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Obama and Pakistan


President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is this week on his first visit to the United States since coming to office. It comes at a critical time for Pakistan and for America’s relations with that nuclear-armed, but failing, country in South Asia.

Recent escalation of violence in Pakistan has brought grim warnings from senior American officials in Washington about the viability of the Pakistani state. A month ago, General David Petraeus, the top military commander in the region, testified in the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘militant extremists could literally take down the Pakistani state’ if left unchallenged. On the same day, a senior Pentagon official, Michele Flournoy, warned of higher US casualties in Afghanistan in the coming year. And Admiral Eric Olson, chief of America’s special operations commandos, described the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan as ‘increasingly dire’. According to one report, General Petraeus has privately told the White House that the administration has as little time as two weeks to determine its future course of action in Pakistan as the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari struggles against an insurgency that is growing alarmingly.  

For eight years under the Bush-Cheney presidency, the United States and its European allies were consumed in the fortification of the Western world following September 11, 2001. A vital part of this overwhelmingly militaristic approach was to remake West Asia, resulting in war and occupation in the region during the rest of the decade.

Amid all the media coverage of the threat to the West, what has often been missed is the eastward proliferation of terrorism, throughout Pakistan and to India and beyond. The Council for Foreign Relations, a New York-based research institution, while acknowledging the existence of ‘local terrorist groups’ in the Indian part of the disputed region of Kashmir, goes on to say that ‘most of the recent terrorism has been conducted by Islamist outsiders who seek to claim Kashmir for Pakistan’.[1] According to the organization, many militants involved in attacks across the border in India received training in the same madrasahs where Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters have studied since the 1980s. Some received training in Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled the country. Many more represent an indigenous phenomenon in Pakistani society. How did things reach such a point?

With the advent of the 1990s, the rationale for arming militant Islamists to fight the Soviet Union had ceased. The Cold War had ended. The Soviet state had disintegrated and the Najibullah regime in Kabul had collapsed by 1992. The culture of violence had become embedded in Afghan and Pakistani societies. By the mid-1990s, the phenomenon of terrorism had mutated into something far more serious with the emergence of the Taliban, helped by Pakistan. After years of active intervention, the West had moved on to other priorities, leaving the Afghan chaos to its regional allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

It is true that there was not another 9/11-type attack on mainland America during the administration of George W Bush. But this ‘success’ must be seen in perspective, not in isolation. Historically, attacks by external forces on the United States are rare. Furthermore, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and activities of anti-state private militias point to a domestic phenomenon in parts of America. Beyond the US shores, the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004 and Bali and London a year later meant that the West continued to be targeted elsewhere. And thousands of US and allied soldiers continued to die or be wounded in America’s foreign wars.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the conversion of local supporters of the Taliban to an indigenous group under the umbrella of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has been the most significant development responsible for the proliferation of violence.[2] It began between 2002 and 2004 when Pakistan’s armed forces were busy capturing ‘foreigners’ to hand over to the Americans for money and carrying out military operations in areas linked to al-Qa’ida. Many of these operations were against groups in Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province, not allied to al-Qa’ida or the Taliban but against those demanding more autonomy and a greater share of income from local resources, principally Baluchistan’s gold, copper and coal mines and vast reserves of natural gas. Washington compensated the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf for prosecuting ‘anti-terrorism’ operations inside Pakistan.

 

 

In such turbulent conditions, many local militant groups started to join ranks in Pakistan’s frontier areas instead of merging into the Afghan Taliban. They developed their own distinct identity, sometimes launching attacks, at other times cutting deals with the authorities. According to the Council for Foreign Relations, the Taliban of Pakistan had become an effective fighting force of between 30000 and 35000 strong by 2008.[3] They would network between themselves, as well as with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida when it suited them. Their aim – to oppose Pakistan’s military and civilian government and to confront the US-led forces in the region. Today, the Pakistani Taliban have close affiliations with Jamiat ulema-i-Islam, a religious party which insists on the strict enforcement of Islamic law.

