By Mosharraf Zaidi
During the process that lead to President Barack Obama’s announcement of a surge in Afghanistan last year, Pakistan’s role in the situation in Afghanistan became of a greater importance than any other single factor. From the perspective of both the US military and its civilian leadership, the “safe haven” that Al-Qaeda enjoys in FATA represents a danger to American lives. Bob Woodward’s new book about the process that led to the surge is called “Obama’s Wars”. In it, the reader can almost hear US officials speak about Pakistan, in graphic detail. It is an exciting read, and something to experience for every Pakistani interested in the country’s future and its relationship to the rest of the world.
The NATO attack on an FC post at 5:25 am on September 30 that killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers needs to be seen in the context of the Afghanistan surge and US government’s approach to its war in Afghanistan. Since Obama hit the reset button in his speech at West Point on December 1, 2009, the war in Afghanistan is layered upon a foundation of US national security “truths” about which there is virtual consensus in Washington DC.
This first of these is that the “new” war is between Al-Qaeda and the United States – the Kandahari Taliban are a sideshow. The second is that Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) are now the primary theatre of war between Al-Qaeda and the US. The clandestine operations of the American intelligence community, lead by the CIA, and the US military’s so-called “black ops”, or covert actions, conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command are the central instruments of America’s war on Al-Qaeda – wherever that war may take America. Right now, it takes them to FATA, over, and over, and over again. For US policy makers, this is a no-brainer. If Al-Qaeda is in FATA, then so is the United States, right behind them, chasing them, hounding them, and killing them.
Pakistani hypernationalists will often spew weak, unsubstantiated and ridiculous things to rail at the imperialism of the US war effort. But what most Pakistanis, hypernationalist or not, have little to say about, is how this problem can be solved without proactive American action. To put it more kindly, and as it is likely framed in for-the-record discussions between Gen Kayani and Gen Patraeus – how can threats from Al-Qaeda and its allies in FATA, be eliminated, without America help?
To hear some folks tell it, Pakistan is virtually doing everything it possibly can, given the limitations imposed on this country by its financial situation, by the poor credibility of a an elite seen to be corrupt and disloyal to the concerns of the average Pakistani, and by the politics of waging war on one’s own territory and people.
Exhibit A for these folks is the commitment demonstrated by the Pakistani military’s repeated operations in FATA. Indeed, these operations may be vital to Pakistani national security. The simplistic notion that war operations in FATA undertaken by the Pakistani military are being conducted to please America ignore the fundamental reality posed by Al-Qaeda, and indeed by the motley crew of alphabet soup groups like the LeT, SSP, JeM and others. We don’t have to cheerlead America’s war to understand the implications of the war that terrorists are trying to take to the rest of the world. Simply put, any international action by these groups, whether in India, or the United States or elsewhere, will produce retaliation – a prospect that puts the national security of Pakistan in grave, grave danger. Military operations in FATA however do not inspire confidence, because they are not anchored in a coherent strategy or plan of any kind.
Pakistan has to deal with threats to its internal security, such as those posed by the TTP and their ilk. It also has to deal with threats to its national security from outside – including the threat of retaliation if a terrorist group based in Pakistan successfully attacked another country, or indeed even the threat of conspiracies hatched by other countries.
Right now, Pakistan has no strategy that adequately addresses these twin threats – both of which find fertile soil in FATA. The internal governance mechanisms to deal with security, like anti-terror legislation, police reform, decentralization, or intelligence triangulation have barely moved an inch while all hell has broken loose since mid 2007. Not surprising, given the lack of a counterterrorism strategy. The external governance mechanisms have a long record of failure in resolving security issues – from the compromised neutrality of the UN system, to the impotence of SAARC, and indeed, credibility-starved OIC. Even if they worked, Pakistan’s schizophrenic foreign policy regime would probably have dried the pool of any sympathy out there for Pakistan.
High and dry, with an uncontrollably angry enemy within, and lots of enemies outside, Pakistanis must be careful before remonstrating too strongly against NATO’s aggression in FATA. Pakistan is conducting military operations and aerial bombardment itself. Pakistan gave the US fly-by rights, and access to airfields long ago. Simply put, the American war in Af-Pak does not exist without strong, concerted, deliberate and assiduous Pakistani efforts. Indeed, Pakistani government officials last year were among the most ardent supporters of Obama’s Afghan surge. Simply put, Pakistan has repeatedly welcomed and enabled the US war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan knows exactly where the center of gravity for this war lies. The fact that NATO was behind the trigger last week is a technicality. Yet acting against terrorists should not be controversial, it should be unquestionably job number one. Those terrorists are sworn to killing innocent people – and they have fulfilled that promise over, and over, and over again.
That is why opposition to America’s continued presence in Afghanistan, to drone attacks in FATA, and to what is going to become much more frequent US visits to FATA across the Durand Line needs to do better than burn flags and fabricate conspiracy theories. Any opposition that is motivated by emotions should be solemnly rejected.
Genuine opposition must be based on rule of law, both domestic and international, on the rights of Pakistani citizens, both Pakhtuns and all others, and on the need for clarity, accountability, and transparency in public policy – here in Pakistan and elsewhere. To mount serious opposition, notwithstanding mistakes and violations by other parties, Pakistanis and their friends need to be able to articulate compelling answers to two critical questions that Pakistanis should have been asking their military and political elite all along. First, what is the plan to protect Pakistani lives and property from attacks by terrorists on Pakistani soil? Second, what is the plan to restrict the operations of known terrorist groups who plan to attack other countries? Sadly, thus far, there is no Pakistani plan.
It should be exceedingly clear that countries that have no plans of their own, are going to have plans made for them. Blocking NATO supply routes is not a counterterrorism strategy, and it cannot be how national security should work in a country of 180 million people. It is cheap theatrics. The problems in FATA weaken internal Pakistani security and are a Pakistani national security problem. The life and death struggles of Pakistan’s brave soldiers – including the three FC soldiers killed by NATO – and its resilient people deserves much better than these cheap reactive theatrics.