Editorial in Mail Today, New Delhi
10 July 2009
THERE will be a tendency in India to take President Asif Zardari’s remarks on how Pakistan itself created religious extremists “to achieve some short- term tactical objectives”, with a generous dose of salt. The ever- smiling Pakistani leader is known to come up with dramatic statements and gestures.
But even so, there is some value in the man who is president of the country saying it like it is. It adds to creating a climate of opinion which sees these extremists for what they are — terrorists — and not, as the president himself pointed out, as “heroes”. Even today, there are sections of public opinion in Pakistan who lionise these extremists out of some misguided patriotism.
It is a fact that policy- makers in Pakistan, especially the military and the intelligence agencies, saw the Islamic militant groups as “strategic assets” which could be used to obtain influence for Islamabad in Afghanistan and India. It is also well known that the idea of using religious extremists to fight a war against Russian forces that had occupied Afghanistan came originally from the troika — United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
After Nine- Eleven, the US and Saudi Arabia changed tack, but Pakistan has found it much more difficult to do so. Through most of his presidency, the Pakistani military leader and president, Pervez Musharraf ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.
He allowed the Taliban to reconstitute themselves in Quetta and the North West Frontier Province, even while cracking down on the Al Qaeda. Likewise he came down on groups like the Lashkar- e- Jhangvi that promoted sectarian violence in Pakistan, while enabling the Lashkar- e- Tayyeba to relocate itself in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Islamabad promised a turnaround way back in 2002 in the Musharraf era. Hopefully, it will actually take place now in the Zardari presidency. This is the time it has taken for the Pakistanis to realise that the policy of equivocation served only to strengthen the extremists who established themselves in the NWFP. But even now, the main Pakistani effort seems to be directed towards the largely Pakhtun Taliban, while equally virulent groups like the Lashkar- e- Tayyeba are handled with kid- gloves, perhaps because they are still seen as “ assets” against India.
Having taken the first step, Islamabad needs to take the many more needed to wipe out its self- created scourge of religious extremism.
Pakistan’s Assets and Liabilities
By Najam Sethi
10 July 2009
PRESIDENT Asif Zardari has a lot of guts. He has publicly admitted past facts that are a source of much current anguish, pain and embarrassment for the state and government of Pakistan. He recently told a foreign newspaper that Pakistan’s former “assets” — the Jihadis and Mujahideen and Taliban — had now become “liabilities” who were posing an existential threat to the state and country. He delivered much the same message the other day to a gathering of retired bureaucrats in Islamabad: “the terrorists of today are the heroes of yesteryear… militancy and extremism emerged on the national scene and challenged the state not because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralised, but because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives”.
This articulation of “ change” through a “ redefinition” of an old policy was necessary, especially after the “ new policy” of confronting the Taliban was actually executed on the ground by the military last month when it went into Malakand and then into Waziristan. It is, of course, a good sign that the troika of prime minister, president and army chief have met twice in the last few days to chalk out this new policy and send the right signals to all the internal and external players as well as the Pakistani public.
Mr Zardari’s remarks are a bold assertion in the face of the “socialisation” of the Taliban policy that has unfortunately still not come to an end. Indeed, significant elements in the media and those linked to the Taliban infrastructure in the country are still only half- convinced of the wisdom of taking on the Taliban. But events are supporting Mr Zardari. Qari Ilyas Zain, a Guantanamo Bay veteran and an Al Qaeda commander who was behind the bombing of a restaurant in Islamabad in 2008, has been arrested by the capital police.
In Lahore, the police have announced that all the terrorists behind the attack on Rescue 15 in Lahore — which might have been an attack on the local ISI headquarters — have been arrested. Earlier, terrorists involved in the attack on the Manawan police training centre were caught, as were the terrorists who tried to kidnap the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.
The army is killing Taliban in the Malakand region and the drones are doing their bit too — on Tuesday a drone strike in South Waziristan destroyed a stronghold of the Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, killing 12 including two commanders and some “foreign” terrorists.
More significantly, the Taliban “emirate” of Baitullah Mehsud is fraying at the seams. Commanders unhappy with his policies in the past are now breaking ranks and becoming rebellious because the military operation is having the desired psychological effect and more and more Taliban are convinced that Baitullah’s enterprise is not going to ripen into a full-fledged state inside Pakistan. Ever more striking is the development of a counterforce in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan — headed by “ Abdullah” and “ Turkistan” groups — willing to fight the Taliban.
President Zardari has also had the courage to speak up in favour of unconditional peace and normalisation with India.
In a sense, he is carrying the torch forward from where General Musharraf himself left it in 2007 after a radical about- turn in strategic thinking in 2004 about the nature of the threat from India and the future prospects of Kashmir. But there is one difference.
Even as both say that the Taliban is the real threat rather than India, Mr Zardari makes no bones about the need for an unequivocal about- turn in India policy while General Musharraf humms and haws tactically in deference to decades of carefully nurtured “ anti- India sensitivities” in the military. He described the so-called “Taliban policy” when he said: This articulation of “ change” through the “ redefinition” of old policy was needed although it has come only after the “ new policy” of confronting the Taliban was actually executed on the ground.
Three factors are also compelling a rethink in the military establishment about the demerits of the Taliban as future assets in Afghanistan. First, America seems to have dug in for the long haul.
It has strengthened its agreement with Kyrghistan which provides it an airbase for operations in Afghanistan. The summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev at the Kremlin last Monday also produced an agreement that will let the NATO- US forces fly their troops and weapons in 4,500 military flights per year across Russian territory, enabling the US to further diversify the crucial transportation routes used to move troops and critical equipment to resupply international forces in Afghanistan.
The joint statement after the summit was significant: “The two countries (Russia and US) will work together to help stabilise Afghanistan, including increasing assistance to the Afghan army and police, and training counter- narcotics personnel.
They will work together with the international community for the upcoming Afghan elections and they will help Afghanistan and Pakistan work together against the common threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.”
SECOND, the recent troop surge in Helmand and the intensification of the drone attacks on Pakistani- Taliban positions in Waziristan suggest that both Pakistan and America now see a common enemy.
Third, President Zardari has openly said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a “friend” with whom the government of Pakistan is prepared to work in the long run. This means that Pakistan will not try to destabilise the forthcoming Afghan elections which are sure to return Mr Karzai as president for another term. This is a far cry from the military establishment’s earlier point of view of Mr Karzai as a long- term Indian asset.
All this is for the good of the region. The best part of the news is that India is no longer prickly at the mention of a solution to Kashmir by the Pakistanis or even the Americans. Indeed, a string of American and British diplomats have gone to India to say as much. This is because India knows that the solution that everyone, including Pakistan, has in mind for Kashmir is one which India can live with — maximum autonomy minus secession.
The writer is the editor of Friday Times (Lahore) and Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan.