Confronting Popular Narrative about the Taliban — I

It originally appeared in Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on Monday October 10, 2011

Last week, one got the opportunity to be on a television talk show with General Hamid Gul and Oria Maqbool Jan, a civil servant turned hawkish columnist for Urdu language newspapers, on the panel. Both have a long, indomitable record of being Taliban apologists and proponents of the infamous ‘strategic depth’ policy in Afghanistan. A lopsided panel it was, no doubt, but the host still insists on being ‘neutral’. Well!

What came up during the discussion was not something new, for one is quite familiar with the arguments usually thrown up by the likes of Mr Jan and General Gul. But how the ‘educated’ middle-class reacted to the counter arguments against those by the two gentlemen was quite astonishing. One would expect a violent backlash from our misguided youth after you loudly challenge the relevance of the Two Nation Theory or maybe stand up for the rights of religious minorities and oppressed social classes. But when even the advocacy of a rational approach in reviewing foreign policy becomes a threat to the ‘existence’ of Pakistan and amounts to ‘treason’, based on which you call for ‘public hanging’ of the challenger, hope is almost lost.

We have a brand of liberal and progressive ‘analysts’ who will join us for the equal rights for religious minorities, women’s empowerment, no persecution of Ahmedi Muslims, etc, but the same coterie will go the extra mile to justify the Taliban and how important it was/is to keep our link alive with the Haqqanis. One would not want to blame the Hamid Guls and Orya Jans who have been clearly putting forward their dream, which is Islamic glory and defeating the imperial US, Hindu India and the infidel West by a glorious Islamic rule first in Afghanistan through the Taliban, and then in Pakistan through — well let us figure it out — whom? I am worried about the ‘saner’ sections of the intelligentsia that enjoys the freedom promised by western civilisation and believes in a progressive world, but still prescribes to a medieval solution to conquer the region.

A queasy fetish of ‘supremacy’ inherited from a delusional united-Indian Muslim has engulfed Pakistan’s educated classes; while the system at home runs on money borrowed/begged from the West, society continues to suffer from unfathomable oblivion leading to sick denial and the people bear the brunt in the form of collapsed state writ to provide for basic needs and ensure rule of law. What General Gul claimed in the said programme is a very simple narrative that is now the popular understanding, thanks to a hypocritical and venal media, which is an accomplice in the radicalisation of Pakistani society and gives uncompromising coverage to these thickheads only to misguide a people with slightly less than zero percent literacy rate when it comes to history, international politics and Pakistan’s own role in violent South Asia for decades. The storyline on Pakistan’s streets is as follows:

The Taliban’s was a peaceful reign. The US made these jihadis during the Afghan jihad and then they got together under the banner of the Taliban. The US stopped supporting the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal lest Islam gain power in the region. 9/11 was an inside job to be used as a pretext to enter Afghanistan and then Pakistan. The US attacked a sovereign Afghanistan in 2001 and the Taliban came forward to defend their homeland. They are thus freedom fighters, not terrorists. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is against Pakistan and is funded by India. More than 70 percent of Afghanistan is being controlled by the Taliban right now. The Karzai government is just an American puppet and does not represent the Afghan people. Afghans love the Taliban and want them in power. It is the indisputable right of the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. India is fuelling the ‘insurgency’ in Balochistan through its massive presence in Afghanistan via “hundreds of Indian consulates” along the Durand Line. Pakistan will get a huge advantage against India if the Taliban come to power. The Pakistani Taliban are just our brats who should be spoken to in order to remove their ‘grievances’ and to mainstream them into Pakistan’s society and state. Terrorist attacks started happening in Pakistan after we announced our support for the global war on terror.

One would need several columns to deal with every single myth listed above, some of which are so insulting to average human intelligence that one cannot even laugh at them. If the Pakistani Taliban is the handiwork of our all time villain, Hindu India, how can the same Indian agents be our bigray huway bachay (spoilt children)? If some of our brats have been conspiring to implode our country in connivance with our supposed enemy, how and why should we negotiate with them in order to mainstream them into Pakistani society?

