July Issue 2008
This War is Our War
There is no dearth of Pakistani politicians and analysts who brand Islamabad’s fight against religious extremism and militancy purely an “American war.” Notwithstanding the numerous UN resolutions, which have made it mandatory on all its member states to cooperate in the global war on terror or risk sanctions, a vast number of ordinary Pakistanis have been made to believe that the country could have avoided all the suicide bombings and terror attacks in its major cities and violence in the restive tribal areas, if the former military-led government had not committed itself to the US-led war against terrorism.
Even one of the key partners in the new ruling coalition — the PML-N — has been trying to whip up popular sentiment against the besieged President Pervez Musharraf by playing this right-wing card. In fact, its chief whip — former premier Nawaz Sharif — has been demanding that Musharraf be held accountable for last year’s operation against the militants in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, accusing him of killing ‘innocent’ people. In an attempt to win the support of the traditional religious lobby and Islamic radicals, and channelise their anger towards Musharraf, Sharif seems to have deliberately overlooked the fact that the armed militants of Lal Masjid were resorting to criminal and terrorist acts — including kidnapping and harassment of foreign and local nationals, in their zeal to enforce a myopic version of Islam. No state can tolerate such unlawful acts, especially an open revolt against the government’s writ in the federal capital. Acting out of political expediency, the members of the ruling coalition, including the PPP, announced compensation for the Lal Masjid militants, but this has only served to embolden the extremist elements.
No wonder the lobby opposed to the fight against extremists has become louder and bolder since the installation of the PPP-led government in Islamabad in March 2008. The deaths of thousands of Pakistanis in recent years, and the damage to the very fabric of our society, are being conveniently ignored or forgotten amidst the clichÃ©d anti-US rhetoric of the religious and right-wing forces.
As the country remains in the grip of political instability and uncertainty because of the lawyers’ campaign for the restoration of the controversial deposed chief justice, and the mounting pressure on President Musharraf to resign, there has been a marked confusion in the government’s anti-terror war policy, which appears to lack initiative, drive and resolve. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani’s government — under pressure from its allies and right-wing forces — seems to be sending mixed signals, both within the country and abroad, regarding its commitment on how to conduct this war against the backdrop of a rapid deterioration in the law and order situation in parts of the NWFP. Emboldened militants have increased violent attacks not just in the tribal region, but also in nearby settled areas of the NWFP.
The Taliban extremists are executing people, burning schools, hitting at government installations and the security forces, and targeting women. The dark shadow of their activities is no longer confined to the remote mountainous region; it is fast spreading its tentacles in the populated areas as well. How can one hold talks with these forces who refuse to pay heed to reason? Should the government allow the creation of states within the state, in turn, allowing a rapid Talibanisation in parts of the NWFP?
The international community was becoming increasingly wary of Pakistan’s intentions and its capacity to reign in militants, as the government is desperately trying to bank on the faltering talks in an attempt to restore peace in the volatile tribal region.
In the past, the pro-Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants used peace talks to re-group, re-organise and re-entrench themselves in the lawless mountainous tribal belt. This led to not just increased violence against US-led forces in Afghanistan, but also undermined whatever little writ the state had in its tribal belt.
The same mistake of appeasing the militants should not be repeated. The government should act to establish its writ and not give any ground to militants to make parts of the country a safe haven for international terrorists and use its territory for unleashing terrorism across the globe. This country of 160 million people should not be allowed to drift into complete anarchy and chaos.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s statement that his country had the right to send troops across the border to chase militants taking shelter in Pakistan, perhaps reflects the sentiment of his powerful NATO allies, who remain concerned about Islamabad’s efforts to sign peace accords with militants. Karzai’s statement remains in line with the UN Security Council resolutions — 1373 (passed in 2001) and 1566 (passed in 2004) — which make it mandatory for all its member states to deny safe havens to those who finance, plan, support and commit terrorist acts. These resolutions also direct the member states to prohibit their nationals and entities from making funds, financial assets, economic resources, or any other related services available to those who commission or participate in the terrorist acts.
