Shadow War

Indian Express , July 18, 2007

The military operation against Islamabad’s Lal Masjid has brought into focus the price Pakistan is paying for its past sponsorship and tolerance of Islamist militants as an instrument of foreign policy. When Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, moved the capital to Islamabad he envisaged a quiet city inhabited by diplomats and government servants and untouched by the political upheavals in the rest of the country.

For most of its history, Islamabad has lived up to that expectation. During the 1990s, for example, when Sindh was torn by ethnic violence, one hardly felt its reverberations in Islamabad. In this context, the very fact that the first major urban clash between Islamist militants and Pakistan’s military has taken place in Islamabad indicates the depth of Pakistan’s extremism problem.

For his part, General Pervez Musharraf has described the operation as part of a war on extremists. But he made similar assertions soon after taking power in 1999, then immediately after 9/11 and subsequently in his famous speech of January 12, 2002. Then, Musharraf had declared. “Whoever is involved with such (terrorist) acts in the future will be dealt with strongly whether they come from inside or outside the country.”

Five and a half years since that declaration, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have reached an all-time high. If Musharraf has been waging a war against terrorism for the last several years, Pakistan is clearly losing it.

Now US intelligence assessments indicate that the Al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself and is planning attacks around the world from its new base in Pakistan. Optimists say that the Lal Masjid operation reflects renewed resolve within the Musharraf regime to root out terrorism. Pessimists point out that there have been several similar turning points in the past and the overall picture has not changed. If Musharraf could not tackle the problem when he was relatively new to the job, how can he be expected to crack down effectively against militants at a time when his lack of domestic political support is widespread?

Islamist extremism, nurtured by the Pakistani state, especially since the days of General Zia-ul-Haq, cannot be eliminated by the use of force alone though military action would have to be part of any strategy to deal with trained terrorists.

Pakistan’s army can be a part of the solution in dealing with extremists provided it recognises how it has so far been part of the problem. Pakistan’s extremist problem is a creation of the Pakistani military’s ill-considered strategic decisions of the past.

Until now, Musharraf and his associates simply did not see the threat of militancy and terrorism even as they considered their civilian political opponents a threat. Assuming that Pakistan’s interest is their prime motivation, the ruling generals failed to treat the jihadis as a force inimical to Pakistan’s interest notwithstanding statements to the contrary since 2001. Almost every action that was taken against the jihadis was taken reluctantly and in response to international pressure.

Musharraf’s “betrayal” of the Taliban in Afghanistan made Pakistan’s jihadis aware of their need for caution in depending on governments they do not control. This means that while they would not be averse to cooperation from state actors, they would not trust them. Thus, while Pakistan’s rulers simply wanted to hold the jihadis in reserve for another thrust in Kashmir, the jihadis themselves did not refrain from attacks inside Pakistan or against Pakistan’s allies such as the US and Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai.

For five and a half years, Musharraf has been declaring war against jihadis who were initially organised, armed and trained to engage in jihad in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. But unless the military acknowledges that it was wrong earlier, and concedes space to Pakistani civilians in spheres of decision-making that are reserved for civilians in other countries, it cannot create the national consensus that is needed to do away with the residue of years of strategic misdirection.

As it is, the standing of the Pakistan army in the eyes of Pakistan’s citizenry is at its lowest in sixty years. Critics are pointing out that Pakistan’s military has conducted more military operations inside Pakistan in the last five decades than it has fought wars against external enemies.

It is difficult to deny this contention, counting the three operations in Balochistan (1960s, 1970s and last year), East Pakistan (1971), interior Sindh (1983-88), Karachi (1992), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (ongoing) and Islamabad (July 2007). No army can afford to alienate several segments of its population and hope to succeed in its mission of ensuring national security.

Only by accepting to work under civilian direction, in accordance with Pakistan’s Constitution, can the Pakistan army regain the stature it needs to have before it can successfully prosecute a war against Islamist extremists within the country.