COMMENTARY
 
Safeguarding Sovereignty while Tackling Terrorism
Weekly Pulse
Feb 1-7, 2008
As the focus of US-led War on Terror shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, there is increasing inclination on the part of Bush Administration to link Taliban-led insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan with pro-Taliban militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The consequent assumption is that, since the insurgency in Afghanistan and militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas are being driven by al-Qaeda whose terrorist aims are essentially global, fighting pro-Taliban militants in tribal areas is not a task that should be left to the Pakistanis alone to tackle. Instead, there should be direct or indirect US/NATO input in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign in its own territory.

US Troops Proposal

On January 22, at a Pentagon news conference, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “while the US respects the Pakistani government’s right to decide what actions are needed to defeat extremists on its soil, there are reasons to worry that al Qaeda poses more than an internal threat to Pakistan.” For the purpose, he said, the United States was “ready, able and willing” to send troops to Pakistan to help its military battle al Qaeda—if the Pakistani government is interested.”

Pakistan’s response to the US troops offer is a straight forward No. A day after Mr. Gates made the above statement, President Pervez Musharraf, while speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said his country opposed any foreign forces on its soil.

“It’s an issue of the sovereignty of our country. And the United States and anyone who talks of that must understand the sensitivity of the man in the street…The man in the street will not allow this – he will come out and agitate,” he said, while urging the United States to, instead, pay greater attention to NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan.

On January 9, while meeting two senior US intelligence officials in Islamabad, Mr Musharraf had also rebuffed proposals to expand US combat presence in Pakistan, either through unilateral covert CIA missions or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces. The said visit and above remarks by Mr. Gates reflect an increasing sense of urgency at the highest levels of the US government that al Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government.

Threat of Militancy

There is no doubt that, in past several months, the threat of pro-Taliban militancy in Pakistan’s Frontier province has assumed grave proportions. Recent weeks have seen rounds of fighting between Pakistan’s security forces and the pro-Taliban militants even in relatively settled areas of the province, such as Bannu, Darra Adam Khail and parts of the Swat Valley, while Waziristan continues to be the hub of pro-Taliban militancy.

In order to manage this growing threat, Pakistan has increased its troop deployment in the region, which is currently estimated at over 100,000 troops. Consequently, in their several battles with these militants, the security forces have been able to score major victories, including the killing of a large number of militants.

These successes clearly indicate that Pakistan has the military capability and political will needed to effectively tackle pro-Taliban militancy in Waziristan and the rest of the Frontier province. The danger that pro-Taliban militants pose is not likely to dissipate any time sooner. Tackling it, however, will require a steadfast national commitment as well s consistent operational effectiveness of the military mission.

Sovereignty Concerns

It is not that Pakistan cannot muster the capability and the will to effectively counter the threat of pro-Taliban militancy on its territory, even if it is driven by al-Qaeda, the issue of deploying foreign troops, be they US troops, will directly contravene Pakistan’s status as a sovereign nation—and, that also, with a perceived prestigious stature of a nuclear weapons power.

That is why whenever the question of having a direct US or NATO role in managing Pakistan’s internal extremist or terrorist problem—however significant its linkage with current or potential regional/international terrorist threat is—has arisen, the country’s leadership has unequivocally rejected the suggestion.

Simultaneously, however, Pakistan has been willing to seek any international help, mainly from the United States, to strengthen its domestic security capacity to counter extremism and terrorism in its own territory, including financial and military help, assistance in troops training, and cooperation on intelligence gathering.

As a frontline state in the US-led War on Terror, it makes sense on Pakistan’s part to welcome such external help to counter domestic extremism and terrorism. Likewise, Pakistan’s concerns regarding the violation of its sovereignty, an issue that naturally arises when the United States as an external power offers to deploy its troops on Pakistani soil for managing domestic extremism and terrorism, are justified.

Renewed Afghan Focus

Since the fall of Taliban in 2001, Pakistani and Afghan leadership had been urging the Bush Administration not to shift the focus of its War on Terror from Afghanistan, which it did after invading Iraq. Now that Iraq’s security climate has relatively improved and US-led coalition troops from there have started to withdraw, while Afghan security circumstances have simultaneously deteriorated, Afghanistan has re-emerged as a focal point in the US-led War on Terror.

This, indeed, is a welcome development, since it meets the long-held aspirations of Pakistani and Afghan leaders. In Pakistani perceptions, the growing momentum in pro-Taliban militancy is a by-product of continuing Taliban-led militarism in Afghanistan. Given that, whatever military and financial help from the United States and its Western allies in the War on Terror comes as a direct outcome of the renewed focus on Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan will not hesitate from welcoming. However, insofar as direct US/NATO role in managing domestic extremism and terrorism is concerned, Islamabad will continue to oppose such options citing sovereignty concerns and its own capacity and will to be sufficient to handle extremist and terrorist threat.

What sort of new opportunities will arise from the renewed US focus on Afghanistan for Pakistan to re-invigorate its counter-extremism/terrorism campaign? What are the new US proposals for the purpose already on the table? How can the new American incentives be beneficial for Pakistan’s own counter-terrorism effort? And what does the Pakistani leadership needs to do to ensure that the renewed US focus on Afghanistan is not misdirected.

These are the questions or issues the leadership of Pakistan has to address carefully or highlight duly; otherwise, just as it has happened in the case of Iraq, the American preference for the Use of Force option to tackle a security quagmire whose resolution actually necessitates the adoption of a multi-pronged approach—with political and socio-economic as essential elements—may prove catastrophic not just for Afghanistan but also for Pakistan.