It might be useful to recall here that the Taliban’s was not an internationally accepted sovereign government. Recognised only by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, Kabul did not have any embassy during that gory regime save Pakistan’s. Why I call that regime gory is verifiable from the news files of that period. When hundreds of Shias were killed, women were violently subjugated, girl children were denied education and basic health services in case a female doctor was unavailable, anyone who did not accept the authority of the Taliban was brutally killed and non-Pakhtuns and ‘rebellious’ Pakhtuns were butchered, calling such a period as the ‘most peaceful’ one amounts to a shameless partisanship with the killers.

This unrecognised government by a group of barbarians who came to power through the gun (provided by us and not by the US) and not the vote, had zero credibility in the first place. They were loathed internationally for their opposition to and violence towards even aid groups working for humanitarian causes. They hosted militant sectarian organisations that killed the Pakistani people just for saying or not saying their prayers in a certain way. There were training camps of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other militant outfits that were involved in the killing of urban Pakistanis — ironically, the same class that is today supporting the Taliban as ‘freedom fighters’. They were hosting bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist who was being claimed by the US and Saudi Arabia as well. It was not very long before 9/11 that then Prince Abdullah visited Pakistan (and later Kabul as well) for negotiations with the Taliban, with the Pakistani authorities a part of the process, to hand over bin Laden. This was before 9/11.

This rogue Taliban government not only committed crimes against humanity and stubbornly overturned the world’s repeated requests to not harbour terrorists (belonging to al Qaeda and Pakistani sectarian outfits), it also started antagonising Pakistan. Press conferences by Mullah Zaeef, Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, are on record where he accuses Pakistan of not only interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters but also levels allegations of Pakistan eating up donor money that came to Pakistan in the name of Afghan refugees. Mullah Zaeef’s book shows the Taliban’s hatred for Pakistan where he calls Pakistan a hypocrite state that plays double games with everyone.

(Read the second part here

Resisting the Taliban Menace – II

This was originally published by Daily Times as my weekly column BAAGHI on Monday October 3, 2011. First part of this article, published by the same paper on September 26, 2011, can be seen here.

While these lines are being written, hundreds of Afghans are rallying on the streets of Kabul to condemn last week’s shelling of Afghan border towns by the Pakistan Army and assassination of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, which Afghan officials believe was a joint plot of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan Taliban. Admiral Mike Mullen’s statement before the Congress Armed Forces Committee, that the Haqqani network was a ‘veritable arm’ of ISI, upped the ante in already tense US-Pak relations.

After Pakistan’s declaration in an All-Parties Conference (APC) to cool down the emotions against the US but not to act against the Taliban in North Waziristan, the week ended with Afghan President Karzai’s abandonment of dialogue with the Taliban and subsequent announcement of the schedule of his visit to India — an ultimate itch-powder for Pakistan’s establishment.

The canvas in Afghanistan so far is loud and clear about shrinking options for Pakistan if the latter does not review its policy and ground it in the region’s emerging realities. While both our strategic ally the US and strategic neighbour Afghanistan are pressing Pakistan’s military establishment to let go of the Haqqanis in favour of lasting peace in the region, Pakistan remains adamant to not move into North Waziristan while making a parallel assertion that the Haqqanis are not based in Pakistan.

The protagonists of the hackneyed ‘legitimate interests’ of Pakistan believe that antagonising the Haqqanis would bring catastrophe to Pakistan. Whether it comes from the fear of the Haqqani terror network or as a strategy to keep influence in post-2014 Afghanistan, it seems largely faulty. The Haqqani network, which can be tagged as the most ‘irreconcilable’ faction of insurgents based on their track record in peace negotiations that started as early as 2003-4 under the loosely constituted peace council headed by Professor Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, should neither be allowed to challenge the state’s writ in Pakistan’s Waziristan region nor should it be viewed as a convincing option for deepening Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.

