Pay-up time

12 02 2009

Source: Frontline
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN

Pakistan: None of the first steps of the Obama administration has given the kind of unconditional reassurance that the Pakistanis want.

SHERIN ZADA/AP

A MAN CARRIES his elderly mother on his back as the family flees from the troubled Swat valley on February 1 as fighting between the militants and the security forces escalates.

THE bad news arrived quickly. Just three days after the Obama inauguration, the new United States administration made it plain to Pakistan that the winds of change sweeping America would not travel as far the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, at least not in the way that the rulers in Islamabad desired. If anything, the relationship might grow more difficult. The message came riding on two missile attacks on suspected militant compounds, within hours of each other, on the evening of January 23: one in North Waziristan and the second in South Waziristan.

The number of people killed in the attacks may have been 20. It is likely that there were both civilians and militants among the dead. It has always been impossible to verify such information. In Pakistan, the question is not so much if Al Qaeda operatives were among the dead. The missile attacks, launched from unmanned Predator aircraft, generically known as drones, are seen as violations of the country’s air space, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

There have been more than 30 such attacks since August 2008. Despite the Pakistani government’s protests against such incursions during the days of the Bush administration, the attacks continued, increasing in frequency and appearing to gain in precision. It led to the widespread belief that Pakistan’s civilian government was complicit in them. A Washington Post report in November 2008 said the Pakistan People’s Party-led government had given the Bush administration the green signal to carry out such attacks in the tribal areas. The understanding, according to the Post, gave Islamabad the right to protest against the attacks to keep domestic public opinion satisfied. Obama’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates told a congressional committee recently that the drone attacks would continue and that the decision had been conveyed to the Pakistani leadership.

The government has strenuously denied any secret understanding with the U.S. on the attacks. From President Asif Ali Zardari to Prime Minister Yusouf Raza Gilani to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, all Pakistani leaders have made the point that the missile attacks were “counter-productive”: they fanned the flames of militancy that is eating the region – when civilians get killed, their fellow tribesmen, looking for revenge, swell the ranks of the Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda elements.

Pakistan’s influential media even went so far as to advise the government to stop the drones militarily, and, for a few days last year, the Pakistan Air Force flew sorties over the tribal areas in a sort of show of force. But as Qureshi once told reporters in his hometown Multan, when they asked him why the country could not stand up to the drone attacks in the same way that they had dealt with the alleged air space violations by the Indian Air Force in the wake of the Mumbai attacks: “Pakistan cannot equate the U.S. with India.” An indication that there was a limit to how far the government could go in challenging the drones. This also became evident when drones attacked a target in Bannu, which is not a territory in the lawless tribal region known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) but a “settled” district in North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Some days before the Obama inauguration, Gilani told the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistan parliament, that the incoming administration would not carry out missile attacks inside Pakistani territory. That turned out to be an incorrect reading of the new U.S. administration’s intentions.

In fact, none of the first steps of the Obama administration has given the kind of unconditional reassurance that the Pakistanis want from their patron country. In keeping with the new President’s campaign promise to focus on the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, his agenda for foreign policy, announced the day after his January 20 inauguration, gave top billing to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not in the way Pakistan wanted.

The agenda document spoke about refocussing American resources to deal with what the document described as the “greatest threat” to U.S. security: “the resurgence of the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. It spoke of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan and asking the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to do the same, while promising more money for economic development to the war-torn country. The new administration has said it will make the Afghan government “do more” in terms of cracking down on the illicit opium trade and on corruption. For Pakistan, the new administration has promised more “non-military” aid, while holding it “accountable” for security in the border region with Afghanistan.

Hussain Haqqani, Islamabad’s Ambassador to Washington, told Geo television that if U.S. policy was not “positive”, Pakistan “will have to review its options”. He expressed the hope that President Obama would give a “patient hearing” to Pakistan’s concerns.

The increase in non-military aid is expected to come via the Biden-Lugar Bill, a bipartisan draft legislation sponsored by Joseph Biden – now the U.S. Vice-President – and adopted by the Senate in September 2008.

