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Khawaja Asif’s correct stand

Updated September 29, 2017

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has once again spoken boldly about Pakistan’s need to reflect on flawed security policy choices of the past and urgently put its house in order today.

Predictably, Mr Asif’s remarks have drawn criticism from nationalist quarters more concerned with issues of image and how Pakistan is perceived in India or the US than the threat that militancy poses to the future of this country.

Indeed, the foreign minister’s critique of Pakistan’s embrace of non-state actors decades ago began with a familiar attack against the US for encouraging jihad in the region in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That is undeniably true and too few US policymakers are willing to acknowledge that choices made under the umbrella of the Cold War changed the course of history in this region.

History has shown that the fear of the Soviets seeking access to a warm water port through Afghanistan and Pakistan was overblown, but the Pakistani state controlled by a military dictator found the combination of that fear and US-financed plans to wage war against the Soviets in Afghanistan irresistible.

Nearly four decades since the start of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan, championing the cause of jihad in the region is a historic wrong that rivals the mistakes that led to the break-up of Pakistan. Certainly, Pakistan has done much to try and correct the errors of the past; the counter-insurgency campaigns and counterterrorism operations of the past decade have won a hard-earned semblance of stability in the country for which the country’s soldiers and civilian security personnel are owed an immeasurable debt of gratitude.

But true peace and meaningful stability cannot be achieved without the total dismantling of all militant and terrorist networks and sustained counter-extremism programmes across the country.

What the foreign minister has claimed ought to be unremarkable and uncontested. Groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba are no allies of this country and their leaders have agendas that are inimical to the rule of law, constitutionality and democracy in Pakistan.

There cannot and should not be space for such groups to operate, either clandestinely or openly, in Pakistan and the state has no business forfeiting the rights and future of the Pakistani people in the pursuit of some self-defeating strategic goals. What can be debated is the right approach to dismantling the remaining militant networks and deradicalising Pakistani society.

Fears of blowback are not unfounded and where peaceful means can be found, they should be thoroughly explored. Perhaps the government should consider widening the incipient debate to include parliament, the provinces and civil society.

A more inclusive, tolerant Pakistan at peace with its neighbours is first and foremost a victory for the Pakistani people themselves. Bad choices stem from narrowly confined deliberations. All of Pakistan should be invited to debate the country’s future.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2017