Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Ahead of Lisbon, soul-searching in Pakistan
For all of former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf’s faults, the one thing you would have to give him credit for is the emergence of a free press. It’s every bit as fearless, and questioning as its counterpart across the border in India, sometimes even stepping over the line, as some complain.
Indeed east of the Suez, and perhaps all the way to Japan, it would be hard to find a media that is as unrestrained as in India and Pakistan, which is even more remarkable in the case of Pakistan given the threat posed by a deadly militancy.
And so in the run-up to the Lisbon summit where NATO leaders will decide, among other things, the way forward in Afghanistan, a few Pakistanis have spoken forcefully. They touch upon Pakistan’s role as a conflicted ally in the war there and the extreme danger that the state itself faces now because of its refusal, or inability to break ranks with militant organisations. More striking, they challenge some long-held beliefs relating to India and Pakistan, in ways you would think was unthinkable.
One of them is an influential Pakistani newspaper editor, who according to Arnaud de Borchgrave in a piece carried by the Atlantic Council, has just made the rounds of Washington, delivering a stunning indictment of some of the players involved in the Afghan conflict. He can’t be named and his comments were off-the-record, but meant for public use, Borchgrave says.
He has listed some of them, and I can do no better than sum them up here, given they speak so directly to the issues at the heart of a troubled region.
- All four wars between India and Pakistan (1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999) were provoked by Pakistan.
– There is no Indian threat to Pakistan, except for what is manufactured by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
– Washington says Pakistan must do more to flesh out insurgent safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. As long as the Taliban were the illegitimate children of ISI that was possible. But Taliban are now the enemies of Pakistan, irrespective of whether they are Pakistani Taliban or Afghan Taliban. Assets have become liabilities. We’ve lost 3,000 Pakistani military KIA (killed in action) All the jihadist terrorist organizations were created by Pakistan — and they have now turned against us.
– Pakistan has a big stake in Afghanistan. And America’s own exit strategy is entirely dependent on Pakistan. Our army has a chokehold on your supply lines through Pakistan. And Pakistan wants to be the U.S. proxy in Afghanistan. ISI wants to make sure Pakistan doesn’t become a liability in Afghanistan.
Borchgrave quotes the Pakistani journalist as saying that the attacks on trucks carrying supplies for NATO were the work of the ISI, although they were made to look like Taliban guerrillas had carried them out. The idea was obviously to show to the Americans they couldn’t operate in Afghanistan without Pakistani support. Yes, anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan and it has been that way since Washington turned away from region once the covert war it fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan was over. But at the same time, the one thing a large number of Pakistanis want is a U.S. visa, the newspaper editor says.
And for a large number of Pakistanis, the war against extremism is not just a Western war, but their war too. Pakistanis, especially in the cities, are not interested in Al Qaeda’s narrative of jihad for a global caliphate, and they are just as outraged by public whippings of girls as anyone else in the Western world. America must understand that Pakistan, 63 years after it was carved out of British India as a state for Muslims, is still a work in progress, the journalist said. It would help if India and Pakistan buried their feud over Kashmir which began almost immediately after its birth as this is something that keeps the Pakistani army going. “The reason it continues in an off-and-on mode is because that’s what the Pakistani army wants. The army’s corporate interests are at stake. If the crisis is resolved, the army loses its narrative for dominating the economy.”
Raza Rumi picks up the thread in a piece castigating the Pakistani elite for harbouring visions of strategic grandeur while the ground slipped away from them. Pakistan is a strategic country , every third man is a strategic expert and thanks to the “militarisation of the Pakistani mind” , every twist and turn is seen as part of a some larger, unexplained strategy. So at the moment, Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic elite are celebrating the failure of America”s war in Afghanistan, seeing it as a vindication of their stand that you can’t win without Pakistan and the Taliban on board.
But Rumi in the piece in The Express Tribune asks if a Taliban regime, even if it is confined to southern Afghanistan, is really in Pakistan’s interest. First off, has the Taliban been delinked from al Qaeda, whose ideology most Pakistanis abhor ? Second what about the Pakistan Taliban which has declared war on the Pakistani state ? How do the Pakistani Taliban, spawned or atleast inspired by the Afghan Taliban, fit into a post-war settlement ? And what happens to the larger issue of extremism and sectarianism in Pakistani society, arguably a more serious threat to the country than even loss of control in Afghanistan ? A Taliban regime nextdoor with its extreme interpretation of Islam, can only embolden further those elements determined to reshape a modern nation of 180 million people after their own, narrow image.. Again and again, the argument goes back to the original : you can’t run with hares and hunt with the hounds. Rumi writes :
The Jekyll-Hyde nature of state engagement with the issue of militancy is not sustainable. Above all, Pakistan’s tottering democracy is going to be further strained if the tide of Talibanisation gets out of control. …….How can the good Taliban in the neighborhood be good for the country? We are in an intractable situation, victims of our history and geography.
Pakistan economy is in doldrums, the youth in despair as jobs are scarce. The rich won’t pay taxes and public resources are being squandered. But Pakistan’s strategic community want the country to pause and celebrate the current set of circumstances in which India has been reduced to a secondary player in Afghanistan as America looks to a negotiated end to the nine-year war, a path than must run through Islamabad. Is that something to celebrate or are Pakistan’s strategic experts suffering from delusions of grandeur, Rumi asks.