The argument that the exclusion of the Pakhtun Taliban from the future power set-up would have a negative effect on Pakistan’s Pakhtun population is an extremely wrong strategic calculation. Amid the making of lashkars (private militias) put together by Pakistani Pakhtuns against the Taliban, and emerging anti-Taliban uprisings in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Uruzgan by Pakhtun elders, it is foolish to portray the Taliban as Pakhtun representatives. In any case, continuing with the ethnic divisiveness in Afghanistan will further fan the internecine feuds and civil war, which would travel back to Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line in no time.

The establishment on our side is just not ready to even listen to the ethical side of supporting the militant Haqqani network while insisting on a poorly defined ‘national interest’. There exists little ethical reason to patronise a militant group to rule or have a power share in the future of Afghanistan when the world has already witnessed the gruesome violations of human rights under them throughout the late 1990s. When women died of minor diseases because they were not allowed to be treated by male doctors, men were flogged and killed for shaving beards, hundreds of Shias were killed en masse and non-Pakhtun minorities were persecuted mercilessly, it could hardly be termed as ‘peaceful’ times as many Pakistani defenders of the Taliban claim. That the Taliban brought order, curbed corruption and stopped drug trafficking by controlling poppy cultivation is also debatable. There was a decree by Mullah Omar in probably 1998 that the drug trade was lawful if the circumstances called for it, which must be the basis of massive poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas in southern Afghanistan even today.

On the other hand, if the Haqqani network is gotten rid of, we would not be losing much even in terms of the notorious strategic depth. Considering that the Taliban do not hold a popular support back home, they would have little to offer to Pakistan even if they come to power. The recent claim of Pakistan’s army chief in the APC last week that the Haqqanis have their influence in 5-7 Afghan provinces needs to be seen in a context. The Haqqanis’ activities have been increased in these provinces over the past two years especially because of various factors rooted in Afghanistan’s local and national politics.

The Ghilzai population in these areas came under Taliban influence due to tribal ties to the Taliban’s predominantly Ghilzai leadership as against their traditional rivals, the Durrani Pakhtuns, who have been wielding political power since centuries. Also, probably as an election strategy, President Karzai had been fanning anti-foreigner (read anti-American and anti-Pakistani) sentiment in these regions mainly to win the Ghilzai vote. Under his initiative of Programme Takhim-e-Solh (PTS) or the strengthening of peace programme, efforts were made to get most of the rank and file of the insurgents to isolate the ‘irreconcilables’ among the Taliban. Initially making some good inroads inside insurgent networks, the PTS went terribly wrong when President Karzai’s election team tried to use it to discredit electoral opponents. Many of his opponents, who were previously ready to be a part of an active democratic set-up under a progressive constitution of Afghanistan, turned to the Taliban.

There is much more to the politics of ‘peace negotiations’ within Afghanistan, which cannot be discussed here in detail for want of space. For now, it is important to emphasise that resisting the Taliban and the Haqqani network is the only viable option left for Pakistan, following which we can still make up for most of the damage done to our relationship with not only the US but Afghanistan and, in fact, India too.

No Haqqanis mean better positioning in Washington, better prospects in Afghanistan pre- and post-2014, more engagement with non-Pakhtun minorities meaning greater outreach within Afghan society, nullifying Indian influence by commitment to Afghan development rather than patronising insurgency/militancy, better trade and other economic benefits by reaching out to Central Asian states through a peaceful Afghanistan, stronger ties with bordering Iran and India by being a prosperous trading corridor, becoming a more peaceful country itself and most of all, emerging as a responsible nation of 180 million people who stand for human rights, peace and moderation rather than a medieval, expansionist, rogue mass of people.

The defence of the Pakistani people from the militant Haqqani network in the wake of a possible blowback from the Taliban after a crackdown should be taken as shared responsibility by investing in counter-terrorism strategies and tactics. Pakistan’s military establishment needs to leave strategic policy-making to the civilian government, which should in turn, rely on their diplomatic skills to make any government in Afghanistan a Pakistan-friendly government rather than manipulating Afghanistan’s power politics and bringing up a hand-picked puppet government. After all, we are ghairtamand (honourable) enough to resist such an arrangement for our country, so why impose it on the Afghans? We love our sovereignty; how about respecting others’ sovereignty as well?


