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Our devil’s bargain

November 03, 2006

ONCE again our helplessness in dealing with our American friends stands fully exposed. A missile hits a religious school in the Bajaur Agency close to the Afghan border killing 83 persons, mostly young students, and the army command is reduced to spinning a cover-up story which everyone has difficulty swallowing.

Army spokesman Major Gen Shaukat Sultan, who deserves national sympathy for the visible agony he undergoes when in the line of duty, he has to churn out creative fiction, says the school was a ‘militant’ training facility and that the operation was carried out by the Pakistan military.

Going one step further, and showing more zeal than discretion, Gen Musharraf declares that anyone saying that the persons killed in the seminary were not militants is lying. The White House press secretary, Tony Snow (formerly of Fox News), praises the general for his “determination” in fighting terrorism. More such certificates of approval and our embarrassment would be complete.

If only the cover-up story had held. It was blown by ABC News which, quoting sources in the intelligence community, reported that the missile was fired by an American Predator drone and that the target was the Al Qaeda Number Two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

We have had trouble because of Zawahiri before. In January this year a house in the village of Damadola, also in Bajaur, was struck by a missile, the target again Al-Zawahiri who — wait for this — was expected for dinner, the first we knew that the Al Qaeda leadership had leisure enough to accept dinner invitations in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Eighteen people died in that attack. Of course we covered up for the Americans, protesting loudly that our sovereignty had not been violated. All the evidence suggests we are doing so again, owning up to another misfired American adventure. We should be defining the limits of collaboration while the army command would be doing itself a favour if it could decide how much embarrassment it is legitimate to earn because of Pakistan’s ‘frontline’ status.

The tribal belt is already aflame with anti-American sentiment. We could have done without this latest outrage which has caused more anger to spread across the entire region bordering Afghanistan.

Only with great difficulty was a sort of peace brokered in North Waziristan back in September, bringing much-needed respite to the army which found itself in a quagmire. A peace agreement was also about to be concluded in Bajaur, indeed on the very day of the killings in the Ziaul Uloom seminary. It has now gone up in smoke and even the Waziristan agreement, unless our luck holds, is in danger of unravelling.

Why was Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti killed in Balochistan so easily? Because the force at his disposal was no match for the army. Why did the army, through the Frontier governor Lt Gen. Aurakzai, conclude peace with the militants of North Waziristan? Because the army tried to pacify North and South Waziristan by force and failed dismally, suffering heavy casualties. Waziri and Mahsud resistance had proved too hot to handle.

Peace, in other words, was dictated not by a sudden onrush of wisdom but sheer necessity. Now our American friends, flailing in the dark, chasing shadows in both Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the world amazed with their incredible capacity for blundering, have thrown another oil-soaked fire-rag in Pakistan’s direction, leaving us to deal with the fallout as best as we can.

Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and North Korea have learned to handle American hostility. We are having a hard time handling American friendship.

We are still living with the consequences of General Ziaul Haq’s American-assisted, American-sponsored Afghan jihad, a huge cold war victory for the United States, a disaster for us. The militancy in our tribal regions is a child of that experience.

Now we are pawns in another American-driven venture, a misdirected crusade which far from bringing peace is leading to more militancy and violence. Before the army went into Waziristan, there was only one Nek Muhammad (later killed in another drone attack). We have now lost count of the Nek Muhammads since created.

It is not our fault the Taliban are gaining strength in Afghanistan. The Americans misjudged the whole situation by forgetting that Afghanistan in recent history has not been a land hospitable to foreign invaders and occupiers. They thought they had gained an easy Afghan victory in 2001, as indeed the Russians did when their army blundered into Kabul in Dec, 1979, little realising that the Taliban were doing what guerrilla armies do in the face of superior force: retreat and lie low until strong enough to take on the enemy. The initiative has now passed to the Taliban who withdraw when they have to and strike when they can.

With Iraq already a nightmare and Afghanistan turning into another endless stretch, the US is hardly in a position to tell us what to do. Indeed, to judge by the current record, following its prescriptions is the surest recipe for disaster. The Talibanisation of North and South Waziristan, and now the threatened Talibanisation of Bajaur, are direct outcomes of the course we were led to pursue under American pressure.

True, for better or worse we entered into a bargain with the Americans in what was billed as a “war on terror” but which increasingly looks like an assault on common sense. We are being paid for our pains — although the argument is still fresh in Pakistan that we could have concluded a better deal — which puts us under an obligation to work towards Afghan stability by curbing militancy along the Afghan border. This is also in our long-term interest because in our tribal belt it is the writ of the Pakistani state which should prevail and not the writ of the Taliban.

Encouraging or assisting the Taliban is not in our interest. We have enough bigotry and extremism of our own. We can do without any contribution that the Taliban can make in this regard. We should curb the cross-border movement of militant elements wherever we can. If there are training camps of any sort on our soil we should do what we can to uproot them.

But let’s also remember that the problem of religion-inspired extremism is linked to our quest for finding the holy grail of democracy. Extremism is not just a problem in the tribal areas. Strange notions of jihad and strategic depth lurk in the mindset of the army command and the intelligence services.

Rooting out these notions requires not the spurious nostrums of moderation at which Gen Musharraf has become so skilful but a move towards a genuine democracy in which the army’s sole function should be to look after national defence and confine itself strictly to its role under the Constitution. Military rule has been the mother of extremism in Pakistan. Let us never forget this.

There are so many jihads waiting to be fought — against disease, poverty, illiteracy, religious bigotry — that we should have no time or inclination for any other. We must return to being a normal country, working to improve our own condition rather than think of putting our hands to solving the problems of the universe.

But we must approach the problem of militancy our own way, taking account of history and the special circumstances of the tribal areas rather than allowing ourselves to be pushed into hasty and ill-conceived actions because of the feverish workings of American desperation. We had trouble enough in Waziristan and now the Americans have endeavoured to destabilise Bajaur for us. The Pakistan army cannot afford to dig more holes for itself. The president of Pakistan should consider whether it becomes him and the office he holds to become an unthinking apologist for American folly.

We should be friends with America and derive advantage from this friendship. But where our vital interests are concerned, we should not take our marching orders from it. We should rely on our own judgment and learn to think for ourselves.