation of our people because of the failure of successive governments to govern effectively and justly. Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God, gives details of fundamentalist movements that turned militant when they were repressed. Ideas should be fought with counter ideas and dialogue, not guns. Allama Iqbal was able to deal with fundamentalism through his knowledge and intellect. The slaughter of the fundamentalists of Lal Masjid did more to fan extremism and fanaticism than any other single event.
Pakistan is staring down an abyss today and needs to come up with a sovereign nationalist policy to deal with the situation. If we keep on following dictation from Washington, we are doomed. There are many groups operating in the country under the label of “Taliban”. Apart from the small core of religious extremists, the bulk of the fighting men are Pushtun nationalists. Then there are the fighters from the old Jihadi groups. Moreover, the Taliban are also successfully exploiting the class tensions by appealing to the have-nots. But the most damaging for Pakistan are those groups who are being funded primarily from two external sources: first, by those who want to see Pakistan become a “failed state”; and, second, by those who wish to see the US bogged down in the Afghan quagmire.
What needs to be done: A two-pronged strategy is required – focusing on a revised relationship with the US and a cohesive national policy based on domestic compulsions and ground realities.
President Obama, unlike President Bush, is intelligent and has integrity. A select delegation of local experts on the tribal area and Afghanistan should make him understand that the current strategy is a disaster for both Pakistan and the US; that Pakistan can no longer commit suicide by carrying on this endless war against its own people; that we will hold dialogue and win over the Pushtuns of the tribal area and make them deal with the real terrorists while the Pakistan army is gradually pulled out.
At the same time, Pakistan has to move itself to ending drone attacks if the US is not prepared to do so. Closure of the drone base within Pakistan is a necessary beginning as is the need to create space between ourselves and the US, which will alter the ground environment in favour of the Pakistani state. It will immediately get rid of the fanaticism that creates suicide bombers as no longer will they be seen to be on the path to martyrdom by bombing US collaborators. Within this environment a consensual national policy to combat extremism and militancy needs to be evolved centring on dialogue, negotiation and assertion of the writ of the state. Where force is required the state must rely on the paramilitary forces, not the army. Concomitantly, Pakistan needs serious reforms. First and foremost we have to give our people access to justice at the grassroots level – that is, revive the village jury/Panchayat system. Only then will we rid ourselves of the oppressive “thana-kutchery” culture which compels the poor to seek adjudication by the feudals, tribal leaders, tumandars and now by the Taliban also – thereby perpetuating oppression of the dispossessed, especially women.
Second, unless we end the system of parallel education in the country where the rich access private schools and a different examination system while the poor at best only have access to a deprived public school system with its outmoded syllabus and no access to employment. That is why the marginalised future generations are condemned to go to madrassahs which provide them with food for survival and exploit their pent up social anger. We need to bring all our educational institutions into the mainstream with one form of education syllabus and examination system for all – with madrassahs also coming under the same system even while they retain their religious education specialisation.
Third, the level of governance needs to be raised through making appointments on merit in contrast to the worst type of cronyism that is currently on show. Alongside this, a cutting of expenditures is required with the leadership and the elite leading by example through adoption of an austere lifestyle. Also, instead of seeking aid and loans to finance the luxurious lifestyle of the elite, the leadership should pay taxes, declare its assets and bring into the country all money kept in foreign banks abroad. All “benami” transactions, assets and bank accounts should be declared illegal. I believe we will suddenly discover that we are actually quite a self-sufficient country.
Fourth, the state has to widen its direct taxation net and cut down on indirect taxation where the poor subsidise the rich. If corruption and ineptitude are removed, it will be possible for the state to collect income tax more effectively.
A crucial requirement for moving towards stability would be the disarming of all militant groups – which will a real challenge for the leadership but here again, the political elite can lead by example and dismantle their show of guards and private forces.
Finally, fundamentalism should be fought intellectually with sensitivity shown to the religious and heterogeneous roots of culture amongst the Pakistani masses. Solutions have to be evolved from within the nation through tolerance and understanding. Here, we must learn from the Shah of Iran’s attempts to enforce a pseudo-Western identity onto his people and its extreme backlash from Iranian society.
The threat of extremism is directly related to the performance of the state and its ability to deliver justice and welfare to its people.