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)

Liberalization of Strategic Depth – II

It originally appeared in Daily Times on Monday September 19, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI. Its first part, appeared on Monday September 12, 2011 in same paper, could be seen here.

The defenders of the report, launched jointly by the Jinnah Institute (JI) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on a possible ‘Afghan endgame’, are irked by critics’ accusation of it protecting the ages-old worn-out ‘strategic depth’ notion. This ingenuous defence detracts from important issues while extenuating a faulty ‘strategic depth’ notion. The defenders present the report’s suggestion to include the Quetta Shura Taliban in the peace process as a globally accepted principle. One must concur that the report has triggered an interesting debate in the media. If taken personally, the criticism would not be able to serve the very purpose of the report: initiate an informed debate on the issue.

While the discussion process in the making of the JI-USIP report might be inclusive as claimed (although debatable), the finished product does not package the information for its readers to get a full picture of ‘diverse’ viewpoints. Exclusion of Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists might not be deliberate, but still gives an incomplete picture. Or does it say that the foreign policy elite cannot have Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists? Not to forget here that most of the Pakhtun nationalists are not so pro-Taliban and have been fighting against them to clear Pakistani territory of their presence. It is astonishing to see how the ‘national interest’ is attached to ‘strategic depth’ and ‘Taliban as Pakhtun’ arguments, which has now permeated deep down the thought process of even the progressive and liberal ‘elite’. An ardent defender of the report passionately justified ‘strategic depth’ and even the Afghan jihad, which he thinks was unavoidable when a ‘godless’ USSR was about to attack Pakistan for warm waters. Another defensive argument (that the report is ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’) gets refuted by the report itself, which carries an elaborate section on the way forward for ‘key countries’. The report, it appears, is probably suffering more because of the mindless and personalised defence rather than what it explicitly carries. Needless to say a ‘defence on demand’ hardly helps, it rather compromises the credibility of the entire exercise.

To be fair, some parts of the report do make loud admissions of some state follies that have been regularly questioned by many dissenting voices in Pakistan. For example, the report admits that the official decision-making is affected by a monolithic viewpoint without paying attention to competing narratives (page 16, para 1). Some other admissions are equally noteworthy: Pakistan has lost its goodwill among Afghans due to its security-centric approach (page 20, para 4); and that Pakistan is widely reviled and mistrusted in Kabul while countries like India are viewed positively (ibid). Deciphering this, it would be safe to say that the countries that made inroads in Afghanistan through respecting their sovereignty and focusing on trade and development partnerships gained more than we could. This happened despite a major Pakhtun population, which the participants still seem to think is represented by the Taliban who are also supposedly pro-Pakistan. Since we are all ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis, a little denial is justified. So the report had to say that Afghan resentment is actually confined to non-Pakhtun areas and that the international media is unnecessarily hypersensitive about this resentment.

Contrary to the views of the participants, our Pakhtun friends from Afghanistan and Pakistan think otherwise. One is inclined to thus take the observations of the participants with a pinch of salt. The fact is that the bitterness towards Pakistan, to put it mildly, runs deep amongst the Afghan people irrespective of their ethnicity. Pakhtuns’ sentiments for us are not that different from non-Pakhtun minorities, as is claimed by the worthy participants.

Among the Pakhtun people, Pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code of conduct) has central importance under which protection of namus (family, property and homeland) is the measure of one’s izzat (honour). Any interference by an outsider in these matters and acceptance of this interference as such, amounts to be beghairati (cowardice), which is unacceptable in Pakhtunwali. Even the Taliban could not take it (read Mullah Zaeef’s book, My Life with the Taliban). We have been, undeniably, using religion as a tool to interfere in the internal matters of the Afghans and to control them while putting their Qawmi Taroon (tribal binding) at a secondary position. The importance of qawm (ethnic identity in the Pakhtun context) among the Pakhtuns is evident from Wali Khan’s famous statement, now a popular proverb, “I am Muslim for 1,400 years but I am Pakhtun for 6,000 years.” This simple fact seems to be beyond our ‘elite’ who are bent upon taking the Taliban as an icon of Pakhtun nationalism. The Taliban, just to remind, have been an object of strong criticism from Pakhtun nationalists for sacrificing Afghan culture at the altar of Arabisation.