This has put the Gillani government in a quandary at a time when it is struggling to maintain balance between international expectations and obligations on the one hand, and growing pressure from the religious and right-wing forces, including some of its own allies, to change the course of the war against terror, on the other.
On June 25, the government announced that it was handing over powers to the army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, to take action against militants in the NWFP. The PPP-led government has to take ownership of this fight against extremists and terrorists, rather than give an impression that it has been dragged into an unwanted and unnecessary conflict. The Gillani government should fight this war boldly on the ideological front and help build public opinion in its favour, providing security forces the necessary cushion to weed out terrorism from Pakistani soil. The much-neglected Islamic seminary reforms also need to be pushed on a war-footing to stamp out the tide of terrorism and extremism in the long run.
If Pakistan fails to control militants on its own, it will provide foreign powers an excuse to intervene.
However, the PPP — seen as a pro-west liberal and secular force — has so far failed to grasp the initiative in this fight, although its leader, Benazir Bhutto, became one of its victims on December 27 in a gun and bomb attack, which bears all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda-linked or inspired terrorism. This should give the present government the impetus to confront this scourge with a greater determination.
Extremism and terrorism are not challenges faced by the United States and its western allies alone. They pose a far graver challenge for Pakistan, which served as a conduit for waging the US-sponsored Afghan war against the former Soviet Union and its backed communist regime in Kabul during the 1980s. It is now well-documented history that it was American and Saudi Arabian dollars which fuelled the so-called holy war in Afghanistan for more than a decade during the 1980s with Pakistan’s help. This dollar-sponsored so-called jihad not only resulted in the mushroom growth of Islamic seminaries all over the country, particularly in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, but also attracted thousands of Islamic militants from across the world — especially from the Middle East — who learnt the art of terrorism in the ISI-operated training centres that were financed and armed by American and Saudi intelligence agencies. The Pakistani establishment of those days helped not only radical Afghan Islamic groups, but also the Pakistani militants to organise on similar patterns and used them in fuelling jihad in Indian-occupied Kashmir. This led to the establishment of the vast, resource-rich private jihadi empire, which spun out of control from the hands of its sponsors and started following its own extremist and self-styled pan-Islamic agenda.
The surge in sectarian killings during the 1990s, the phenomenal rise in religious extremism and intolerance in the country and the subsequent building of ties of the local militants with international terrorists, are the result of the myopic policies of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq’s era and his remnants. And just like the United States, in an ironic turn of events, Pakistan also faces a backlash from this Frankenstein it helped create with Washington.
By joining hands with Washington in the international war against terrorism, following the September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil, President Musharraf, for the first time in the country’s history, confronted these extremists head-on. Not only did Pakistan stop its support to the Afghan Taliban, it also gradually stopped militants from using Pakistani territory against Indian forces in occupied Kashmir, which led to the easing of tensions between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours.
However, the task of defeating the extremist forces has so far proved easier said than done. The huge, well-financed extremists’ empire, having tentacles even within the establishment, has upped the stakes by waging relentless terror and suicide attacks in an attempt to undermine Islamabad’s efforts in this war. It is in Pakistan’s national interest to defeat these forces, which remain incompatible with the modern world and aim to drag the country to a barbaric medieval period and enforce the outdated tribal system in the name of religion in this 21st century world.
The PPP, being a popular party, remains in a far better position to fight this war effectively and aggressively, both on the ideological and practical fronts, as compared to the previous government. Prime Minister Gillani should avail the opportunity created by the previous military-led government of confronting the extremist pro-Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, who remain a potent threat to Pakistan. For the first time in the country’s history, the military leadership and the popularly elected government can have a convergence of views on this vital issue. Will the PPP and its democratic allies act now or let go of this historic opportunity and live to regret it forever?
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.