COMMENTARY
 
Waging War amid Economic Woes
Weekly Pulse
October 24-31, 2008
With an intense security campaign in Swat Valley and FATA, especially by launching tribal Lashkars in Bajaur, Pakistan’s civilian government may have turned the tables against Taliban. But this may turn out to be a temporary success if Pakistan’s current economic woes are not addressed viably—and urgently.

In recent years, Pakistan’s tribal belt increasingly resembled Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions in terms of the scale of Taliban-led militancy, while suicide bombings in the rest of the country, including major cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, killed more people than Afghanistan.

Yet, unlike Afghanistan, which has received tens of billions of US dollars in direct foreign assistance at a number of international donor conferences since early 2001, Pakistan has only benefited from over $ 12 billion of US assistance, specific to its counter-terrorism campaign.

Friends of Pakistan

So, when the Friends of Pakistan—a group of major donor countries, including the United States, Britain, France, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—came into being during President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly’s annual session in September, it was reasonable to expect that credible international monetary help to a country which is as much affected by Taliban militancy as Afghanistan may finally be maturing.

However, if any conclusion is to be drawn from what US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who concluded his latest visit to Pakistan this week after meeting government and opposition leaders, stated at a press conference in Islamabad on Monday, it is that the Friends of Pakistan is no equivalent for any of the international donors’ bid to help Afghanistan fight terrorism, and that the Pakistani government will eventually have no other option but to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shore up its fast depleting foreign exchange reserves.

Boucher no doubt appreciated the government’s steadfast security campaign against Taliban, especially terming the use of tribal Lashkars against Taliban militants in Bajaur as “very impressive.” He expressed sorrow over the killing of nearly 200 tribal elders and said that it was ‘heartening’ that tribesmen were rising against the Taliban.

Simultaneously, however, the US envoy categorically stated that Friends of Pakistan forum would not offer direct financial support. “There is no money on the table. The goal is to put the money where it belongs. It is not a cash advance,” he said, adding that Friends of Pakistan would only help Pakistan in a systematic way to deal with economic issues.”

American Preference

The United States may not categorically commit itself to any significant international financial package for Pakistan, amid a global financial crisis, but it is categorical when it comes to what Pakistan has to do in the war against terrorism.

Boucher’s pronouncements on Pakistan’s role in this war make it clear that the Bush administration in its last months in power would like the country’s civilian government to concentrate on finding a military solution to Taliban-led terrorist wave; rather than exploring alternative political ways to prevent it.

As the US envoy said, the United States aims to modernize Pakistan's military and government to fight against terrorism, referring to ongoing efforts to use American military trainers to teach paramilitary forces operating in the tribal regions.

In late September, Saudi Arabia is reported to have mediated talks between representatives of Afghan government, Taliban and other insurgents in Mecca. During over two weeks of in-camera joint parliamentary session in Islamabad, a number of parliamentary members, especially leading figures from PML-N, JUI-F, and JI, have also called for dialogue with Taliban.

Even though Boucher appreciated the government’s multi-pronged strategy to counter terror, but insofar as negotiating with Taliban is concerned, his remarks quite clearly opposed the exercise of such an option at this stage.

According to the US envoy, terrorism could be addressed “partially by dialogue with those who abandoned violence…There is realization as well that Islamabad and Kabul can also resort to finding a way out through a political process for those militants who are ready to put down their weapons.” However, Boucher added, “We have to be realistic and we will not allow (peace talks) for them to build up their capabilities. Earlier, the agreements were not enforced and this helped the terrorists,” he warned.

The US envoy went on to justify cross-border US attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and said, “The only way we’re going to be able to solve this ... is dealing with this from both sides (of the border), so there are complementary actions.” “There is problem in the tribal areas. These people go to Afghanistan to shoot Americans then they return to shoot Pakistanis. More than a thousand Pakistanis have been killed. The US is always accused but our goal is to work with Pakistan,” he added.

Security Operation

For their part, Pakistani government leaders as well as military commanders do not seem to disagree with the current US preference for building upon the successes achieved against Taliban in Bajaur and Swat through the ongoing intense security campaign, including the use of fighter planes in Swat to bomb Taliban targets.

For instance, during his meeting with Boucher, NWFP Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani is reported to have highlighted the significance of using tribal Lashkars, since, in his view, “the battle against Taliban could not be won without public support.”

Then, on the eve of the US envoy’s visit, Director-General ISPR Maj Gen Athar Abbas said that since the start of the security operation in Bajaur in August nearly 10,000 militia fighters from three local tribes have turned against the militants.

“These tribes, since they know these areas and locations in detail, they have also earmarked the houses of the militants. So wherever they require the support of the military, say by fire or physical engagement, the military responds to that,” he said.

The security forces have also started targeting foreign terrorists in the region. In a recent raid near Darra Adam Khel, some 168 foreigners arrested, who are reported to be Uzbek nationals, probably members of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. In total, the security forces have arrested 600 Afghans and Uzbeks from Bajaur during September and arrested 400 more on October 17 from Balochistan and NWFP.