Despite some of these flawed positions, the report indirectly indicates a change in overall perception of Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan. As per the report, the participants are “foreign policy community”, meaning they have/had influence on policy making in Pakistan. One can deduce that one, the ‘elite’ represents a failed policy regime of the past and two, a gradual thawing of the otherwise rigid stance of Pakistan’s security establishment might be in the offing. For example, the report does recognise that Pakistan’s policy of strategic depth was a result of the security establishment’s paranoia about India’s role in Afghanistan. It advocates a “less overbearing approach” (page 21, para 1) in Afghanistan, which could “retain strong goodwill among Afghan citizens, both Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun”. It would, the report reminds, highlight “Pakistan’s indispensability”. Well! Looks like our ‘elite’ take Afghanistan as a beautiful young maid who has to always trust the indispensability of her macho saviour who would never allow her to be with anyone else.

The report recognises the importance of the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban (not very long ago, no one wanted to even accept such things exist). In agreement with many in the US security establishment and their European counterparts alongside counterterrorism experts like David Kilcullen, the report advocates a seat for the Afghan Taliban at the negotiating table. Despite mildly criticising Pakistan’s past policy of relying on the Taliban and religious sentiment for gaining influence in Afghanistan, the elite insist on including these terrorists and war criminals in the future set-up. Their reason is the good old proclamation that the Taliban’s exclusion from the power set-up would upset the Pakhtuns on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Whether they are demeaning the Pakhtuns by making the Taliban their representatives or they are legitimising the Taliban by making them the rightful candidates of power in Afghanistan, is anyone’s guess.

While recognising India’s role in Afghanistan’s future by adding a little section for India in the recommendations chapter, the report’s emphasis upon transparency in Indian interventions as well as calling for a “regular exchange of a fact-sheet on India’s presence and actions in Afghanistan” (page 47, para 4) but not vice versa, is conspicuous by its mundanity. It is, however, addressed in the next sentence by adding that there was a call for “…even to address Indian concerns about anti-India militants based in Pakistan”. Who says our elite are not magnanimous?

Just like old wine in a new bottle, this liberal stamp on strategic depth looks like filming the ‘Ten Commandments’ on the sets of ‘Matrix’. Beware before inhaling deep, the rose petal has some chilli flakes.


Liberalisation of strategic depth — I

Originally published in Daily Times on Monday September 12, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, all we have in our hands is 35,000 graves, no state writ in 40 percent of our territory and our flippant, time-tested policy of ‘strategic depth’. First connoted by General Ayub Khan, vague references to the idea could be found in the statements of Pakistani leaders earlier too. Despite the ‘Muslim’ card that Pakistan used for its origins, it could not attract an immediate recognition from a Muslim Afghanistan in 1947 (which became one of the earliest nations to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1948). The overused concept of strategic depth (SD) has proven to be not only counterproductive but also damaging to Pakistan’s own interests in the region.

The rhizome of Pakistan’s paranoia has been its irascible relations with neighbouring India. After breaking away from it in 1947, subsequent developments like the distribution of assets between two ‘siblings’, border disputes — especially in Kashmir that ended up in Pakistan’s support to tribal insurgency to take over Kashmir in early 1948 — set the tone of relations between the two countries. The bitterness was further exacerbated by Pakistan’s continuous attempts to gain control in Kashmir; Operation Gibraltar that resulted in a war in 1965; and the situation in East Pakistan, which was exploited by India through its support to insurgency. This got imprinted in Pakistan’s psyche and has become inerasable due to the shock of losing its arm while completely refusing to acknowledge its own follies that caused the secession of East Pakistan.

