Monday, August 4, 2008

Duplicity along the Durand Line By Irfan Husain

WHILE speaking to the media in the US on his recent visit, Prime Minister Gilani is reported to have said that one reason Pakistan’s fight against extremists was going badly is that our forces lacked “modern equipment”.

But more than weapons and communication equipment, what we really need are equal measures of political will and clarity of purpose. And this infusion of reality and common sense is not likely to be part of the American aid package. Although several visiting western officials have arrived with a blunt message for Pakistan to ‘do more’, they cannot really alter the mindset of our generals, or their hawkish civilian cheerleaders in the media.

The truth is that since the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was toppled in 1977, it has been the army that has shaped the destiny of Pakistan. In particular, our Afghan and Kashmir/Indian policies have been determined in army GHQ and ISI headquarters. Civilian input has been virtually zero. When Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif tried to make peace with India, their governments were soon sacked by the establishment.

So what are the threat perceptions that are driving the Pakistan military’s agenda, and why are they now at odds with western expectations as well as national aspirations? For many years, India has been seen as the biggest threat to us, and the army’s entire focus and raison d’etre have been to somehow neutralise the danger our giant neighbour is perceived to pose. Thus, hundreds of billions have been poured into building up and maintaining a conventional force we can ill afford. Further billions have flowed into developing a nuclear arsenal and a delivery system.

After 9/11 and the rapid collapse of the Taliban, an ISI creation and proxy, military planners in Pakistan watched with growing alarm as India established a substantial presence in our war-ravaged neighbour. With an aid package of $750m, the Indian effort was second only to the Americans. Having alienated Iran through its pro-Sunni, anti-Shia policies in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan, Islamabad now feared a Kabul-New Delhi axis. In this altered regional scenario, the army’s vision of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan had been replaced with the nightmare of encirclement.

How to prevent this from happening began to override considerations of being a staunch ally in the American ‘war on terror’. But clearly, our generals could not be seen as being openly pro-Taliban, and hence the charade of cracking down on militants. Although some 100,000 troops have been deployed on our porous, largely unmarked border with Afghanistan, the fighting has been largely desultory. And while this shadow-boxing has gone on for the last few years, the Taliban and their local allies have made steady progress.

Clearly, our army is caught in a dilemma: how to prevent the militants from operating within Pakistan, while allowing the Taliban to remain a viable fighting force. Currently, they are regularly disrupting Indian aid efforts within Afghanistan, thereby playing a role in GHQ’s strategy of preventing the advance of our enemy’s interests.

So when Washington demands that Pakistan should ‘do more’, it is actually asking the Pakistani army to act against its perceived interest. Equally obviously, the government cannot say this openly to the Americans who are losing more soldiers to the Taliban, partly because of the sanctuaries they have built up in Pakistan. And although the government issues its stock denials when confronted with evidence of duplicity, nobody really believes that it is not allowing the Taliban a free hand.

On July 28, Canada’s respected Globe and Mail daily led with this headline: “UN envoy backs Karzai against Pakistan”. The story went on to cite the Afghan president accusing Pakistan’s ISI as having had a hand in the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul last month. While this charge is not new, what was remarkable was that Chris Alexander, a Canadian diplomat currently serving as a UN deputy special representative to Afghanistan, agreed with Karzai publicly. When asked how Islamabad might react to the accusation that it was waging a proxy war, Alexander replied:

“I’m not sure, but there’s only one way to find out. The project on which we are embarked — with its high stakes, with its serious investment, with its sacrifices — deserves at least that level of courage … Otherwise we are really pretending that Niagara Falls doesn’t flow.”

In an editorial on the subject the next day, the newspaper wrote: “By stating his belief that the ISI is behind some major terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Chris Alexander … has performed a valuable service. Ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, its armed forces have perceived their role in terms of the country’s rivalry with India. In particular, relations with Afghanistan were subordinated to this regional struggle. It was always a narrow point of view …

“The military’s control of [the] ISI must be relinquished, but the current Islamabad government, a shaky coalition, appears powerless to bring about the necessary change…. In the end, Pakistan’s own governance, sovereignty, stability and peace will depend on the government’s taking full, normal control of its own territory — as well as its own intelligence agencies.”

This is only one such comment to appear in the foreign media in the last few days. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without more or less open accusations of latitude being given to militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. Each charge is met with the same increasingly less credible denials from Islamabad.

The recent fiasco surrounding the government’s attempt to control the ISI underlined the agency’s power, as well as the coalition’s weakness. Soon after assuming office in 1988, Benazir Bhutto set up a committee to review the workings of various intelligence agencies in Pakistan. Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan headed this body and produced a report containing many sensible recommendations. But the government was too weak, and was toppled too early, to implement any of the proposals. Ms Bhutto’s nominated head of the ISI was routinely bypassed by his subordinates as he had not been appointed by the army chief. Nawaz Sharif’s appointee, Gen Ziauddin, was equally ineffective in controlling the all-powerful agency.

But now, the ISI and the army seem to be on a collision course with the United States. This adversary may prove to be firmer in resolve than the civilians who have tried to curb the establishment so far.

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