COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan’s Window of Opportunity
Weekly Pulse
April 3-9, 2009
The very terrorists who struck Sri Lankan cricketers on March 3 in Lahore attacked a Police Academy in the city on March 30, killing several police personnel, ruining the future of their families and spreading more terror among people. However, the good news is that some of the terrorists, who are all stated to be Pashtun, were captured, including one Afghan national from seen on TV being thrashed and dragged by security officials on the spot.

Interior Advisor Rehman Malik later claimed that the captured terrorist was from Afghanistan’s Paktika province, and that initial investigations had revealed the terror event was planned in Waziristan and its mastermind was Baitullah Mehsud, the local Taliban leader and al-Qaeda affiliate accused of planning and ordering the murder of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Rehman Malik also claimed that the latest incident of terrorism in Lahore might have external links, even though he did not specify any foreign connection.

On the basis of information obtained from the captured terrorists, the authorities have been able to nab scores of other terrorists. Another significant development is that Baitullah himself has claimed responsibility for the second organized terrorist attack in Lahore in a row. Not just this, he has threatened to attack the White House, which means al-Qaeda’s terrorist allies give a damn to what the news US President Barack Obama says or does in harmonizing America’s relationship with the Muslim world.

In the past two years alone, terrorists have killed close to 2,000 innocent Pakistanis. This period has seen terrorism extending its reach from tribal areas to relatively settled areas of the Frontier province and then to major cities, including the country’s financial hub Karachi, its cultural centre Lahore and Federal Capital Islamabad. Consequently, Pakistan today is the world’s foremost victim of terrorism.

It is absolutely clear from the two successive attacks in Lahore that terrorists have taken their violent spree to a higher plane: their attacks are more organized, the terrorist participation is numerically much stronger, and the terrorists are interested in prolonging the terror event and are prepared to die in actual combat with the security forces. All of these stages in the terror process are employed only when terrorist organizations think they are confident and powerful enough to violate the writ of the state with impunity whenever and wherever they want.

Organized Terrorism

What is also absolutely clear are terrorist motivations behind such an organized and potentially most lethal campaign the country has ever confronted. By prolonging a terror event, the terrorists as rational actors wish to gain as much media publicity as possible and, consequently, optimize the spread of terror and fear among Pakistanis. These motivations broadly aim at scuttling the country’s new-found democratic process, ruin its economy, defame Islam as the basis of its creation, and damage Pakistan’s international status as the Muslim world’s only nuclear power and an influential player in South and South-West Asian region.

Something must have happened in Pakistan’s terrorism-ridden security quagmire which has encouraged the terrorists to come out of their hideouts and engage in actual combat with the security forces in the past month. There can only be two explanations.

First, the Awami National Party (ANP) government’s deal with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) leader Sufi Muhammad, which was concluded in late February largely under pressure from terrorism, thereby signaling that the Frontier government was giving in to terrorist demands. On the contrary, last May’s deal by the ANP government with the TNSM, which collapsed as the Federal government disowned it, did not amount to a governmental surrender before terrorists, as it was more of a peace overture by the newly elected civilian rulers to a Shariah-inclined population, offered at a time when the TNSM was yet to destroy dozens of girl schools in the Swat valley.

Second, the lackluster manner in which the Federal government and state security forces have targeted terrorist groups such as TNSM and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Mangal Bagh in South and North Waziristan and other agencies of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas. In this respect, any lack of resolve on the government’s part will only further encourage the terrorists to engage in more organized and bolder terrorist acts such as the recent attacks on the Police Academy and Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore.

The authorities in Pakistan have thus far adopted a piecemeal approach in tackling terrorism, taking on the terrorists either in desperation due to increased external pressure or as a reactionary whenever internal threat from terrorists became severe. The absence of a sustained, firm and intense counter-terrorism campaign has led to a situation where the initiative lies effectively in the hands of terrorist organizations and leaders, and they plan and act at the time and place of their own choice.

Mystery Resolved

The modus operandi of the terrorists who attacked the Lahore Police Academy was similar to a group of terrorists who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team on March 3 in broad daylight in the Liberty Square in Lahore. So, there is already a circumstantial evidence and logical basis to prove that the architect and organization behind the two terrorist events is the same.

