December issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Following his widely appreciated study, Frontline Pakistan, Zahid Hussain has produced a timely and authentic work on the rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan and the threat they pose to the US and Pakistan — and, one might add, to the world in general.

The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan — And How It Threatens America is a well-argued plea for a critical appraisal of the current efforts to defeat and eliminate Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces by killing their leaders/commanders because these plans are doomed to fail. They cannot succeed because they ignore the ability of the militant groups to regenerate and start attracting recruits that do not require visas to get to their targets in Europe and America.

But first a brief recounting of the genesis of the problem. The US contributed to Al-Qaeda’s success in regrouping in safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt by abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviet pull-out in 1989. It did something similar after the October 2001 raids on Afghanistan, when it diverted its attention and energy to Iraq. Further, its excessive reliance on drone attacks, instead of destroying the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal belt, only increased the latter’s ability to find new fighters and new commanders. Thus, the US finds itself enmeshed in a war many military experts consider unwinnable.

Pakistan is also facing a debacle of its own making. Its troubles began with its birth as a state. The seeds of religious militancy sown by Zia-ul-Haq found fertile soil in Pakistan’s tribal belt because of this state’s long-running contest with the forces of religious extremism on the one hand and India on the other. At present, Pakistan is under threat of armed retaliation if Mumbai is repeated, or if someone succeeds where Faisal Shahzad failed.

After taking note of the various factors that helped the militant genie come out of the bottle, Zahid Hussain comes down heavily — and with compelling logic — on General Musharraf for first ignoring the consolidation of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan, and then for opting for a self-contradictory policy of giving up Al-Qaeda (after 9/11 and under a US ultimatum) while protecting the Taliban. Worse, he tried to appease the militants by signing a series of peace deals — with Nek Mohammad, Baitullah Mehsud and broader compacts, such as the Waziristan and the Swat accords. The militants broke each and every one of these accords and used the fighters released from Pakistan’s custody and the sacks of dollars paid by Islamabad in reparations to increase their attacks on the coalition forces in Afghanistan and launch their plans to take over Pakistan as they had seized power in Afghanistan.

Even after Musharraf awakened to the Taliban threat after two attempts on his life in December 2003 and an attack on then interior minister Aftab Sherpao at his home in Charsadda, which showed a basic flaw in the appeasement policy, the government failed to take a clear stand against the Pakistani militants. According to Hussain, “The administration and the military failed to appreciate the degree to which the rising extremism among the Pakistani militants had found a life of its own.” Musharraf had no strategy and he kept vacillating between appeasing the militants and fighting them.

The author has done well to throw light on the reasons for Musharraf’s costly attitude. Apart from the problem of presiding over an Islamic state, he wanted to save the tribal militants for deniable expeditions against the neighbours. He shared General Orakzai’s opposition to operations against the Pakistani insurgents and took the latter to Washington to convince Bush of their assessment. He realised the drone attacks were increasing the tribesmen’s hostility to both the US and Pakistan and was afraid of admitting this, going to the extent of taking responsibility for civilian deaths caused in a drone attack.

Hussain is convinced the Lal Masjid disaster was a turning point in the fight against the Taliban. Months before the July 2007 showdown in Islamabad, Sherpao had warned of an emerging alliance between the Lal Masjid clerics and Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah of Swat. After the killing of Ghazi Abdul Rashid, both Zawahiri and Mehsud vowed war against the Pakistan army. They brought the fight to the heart of Pakistan. Between July 2007 and July 2008, more than 88 suicide bombings left 1,181 dead and 3,209 wounded. Further, over 40 commanders (including two Waziris who had been warring against the Mehsuds) joined a unified force, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, under Mehsud’s leadership. Hussain thinks all this was motivated by anger at the killing of Ghazi Abdul Rashid. Maybe the militant alliance’s ferociousness was born out of frustration at a serious setback to their designs to capture Islamabad in a swift swoop.

Bringing his study up to the middle of 2010, Hussain sums up the dilemma the US and Pakistan face: no clear end to the conflict in Afghanistan is in sight. Karzai is unlikely to fulfill the mission assigned to him — the establishment of an effective Afghan government. Washington has no clear strategy and it “knows neither how to end the conflict nor how to continue an increasingly unpopular war that cannot be won.” This assessment is unlikely to be affected by the NATO-US announcement about pulling out of the Afghanistan quagmire by 2014.

In Pakistan “the Islamists are gaining ground in the face of the abject failure of the civilian democratic government.” At the same time, “the Pakistani military has been perpetrating a creeping coup.” In this situation, Hussain urges that priority must be given to talks with the Taliban. This may not be easy, but Hussain’s emphatic conclusion is that in view of the militants’ capacity for regeneration and the inability of the coalition forces and Pakistan to prevent them from regrouping, it is clear that a political settlement is the only endgame.

Those who do not agree with Hussain will find rebuttal of his arguments quite difficult. Surely, other options were available some years ago, as noted in the book itself, but neither the US nor Pakistan can escape the consequences of creating and nourishing a new breed of holy warriors in the first instance and then making the blunder of expecting obedience from them. A strategy that might have worked in 1998 cannot succeed in 2010. Now, any strategy, in order to be effective, must take into account the present objective reality.

The Scorpion’s Tail is an exceptionally authentic book. It is the fruit of Hussain’s first-hand coverage of the extremist militancy for over a decade. Much of his material has come out of his own reports in newspapers and journals published at home and abroad. He has surveyed the theatre of conflict on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and met many of the militant commanders — from Jalaluddin Haqqani (1989) to Muslim Khan (2009). He has visited various places where intense fighting/aerial attacks have taken place, such as Sarwaki, Dhog, Damadola, Lal Masjid, Kolaki, Imamdheri, Biny Baba Ziarat, et al. He was at the Malakand commissioner’s house where he saw the militant commanders in their full regalia, as if they were celebrating their takeover of the Swat valley. And he was able to interview some of the boys who had been trained as suicide bombers. He has presented a blow-by-blow account of a grave conflict, the repercussions of which could attain catastrophic dimensions. It is an extraordinary feat any reporter in the world would be proud of, and it is a much-needed warning to the people of Pakistan of the indescribable consequences of the present drift.

This review was originally published under the headline “Vantage View” in the December 2010 issue of Newsline.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.