The leadership of Pakistan-based Kashmiri militants had connections with al-Qa’ida since before the advent of the Pakistani Taliban following the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The leader of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen group, Farooq Kashmiri Khalil, was a signatory to the 1998 declaration of war by al-Qa’ida. Quoting American and Indian officials, the Council for Foreign Relations says that Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Muhammad group founded in 2000, is suspected of receiving money from al-Qa’ida. Another group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been active in the region since 1993.

Barely three months after 9/11, the Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001. The Indian authorities accused Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad for the attack, in which more than a dozen people were killed, including all five attackers. A series of attacks followed. The most audacious was the three-day carnage in Mumbai, the main commercial city of India, in November 2008. Some 170 people of many nationalities died and over 300 were wounded in a coordinated orgy of violence. All but one of the ten gunmen were killed. There is plenty of evidence provided by experts and media reports in the United States, India, even Pakistan, that the attackers came from Pakistan. The group is said to have belonged to Lashkar-e-Taiba.  

After vehement denials of Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attack, Islamabad, against mounting evidence, admitted that the lone survivor among the gunmen, twenty-one-year-old Ajmal Kasab, was a Pakistani citizen.[4] As early as December 1, 2008, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that he had been trained in marine warfare at a camp in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-held Kashmir, part of a group of about 40 militants who had received commando training. The November 2008 carnage in Mumbai was the most high profile in a long sequence of attacks across India going back to the early 1990s.

The monster of terrorism in Pakistan is a consequence of policies followed over decades. At the heart of these policies has been a tendency to pursue high risk strategies, together with a state of denial. When the Pakistani state was established in 1947, the idea of a separate nation for the peoples of the Muslim faith of British India was not universally supported. Pashtuns under the leadership of Abdul Ghaffar Khan opposed partition. For years after the establishment of Pakistan, the Pashtuns and other minorities continued to challenge the domination of the most populous province, Punjab, in the country.

The response of Pakistan’s ruling military-political elite has been suppression of the country’s minorities. It happened in two ways: by coercive military methods and by playing the ‘Islamic card’ in national politics. When minorities made demands for greater autonomy, they have been portrayed as working against Islam and encountered military force.

The fear of internal collapse is one of the main forces that determines the conduct of the military-political elite of Pakistan. The other is the perceived fear of India. Internal suppression at the expense of the rule of law and a national accord fuels resistance. And violence is diverted towards ‘external threats’ – India on one side, Afghanistan on the other. For decades, this has been the essence of the high risk strategy of Pakistan’s military-political establishment, especially its military intelligence organ, Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

The crisis for Pakistan has thus become the crisis for the entire region and beyond. Islamic fundamentalism encouraged by the military ruler, General Zia, to fight America’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was devastatingly effective in defeating the Soviet Union and its client regime in Kabul. But the phenomenon undermined the rule of law and inflamed religious and sectarian violence. It has had a corrosive effect on national institutions. Pakistan is a failing state.

The election in November 2008 of Barack Obama, the first black to become America’s president in its history, was a revolutionary event. A man of undoubted intellect, Obama’s victory came with enormous odds and a strong desire for change. A leader who emerges in such conditions faces opposing demands. Like the end of the Vietnam era in the mid-1970s and the Cold War in the 1990s, the world’s pre-eminent power looks for peace to recover and rebuild. It cannot make a hasty retreat. So, the preference under the Obama presidency – to work for the beginning of the end of war and to switch to tough diplomacy. The task is turning out to be a lot harder than Obama and his team had thought.

Deepak Tripathi, former BBC correspondent and editor, is now a researcher and an author. His works can be found on http://deepaktripathilibrary.wordpress.com/. His forthcoming book, Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to be published by Potomac in the United States in November 2009.

 

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[1] See ‘Kashmir Militant Extremists’ (Council for Foreign Relations, NY, available on www.cfr.org/publication/9135/).

[2] See Hassan Abbas, ‘A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’ (Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, West Point, January 2008).

[3] Jayshree Bajoria, ‘Pakistan’s New Generation of Terrorists’ (Council for Foreign Relations, February 6, 2008).

[4] See Pakistan’s English daily, Dawn, for ‘Surviving gunman’s identity established as Pakistani’, January 9, 2009.

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