Now if Interior Advisor Rehman Malik’s claims based on preliminary investigations are true, and Baitullah Mehsud’s claim of sponsoring the terrorist assault on the Police Academy is also authentic, then the government and security forces have a legitimate and moral national case to go after the most wanted terrorist leader in the tribal belt and destroy his terrorist infrastructure in Wazirristan. In fact, the case for his elimination has been there since the murder of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007. After all, the Crisis Management Cell at the Interior Ministry had then claimed that Baitullah had ordered her assassination.

However, now that the authorities have succeeded in physically capturing some of the perpetrators of the second organized act of terrorism in a month, what needs to be immediately done is to rigorously investigate the captured terrorists and solve the mystery about who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team. Personally, I have no doubt that Baitullah was the architect of that attack as well.

Solving the mystery about the perpetrators of the terrorist attack against Sri Lankan cricketers is extremely important because that attack was an international embarrassment for the country. It jeopardized Pakistan’s status as a co-host of the 2011 World Cup. The perpetrators of this attack showed a total disdain for Pakistani public opinion and shared values—and, by extension, for an institution that is arguably almost a “second religion” in Pakistan. The people behind this attack demonstrated that nothing or no one is too sacred or too universally honoured in Pakistan not to fall a victim to terrorism.

The terrorists did not spare the cricket team of country which had done a great favour to Pakistan by playing cricket after India cancelled the scheduled visit of its own national cricket team to the country in response to last November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Those who can go to the extent of killing visiting sportsmen who play no politics but entertain millions of cricket lovers deserve no public sympathy or state leniency.

Governmental Resolve

The government needs to act fast and forcefully against the perpetrators of such unthinkable terrorist activity. Political instability, economic downturn, and loss of national prestige are some of the implications of organized terrorism which Pakistan simply cannot afford to bear. The loss of international cricket would remove a major inspiration for Pakistani youth and weaken the positive impact cricket, as a symbol of hope, has on guiding youth in positive directions.

Pakistan has not only become the world’s foremost victim of terrorism but its tribal areas are now also perceived internationally as having become “the most dangerous place in the world”—a reference US President Barack Obama made on Friday while announcing the review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, while stressing that it was “not simply an American problem” but “an international security challenge of the highest order.”

President Obama said that al Qaeda and its extremist allies were using Pakistan’s border regions as a “safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, and communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan,” and that in case “there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city it, too, is likely to have ties to Al Qaida leadership in Pakistan.”

The Obama administration’s review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan is variously interpreted, some analysts even portraying it as an extension of the Bush Administration’s policy towards the region—which is quite unfair.

On Tuesday, I had a session with a visiting counter-terrorism delegation from the European Commission. The Europeans see political, economic and humanitarian aid as more important than military intervention in achieving stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is what the thrust of the new US policy towards the two countries in the longer run seems to be.

Window of Opportunity

Despite the fact that the Obama policy review links Pakistan with Afghanistan and treats the war in Afghanistan as a regional problem, there are many positive elements in it that may serve Pakistan’s strategic interests in the region. I strongly believe the US troops surge is only a short-term military means to realize a broader political and resolution of the terrorism-ridden conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

A number of indicators in the Obama Administration’s policy towards the two countries suggest so.

First, President Obama has set a clear, specific and pragmatic goal for Afghanistan by saying, “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or dictate its future, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” This is contrary to the Bush Administration’s unrealistic and vague approach of democratizing Afghanistan.

Second, President Obama has assured Afghanistan and Pakistan a long-term US commitment towards both countries. Central to that effort will be the vast amount of aid and development projects in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two countries have had bitter experience of being abandoned by the United States in the aftermath of the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. The reference in his speech that the United States was “not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future” will assuage the largely held perception in the two countries about America’s grand design of occupying Afghanistan to grab Central Asia hydrocarbon riches.

Third, the new US policy treats the threat from al-Qaeda and its extremist allies as common to the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is why the future of peace and stability in the two countries is considered crucial for the United States. President Obama said that al Qaeda and its allies were a “cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within,” “We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends, and our allies and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists,” he said.

Forth, the new US policy links Washington’s long-term commitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the two countries’ resolve to fight terrorism and realize the goals of clean governance and transparent development. The US aid to Pakistan will not be a “blank cheque,” and the Afghan government can only expect greater American assistance if it is serious in fighting drug trafficking and corruption.

If others are as much interested in Pakistan’s civilian democratic growth, economic and infrastructural development as its people by and large desire, then there should be no problem in complying with the benchmarks set by the donors to measure progress in the areas concerned.

