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DAWN - Opinion; March 25, 2008

March 25, 2008


War against Pakistan

By Cyril Almeida

AS the transfer of power to the incoming coalition government nears completion, there is troubling evidence that the country’s new civilian leaders are not gearing up to face the threat that Islamic militancy poses to the state.

While the incoming coalition does consider militancy a problem it appears to view the threat as a law and order issue rather than a creeping challenge to the state. Away from the politics of Islamabad, however, there is a consensus amongst security analysts that the wave of suicide bombings across the country is part of a growing challenge to the writ of the state originating from the tribal areas.

The difference between the views of the politicians and analysts appears to boil down to the role of the intelligence agencies. The evolution of Afghan jihadists of the 1980s to today’s suicide bombers via the Kashmir insurgency and the Taliban regime is an open secret and few question the role of the intelligence apparatus in nurturing that progression.

Today, the problem is that neither the civilian elite nor the general public is convinced that suicide bombers are no longer under the control of intelligence ‘handlers’ who have guided the activities of militants for over two decades now.

This scepticism of the intelligence agencies is perhaps a paradoxical result of the state’s success in the recent past in reining in militants operating in Kashmir. It is, however, a false comparison. Crossing the Line of Control and operating in Indian-occupied Kashmir required coordination with the Pakistani military apparatus. Operating inside Pakistan does not require the state’s complicity.

The militants are already here and able to blend in easily with the local population, especially the ‘Punjabi Taliban’. Containing ‘rogue’ elements within this militant structure from operating inside Pakistan is more difficult and there is mounting evidence that elements within these groups are no longer under the control of their handlers.

Consider the case of perhaps the most well-known Punjabi Taliban, Qari Saifullah Akhtar. The former Amir of the Harkatul Jihad al-Islami (HJI) is indelibly linked in the public mind to Benazir Bhutto. In the mid-1990s he was a suspect in a plot to topple and kill the prime minister, while more recently he has been posthumously accused by Ms Bhutto of orchestrating the Oct 18 attack on her caravan in Karachi.

Behind this public image, however, Qari and HJI are firmly linked to the intelligence apparatus. Qari’s organisation, which stretches from Kandahar to Azad Kashmir and from Chechnya to Myanmar and is linked to seminaries in Sinkiang (China), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Karachi, has been nurtured by the intelligence apparatus since its formation in 1980. Writing in 2002, Khaled Ahmed, an expert on militant groups, stated: “[HJI] has branch offices in 40 districts and tehsils in Pakistan, including Sargodha, Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, Khanpur, Gujranwala, Gujrat, Mianwali, Bannu, Kohat, Waziristan, Dera Ismail Khan, Swabi and Peshawar.”

In the wake of the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, HJI was dislodged from its base there and its militants were scattered across the globe. Some settled in Waziristan, while others sought space in the NWFP to continue training for raids in Indian-held Kashmir.

The problem was that even as HJI was put into cold storage by its intelligence handlers, Al Qaeda and the Taliban had an eye on the militants of HJI and similar groups. HJI in particular had old links to Al Qaeda. In 1992, Osama bin Laden is believed to have aided the setting up of the Bangladeshi chapter of HJI under the leadership of Shaukat Osman. In 1998, HJI joined bin Laden’s International Islamic Front upon its formation. Similarly, Qari was close to Mullah Omar of the Taliban and his forces fought alongside and trained the Taliban in camps in Kotli, Kandahar, Kabul and Khost.

In seeking now to take its battle against the state beyond the tribal areas, Al Qaeda has capitalised on its HJI connections and recruited the organisation’s militants, the Punjabi Taliban, to launch suicide attacks in Pakistan’s urban centres.

The intelligence apparatus, at least, is aware of this development and is quietly working to capture these militants. The Asia Times has reported that a Special Investigation Authority (SIA) has been set up jointly by Pakistani and US intelligence to track down Al Qaeda’s latest recruits. The suicide attack on a house in Model Town, Lahore, is believed to be a botched attempt by the militants to strike at one of the SIA’s safe houses.

Publicly, however, there is no discussion of these developments. The problem that the intelligence apparatus faces in exposing Al Qaeda’s new henchmen is straightforward: they are the same elements nurtured to fight in Kashmir and alongside the Taliban. Exposing the new threat is, to put it mildly, awkward.

There is, however, one significant person who is alert to the militant threat: Gen Kayani. According to a report in The New York Times, Gen Kayani’s immediate priority as army chief is to reorient the army towards counter-terrorism. The general is, however, facing stiff resistance from senior officers who believe that the primary role of the Pakistan Army is to counter the Indian threat.

The incoming government must act decisively to support Gen Kayani’s counter-terrorism efforts. Indeed, alert minds in the coalition government will see a unique dovetailing of civilian and army interests. Support the army chief in his bid to take on the militants and two benefits will be apparent. One, politicians will earn the gratitude of the army chief, a significant bonus in this time of transition. Second, if the security situation deteriorates alarmingly Gen Kayani may be reluctant to consider a takeover when the civilian government is solidly behind him.