A political audit of SD policy suggests that we made a mess of regional peace and Pakistan’s persona internationally by pursuing this mindless policy. Using Islamic identity while putting the Pashtun identity aside just to avoid Afghanistan pursuing the demand for ‘Pashtunistan’, we have made a complete klutz of ourselves. Important to remind here is that no Afghan government has ever recognised the Durand Line as a legitimate international border, not even that of the Taliban, after all those efforts of gaining strategic advantage in Afghanistan. Also, Afghanistan had always sided with Pakistan before the SD policy — be it the 1948 tribal insurgency, 1965 war or in 1971. It not only announced the no-attack-from-the-west policy and let Pakistan move its forces from its western to eastern borders to counter the Indian offensive but also refused its airspace to be used by India.

After supporting an insurgency against Daud Khan in 1973, we kept on feeding the insurgents and played a key role in establishing warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami, later to be used in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s with US and Saudi money. The cost of jihad that Pakistan had to pay remains unfathomable even after two decades, which remains unquestioned. In the post-jihad years, Pakistan struggled to come out of a quagmire of problems like hosting refugees, drug trafficking, smuggling and economic sanctions imposed on it.

Bringing up, rearing and fostering the Taliban had not been without consequences either. Even during the peak ‘strategic depth’ years from 1996 to 2001, Pakistan was not the most secure country. We earned depth in Afghanistan, so did the Taliban and religious extremists in our territory. The resultant extremism has proven to be more formidable an enemy than India, which we wanted to counter through the SD policy. During their rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban had started demanding shariah rule in Pakistan, in addition to fuelling and exporting sectarianism, especially the anti-Shia sentiment that spread across bordering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas of Balochistan.

We had already earned a negative sentiment from the non-Pashtun minorities of Afghanistan, which pushed them to seek support from foreign backers like India, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Its support to the Taliban put Pakistan in an awkward position internationally, who had now started shaping our foreign and defence policies indirectly. They became masters in effect, rather than ‘slaves’. No wonder our army was termed as a rogue army in the international press. Afghanistan became an irreversible case of insurgencies and civil war doing nothing but fanning the fires of sectarianism and religious extremism in bordering areas of Pakistan as well as strengthening the security paranoia in Pakistan’s political and security establishment. Hail strategic depth!

Even stranger is the fact that after decades of turmoil, we are still not ready to let go of the curse called strategic depth. Much has already been written about the latest Jinnah Institute-USIP report on the Afghan endgame; I would only refer to its content without traducing the authors and participants of brainstorming sessions, most of whom have an unblemished record of being socially progressive people. The report does not claim to be an academic research work or a consensus document, with an intriguing title: ‘Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite’.

Stranger than the contemptible term ‘endgame in Afghanistan’ is the adjective given to the expert participants of the report: ‘foreign policy elite’. It reminds one of a paper written by Peter R Lavoy for the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency back in 2006. It elaborates the concept of ‘strategic culture’, which is developed by continuous hammering of certain strategic notions to the level of myth making. These myths are then sold to the intelligentsia to get their nod for legitimising a particular ‘strategic culture’, which is then used to shape a country’s strategic and defence policies. I see a strange parallel between Lavoy’s ‘strategic culture’ and USIP/JI’s ‘foreign policy elite’. But it is encouraging that not only the US but Pakistan also has started recognising the importance of liberal discourse, so much so that a stamp of (social) liberals is needed to legitimise strategic options that the countries might take or might persuade other countries to take.

But the worrying fact is that this ‘non-consensus’ document does not contain a dissenting discourse on the topic. The authors have preferred to limit themselves to the statement of a predominant ‘strategic depth’ turned ‘national interest’ narrative with very little difference in spirit. What the report says is precise and covers many aspects of the issue. My immediate response is on two points for the time being: Pakistan must have a role in the ‘endgame’ and future settlement in Afghanistan; and in order to avoid domestic Pashtun resentment in Pakistan, the Taliban should be given a role in the post-NATO set-up. How is it different from our paranoid India-centric military establishment? If it is not, can we say that the report is mere regurgitation of the stated position of Pakistan’s military establishment, using the shoulders of credible progressive elements of Pakistan’s intelligentsia?

