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Talk to the people not to the Taliban

by I A Rehman, 17 October 2008

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Dawn, 16 October 2008

Dangers in the north

A SERIES of developments in the tribal areas and in Afghanistan over the past couple of weeks has greatly heightened ordinary Pakistani citizens’ anxieties about their future.

And their expectations of reassurances from the government of safety and security have remained unrealised.

The sequence started with the revival of the Frontier governor’s interest in enforcing a religious code in Malakand division for the third time in 14 years. (The Nizam-i-Adl Ordinances of 1994 and 1999, purporting to enforce religious laws in that territory, are still in force.) The implication that in the gubernatorial view the fight against terrorists was not going well was reinforced when he advised the US-led coalition in Afghanistan to start negotiating for peace with Mullah Omar, an indirect way of saying that Afghanistan was as vulnerable as the Frontier.

Then a British military officer found a French publication to inform the world that the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan could not be won. Similar observations were attributed to other allied commanders. The head of the coalition forces added some spice to the brew by asking for reinforcements in anticipation of a major battle and by proclaiming that he would accept the political high command’s decision if it chose to hold negotiations with the Taliban.

In normal circumstances these statements would have been interpreted as a reiteration of the principle that political issues cannot be solved through military means, and that the western coalition needs to re-examine the non-military part of their prescription for Afghanistan. This interpretation was ignored. Also ignored was the possibility of some nexus between the military commanders’ apparent pessimism and two critical presidential elections — in the United States in November and in Afghanistan a month or so later.

Was somebody trying to frighten the world in order to secure more resources for the war in Afghanistan? Besides, no thought was given to the fact that the statements attributed to the coalition commanders were uncharacteristic of seasoned warhorses who are trained to dismiss suggestions of defeat even when their rout is clearly visible. Eventually we may realise that the coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is not imminent.

However, the Taliban’s fellow travellers in Pakistan’s political crowd and their apologists were quick to smell victory in both Afghanistan and Fata, and they started calling for an end to all military action in the tribal areas.

Now, there is much in the way military operations have been carried out in the tribal belt that is open to criticism. There have been complaints of disproportionate use of force, of higher than permissible collateral damage, of costly errors caused by poor intelligence, and of lack of humanitarian concern for the population trapped in the conflict zones or forced to wander for shelter across the tribal belt and in Afghanistan too. The situation has been aggravated by the US raids in the tribal area. All these aberrations are undermining the fight against terrorism and must be cured. But anyone who says that force should not at all be used against terrorists is no friend of Pakistan. And no friend of justice either.

Quite a few Pakistanis, especially those who keep asking everybody in the wonderland as to whose war it is, need to realise that the militants now threatening to unhinge Pakistan from its moorings belong to the corps of fighters we ourselves had raised to wage a holy war in Afghanistan. Drawn from the most conservative layers of the tribal population, they have been indoctrinated to an extent that they have been drained of reason and compassion both. The only thing they know is to kill or get killed. Their prototypes have been seen earlier in different parts of the world.

Even successful revolutions often leave as an unwelcome residue armed men who do not know what to do with themselves once their mission is over. Many are known to have become mercenaries. Thus, Pakistan cannot disown its part of the responsibility for containing the genie it had largely itself brought out of the bottle.

Unfortunately, the task of disbanding the force created and trained to fight in Afghanistan was never taken up. On the contrary they were encouraged, even helped, to stay in ready-for-combat formations. The delay in demobilising them has complicated matters. Among other things they have found defenders amongst Pakistan’s political parties and possibly amongst its traditional friends abroad as well.

The government is now under pressure to negotiate with the militants. The premise obviously is that in the tribal areas (and also in Frontier districts) there are only two parties — the government and the militants. This assumption is wrong and misleading because it ignores the large population that is angry with both the government and the militants. It has made its views known in more ways than one.

In the tribal areas the task of bringing the people into the national mainstream, which was not easy even five decades ago but was not intractable, has now become unusually difficult. The issue there is not so much religion, which most tribals accept on their own terms, as cultural and economic autonomy and the fear of loss of material opportunities in the event of a merger with the Frontier province.

In the settled districts of the Frontier the people indicated their political preference only eight months ago. Nobody has challenged the view that candidates contesting the elections on the religious card and with ‘book’ as their symbol failed to win a single seat throughout Malakand division (which includes Swat). Nothing will be more unjust than dealing with militants over the heads of the far more numerous civil population.

The militants see the population as an obstacle to their political ambition. They are therefore targeting the people’s elected representatives. At the same time they are attacking the traditional role of tribal elders as the massacre during the Orakzai jirga shows. Much as one wishes the tribals, and the Pakhtuns in general, to break out of the feudal-age bondage to clan chiefs, their supersession by pseudo-clerics is a prospect too horrible to be contemplated with equanimity.

Since the government is asking the people to fight militancy without giving them any idea of what good will come to them, they cannot throw themselves into the struggle to save their future with the vigour and single-mindedness the situation demands. This failure to take along the people of the Frontier, including Fata, may cost Pakistan heavier than anything else. Negotiations are a must but with the people and not only to secure their help for the war. They need to be offered a vision of autonomy, justice and public welfare.