The PPP must also act cautiously in pursuing the link between Qari Saifullah and the attacks on Ms Bhutto. Given the association between the intelligence apparatus and HJI, a media trial will make many in that apparatus squeamish. While it is imperative that sympathisers of militants in intelligence circles be weeded out, this must not be at the cost of institutional demoralisation. By fighting yesterday’s battles, the incoming government could lose today’s war. It may be galling but it is a legacy of state interference.

The incoming government must instead focus on altering the public perception that there is no real threat to Pakistan from Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Countering this perception is difficult but more openness would be a start. The ban on reporters in the tribal areas and other trouble spots must be lifted. The government fears that images of death and destruction caused by US and Pakistani military action will inflame public sentiment. This is true to an extent; however, blocking access to the area has simply allowed the enemy to shape public opinion.

The government can take a page out of the US playbook and embed journalists with troops operating in the region. The regular attacks troops come under and the views of pacifist indigenous tribes will portray a more complex situation than that of a ‘foreign’ military killing the local population.

Whatever course of action the incoming government takes will be fraught with difficulties. The key though is to act decisively. If the incoming government dithers, the coming crisis will almost make people yearn for the simpler days of a tussle between the presidency and the judiciary.

The first hundred days

By Shahid Javed Burki

MEASURING the performance of a newly installed administration in the first 100 days has become a common practice. The tradition began in the first administration of President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States when he assumed office in early 1933.

At that time America was in the grip of a deep depression, unprecedented in the country’s economic history. Economic turbulence was not unknown in the US; it had marked much of its short history. But the depression of the 1930s was unique and brought a great deal of misery to the citizenry. It also engulfed the rest of the world. Unemployment soared, personal incomes plunged and untold number of people went hungry in most parts of the developed world.

Roosevelt had won the election of 1932 on the basis of promises to bring relief to a highly stressed population. He had convinced the electorate that the laissez-faire approach to economic management would not bring his country and other parts of the industrial world out of depression.

The state would have to intervene. He understood that his performance in office would be closely watched and analysed by those who had voted for him and also by his bitter opponents. Those who had opposed him were of the view that what America was experiencing was a part of the trade cycle, a part of the economic lives of industrialised and industrialising nations. No state intervention was required.

The new president told the American people in his inaugural address that he was determined to move quickly to bring relief to them. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he said famously and then went to work in Washington in the company of men and women who were not afraid to be imaginative and innovative. Roosevelt fully realised that what he managed to accomplish in the early days of his administration would not only determine the direction in which his troubled nation was likely to move, it would also have a profound impact on his political future.

Roosevelt chose that his performance should be measured by what he was able to accomplish or set in motion in the first hundred days of his tenure as America’s president. He recruited a great deal of talent to serve his administration and went about writing a copious amount of legislation aimed at creating a new economic and social order in the country.

The first hundred days turned out to be period of immense activity. It changed the nation’s mood from great despair to hope. It also laid the foundations of what came to be called the New Deal — a set of programmes that provided economic security to the people during periods of economic stress. Many of the innovations he brought to the way America was governed survive to this day. The most notable among these is the social security system that provides money to those who have worked and have reached the age of retirement.

Since Roosevelt’s time the performance of a new regime in the first 100 days has become a commonly used measure, a touchstone, of what is likely to happen during the span of its political life.The situation in Pakistan in the spring of 2008 is perhaps not as serious as the one faced by President Roosevelt in 1933. But it is serious enough to warrant attention to the three things the American president addressed 75 years ago. He took stock of the situation that confronted him and his new administration. He chose the areas in which he wished to move quickly, to increase the confidence of the people in the government and the people who led it.

He wished to give a clear message to the people that the government they had voted in office had the sagacity and the capacity to rescue them from the economic depression into which they had been plunged by the previous administration’s poor handling of the economy. And, third, he chose the instruments with which the government would bring about the needed change.

The new administrations taking shape in Islamabad and the four provinces would do well to follow the three-step approach adopted by President Roosevelt in America in 1933. They should quickly develop an understanding of what ails Pakistan in the area of economics. But economics affects all other aspects of life. The fact that suicide bombing has arrived in the country as a weapon of choice for many militants is partly because of the economic despair plaguing the communities from which they come.

That some misguided clerics and a few radical madressahs are able to brainwash young people to give their lives is too simple an explanation for this phenomenon. Economic deprivation and loss of economic hope plays an important part in motivating the youth to act so desperately.

The politicians now settling down in positions of authority in various capitals should have spent some time studying the economic situation the country faces today. As I wrote in this space last week, they didn’t do that. They spent most of the campaign period convincing their constituencies that the country needed a profound political transformation.

They were correct in focusing on the distortions that had been introduced by various administrations — not just the one headed by President Musharraf but also those that preceded him — in the Constitution of 1973. But they should have extended the area of their concern to include Pakistan’s precarious economic situation in 2007. Not having done this exercise in the period leading up to the elections gives this task even greater urgency at this time.

Having done a diagnosis of Pakistan’s economic weaknesses and strengths, the new administrations need to identify a few areas in which they must move with considerable dispatch. In choosing the areas of attention in the first hundred days, the new administrations should not attempt to be too comprehensive. They should be selective, picking only those areas for state intervention that can promise immediate relief to the population that is now under stress as well as those which would take longer than a hundred days to address but on which action can be started. Sometimes, initiating action can bring comfort. And, finally, the new administrations should clearly indicate how they plan to deal with the problems they have identified.