One also wonders who made a selection of the narrative to be included in the final ‘non-consensus’ document? Is it not unfair to the potential dissenters in the list of participants that their narrative is selectively kept out of the report? Where is the diversity of Pashtun opinion on this issue that we cannot miss in our interactions at home? Meeting Afzal Khan Lala, a stalwart of the Awami National Party (ANP) from Swat, just two months ago, I could not hear the storyline as is described in the report. Reason being, the report fails to bring out the full picture around the issue.

What, however, is commendable is that the job of initiating a debate in the mainstream media is well done. The credit goes to Jinnah Institute for proposing and advocating the idea to USIP, a welcome initiative from both. But the need for a shadow report on the official narrative about the Afghan settlement issue cannot be overemphasised. The holders of alternative opinion must brainstorm the issue and spell out a counter-narrative.

(To be continued)

The Zawahiri Factor

Originally published in Daily Times on Sunday June 19, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

A rather belated but widely speculated announcement of Zawahiri’s ascension to the terror throne hit the counter-terrorism amphitheatre last week. The announcement came about around six weeks after the killing of former al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in an operation by the US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad on May 2. While the delay in appointing the new terror chief was being seen as meaningful for the changing internal dynamics of the al Qaeda terror network, the internal rifts within its structure also came to international attention when Al-Adel was reported to have been nominated as the new head. Now that the announcement has been made, key questions that emerge are: how would the al Qaeda strategy be changed, how would it impact the counter-terrorism efforts and what the policy forecast should be accordingly?

Hailing from an educated and noted family of Egypt, Zawahiri, a surgeon by profession, became influenced by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb when he was brutally tortured and hanged in 1966. Zawahiri’s writings and sermons thereafter picture the deep influence of Sayyid Qutb. Another event that changed Zawahiri’s life was his years in jail in the early 1980s as a key suspect in Sadat’s assassination. He turned to Afghanistan in 1986 and was in a position of starting his jihadi agenda from there in 1987. This was the year when he travelled to Pakistan and met a young and rich Arab — Osama bin Laden — waging jihad against the ‘infidels’, the definitions of which were still ambiguous in Osama’s mind.

The ‘dishonest’ and ‘manipulative’ Zawahiri, as he was described later by his rivals within the jihadi movement, soon dragged Osama out of the influence of his mentor Abdullah Azzam. Azzam enjoyed great influence on Osama and was known for his comparatively non-violent strategic aptitude. Moreover, Azzam used to oppose turning the jihad against the Arab states, an agenda that was at loggerheads with Zawahiri’s fixation with the Egyptian regime. Zawahiri soon felt he would need money for his agenda and Osama could only finance it if taken out of the clutches of Azzam. To further this, Zawahiri went to the extent that he spread the rumour that Azzam was a US agent within the jihadi movement, which was the reason why he would pursue a policy of non-violence.

The paths of Azzam and Osama were finally separated in 1988 as a consequence of the intrigues crafted by Zawahiri. This was the year when Osama laid the foundation of al Qaeda. In 1989, Azzam was killed in a bomb explosion. The link to Azzam’s assassination was often traced to Zawahiri, though no material evidence of the same could be seen to date. Zawahiri’s credentials of intrigue and betrayal are, however, not limited to this. In the 1980s while he was in an Egyptian jail, he allegedly leaked the information about his mentor and aide, Essam Al-Qamari, who was later arrested but escaped only to be killed in a gun battle with the police.