Fifth, the Obama policy review recognizes that there is no military-only solution. “In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target Al Qaida in Iraq. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan,” said the US President. Even while intensifying security operations, the United States will therefore be ready to reconcile with Taliban and other insurgents who surrender arms and are willing to disassociate from al-Qaeda and their hardcore leaders. Such a possibility, whenever it actually occurs, will be encouraging for Pakistan for obvious reasons.

Likewise, the Obama administration wants to overcome US “trust deficit” with the two countries—such as with Pakistan over the drone attacks—and it wants Iran to be part of the UN contact group on Afghanistan, which it wants to create in the near future. The drone attacks in tribal areas seem to complicate the civilian government’s ability to rally around the population in fighting what it calls “Pakistan’s own war.” It would have been better of President Obama had also declared to at least temporarily freeze these attacks. This would have symbolized a new beginning in the two countries’ relationship as one of genuine partnership rather than having competing or even potentially conflicting interests.

Finally, perhaps the most encouraging indicator in the new US policy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is that Washington is tripping of the American aid to Pakistan President Obama has called upon the US Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years ($ 7.5 billion in total) to “build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan's democracy.” Another Congressional bill, once approved, will help establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in the tribal areas to “develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued with violence.”

Likewise, the Obama administration is civilianizing the war effort in Afghanistan. There will be hundreds of US civilian officials engaged in reconstructing Afghanistan and some 4,000 US troops training Afghan security forces, which are set to increase to an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police of 82,000 by 2011.

After-Thoughts

At a time when terrorism has effectively come home for most Pakistanis and become a mortal national danger, the country’s civilian government and state institutions have to adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorist organizations and their leaders. In their rampant quest to violate the writ of the state and scare the population at large, the terrorists have crossed all limits.

Suicide bombers are merchants of death, and the terrorist leadership is not hesitiating to use this merchandize against unarmed civilians and security personnel. What is being defamed and tarnished in the process is not just Pakistanis as a proud nation but also the peaceful religion of Islam.

Taliban burn school girls, yet there is no organized effort by religious leaders to publicly and declare such acts as un-Islamic. Terrorists kill innocent fellow Muslims, and yet no fatwa is issued by the Mullahs that such acts have no justification in the holy Quran. At the end of the day, it is only the religious leaders who can defeat the regressive, terrorist ideology of al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies in the region. The Saudis, the Egyptians and the Indonesians have sent the standards in this respect for the religious establishment of Pakistan.

The crisis in Pakistan is multi-faceted, and it will have to be resolved through multi-faceted “hearts and minds” campaign. While external help may lead to the establishment of more schools, the development of infrastructure, establishment of small businesses and the rest, the qualitative shift that needs to be brought in the mindset of people is a task that can be accomplished only through internal social and cultural reformation.

As I have always maintained, the likely emergence of “dialogue with Taliban (minus al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies)” will upset India as it has repeated undue benefits in post-Taliban Afghanistan. What India says or does in reaction would have to be pragmatically and rationally countered by Pakistan’s leadership, and it is about time we started preparing for such an eventuality. An important issue that needs to be consistently highlighted in our national discourse is to convince the international community, particularly the new American leadership, that unresolved Muslim disputes like Kashmir are a driving force behind regional terrorism, and that the sooner Kashmir is settled the better it will be to reverse the wave of terrorism in South-West Asia.

As clear from above, the evolving trend in international engagement in the region will be one that will seek to resolve the conflict largely through non-military means. The war in Afghanistan may intensify in the coming months, and Pakistan may be required to increase the momentum of its own security campaign in the tribal belt. But this period should be treated as one of transitory significance.

The consequent creation of more and more moderate constituencies among the Taliban-led insurgents and their disassociation from al-Qaeda and hardcore leaders would ensure that Afghanistan stopped becoming a constant source of instability for Pakistan, and vice versa. Pakistan’s strategic interest lies in a stable and friendly Afghanistan, one that helps it benefit from Central Asia’s vast energy resources. And Afghanistan also needs a peaceful Pakistan for securing a stable link with South Asia. Al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies are the only hurdle before the two countries to regain stability and peace--a hurdle which they must cross, especially when the world at large and the United States in particular are willing to offer them so many political, economic and security incentives to accomplish this great task.

When it comes to al-Qaeda-led terrorism, the interests of the region and the world converge. And it is this convergence of interests that constitutes a great window of opportunity for terrorism-infested countries like Pakistan to exploit it optimally and make their mark as one of the most progressive and democratic nations of the century.