Time to listen to saner Voices by Imran KhanThe issue of militancy and the Taliban continues to be framed
erroneously — most recently as a variant of the “with us or against us”
choice: either one supports the military operation in Swat and Fata or
one is supportive of the Taliban. Just as the Bush choice has been
largely responsible for the chaos and radicalisation in the Muslim
world, so the Pakistani variant doing the rounds currently misses the
real issue. After all, there is and always has been a consensus in
Pakistan that militant extremism should be crushed and the writ of the
state and government established.
The disagreement is over how to go about achieving this objective.
Should there be an attempt to go to the root causes of militancy and
then to resolve the issue through a multi-pronged strategy including
dialogue backed by state power as well as policies to bring in the
marginalised population by giving them a viable stake in the system? Or
does the solution lie in simply unleashing indiscriminate military
force to establish the writ of the state while the roots of the problem
continue to fester?
Having just returned from a visit to the US organised by the Pakistani
community to raise money for Shaukat Khanum Hospital, as a result of
meetings arranged by the community I had the opportunity to meet with
Senator John Kerry and Congressman Gary Ackerman, both influential
players in the context of our region. I was surprised to find both
quite open to rethinking their present Afghan strategy. In fact, they
have realised that the continuation of the military-centric Bush
approach has failed and new options must be examined. There is,
therefore, a need to engage with those in the US seeking more viable
alternatives for this region as well as with members of the Obama
administration. A meaningful engagement can be done through sending a
delegation of experts who understand the tribal areas and Afghanistan -
not simply the self-anointed “experts” — referred to by one analyst as
“native Pakistani informer(s) — who speak what the traditionalists in
the US want to hear. I am convinced that a powerful presentation can be
made about the need for a US exit strategy from Afghanistan and I
believe the Obama Administration can be made to see the following
* It is costing the $60 billion a year and costs will go up with the
surge - and with no guarantee of a turnaround. Simply sending more
troops into a multidimensional conflict will not turn the tide in one’s
* The longer this war goes on, the more chances of a radical takeover
in Afghanistan and the greater the threat of radicalisation amongst the
Muslim youth. These youth, especially in the Western countries, pose a
greater danger to these countries including the US than al-Qaeda.
* The situation in Afghanistan has been moving in favour of the Taliban
and deteriorating for Nato and US forces since the past few years.
The question is why our government does not realise that there has to
be a new strategy as the current one is sheer madness? The answer is
that there are those in our leadership who are quite willing to go
along with the current policy of spilling Pakistani blood — both of the
soldiers, civilians and militants — as long as they can get dollars and
US support. Even more crucial, all the issues of bad governance and
corruption (400% rise in 3 years) are papered over as the leadership
hides its incompetence under the counter terrorism banner.
Like their predecessors, they also know that if things go out of
control in Pakistan, they can always take off to western capitals where
their wealth and properties await them.
Beginning from zero militant Taliban in 2004 before the Waziristan
operation, today there are around 30 Taliban groups (according to the
presentation given by the army to the Parliamentarians). No one has any
idea who is backing which group; what percentage are fighting because
of Pushtun solidarity; how many belong to the old jehadi groups created
at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; how many are
actually criminals and unemployed; how many are paid by the enemies of
Pakistan to destabilise the country; and so on. In other words, there
is an odd amalgam of militants and criminal elements seeking to
destabilise the Pakistani state.
How can military operations be supported when our soldiers die in vain,
when each operation produces more militancy as well as increasing the
suffering of the local civilian population? While the government
correctly claims that drone attacks are counter productive and produce
more militancy, would the Pakistan military’s aerial bombardment with
its indiscriminate “collateral damage” also not have the same effect?
Herein lies a basic contradiction in the government’s policy. Those who
are suffering the most are the people of the tribal areas and Swat -
with over three million people displaced, their homes, livelihood and
children’s education destroyed.
What about the forgotten Bajaur operation earlier this year when
500,000 civilians were displaced and our soldiers suffered many
casualties. Today, the Taliban control the same areas that the army had
removed them from earlier. The most disconcerting aspect of the present
military action is that no one is interested to know what needs to
happen for us for “victory” to be declared.
As happened in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, this “war”
could go on endlessly and spread across the country. After all, a brief
look at the history of the tribal areas reveals how the British were
embroiled in an unwinnable war for 80 years and before them the tribals
confronted the Moghuls for 69 years.
Can Pakistan afford these operations for even the next five years? How
will we deal with the continuing flow of displaced people - or how long
will the IDPs survive living as nomads in their own country? How are we
planning to stop the radicalisation of the youth in such conditions?
Where will we find the resources to eventually rehabilitate these
displaced families, given the massive infrastructure damage? What about
the impact on the economy if these operations continue endlessly?
Already the political situation in the NWFP is getting worse by the
day. We have created perfect environment for our enemies to exploit
tensions emerging from the current chaos- ethnic, provincial, religious
(shia/sunni, deobandi/barelevi) and class (as in Swat).
The critical question is: what is the solution? In Swat, despite being
a severe critic of the timing and nature of the military operation, now
that it is in full swing, it has to go on till the writ of the
government is established. Otherwise there will be even more anarchy as
all existing infrastructure has been destroyed. But there is still a
need for a more targeted focus of the military operation and a gearing
up of the civil administration including the police and local judiciary.
The solution lies in pulling our troops out of Fata gradually and
simultaneously reviving the tribal structure. But this means not only
withstanding political pressure from Washington but also doing without
US dollars - both of these seem beyond the capability of the current
However there are voices within the US political and administrative
structures that are becoming more sceptical about the US policy in
Afghanistan. For instance, Graham Fuller, the former CIA station chief
in Kabul wrote in the International Herald Tribune that there was no
military solution to the problem in Afghanistan. According to him,
Pakistan was “cracking under the pressure” put on it to “do more” by
the US and that the Pakistan security forces could control the
militancy within its borders provided Nato leaves Afghanistan. If sane
voices in the US can see the writing on the wall, why is our leadership
still going down a suicidal course for their own vested interests -
destroying the military and the nation in the process?