Growing Concerns

Amid such successes, however, there is growing recognition by government leadership and wider public that the threat from terrorism has overtime assumed grave proportions. Given that, much more needed to be done than merely intensifying security operation in mountainous regions or tightening security arrangements in settled areas.

Amid widespread fears about funding for Taliban from foreign sources, including India, Russia and pro-Indian Afghan authorities, President Zardari has talked about the link between Taliban-led terrorism in Pakistan and its financing through unprecedented growth in Afghan drug trade. He is reported to have expressed his concern regarding this factor during his meetings with Mr. Boucher.

Post-Taliban Afghanistan has become the world’s largest producer of heroin he become a narco-state whereby 93% of world’s heroin is being produced here.” In 2002, opium cultivation in Afghanistan rose from 5,000 acres to 38,000 acres and now the cultivation is over an area of 450,000 to 500,000 acres with the United Kingdom, mandated by the UN as the lead nation to counter drug trafficking as well as the Afghan authorities doing nothing to cap and cut it.

In fact, over time, just as the allegations by US and Afghan officials and Western media about Taliban infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal areas into Afghanistan as a major source of Afghan insurgency have increased, the perceptions in Pakistan about the growing spillover of Afghan instability across the Durand Line into the country’s tribal belt and beyond have grown.

Parliamentary Debate

Pakistan has experienced more than 100 suicide bombings in less than two years and more than 10,000 deaths in tribal and settled areas. It is no surprise, therefore, that voices have been raised during the recent in-camera parliamentary session about the modes operandi of the country’s counter-terrorism campaign.

Instead of creating a consensus on the principal source of national security threat, which the government thinks are Taliban inspired by and linked with al-Qaeda, the parliamentary session has produced divergent voices, particularly calling for separating Taliban from al-Qaeda and to consider the former as Pakistanis and the latter as foreigners.

PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif sees no point in not negotiating with Taliban. It was the PML-N in the first place that called for such a debate. Military briefing on operational aspects of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign and a governmental briefing on its political aspect has not satisfied the former coalition partner in the present regime, along with Senators from JI and leaders and members of JUI-F.

Consequently, Mr Sharif has written to Prime Ministr Yousaf Raza Gilani to create a bi-partisan committee after the end of the in-camera joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate to recommend new ways of fighting the terrorist threat after redefining the its causes. However, it is not yet clear whether Mr Boucher’s recent visit was somehow a reflection of US concern about any possible negative outcome of the democratic debate on the country’s role in the war against terrorism. However, a report published in New York Times on Monday, does suggest that Zardari-led regime may face difficulty in pursuing an intense military campaign against Taliban-led militancy. The report says the debate “organized to forge a national policy on how to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has exposed deep ambivalence about the militants, even as their reach extends to suicide attacks in the capital.

“The tenor of the debate has highlighted the difficulties facing Mr. Zardari and Washington as they urgently try to focus Pakistan’s full attention on the militant threat at a time when the Pakistani military is locked in heavy fighting in the tribal areas,” the report states.

It adds: “Mr. Zardari, as the newly elected leader of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, will need the backing of Parliament and the public if he is to live up to his pledge to fight terrorism, which he made during a visit to Washington this month. But the parliamentary proceedings, which included criticism of a lengthy military briefing by a senior general on the conduct of the war, showed that the political elites had little stomach for battling the militants.”

Economic Vows

The parliamentary debate will in all likelihood be inconclusive. Even if the Prime Minister agreed to create the said committee demanded by Mr Sharif, its deliberations may as well be inconclusive. For the threat from Taliban is unlikely to recede in the days to come. In fact, as they are more pressed in tribal areas, they are likely to up the ante of suicide attacks in settled areas of the country.

What is going to dominate in terms of national decision-making in the days and weeks to come is how to address the country’s galloping economic crisis. The Friends of Pakistan will meet next month in Abu Dhabi.

Pakistan requires an immediate commitment of at least $US 2 billion to restore confidence in the country after an alarming slump in its foreign reserves. Up to $US8 billion more will be needed to repay sovereign debts due to mature in 2009. The country’s foreign reserves have sunk from 14.3 billion in June 2007 to 4.7 billion in September 2008, while the rupee has lost 25 percent of its value this year and the stock market has dropped 35 percent.

If the Friends of Pakistan did not come up with an immediate financial package, then the country will have no option but to approach the IMF. Already, on Tuesday, the government leaders held a meeting with IMF officials in Dubai. The stern conditions imposed by the IMF in terms of new taxes and other hardships could create even greater unrest in the country.

The resulting chaos, amid a worsening threat from Taliban, will surely derail the democratic process revived in the country just this year. Pakistan’s civilian government is in dire need of international financial help for fighting terrorism and saving democracy. However, faced with the prospects of economic recession, the international community may not be able to meet its expectation. Only time will tell us whether Pakistan can survive the consequences of such an international, largely un-intended, neglect.

Access column at weeklypulse.org