COMMENTARY
 
Making ‘War on Terror Pakistan’s “Own War”
Weekly Pulse
April 4-10, 2008
The war against terrorism is our own war—Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, speech before the National Assembly, March 29.

We think it is Pakistan’s war and not of any one else today it is in our streets, it’s in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, we will have to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty and the soil.—Asif Ali Zardari, Co-Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party, joint press conference with US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, March 28.

We want to see peace in every corner of the world and we want to see peace in Pakistan also. We do not want that in order to give peace to others we turn our own country into a murder house.

• —Nawaz Sharif, President Pakistan Muslim League, press conference after meeting US Deputy Secretary of State John Negorponte, March 25.

Since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Pakistan has been acting as a frontline state in the United States-led War on Terror in Afghanistan and the region. Pakistan had decided to resume such “frontline” status after almost a decade and half of US abandonment of the internationally-sponsored jihad against Soviet troops, as soon as they withdrew from the country in February 1989.

During these long years, Pakistan’s ties with the United States deteriorated to such an extent that until the events of September 11, the country was a victim of a host of nuclear and democracy-related sanctions. In response to General Pervez Musharraf’s decision regarding Pakistan’s joining of the US-led War on Terror, which was made without any political consultation, the Bush Administration instantly waived nuclear-specific sanctions. In the past four years of Musharraf’s rule, it has been issuing a yearly waiver in the case of democracy-specific sanctions against Pakistan, which, however, remained a part of the US Foreign Assistance Act.

Now that democracy stands restored in Pakistan, and with a US Congress ruled by the Democrats who have a clear-cut stand in supporting democracies abroad, a major lingering hitch in US-Pak ties should presumably be over. However, as long as the Bush Administration is around the corner, which is a matter of months now, differences in relationship between the two countries over the manner of fighting the War on Terror are likely to crop up.

American Concern

The simple reason for this is that the Bush Administration has invested so much in the military-dominated strategy of the War on Terror that it still expects its allies, particularly a frontline state like Pakistan, to continue seeking military solution to the problem of terrorism. That is why John Negroponte and Richard Boucher were recently in Pakistan: to seek a firm commitment from the new democratic government that it will continue to fight the War on Terror in the manner the regime of General Musharraf has in the past over six years.

The answer it got from the Prime Minister of Pakistan and leaders of the country’s two mainstream political parties, the PPP and PML-N, was straightforward: it is the Parliament which will decide the country’s policy on the War on Terror.

In saying so, the civilian democratic leaders were basically emulating what their Turkish counterparts actually did in March 2003. Then, the Bush Administration had offered Turkey over 40 billions in aid, including billions in grants, as a price for permitting the United States to invade Iraq from Turkey’s south-eastern region bordering northern Iraq. The Turkish AK Party government simply placed in the issue before the Grand National Assembly, which voted ‘no.’

Consequently, the United States had to undertake the land invasion of Iraq through Iraqi border with Kuwait. The Turks did not even agree to the US proposal for using its Incelik air-base in Turkey for conducting air-strikes in Baghdad and other Iraqi targets preceding the ground invasion. In the years following the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Turkey has continued to pursue strategic ties with the United States—which it has to as a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—but its democratic government is still remembered for saying a parliamentary ‘no’ on an issue that it perceived infringes upon the country’s sovereignty and, therefore, cannot duly serve its national interest.

The reason Pakistan could not do the same on September 12, 2001, the day it undertook the historic U-turn on Taliban and decided to meet all US demands to facilitate the US-led war in Afghanistan, was that it was being led by a military regime, which, in turn, was being led by one man.

Perpetuating Dictatorship

No surprise that in the subsequent years, to use Mr Sharif’s words in the March 25 press conference, “Pervez Musharraf used the war on terrorism to perpetuate his rule. No cabinet, no parliament was taken into confidence in any of his decisions. That is why it did not have popular support.”

If a sea change in the politics of Pakistan has been visible since the elections of February 18 elections, one that corresponds to public sentiments, there is no reason why a sea change will not be visible in the country’s policy on the War on Terror. In fact, even before the issue is placed before the National Assembly for a democratic deliberation, just as the Turks did back in March 2003, the major counters of its policy on the War on Terror have already become quite obvious.

As clear from the three statements of the political leadership cited at the start, the new government has unequivocally declared that it will treat the War on Terror as Pakistan’s own war. What is implicit in this declaration is that this war has to be fought indigenously since its repercussions have been indigenous. These repercussions are visible in a spate of suicide and roadside bombings that Pakistanis have become so accustomed to in recent years.

The principal assumption in the new democratic discourse on the War on Terror, which will be chalked out more comprehensively in the upcoming parliamentary debates on the matter, that if Pakistan was led by a democratic regime in 2001 and beyond, the domestic security situation would not have been as bloody as it has been during Musharraf’s era. What the democratic leadership would have done in such a presumed scenario may be what Prime Minister Gillani, Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif have stated in recent days.

