Resisting the Taliban Menace – I

It originally appeared in Daily Times on Monday September 26, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

It was on August 25, 2001 — 15 days before 9/11 — that a conference in Islamabad resolved to oppose the appointment of 15 experts by the United Nations (UN) to check the observance of sanctions against the Taliban, which aimed at forcing the surrender of bin Laden to face charges of blowing up two US embassies in Africa. Attended by the right wing opposition parties of Pakistan under the aegis of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, it also involved extreme right wing religio-terrorist outfits like Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad. Azhar vowed during the conference to lay down his life to oust or kill the UN monitors.

Pakistan was one of the three countries to recognise the Taliban regime and the only one to have its embassy in Kabul. However, many countries were expanding ties with the Taliban at that time, e.g. China who signed a trade pact just 24 hours before the Twin Towers attack and the UK, one of whose important ministers was scheduled to reach Kabul right on September 11 alongside the European Union (EU) that had been in negotiations with the Taliban for the release of eight aid workers held for alleged preaching of Christianity, prohibited under the Taliban regime.

Although Pakistan officially announced to implement the UN sanctions against the Taliban including a strong arms embargo, there were few takers for this. According to Steve Coll’s book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, more weapons had been shipped into Afghanistan in the 90s than any other country of the world. In 2011, Pakistan denies any ties with the Haqqani network; the takers are not even as many as there are fingers in one hand. What a long way we have come!

A month after 9/11, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) was addressing a massive rally of thousands in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar. Maulana Fazl called for an immediate closure of any cooperation with the US against Afghanistan and called for an all out war to be announced against the ‘infidel America’ if it attacked Afghanistan. This was when all the liberal political parties from the Opposition were banned from taking out rallies.

The special place that the Taliban and their supporters had in the Pakistani establishment’s heart was not a free lunch for the Taliban. There was an implicit agreement to oblige Pakistan by catering to its insecurities in the region. Domestic sectarian groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), etc, had been given sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the foot soldiers for insurgency in Indian Kashmir were produced and trained and a zero Indian influence was ensured in Afghanistan abutting Pakistan’s west.

In the hangover of this ‘fruit’ of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistan did not realise what it had put at stake. While estranging Iran by patronising the Sunni Taliban against the Shias, especially the Hazaras, and alienating other neighbouring states by unconditional support to the Taliban’s hostility towards the non-Pakhtun population, Pakistan rapidly started becoming what the Taliban were — internationally isolated, unreliable, rogue and rigidly anti-west.

It was September 18 in 2001 that General Mahmud Ahmed, the then head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), went to meet Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. In a small room at Omar’s residence in Kandahar, Ahmed got a lukewarm welcome from his host, but was able to communicate his anxiety to the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful). “Osama, dead or alive. Otherwise we are all dead,” whispered Ahmed to Omar. While packing Ahmed back to Islamabad with a not-so-strong refusal, Omar convened the council of his ministers in probably a bid to ascertain the general mood and to share the responsibility of handing over Osama to the US with a larger body rather than taking it upon himself alone.

Pakistan’s abysmal drift to chaos started after the intransigence of the Mullah Omar-led Taliban on the issue of Osama’s handing over and what Gianluca Serra calls, ‘Mars’ strabismus’. With one eye on the US, Pakistan’s other eye continually stuck on its assets it had invested in for decades. A U-turn in its policy of breeding proxies meant new challenges. Yesterday’s protégés turned today’s enemies and waged war against Pakistan itself. What Pakistan’s establishment calls the ‘sacrifices’ of 35,000 people is a mere manifestation of its own foolish short-sightedness to say the least. Not willing to come out of this odd strabismus and taking refuge behind 35,000 dead bodies while being ready to shed more blood of its own people as ‘collateral damage’, Pakistan’s security elite is being shockingly imprudent and reckless while still trying to save its ‘assets’. Unbelievable!

