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Preserving the slender thread in Pakistan

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Kaustav Chakrabarti

The arrest of Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square Bomber, resulted in a flurry of public warnings from senior US officials. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warmed Pakistan of ‘severe consequences’ should another terror act be traced back to Pakistan’s tribal areas, while urging Pakistan to target militants in North Waziristan. Broadening the aperture of counterinsurgency is a legitimate expectation of the west and Pakistan’s neighbours. However, issuing public warnings and accusations (Clinton also made a veiled reference to Pakistan not sharing full information about Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar) is counterproductive and will only serve to snap the slender thread of consensus forged against terrorism among the people and the soldiers of Pakistan. Repeated ‘orders from Washington’ runs the serious risk of undoing arguably the most decisive driver behind successes in Swat and South Waziristan – Pakistani ownership of its war against extremism.

The Slender thread – Pakistani ownership of its struggle

Last year’s much-celebrated offensives in Swat Valley and South Waziristan, the nerve centre of the Pakistan Taliban, were not a result of pressures from United States. In fact, they were the outcome of internal dynamics. Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat began after the local Taliban refused to abide by a peace deal, even after their popular demand of Shariah was met. It was Taliban excursions into abutting districts, and not a sophisticated information campaign, that cost them local support; a death blow to any insurgent. On the other hand, Operation Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan commenced after militants linked with the Taliban attacked the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Since then, officers and soldiers killed fighting the Taliban have been afforded the status of shaheed (martyr), an honour that till recently, was exclusively reserved only for those who died fighting rival India. Large number of people gathered to pay homage to the Brigadier who laid down his life defending GHQ, and the young officers who were executed by militants in Swat. When the Taliban attacked a military mosque in Rawalpindi, the entire nation shared the grief of soldiers who lost family members. Surveys prove that more Pakistanis approve of fighting terrorism; what they can’t quantify is the trauma that they’ve gone through before collectively agreeing for the need to slay demons of the past. The silver lining, if there ever is a silver lining to suicide bombing, is this very internalised consensus – a home-grown response to a home-grown problem.

Change in public opinion

Things were not always like this. Just a few years ago, the army’s assault on Lal Masjid in Islamabad, after the mosque had become a haven for militants, hardly generated the public approval that has become the norm since 2009. Deaths of students, most of who belonged to the tribal areas, angered large sections of the Pashtun community and brought them even closer to the Taliban. Not surprisingly, the aftermath of the raid witnessed an unprecedented hike in suicide bombings across Pakistan. The fact that major operations in those years took place at the same time as General Pervez Musharraf happened to be visiting Washington did not help matters either. To put things in perspective, compare 2007 Pakistan with the American experience in Vietnam or, the Indian experience in Sri Lanka – a nation that refused to agree with the war its army was fighting.

Why exercising patience is a wise option

Exercising restraint in the face of Times Square-like incidents might seem counterintuitive. However, the United States should remain patient, especially in such trying times.

The US can achieve greater success with Pakistan by simply lowering its visibility, or rather its noise level. No country likes to take orders from outsiders, least of all the proverbial ‘epicentre of terrorism’ that does not take favorably to American foreign policy in a post-invasion of Iraq world. Coercive public diplomacy with Pakistan has outlived its utility. Rather, by consciously negating the perception that the government of Asif Ali Zardari is a surrogate of the United States – and accentuating Pakistan’s sovereignty over matters internal to it – the coming convergence of militant groups in Pakistan will by itself cause Pakistan to expand its counter insurgency aperture.

Greater numbers of militants have begun to identify the United States as their main enemy. While earlier, Jaish-e-Mohammad confined its attention to Kashmir, and Lashkar-e-Janghvi exclusively targeted the Shiite community, significant elements within these groups have now coalesced to target the Pakistani State, who they all agree is run by ‘remote control from Washington’. The attack on the Marriott in September 2008 was neither against those suggesting a political, non-Jihadist solution to Kashmir nor was it against Shiite traders; it was a challenge to the very state of Pakistan. The growing collaboration of the previously independent militant groups in Pakistan has no doubt increased their collective lethality. However, a game-changing byproduct of increased networking between Pashtun, Punjabi, sectarian, pro-Taliban and pro-Kashmir groups, all aided by al-Qaeda, is that it will compel Pakistan to expand its counter terrorism/insurgency strategy, and that too under the weight of its own security imperatives. By extrapolating these trends, it is not hard to imagine a greater congruence of the counter-terrorism objectives of Pakistan, its neighbours and its western allies in the near future.

Unintended consequences of browbeating Pakistan

By issuing public threats to Pakistan, the United States will inadvertently endanger Pakistan’s brittle consensus, already under attack by elements that continue to blame the United States for all of Pakistan’s problems and insist on halting military operations. Clinton’s remarks will only serve the purpose of those who continue to seek distinctions between good and bad armed Jihadis.

Tactical reasons too call for prudence. Armies the world over have little trouble in smashing rebel camps, tasks that are not dissimilar to conventional warfare. The real challenge lies in what follows – giving a sense of security to the population, preventing a resurgence of militancy, and carrying out fast-track development; tasks that are all manpower intensive. Insurgents, therefore, take it as matter of doctrine to wait till the counter-insurgent shifts his attention to other ‘terrorist hotbeds’, and strike when supply lines thin. There is plenty to learn from Mao -‘…extend guerrilla warfare…, make a front out of the enemy’s rear, and force him to fight ceaselessly throughout the territory he occupies’. Antagonizing more militants will require Pakistan to deploy more troops to control the ‘liberated’ population, who will subsequently demand the army to provide it with security and logistics and, very likely, shift its allegiance if those demands are not met.

The extra troops can come from only one place – Pakistan’s border with India, where tensions have flared since the Mumbai attacks. Here, the best the United States could do is to maintain a safe distance. Lacking legitimacy as an interlocutor in both New Delhi and Islamabad, even well-intentioned efforts by Washington will be viewed as ‘taking sides’, complicating matters further. Confidence building measures between India and Pakistan have a high gestation period. Accepting this fact and showing perseverance will yield better results and reduce trust deficits between the three countries.

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