Comprehensive Approach

Mr Gillani has vowed to make the War on Terror his No. 1 priority; however, adding that peace talks and aid programmes could be more effective than weapons in fighting terrorism. “Our tribal areas have long suffered from backwardness. There is a dire need for comprehensive economic, social and political reforms because poverty and illiteracy is promoting terrorism.” “We are ready to talk to all those people who give up arms and are ready to embrace peace,” the Prime Minister further said in his first major speech before the Parliament after taking a unanimous vote of parliament.

Prime Minister Gillani also spoke to US President George W Bush on phone, assuring him that “Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism in all its forms” but that a “comprehensive approach” was required, “combining a political approach with development programmes.”

Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif are toeing a similar line, as both have publicly stressed the importance of political solution to the problem of religious extremism and terrorism. For the purpose, according to Mr Sharif, a parliamentary committee would be set up “which will examine this (the issue of terrorism) and international concern and then keeping in view national aspirations will give recommendations.”

Interestingly, the extremist leadership in the country’s tribal belt has welcomed the offer by Prime Minister Gilani to hold talks with militants, only if they give up arms and join the new democratic era. “We welcome the announcement by the federal government to hold talks with Taliban Tehreek to improve law and order situation in the country,” said the Taliban Tehrik leader Maulvi Omar. He also welcomed another landmark decision announced by Prime Minister Gillani: that of repealing the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a legacy of British colonialism.

The Bush Administration also seems to understand the changed ground reality in Pakistan in the aftermath of February 18 elections and its possible political implications on the country’s counter-terrorism approach. During his join press conference with Mr Zardari, Mr Boucher said, “We recognize that military means are not only necessary so we are also providing education and economic opportunities…We have a programme to work out with future Pakistani government for development of tribal region.” The US Assistant Secretary of State hoped that US Congress would pass legislation to support reconstruction and development of tribal areas of Pakistan.

Non-Military Solution

In retrospect, it is clear that in the months ahead, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism/extremism policy will place a greater emphasis on political and economic initiatives and less on the military operations. Obviously, if the pro-Taliban elements continue to use tribal areas as a sanctuary for conducting across the Durand Line insurgent operations against NATO-led forces, then even the new government will be forced to allow military operations.

However, if the preference in the counter-terrorism/extremism policy is for political and economic initiatives, then the pro-Taliban forces in the tribal areas will have no justification to engage in cross-border insurgency in Afghanistan. In this context, the repeal of the FCR, which should be followed by other steps to democratize the tribal belt and make it a part of the mainstream provincial and national political and administrative structure, will make a huge difference in reversing the deadly transformation from Malik to Mullah as a direct consequence of a solely military approach to combating extremism and terrorism in the strife-torn region in recent years.

However, the success of the new politico-economic-dominated approach to fighting terrorism at home and their militaristic implications in the region and abroad would largely depend upon the outcome of the US Presidential election due for November this year. If the Democrats win this election, which seems likely, then there is no reason why Pakistan’s new policy on the War on Terror will not be compatible with a new US approach towards fighting this war.

In such an eventuality, there will be even greater cooperation between the United States and Pakistan in fighting extremism and terrorism jointly, since the policy preference for each government will be not on the use of force as the only way out but on adopting a comprehensive approach, one that lays down more emphasis on diplomacy, dialogue, political reforms and economic development initiatives.

In fact, the fallacy of the use of force as the only simple means to solve a highly complex issue is already visible in the case of the problems facing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pursuit of such an approach in Pakistan’s case has scuttled the growth of democratic leadership. And its harrowing consequences have been visible in settled areas of the country, even in major cities, in the form of suicide and roadside bombings.

Reaction against Extremism

The reason there is a respite in this deadly drama is not because popular forces sympathetic to the cause of extremists have captured political power in the country. There is no doubt that the majority of Pakistanis are religiously conservative. But this does not mean that they approve of the acts of terrorism by a minority of extremists in their ranks. The reason they could not rise against them in the past over six years was that they were confronting bigger challenges such as the denial of democracy in the country.

Now, under a democratic dispensation, if the extremists continue to do what they have been doing before, then from within the democratic fabric of Pakistani society a genuine public reaction should emerge to counter their terrorist designs effectively. The United States, therefore, must not fear democracy in Pakistan. At the end of the day, only genuinely-rooted civilian democratic forces will be able to defeat extremism and terrorism inside the country and its terrorist manifestations across its frontiers, especially in Afghanistan.

A democratic regime always has a range of options available to solve a highly complex problem, which terrorism is. For doing so, however, it needs the help of the international community, particularly in the economic and political fields. Terrorism does not have only a security dimension. Therefore, it cannot be combated with military instrument alone.

It is not that all the Muslim countries faced with extremism and terrorism have somehow failed to solve them through credible, all-encompassing security, economic and political moves. We have a role model for the purpose in Indonesia, which has become a contemporary success story in counter-terrorism in the Muslim world. However, Indonesia could achieve this success only under a civilian democratic dispensation.

The first decision Indonesian leaders took was to declare the War on Terror as the country’s “own war;” rather than it being perceived as “America’s war” in the eyes of Indonesian people. Once they took this decision, genuine success against home-grown extremism and terrorism followed. Pakistan’s new leadership has made this choice, and there is no reason why it will not succeed in defeating terrorism and winning the hearts and minds of extremists

Access column at weeklypulse.org