The establishment is now pondering over, informs a fly on the wall of a building in Aabpara, the deadly implications of shooting at the beehive of militants in North Waziristan and at the Haqqani network, while its mouthpieces in the media and civil society continue to trumpet the need to involve the Taliban in the peace process and a future power set-up. Two important inferences could be drawn from this; the state of Pakistan has lost its writ in not only the unruly FATA but in so-called ‘settled’ mainland as well, when it sounds fear of militants’ blowback as the aftermath of a crackdown; and the insistence on a power sharing for the Taliban in a future set-up amply tells that the good old ‘strategic depth’ is not going anywhere in the near future.

The proponents of a peace deal with the Taliban have almost nothing beyond a poorly contemplated argument that all conflicts have a political solution rather than a military one, and that peace can only be achieved through dialogue between warring parties. Little is recalled about the legitimacy of the Taliban and micro details of a possible deal with them. In case the world has forgotten about the Taliban atrocities, a refresher is readily available in the news archives of the late 1990s.

Bringing them to power means some very dangerous messages. One, anyone with guns and an unscrupulous ability to kill people would be permitted to have its way and blackmail the world. Two, if the ‘mujahideen’ could dismember a superpower, the USSR, with a decade-long war, and later could defeat the world’s sole superpower in another decade, they could defeat anyone. Even their Pakistani mentors.

Some people in Islamabad also need to be reminded that this is not the 1990s; today, most of the domestic sectarian outfits have turned against the state of Pakistan, reoriented their domestic agenda in favour of a more powerful global agenda and are likely to have permanent sanctuaries in Afghanistan if the Taliban return to power. India would not be the only target. Pakistan would be sharing a lot of burden of bloodshed with, as well as a bonus gift of more radicalisation. More radicalisation in Pakistan coupled with sanctuaries in Afghanistan with backing from the Middle East means a sure shot recipe for worldwide disaster.

If the Taliban are able to occupy a seat in the Bonn Conference at the end of the tenth year of the war on terror, they will come from a position of power and would ask for the lion’s share. Before starting to negotiate with them, the world has to think about possible ‘give-aways’ to them. Why would the Taliban, intoxicated by their perceived victory over the allied western powers, settle for anything less than the control over a substantial part of Afghanistan?

(To be continued)

Shelve the Old Music Please!

This piece originally appeared in Daily Times as my weekly OpEd BAAGHI on Monday August 1, 2011

When your favourite songs are labelled under ‘old music’, it reminds one of changing times and trends. From the vintage black telephone sets transfigured into sleek smartphones, to big noisy typewriters metamorphosed into iPads, everything has changed.

Guest-lists at the White House have changed dramatically from President Reagan hosting the mujahideen with flowing beards to President Obama hosting ISI officials to ponder how to kill these mujahideen, who are now terrorists. ‘Communist threat’ in meeting agendas has been replaced by ‘right-wing threat’. Everything has changed except the Pakistani military establishment’s timeworn security paradigm and phobias centred on India.

Despite this changed panorama, we are refusing to move at its pace or even to adapt to the transformation. Stuck with the concept of ummah, we still think religion can be made the sole common ground in the international arena with interests peculiar to every nation-state. Our state-defined interest remains that of saving our borders from an ‘enemy’ that has never attacked us, a country we have attacked three times in 63 years, an economy that is too big for us to compete with under the present circumstances and a people we have waged proxy wars against.

If it is just India, here is something that should ring an alarm bell: India has finally cut a deal to pay Iran’s oil bills via Turkey. Hello? It is India thawing with your Muslim brothers! Or vice versa? If you are thinking the US will come to your rescue and raise eyebrows at India-Iran cosying up to each other, why would it oblige you? The US gets its flag burnt in our streets every day. Our corps commanders issue valiant public statements to vow that they could do without the US. We oust the Americans from our country. Surprisingly, the arrangement of India’s payment to Iran through Turkey was in fact proposed initially by the US itself.

It is, therefore, not just our souring relations with the US that are pushing it towards more balancing actions in the region. There is more to it. India matters. India gives the US jobs and a market. India has emerged as a responsible nation that is not causing trouble in the world, not even in Pakistan. At least that is the perception India has created for itself. India has emerged as a stable, viable and trustworthy partner that has no underlying agenda of destroying the US or the west or of its own ideological expansion. Despite having a Muslim population now equalling the entire population of Pakistan, India could never be traced as the source of Islamic terrorism.

