Skirmishes in the battle for Pakistan

EVEN a tentative sigh of relief would probably be premature, but the trickle of refugees back to their towns and villages in Swat is a hopeful sign. The exodus was rapid; the return, inevitably, is much slower. And it ought not to be misconstrued as a vote of confidence in official claims that the valley has indeed been cleared of Taliban: it appears that a number of those who have volunteered to be repatriated have done so because they were told that the offer of financial assistance would expire if they hesitated.

Those still reluctant to make the journey are not procrastinating because they are enamoured of the tent cities where they have been put up. They were driven from their homes through intimidation and fear, and it is uncertainty, above all, that is keeping them away. Reports suggest the army did indeed get the better of the Taliban once it resolved to do so, but that the majority of them melted away.

Besides, according to most accounts, the army’s writ does not extend beyond settled areas and the main roads, and there were reports of clashes as recently as last week. And if Maulana Fazlullah has indeed been put out of action, that he remains elusive despite the serious injuries provides cause for concern. The worrying implication is that a long-term military presence will be required to maintain the tentative status quo. Gratifyingly, it appears that the troops by and large succeeded in avoiding civilian casualties in combat. Indefinitely retaining a modicum of local goodwill may prove to be a trickier proposition.

The populace in South Waziristan, meanwhile, is likely to be considerably more wary of military activities. The operation in Swat turned out to be a relative public relations success for the government in Islamabad: it was able to convince significant segments of popular opinion that military action in this context was essential to restricting jihadist extremism. The Taliban, too, came to the party by offering plenty of evidence that their brand of obscurantism does not have a great deal in common with the average Pakistani’s interpretation of Islam. It thus became possible to portray the operation as a patriotic endeavour rather than just another case of doing Washington’s bidding.

It will be harder to convey the same impression in South Waziristan, not least because the US has directly been involved in military activities in that region – notably through airstrikes via unmanned Predators, which ostensibly target militant strongholds but inevitably entail large numbers of civilian casualties. It is not difficult to understand why Lord Bingham, Britain’s most senior law lord until last year, in a recent interview compared drone attacks with landmines and cluster bombs, saying that some weapons were so “cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance”.

Under successive regimes, Pakistan has long maintained an untenable ambiguity about drone strikes, which has naturally fed into the assumption that Islamabad is fighting Washington’s war, while the presumed presence of Al Qaeda leaders and training camps in the region has enabled the US to claim that the territory is fair game in its “war on terror”. Last month The New York Times quoted anonymous US officials as claiming that Al Qaeda operatives were abandoning their Pakistani haven and moving into Somalia and Yemen, the implication being that the Predator attacks had driven them away.

US President Barack Obama has more or less consistently been of the view that whereas the war against Iraq was sheer folly, the Af-Pak venture is a legitimate means of averting terrorist attacks against his country. Although there can be little doubt that Al Qaeda, for whatever it’s worth, has had the US  in its sights, the ambitions of the Taliban for the most part have been local, albeit couched in anti-American rhetoric, if only because that sort of rhetoric has resonance.

It is therefore amusing but not entirely surprising that opponents of Baitullah Mehsud have described him as being in thrall to the US, as well as India and Israel. After one of them, Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, was murdered by his bodyguard and had to be buried in a Shia graveyard in Dera Ismail Khan, his brother, Misbahuddin, defended the government’s Waziristan operation but also declared that the anti-Nato “jihad” in Afghanistan would continue: “Pakistan’s government [has] always supported us in the jihad in Afghanistan,” he said.

Similarly, following the murder in Lahore of the anti-Taliban Barelvi cleric Sarfraz Naeemi, his son was quoted by The Washington Post as launching a diatribe “against the American, Israeli and Indian intelligence services, accusing them of supporting the Taliban in order to destabilize Pakistan and seize control of its nuclear arsenal”.

It wouldn’t matter much, of course, if such outlandish theories were a jihadist preserve. But they aren’t. The US may be the only country that has tried to live up to its commitments in the context of assisting refugees from Swat, yet the military authorities were understandably keen to avoid a visible American presence in the vicinity of the camps.

That the US has over the decades played a seriously deleterious role in Pakistani affairs is beyond dispute, but it has invariably done so at the behest and with the connivance of powerful local elements. Primary responsibility for the nation’s multifarious woes has always been indigenous. The ingrained habit of heaping most blame on outside forces hinders meaningful self-reflection. Mumbai mass murderer Ajmal Amir Kasab’s confession is an invaluable reminder of where the toxic combination of jihadist zeal and extreme anti-Indian prejudice can lead.

Were the nation collectively to gaze into a mirror, many of its worst foes should readily be apparent to the unbiased eye. However, certain distortions of vision have over the years almost acquired the status of a raison d’etre and even 20:20 hindsight is a rarity. This is singularly unfortunate, given that ultimately the struggle for Pakistan must be waged and won – or lost – in the battlefield of ideas.

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