February Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

On the evening of January 24, as I was preparing to go to the reception hosted by the Indian High Commission at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad to celebrate India’s 58th Republic Day, there was news of a suicide bomber’s attack at the hotel. Someone tried to sneak into the hotel through the back gate and, when intercepted by a security guard, blew himself up instantly, resulting in two deaths and injuries to five others.

After the blast, it was naturally expected that the reception would be cancelled. However, the Indian High Commissioner decided to go ahead with the reception and his staff stood at the entrance to the marquee, along with several spooks from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies who, in the past, have been known to harass the visitors to any Indian dos, to receive the guests.

It was reassuring to see that a lot of people turned up to show their solidarity with the Indians, including Pakistan’s federal education minister, Lt General (retd) Javed Ashraf Qazi, who expressed Pakistan’s resolve to join forces with the Indians to combat terrorism in the region. It was ironic to hear the former DG, ISI talk of peace and of joining forces with the Indians.

As expected, the main topic of discussion during the entire evening was the future of the war on terrorism in Pakistan and the region. There were those who believed that there would be more attacks on the capital city in retaliation against the conflict in Waziristan. Some senior retired members of the civil bureaucracy remarked that there was a lot of anger and contempt in the armed forces against the policies currently being pursued by General Pervez Musharraf. The present regime’s volte-face on issues such as Afghanistan and Kashmir have not gone down well with a sizable section within the establishment, including the armed forces, who are extremely uncomfortable due to the fact that Islamabad seems to be conceding far more to New Delhi than it is getting in return.

To be fair, the changes in Pakistan’s foreign and security policies have been so rapid and, at times, radical, that they have left many a political observer breathless. The journey from Kargil to Agra and then to Islamabad (2004), or the shift from supporting the Taliban to a stated abandonment of the Afghan religious warriors has happened at the speed of light. These sudden changes have generated a lot of scepticism about the Pakistani government’s real intentions and its ambivalent stance on a number of issues, especially militancy. This is apparent from the numerous media reports that have appeared in the West and statements of several senior government functionaries in the US and the UK who have claimed that Pakistan is involved in supporting the Taliban. Islamabad’s claim that it wants to root out militancy in Pakistan and the entire region is being viewed with suspicion.

Recently, while testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the US National Intelligence Director, John Negroponte, who heads US spying operations, remarked that “the leaders of Al Qaeda have found a secure hideout in Pakistan from where they are rebuilding their strength.” This is the first time that a senior American official has pointed a finger at Pakistan.

Apparently the US Congress and the Bush administration seem to be formulating new rules and regulations to make Pakistan, one of America’s most prominent client states, more accountable. The recently passed bill to curb the nuclear black market makes military aid to Pakistan conditional to a periodic certification by the US government in order to catch the nuclear black marketeers and, generally, to fight terrorism. The news is that there are further amendments in the pipeline to ensure that Islamabad surrenders A.Q. Khan, who is considered a major player in the entire network of the illegal supply and proliferation of nuclear material and technology. Such changes signify American concern regarding Pakistan’s role in fighting terrorism in general.

Of course, the Pakistan government denied the charges levelled by Negroponte, insisting that it is Afghanistan that provides a safe sanctuary for the Taliban and that Islamabad has played a key role in capturing both Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. While Washington recognises Pakistan’s positive contribution in its fight against terrorism, it continues to accuse the government of involvement with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This, despite the fact that Islamabad has repeatedly claimed to be a target of terrorism itself. Presently, it is embroiled in two different battles in Waziristan and Balochistan, which require a combined deployment of nearly 60,000 — 80,000 troops.

There is a tactical and a strategic explanation for this situation. At a tactical level, the accusations against Pakistan stem from the disbelief that there is any strategic change in Pakistan’s policy towards militancy. The perception exists because of Islamabad’s discomfort with the Indian presence in Afghanistan, especially in areas closer to the Pak-Afghan border: Pakistan’s military is likely to seek partners in Afghanistan to force India to leave. It is natural for the army to challenge India’s growing socio-economic, political and military might, which might be problematic for Pakistan in future. Since the early 1980s, the Pakistan army has been actively involved in Afghanistan and considers it as an area of vital strategic interest — it does not want others to encroach. Moreover, in the absence of a time frame regarding how long NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan and what their ultimate objective is regarding the country, Islamabad would want to keep its interest in its neighbouring state alive.

Strategically, Pakistan is viewed as a ‘soft state’ or what is often referred to by some as a failed state or a failing state. I prefer to use the term ‘soft state,’ which refers to a condition in which there is a lack of political consensus and a system that allows different stakeholders to contest their rights. Under the circumstances, violence is the only available option. It is an extreme option, but one different players would resort to if they find no other credible method to initiate a dialogue.

The situation in Balochistan is a classic example of the total breakdown of a credible method of dialogue and negotiation. While the BLA does not have the essential wherewithal to pose a threat to the army and the state as is the case in Waziristan, the Baloch nationalist forces do have the capacity — a limited one at least — to keep Islamabad constantly on its toes through their ‘hit-and-run’ operations. The fact that the government is continuing to engage members of the Baloch elite, at the cost of ignoring the Baloch lower-middle and middle classes, minimises the possibility of Islamabad getting genuine stakeholders in the entire development agenda. Thus, the battle rages on, with little hope of a solution or the possibility of the federal government managing to bring socio-economic development to the province. Currently, hardly any international company wants to risk their capital in oil and gas exploration in Balochistan due to the high cost of security and insurance. And as long as the military believes that it can find a solution through force, the battle will continue. There is the silent majority in the province, denoted by the lower-middle and middle classes, who are equally wary of the Baloch tribal elite and the government. They are like silent spectators who have no say in Islamabad’s development agenda.

As for Waziristan and the tribal areas, there is an increased radicalism in the population, especially among the younger generation, due to the government’s policy of pursuing, what appears to them to be, a foreign agenda. These people do not necessarily want to target the army, but they would resist any policy that attempts to forcibly change their style of living. The continuing battle in Waziristan naturally attracts those who stand to benefit from the ‘soft’ character of the state in the rest of the country. Ostensibly a certain group of people believe that force and violence is the only way to negotiate their political agenda. Given the ‘perceived’ street power of the religious parties and the willingness of the present regime to join hands with the mullahs, the religious parties and other extremist elements seem to have outmanoeuvered the silent majority and the ever-shrinking minority of people subscribing to liberal values. Contrary to the government’s perception that it can stage-manage a better image, the world outside can see what such deliberate concessions to the mullahs will lead to.

The lack of political consensus, the gradual erosion of civilian institutions and the rise in authoritarianism can only create greater conflict. It is only a strategic restructuring of politics that will help clear Pakistan of all these allegations and of all the elements that continue to pose a challenge to the sovereignty of the state.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter