THE wave of violence sweeping the north of the country is a grim reminder of how dangerous a place Pakistan has become. We were planning a trip to Skardu later this month, but as our small group included two Europeans, we decided not to take the risk of running into violent extremists.
Indeed, the ferocity and nature of the attacks on security forces carry echoes from Iraq: at what point does a low-intensity internal conflict become a civil war? What the Taliban and their militant supporters in the tribal areas are demanding is little short of an Islamic state based on their own medieval version of the faith. They tried this model in Afghanistan, and now want to replicate it in swathes of Pakistan.
Just as the Ghazi brothers declared independence from the state for their Lal Masjid complex six months ago, their spiritual brethren in Waziristan want to impose their own harsh laws. As they are forcing Pakistani citizens to toe the line at gunpoint, this is clearly an act of rebellion.
Musharraf’s government had signalled its weakness last September when it negotiated an agreement under which it surrendered the right to conduct military operations, or to man checkpoints in the tribal area of Waziristan. Although this was held up at the time as the way forward, in reality the accord represented a tacit recognition that the army, having lost 700 soldiers, was unable to restore the tenuous writ of the state.
But to be fair, the government is caught in a bind: if it uses its full strength, there are bound to be civilian casualties. This inevitably causes a domestic backlash. And when it tries to use diplomacy, the tribesmen take advantage by strengthening their positions and allowing the Taliban to use the area as a base for cross-border operations. This in turn causes Pakistan’s western allies to accuse Musharraf of weakness in the face of the Taliban threat they face in Afghanistan.
Caught in this no-win situation, Musharraf has limited options. Isolated politically, he is incapable of making the strategic changes necessary to meet the challenges the country faces today. Five years ago, he threw in his lot with the clerics of the MMA. He gave them political space by driving secular parties into the wilderness. Some selective rigging saw them come to power in the NWFP and in Balochistan as a coalition partner. In exchange, the clerics used their suddenly expanded presence in the assemblies to allow him to remain army chief. Now, the same religious parties have turned against him.
Any threat analysis needs to identify the most immediate danger and re-order the country’s defences accordingly. Currently, the existential threat to Pakistan comes from the extremists who have taken control of much of the tribal border belt. Although the army has a force of some 80,000 soldiers in the area, our defensive posture is still designed to counter an attack from India. But in the current situation, this makes little sense. We may not have resolved the Kashmir issue, but the possibility of an armed conflict on our eastern border is remote. If anything, it is in India’s interest for Pakistan to secure its Afghan border.
One problem complicating matters is the autonomy given to the tribal areas under the Constitution. For 60 years, successive governments have continued the British arrangement of maintaining a modicum of law and order in the tribal belt through political agents who would bribe and browbeat tribal chiefs to keep the roads open. Most other matters were left to tribal elders. Over the years, this archaic system has allowed local warlords to build up well-armed militias financed by drug trafficking and gun-running. And the army’s presence has eroded the authority of the political agents.
In order to make the constitutional changes necessary to integrate these areas with the rest of the country, Musharraf needs the support of political parties who would like to see Pakistan become a strong, modern nation. This would exclude the MMA clerics who wish to drag us back into the seventh century. But to get the support this move would require, Musharraf would have to reach out to the very politicians he has been hounding for eight years.
Thus, Musharraf needs to make three major policy changes that would allow us to face the real threat we face today. Firstly, he needs to give up his personal vendetta against Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and hold genuinely free and fair elections. Hopefully, this will result in forward-looking assemblies that would make the constitutional changes necessary to bring the law of the land into the tribal areas.
Secondly, the new assembly would be asked to support a settlement over Kashmir that would allow the army to shift significant numbers of troops to the Afghan border. Any state must be able to control its own borders, and by remaining silent spectators to the rapid Talibanisation of the tribal belt, we are in very real danger of effectively losing large tracts of the country.
Probably the most difficult step Musharraf needs to take is to stamp down on the plague of religious extremism that has put down root in Pakistan. The nexus between Lal Masjid and the northern parts became clear when it turned out that most of the militants as well as the students were from the tribal areas and the NWFP. Clerics and fundamentalists who incite their followers to acts of violence must be prosecuted. Madressahs must be inspected regularly as normal schools are, and not allowed to become focal points of hatred and violence. Once the government stops dragging its feet over these necessary actions, it will send out a clear signal.
But alas, Musharraf has often shown that he can talk the talk. What has been lacking is concerted action to demonstrate that he means what he says. Even for a popular and determined leader, the policy changes discussed here would be difficult. For a general trained to regard India as the enemy, and Afghanistan as a means of securing ‘strategic depth’, a U-turn is not an easy task.True leadership, however, consists of seeing the real threat, and then taking the logical steps necessary to counter it, no matter how painful. But I fear that Musharraf is not the man to take extraordinary measures to meet an extraordinary challenge.