“Pakistan has everything that gives you an international migraine,” said Madeleine Albright once, alluding to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, terrorism, extremism, corruption and poverty. She was probably being kind, as she did not mention how it has become a migraine for even itself.

The migraine story does not, however, start from 9/11 or with the Afghan ‘jihad’. It did not start with the India-centric security policy and the entire defence and strategic paradigm gifted to Pakistan’s military establishment by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The quest for global expansion, influence and unity among Muslims beyond cultural and geographic boundaries dates back to the Khilafat Movement, or maybe even before that. Supported by senior Indian leaders, the Khilafat Movement led the Muslims of the subcontinent closer to the message of Ikhwanul Muslimeen — the ummah. India was saved due to its state-endorsed pluralism and secularism while Pakistan could not survive state-patronised insanity. We calculated religion to be the most effective tool to tackle ‘Hindu India’ and to bond with ‘Muslim brothers’ for strategic edge.

Pursuance of national interest by every state goes much beyond religious or ideological considerations in the real world. A normal state would not say no to economic ties with any viable country just based on their religious preferences. The world’s sole superpower considers itself dependent on others in economic and security fields despite its technological superiority. China and India decide to grow their trade relations despite a hostile historical baggage. India pursues economic ties with the US despite ideological differences. Where is the logic of intransigence from an underdeveloped resource-starved country?

China became India’s largest trade partner in 2008 with around $ 51.8 billion in bilateral trade — a 43 percent leap in trade volume from the previous year. Sino-Indian bilateral trade exceeded the target in 2010, thanks to rising Indian imports of Chinese machinery. The 2010-11 figures show that Chinese exports to India have already touched a record $ 40.8 billion. In addition to machinery and IT, Indian pharmaceutical companies are accelerating some $ 2 billion in China from its healthcare reforms, informs The Economic Times.

Similarly, Iran is all set to continue crude oil exports to India after the two countries worked out the payment method through Turkey, new rupee accounts and barter deals. The barters might include Indian exports like steel, food and electronic goods, reports The Financial Times. If this happens, it would be the first time after the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s that Iran would be entering into such barter deals. According to one report, the annual trade between India and Iran is estimated at $ 12 billion with India purchasing about 400,000 barrels of Iranian crude oil.

Not only are Iran and Turkey ‘betraying’ Islamic brotherhood and China ‘deceiving’ a friendship higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the ocean, Brutus — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — is also in on it. According to a report by the Press Trust of India, Saudi Arabia has already agreed to sell three million barrels of extra crude oil to India to offset a possible energy crisis. Just when handsome petrodollars are being poured into financing terrorism in Pakistan in the name of Islamic supremacy in hypothetical Khorasan (which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, some Central Asian States and parts of India), Brutus is shaking hands with Caesar, so to speak.

India conducted a nuclear test much before us but what makes it more acceptable is its constant efforts to improve its human development indicators, its serious commitment to non-proliferation, its democratic mechanism of checks and balances, accountability of its defence sector that to-date remains subservient to its people’s will through their representatives. Most of all, India stands out because of its commitment to pluralism, its recognition of new opportunities to improve relations with world powers due to economic considerations, its renewed focus on internal development, less prickly attitude to the outside world and responsible nuclear behaviour that comes from its complete refusal to impose its own system on the entire world.

Before the readers dismiss it as a eulogy of India, please consider what havoc we have played with our own people, our own country by not doing what India has been doing. And today, India remains much more respected and trusted than us when not even our closest allies are ready to trust us, including our ‘Muslim brothers’. Even if the central focus of our existence is to tackle India (really?), should we not re-assess our policies urgently? Or do we want our people to keep suffering for shortage of just everything that life demands and inflation of a useless collective religious zeal, which pushes extremist ideologies deep down our system?

Suffering is not a seasonal pursuit in Pakistan. It seems permanent, obscure, dark, infinite and undying. When every moment brings a new embarrassment, anguish, travail onto us, a new migraine to others, and our Generals still talk of hollow and ambiguous ‘honour’, one is obliged to think that Pakistan is a General away from peace, prosperity and honour. Time to shelve old, not-so-melodious music.