US Media Reports

In particular, the leadership in Pakistan may need to be more proactive in discouraging suggestions about any direct US or NATO role in its domestic counter-extremism/terrorism campaign. Take, for instance, the January 27 story of the Associated Press, which highlighted the shifting US focus not only on Afghanistan but also Pakistan. It stated that “there is growing recognition that the US risks further setbacks, if not deepening conflict or even defeat, in Afghanistan, and success in that country hinges on stopping Pakistan from descending into disorder. And, to stop “Pakistan from descending into disorder,” the report cites suggestions by Bush administration officials to “send more US forces, including small numbers of combat troops, if the Pakistani government decided it wanted to collaborate more closely.”

These “more troops”, according to the report, will be in addition to “fewer than 100 troops in Pakistan, including personnel who are training Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps in the western tribal region along the Afghanistan border.”

Another report by the same US news agency, dated January 24, stated that the Commander of U.S. forces in Central Asia had launched planning for more extensive use of U.S. troops to train Pakistani armed forces. According to the report, Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, intends to “develop new approaches to help Pakistan, with a time horizon stretching to 2015.”

Fallon was recently in Pakistan meeting with its senior military officials. After the visit, he stated that Pakistan was taking a more welcoming view of U.S. suggestions for using US troops to train and advise its own forces in the fight against extremists. He said, "there is an increased willingness” by Pakistani leaders to tackle home-grown extremism and terrorism, and “we’re going to try to help them.” He said U.S. assistance would be “more robust.”

Options for Pakistan

Pakistan has so far obtained over $10 billion in US assistance for its counter-terrorism effort in the tribal regions. If as a result of renewed US focus on Afghanistan, more of such aid is available, Islamabad will welcome it.

Apart from financial aspect of US aid to counter domestic terrorism, Islamabad has been collaborating quite closely with Washington at the intelligence level. Much of this activity is trilateral, including Afghanistan. If the United States now wants to be “more robust” in assisting Pakistan in terms of intelligence gathering and information sharing to pre-empt the terrorist threat, there is no reason why Islamabad should hesitate from benefiting from the vast US experience in intelligence.

The third important area, besides finances and intelligence, concerns the counter-insurgency operation itself. Pakistan’s army is traditionally geared towards fighting a war with a standing army—in this case, India. It may lack the experience of fighting the sort of militancy in tribal areas, which in essence is insurgency.

If Pakistani troops can benefit from such training from the United States, there is no reason why the country’s army leadership will hesitate from having greater cooperation with its US counterpart for training Pakistani troops in counter-insurgency operations.

Sovereignty Matters

Insofar as organizing such training on the soil of Pakistan is concerned, Islamabad is not likely to agree to such an option under any circumstances. This should be clear from the tough position on the issue that President Musharraf has adopted.

Apart from the fundamental issue of sovereignty, there are other rational reasons to explain as to why foreign forces will fail to achieve what only Pakistani forces can best achieve.

As William Pfaff, in an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune (January 24) argues, US commanders’ demand that Pakistan admit U.S. troops as “trainers” and “mentors” of Pakistani operations against “their own stubbornly independent tribal population” is based on “the assumption that Americans know more about how to operate in the untamed tribal territories than the Pakistanis themselves.” He further writes, “It is hard to believe that responsible men are actually proposing American military operations in the tribal territories. No foreign force has ever been successful there.”

Moreover, any suggestion of a direct US role in counter-terrorism campaign on Pakistani soil will fuel anti-Americanism, which has already consistently grown in the post-9/11 era. Given that, greater US contribution to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign necessitates that it should be indirect and mostly covert.

Nuclear Safety

Pakistan may be currently in the grip of political turmoil and security quagmire, but it is a fact that the country is a nuclear weapon state, in fact the only one in the Muslim world. It is also a fact that until India compromises its nuclear weapon status—something that will not happen given its desire for being recognized as a global power—Pakistan is unlikely to surrender its nuclear option.

The reason Pakistan had decided to produce nuclear weapons was because India did so first. Whatever progress the post-January 2004 peace process between the two countries may have achieved, it is also a fact that the biggest problem between them—that of Kashmir—remained unsolved.

In retrospect, whatever concerns the United States or the rest of the world may have about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons—which have caused primarily by the growing threat of extremism and terrorism in the country—Pakistan will not accept any external intrusion into its nuclear fabric—a national stance that makes a rational sense.

A welcoming development for assuaging growing international concerns on the matter have been repeated clarifications by Mr Musharrf during his European tour and recent briefing to foreign press by Gen. Khalid Kidwai, the head of the Strategic Plans Division, which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Gen. Kidwai’s assurance to the international community that the country’s nuclear security apparatus is “second to none”— with a strictly controlled military chain of command, checks and balances, and monitoring of scientists and others with sensitive knowledge—was most timely. He said Pakistan’s arsenal was in the safe hands of 10,000 soldiers who secure facilities and provide intelligence under a control system headed by top military and political leaders. “There is no conceivable scenario that Pakistan’s military weapons are going to fall into the hands of extremists.”

The Bottomline

External concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets will continue to arise, requiring proactive bid on the part of the custodians of these assets and the national leadership to continue clarifying the issue.

Simultaneously, however, Pakistan would have to put its political house in order and combat extremism and terrorism on a war footing, benefiting from whatever indirect external help is offered for the purpose. Its leadership has to realize there is a mismatch between the country’s status as a nuclear power and its deteriorating political and security situation. This mismatch has to end, for Pakistan to secure its due status as a regional power to reckon with.

Access column at weeklypulse.org