22 August, 2014 / Shawwal 25, 1435

A very big deal

Published Dec 06, 2008 12:00am

OFTEN, a gambler who is down to his last pile of chips will bet them all on a worthless hand in a bluff to recover his losses.

Pakistan looked a bit like this desperate poker player when the government announced that it would pull its troops out of the tribal area, where they are engaging Taliban insurgents, in case India moved elements of its army close to the border.

Our soldiers are fighting a dangerous enemy because of an existential threat Pakistan faces in this area, and not because we are doing anybody any favours. But by raising the spectre of an open, undefended border, Pakistan is effectively posing an indirect threat to American and Nato forces in Afghanistan. This implied threat, the government hopes, will cause Washington to bring pressure to bear on New Delhi to stop any escalation of the situation. But the United States has little leverage in India, and currently there is a lot of sympathy for the loss of innocent lives India has suffered during the recent terror attacks in Mumbai.

Years ago, a western diplomat wrote that Pakistan was the only country in the world that negotiates with a gun to its own head. Our argument, long familiar to aid donors, goes something like this If you don`t give us what we need, the government will collapse and this might result in anarchy, and a takeover by Islamic militants. Left unstated here is the global risk these elements would pose as they would have access to Pakistan`s nuclear arsenal.

We have been getting away with this argument for a long time, mainly because a failed, fragmented Pakistan is everybody`s worst nightmare. There are still Pakistanis around, in and out of uniform, who seriously believe that India secretly would like to see the break-up of their country. They need to wake up to reality. Many Indians have written to me, saying that they are glad India was partitioned in 1947, so it now has fewer Muslims to deal with. More to the point, the last thing India wants is to share a common border with Afghanistan. The turmoil there is unlikely to end anytime soon, and our army would be of far more use on that border, dealing with the militant threat.

While defending Pakistan recently, our foreign minister was quoted as saying that we were a “responsible state”. And when India presented our government with a list of the names of 20 people accused of terrorism against our neighbour, spokesmen immediately demanded to see the proof against them. This legalistic approach would have carried more weight had the Pakistani state shown this kind of respect for the rule of law in the past. But given the frequency with which ordinary Pakistanis are picked up and `disappeared` by organs of the state without any vestige of due process, the claim to responsibility rings a little hollow.

Indeed, a responsible state would hardly allow the likes of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammad; Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-i-Taiba; and the Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim to run around loose. Every time the West raises a hue and cry following a particularly vicious terrorist attack, a few militant leaders and their followers are picked up, only to be released once the furore has died down. This sends a clear signal to the security agencies that these terrorists are above the law. So why should they risk their lives arresting them, only to see them being released a few weeks later?

A Google search for terrorist groups in Pakistan reveals an appalling who`s who of killers, together with the incidents they have been involved in. Going over this bloody history made me realise just how deeply rooted this problem is in Pakistan. Ever since Gen Zia encouraged the establishment of sectarian and ethnic terror groups, we have witnessed a mushroom growth of terrorism over the last two decades. And since many of these groups have supported military governments from time to time, they have acquired important links in officialdom, as well as with some politicians.

But above all, these groups have been important pawns in the army`s proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Now, having gained prominence as well as financial support, they are not going to disarm and go home just because their existence has become an embarrassment to the Pakistani establishment. It is important to remember that there is now a lot of money flowing into the coffers of these groups. Leaders drive around openly in expensive SUVs, while the rank and file are fairly well paid. These are all people who are not qualified to get the meanest of jobs under normal circumstances.

The existence of these dangerous groups, and the impunity with which they have been operating for two decades, all serve to underline the steady meltdown of the Pakistani state. Instead of treating the cancer of terrorism as a law and order issue, the army has viewed it as a political and military opportunity. Lacking legitimacy and a constituency, both Zia and Musharraf depended on religious groups for support. These parties, in turn, gave militants cover. Thus, the Islamic coalition of the MMA allowed the Taliban to flourish when they governed the Frontier province between 2002 and 2007. We are now struggling with the fallout of their policies.

As we are caught up in this vortex of ideology and violence, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. For instance, when Prime Minister Gilani declared that he would send the head of the ISI to India, this move was widely welcomed. All too soon, however, the reality of the power balance in Pakistan raised its ugly head, and the offer was withdrawn. Clearly, the army did not relish one of its own being placed on the mat in New Delhi. Nevertheless, the instinct was the right one, and had the PM been able to prevail, General Pasha`s mere presence in India could have helped defuse much of the tension.

Many Pakistanis have become so accustomed to terrorist attacks on their soil that they have forgotten that this is not the norm elsewhere. Instead of asking “What`s the big deal?” they should be putting themselves in the place of the victims. If, as seems very likely, the group that attacked Mumbai was trained and armed by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba, it is a very big deal indeed.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

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