Litmus test for the establishment

IT is probably no coincidence that the military operation to reconquer Swat was launched while President Asif Ali Zardari was on an official visit to Washington, having been summoned thither by the Obama administration, alongside his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, for discussions on the United States’ Af-pak strategy. The visit was preceded by  shrill American pronouncements about the precarious situation in Pakistan, including concerns about the safety of the country’s nuclear weapons.

The latter alarm is intriguing, given that just months ago the US was happy to reassure India (and presumably Israel) that there was no risk of warheads falling into the wrong hands. It’s hard to see how the Taliban’s foray into Buner could have affected the nuclear status quo – unless Americans officials panicked in the light of reports about the proximity between Islamabad and the areas under militant control. More broadly, there was concern that the government wasn’t sufficiently serious in its response to the jihadist threat. As The New York Times commented in an editorial on April 27, if the Indian army was 60 miles from Islamabad, the Pakistani military would be defending the country with vigour, "yet when the Taliban got that close to the capital … Pakistani authorities sent only several hundred poorly equipped and underpaid constabulary forces".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, spoke of "a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world". Now, the actions of the Swat Taliban are indeed odious and their aims extremely reprehensible, but their capacity for harming Uncle Sam is pretty much non-existent. Notwithstanding their occasional bluster, petty warlords such as Maulana Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud are essentially a local nuisance. What is alarming, though, is the evident inability of the authorities to track them down.

There’s a widespread perception that the Pakistan army has been so focused on potential conventional warfare with India that its counter-insurgency capabilities are next to non-existent. That’s a relatively benign excuse for its faltering campaigns against violent Islamists, and some American officials have been keen to convince New Delhi to somehow help Pakistan’s military get over its obsession with India. That may not be a bad idea, although efforts in that direction would need to be reciprocal: there isn’t much India can do unilaterally. But it is also perfectly possible that the counter-insurgency operations have thus far faltered on rather different grounds: the reluctance among substantial sections of the army to tackle ideologically like-minded irregular forces. After all, the jihadist groups are not the only dangerous legacy of the Zia-ul-Haq years: that appalling general also left behind an army stripped of its erstwhile secular inclinations.

There is also the question of resources: "Every government official I have met says that the country is bankrupt and that there is no money to fight the insurgency, let alone deal with the refugees," Ahmed Rashid wrote in The Washington Post last week, in an urgent plea for greater American generosity, warning that "the Taliban offensive in northern Pakistan has the potential to become a nationwide movement within a few months". If that sounds like hyperbole, one must also be wary of the opposite: there are no grounds for complacency.

It has been suggested that the dire warnings from Washington – with President Barack Obama and Af-pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, among others,  complementing Clinton’s cri de coeur – helped to shift public opinion, convincing many previously indifferent Pakistanis of the urgent need to stop the Taliban in their tracks. That may be so, although chances are that reports from Swat played an equally significant role in prompting a more overt rejection of Talibanization and all of its implications. After all, the vast majority of those who welcomed the deal between the provincial government and Maulana Sufi Mohammed rapidly realized that it presaged an intolerable level of repression rather than a return to relative tranquillity.

It’s telling, meanwhile, that the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the war zone this month appear to be more or less equally bitter about the army action and the antics of their black-turbaned tormentors.  This is partly a consequence of the modern military tendency to rely too heavily on air power, which is obviously less risky for the armed forces but invariably wreaks havoc on civilian populations – as was vividly demonstrated yet again when Zardari and Karzai’s sojourn in Washington coincided with reports of up to 100 non-combatant deaths in an American air raid in Afghanistan.

Late last month, Zardari was quoted as saying that "security forces could have eliminated militants in tribal areas if they possessed the drone technology". That this is a dangerously delusional attitude was illustrated by counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen’s congressional testimony in the US. The former adviser to General David Petraeus was quoted as saying: "Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same period we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians… The drone strikes … are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism."

Quoting unnamed US officials, The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago that "more than 70 American military advisers and technical specialists are already working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle militants in the lawless tribal areas, but the United States would like to expand the effort". The officials complained that the Pakistani authorities were resisting such an expansion. Contrary to some perceptions, that’s a relatively healthy sign: in the postwar era, almost every country thus "favoured" by the US has had to pay a heavy price in terms of internal strife.

Hillary Clinton, unlike her predecessors at the State Department, has at least been willing to publicly acknowledge that the conditions obtaining in Pakistan (and Afghanistan) today were spawned, to a large extent, by the US-sponsored jihad against the Soviet occupation of Kabul. It would perhaps be too much to expect the appropriate conclusions to be drawn from this partial acceptance of responsibility: namely that American interference in foreign lands, based on hegemonistic interests, invariably produces toxic consequences.

Primary responsibility for Pakistan’s plight nonetheless rests with the nation’s own political and military establishments, and the battle for Swat is something of a litmus test for both. There are reports, however, that in the face of the state’s inability to cope with the flood of refugees, the task of providing relief to the newly homeless has been taken up, among others, by the Jamaat-i-Islami and the supposedly proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa – a salient reminder that even if the battle is won, the war may still be lost.

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