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Ownership of the war

June 06, 2011

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TERRORISM is a complex problem in Pakistan, but not if you believe Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf, its followers, or like-minded citizens.

People of their ilk believe that terrorism, and its solution, is exceedingly simple: rather than being autochthonous, militant violence against Pakistani citizens is almost entirely due to the US presence in the region.

The argument goes that until the US invaded Afghanistan, there was no terrorism in Pakistan; ergo, terrorism in Pakistan is solely a response to the US. Furthermore, the use of drones in the tribal agencies — explicitly sanctioned by Pakistani military and civilian authorities — exacerbates the problem. The primary cause of terrorism is, by this logic, located outside the bounds of the state. Consequently the prescription for terrorism to be eradicated from Pakistan is also simple: the US should abandon drone strikes, and the region on the whole. Once that happens, suicide bombings in markets, shrines and mosques will cease.

Empirically, this argument is nonsensical. Terrorism did not erupt in Pakistan after 2001. To the contrary, sectarian attacks, violence against minorities and ethnic conflict was pervasive before 9/11, and will continue to be with us well after the Americans draw down forces in Afghanistan. Moreover, the argument conveniently ignores the complicity of the Pakistani state in nurturing, supporting and countenancing militant violence over a period of three decades.

That said, the notion that Pakistan stands a better chance of defeating militancy once the US's regional footprint becomes lighter is probably accurate. This is because it will allow Pakistanis, and the state that ostensibly represents them, to take greater ownership of the war against militant groups.

Until now, our body politic has been consumed by the irrational question of whether this is 'our war' — as if a war in which 35,000 Pakistanis have died could be anything but. Nevertheless, the view claiming this isn't our war is so ubiquitous that we ignore it at our peril.

The fact is that large segments of our population simply cannot accept an alliance with the US, despite the two states' goals sometimes overlapping, if not aligning. There is a great mistrust of western powers in our country. The crimes that the US has committed against the Pakistani people and state — backing military dictators with aid, abandoning us in our times of greatest need, acting only in its national strategic interest — are actions other major patrons, most notably China and Saudi Arabia, regularly partake in. And yet the latter two are more popular than the US by an order of magnitude amongst citizens and state elites.

This suggests that the material aspects of the relationship with the US — who has done what and when — matter less than the collective interpretations of those material considerations. These interpretations are generally rooted in a nation's collective identity; how it sees itself in the wider world. Decades of effort by the state in the form of changes in the penal code, a rewriting of history textbooks, and the promotion of Islam (and Urdu) to unify a state rife with ethnic and class divisions have borne fruit. A recent poll showed that 59 per cent of Pakistanis consider themselves Muslims first, Pakistanis second. We are, for better or worse, more Islamic Republic than Pakistan.

National myths built upon perceptions of one's identity often impose a linear understanding of events and relationships that do not easily fit those narratives. Thus the US is perceived as an enemy and a threat, and China as an all-weather friend, even though the two behave in similar ways with Pakistan. The key difference between the two is their respective dealings with the rest of the Muslim world; China has not launched repeated wars of aggression and threatened yet others in the Middle East in the last decade.This means that material factors, such as Kerry-Lugar aid or the scores of civilians dying in attacks conducted by homegrown terrorists, are unlikely to change minds. To be sure, public opinion today does consider the Taliban and their ilk more of a threat than, say, three years ago. But when asked to prioritise security threats, the median voter may not consider militants a serious one vis-à-vis India or the United States.

In essence, the broader public finds it difficult to support a war in which we are allied with a purported enemy. In that sense, the military and civilian aid the US provides makes the problem worse, because it reinforces the belief that we are only fighting this conflict on the Americans' behalf, and thus need to be monetarily coaxed into doing so.

But if and when the US is no longer a meaningful presence in the region, it may make it easier for the average citizen to conceive of homegrown militants as a real threat, and thus lead to greater ownership of this war. In turn, broader public support will change the incentives that political parties and the military face.

It is almost assuredly true that terrorism will remain a serious problem in Pakistan, with or without the US around. But once the US exits Afghanistan, and bombings and gun attacks continue, the Imran Khans of the world will, conceivably, be forced to consider that terrorism in Pakistan is mostly a Pakistani problem with mostly a Pakistani solution.

One must not overstate the extent to which public opinion matters. Factors such as our military's long-term follies, an inability to synchronise and coordinate action amongst the army, police and courts; a lack of decisive strategy from either GHQ or the interior ministry — each of these is more crucial to the terrorism fight than what the so-called masses think about the issue.

But public opinion does matter insofar as it provides political parties and the military leadership stronger incentives to take the threat seriously, and fashion an appropriate response. Though cynicism is often warranted when it comes to our military and political elite, the better-than-expected response to the 2010 floods, amongst other examples, demonstrates the capabilities of the state when push comes to shove. Encouraging those capabilities by the public will only be possible when the war is fundamentally perceived as ours.

The writer is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, and blogs at Five Rupees.