If they are able to do these three things — take stock of the situation, pick the areas needing immediate attention, and identify the instruments that would be deployed to deal with them — Pakistan’s new political masters can restore the confidence of the people in their own future and in the future of the country.

If they fail — and given the deep differences that still separate the various coalition partners, there is a good chance that may indeed happen — the country will be plunged into a deep crisis of confidence. This failure may be the first step towards becoming a failing state, joining the ranks of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. If that were to happen there will not only be serious consequences for the 165 million people of Pakistan. The impact of Pakistan’s failure will be felt in all parts of the world.

March 25 — a watershed

By Akhtar Payami

DHAKA: March 25, 1971. The incessant roar of gunfire dominated the midnight hour. Petrified men, women and children huddled together in their homes not knowing what the future held for them. Only the previous day they had witnessed the hoisting of a new national flag. Pakistan’s star and crescent ensign had not been unfurled as before.

That had led to a confrontation between the security forces and the ‘miscreants’ agitating for the independence of Bangladesh. What happened on that fateful night became part of our disjointed history. It was target killing of another kind. If you were a Bengali, or looked like one, you faced certain death.

We didn’t know about that until the next morning. I was then living in an apartment in a multi-ethnic, middle-class locality of Dhaka. For years we had lived in amity with our neighbours sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. But feelings were changing. Friendships were giving way to animosity. Suspicion and distrust soured relationships.

When the curfew was lifted for a few hours in the morning of March 26, I stepped out of my apartment to shop for some food for the family. Suddenly I was stopped by a car that screeched to a halt besides me. The occupants asked me brusquely where I was going. When I told them why I was out on the street at a time when most preferred the safety of their homes, they offered to take me to the market which was not far and insisted that I accompany them. I realised that all was not well and they were looking for easy targets.

I then began talking to them in highly Persianised Urdu to establish my ethnic identity. I was wearing a kurta and pyjama that was and still remains the attire of Muslim Bengalis. By then the urban population had discarded the lungi which previously distinguished the natives from the migrants.

After driving a short distance, my ‘benefactors’ realised that this was a case of mistaken identity. They lost interest in including me in their wild killing spree. Hurriedly, they dropped me by the roadside saying they had an urgent chore and therefore could not take me to the market. I thanked my stars.

We never came to know how many people were killed on that terrible night. Later we learnt that among the unfortunate victims were leading intellectuals, writers, professors, artists, poets and exceptionally bright professionals. Among those innocent people were Prof Guha, Prof Thakur Das and Munier Choudhry. They were patriots working tirelessly for the improvement of their homeland. The list of potential victims had been meticulously prepared with the help of the leaders and activists of some newly formed organisations called Al Shams and Al Badr.

Though such allegations were refuted vociferously by the government, it was generally believed that there was a great deal of truth in the rumours that were circulating. The bodies of the slain were later discovered scattered in the vicinity of Mohammadpur, a housing colony which was founded by Field Marshal Ayub Khan for the rehabilitation of Muslims uprooted from India.

The massacre of March 25 backfired. The public anger at the killing of Bengali intellectuals exposed the minority Urdu-speaking population to the vendetta that was inevitable. They were isolated and thereafter lived in perpetual fear that instilled in them a ghetto mentality they could never shed. For years they had chased illusions and false images while claiming a sham superiority in number and intellect that simply did not exist.

Without attempting to assimilate themselves into the local population, the Urdu speakers trumpeted their links with West Pakistan while repudiating the language and culture of the Bengalis whose political aspirations they contemptuously rejected.

Hence in 1971, when the liberation struggle reached a decisive stage, the Urdu speakers vehemently supported the army action. When the Bengali resistance managed to cut off supply of essential food to the cantonment areas, the Urdu speakers stepped in to provide the security agencies with all necessary facilities. Had they not done so, the Pakistan Army would have faced certain death.

March 25 marks a watershed in our chequered history. The following day, furious Bengalis assembled to announced the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state. The proclamation of independence was written on a scrap of paper torn from an exercise book which was read out in an open place at a meeting of top Awami League leaders. Thenceforth March 26 came to be observed by Bangladesh as its official independence day.

Today when our leaders proudly speak of Pakistan having survived for sixty years, they fail to mention that the Pakistan we have today is not the country that was born in 1947. The politicians who followed the Quaid failed to understand the psyche of the people of the eastern wing. The dynamics of political power, economic resources, and language and culture eluded our leadership. This schism existed even at the local level between the refugees from India and the indigenous population.

India had faced a similar problem vis-à-vis the uprooted people from Sindh and Punjab. But they were quickly assimilated in the areas where they settled and the crisis was overcome thanks to the country’s democratic structures. This process was never initiated in East Pakistan.

It is a legacy of this failure that several hundred thousand men and women continue to languish today in the so-called Geneva camps scattered all over Bangladesh. They suffer on account of the sins of their ancestors.

© DAWN Media Group , 2008