The Bill, which the House of Representatives is yet to take up – it lapsed with the inauguration of the new administration and will need to be reintroduced in the Senate – proposes tripling Pakistan’s non-military financial aid over the next five years in recognition of the need to stabilise the country’s economy and democratic institutions, making the bilateral relationship more oriented towards Pakistan’s people rather than its military. It also makes military aid conditional on greater accountability from the Pakistan security forces.

Specifically, the proposed legislation authorises $7.5 billion over the next five fiscal years ($1.5 billion annually) under the Foreign Assistance Act. It also advocates an additional $7.5 billion over the subsequent five years, subject to improvements in the political and economic climate.

ASIF HASSANAFP

JAMMAT-E-ISLAMI ACTIVISTS demonstrate against the missile strikes after Barack Obama took over as President, in Karachi on January 25.

It makes military assistance beginning in 2010, and new military sales beginning in 2012, conditional on certification by the U.S. Secretary of State that Pakistani security forces “are making concerted efforts to prevent Al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups from operating in the territory of Pakistan; are making concerted efforts to prevent the Taliban from using the territory of Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks within Afghanistan; are not materially interfering in the political or judicial processes of Pakistan”.

The increased non-military aid would address Pakistan’s contention that militancy must be tackled not by the military alone, but through economic development of the border regions, giving people education and jobs and “mainstreaming” them.

Pakistan had also hoped that Obama’s promised special envoy to the region would be mandated to work with India as well to press for a solution to the Kashmir issue. During his campaign, Obama said in an interview that a solution to the Kashmir problem was vital for peace in Afghanistan. The reasoning: the Kashmir issue is the cause of Pakistan’s insecurity with India, leading to its continuing quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan through jehadist proxies. Therefore, a resolution of the problem is as vital for the stability of Afghanistan as it is for peace between India and Pakistan.

In the event, the appointment of the tough-talking Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan caused disappointment in Pakistan that Obama had backed down, in the face of aggressive Indian diplomacy, from his resolve that the U.S. must help find a solution to Kashmir. But Pakistani leaders have continued to emphasise that Holbrooke’s mandate must be expanded to include India and Kashmir. In fact, the Foreign Ministry press release welcoming his appointment studiously avoided mentioning the two countries included in his mandate, stressing instead the word “region”.

The concern in New Delhi is whether Holbrooke will lean towards Pakistan’s view of the Afghan crisis or whether he will lean on the Pakistan military to produce the keys that can unlock the puzzle. Accepting Pakistan’s position would be no less than accepting jehad and terrorism as legitimate instruments of foreign policy. Leaning on the Pakistan military, on the other hand, would amount to challenging the nature of the Pakistani state.

Finally, the realisation that jehad is unviable has to come from within Pakistan, as it now has over the Taliban takeover of Swat. The picturesque valley in the NWFP, once a holiday destination for tourists, is now under the grip of a Taliban group under the leadership of Fazlullah, a mullah with extreme views who has thrown in his lot with the South Waziristan-based warlord Beithullah Mehsud.

Fazlullah’s marauding militants run a virtual parallel government in Swat. They brook no defiance and have imposed their extreme version of Islam on the people, making men wear beards and salwars that must end above the ankles, and women wear the shuttle-cock burkha, which was once unknown in that part of the world. Disobedience means death, with the body hanging in the main square in Mingora, the big town in Swat. The chowk itself has come to be known as “khooni chowk” (bloody square) or “chowk zibakhana” (slaughterhouse square). The valley was known for its vibrant singing and dancing, but that has ended, and an estimated 300,000 people of the total population of 1.6 million people have fled the district. No elected representative from Swat has dared to step into his constituency in months.

After a national outcry against the Pakistan Army for doing nothing to bring the situation under control, Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited the valley in a prelude to a fresh round of operations.

But Pakistanis still tend to see the situation in Swat in isolation, as if it has no connection with the larger issue of jehadist militant groups raised by the Pakistani state for proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

These groups and their virulent ideologies are eating at the very vitals of the country, threatening to tear it apart politically and socially, while their actions abroad threaten to push Pakistan out of the comity of civilised nations.

The message from Swat is that it is easy to start a jehadist war but containing it means a systemic overhaul that is not possible only by pasting a democratic face to the state. And in this lies the challenge for U.S.-Pakistan ties, as much as it does for the India-Pakistan relationship.•

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