Within al Qaeda, Zawahiri has never been an unquestioned leader like Osama was. Osama seldom spoke publicly or among the aides on strategy and operations. He was more of a chairman of the board of directors who would normally listen to the deliberations among his lieutenants on any new idea followed by his ‘yes’ to it. Zawahiri, on the contrary, would talk about strategy with the next tier and would often develop disagreements. Most of the opposition to Zawahiri also came from his arrogant countenance towards any idea, opinion and view that contradicted his own. One example of this was seen in 1999 when he had to throw away his title of emir after getting isolated by the inner brass of Islamic Jihad (the organisation he founded before joining Osama) mainly because of the fact that most of the Islamic Jihad leaders would opt for non-violent jihad.

Zawahiri, who was previously inclined to adopt the strategy of attacking regimes, especially the one in Egypt and the Saudis, got influenced by the jailed leadership of the Islamic Group. Islamic jihadists struggling against Middle Eastern regimes came to recognise the futility of direct confrontation with the Muslim states. Their conclusion was confronting the larger enemy that was Israel, and even beyond that, the US would be more meaningful in realising global jihad. Zawahiri followed the same but abandoned the Islamic Group’s new strategy of letting go of violent means.

Among his personal disadvantages compared to Osama are not only superficial ones like non-eloquence, arrogance, being uncharismatic, etc. What differentiates him from bin Laden is rather deeper. The level of orthodoxy and rigidity that Zawahiri brought to the polemics of al Qaeda (or Qaedat al-Jihad) were unprecedented. Having said that, he was also cognizant of the expansiveness of his battle — the global jihad. That triggered his famous work based on the formula of Al Wala’ Wal Bara (loyalty and disavowal) first theorised by Sulayman Ibn-Abdullah who was the grandson of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab — the founder of Wahabiism, the most obdurate faction of puritanical Islam.

According to Zawahiri’s interpretation of Al Wala’ Wal Bara, he would proclaim and preach an all-inclusive battle against a larger enemy — the USA and Israel. In this battle, he would have no qualms in including those he would consider out of the global nation of believers — the Shiites and other Ahl al-Kitâb (people of the book). This view was later fiercely opposed by a third tier al Qaeda leader Zarqawi, who would strongly pursue his anti-Shiite agenda with powerful backing within the group. Zarqawi was later killed in 2006 by US forces with rumours that appeared briefly in the media that his killing became possible after tips from none other than Zawahiri who had faced a challenge to his strategic leadership from Zarqawi. One would hear the same allegations against Zawahiri for tipping off Osama’s presence in Abbottabad.

The fact that the announcement of Zawahiri’s leadership did not come before the (unconfirmed) death of Ilyas Kashmiri — another promising regional leader of al Qaeda — is rather meaningful. A contender for the second tier leadership, Ilyas was not the only one with ambitions for this coveted organisational position. Moreover, Ilyas, for his closeness with the authorities in Pakistan, is also suspected of helping Zawahiri betray Osama. If that is so, the overwhelming possibility is that Zawahiri, in complete coherence with his track record, might have betrayed Ilyas as well. This now triggers a rat race for the second tier position not only in the region but also in the Middle Eastern network of al Qaeda.

One would not be so wrong in speculating fiercer attacks on most difficult western targets, US supply routes as well as Pakistani targets in the coming months. The race for the slot of the ‘deputy’ would make many regional warheads act more violently than they would have normally in order to get noticed and qualify for the coveted positions within the terrorist organisational structure. This could be countered with ‘intelligent’ intelligence and building on the differences among so many factions within al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, but only if “we” really want to overcome them. Letting them run loose would mean total chaos, particularly in Pakistan.

Listen, Gentlemen!

This piece was originally published in Daily Times on July 21, 2010 

Considering the establishment’s numerous attempts in the past to disgrace the civilian leadership both domestically and internationally, it is particularly disturbing to see the latter not trying to understand the hazards involved if it keeps on kneeling before the former

Like Dwight David Eisenhower, I had always thought that both the people of Pakistan and India have wanted peace and that both governments (read establishments) had better get out of their way and let them have it. This thought remained embedded in my mind until I went outside the usual circle of peaceniks on both sides of the border and met people from the ‘other’ side of the ideological divide thanks to the social networking media. 

Almost a week before the recent talks between the two foreign ministers, S M Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, there was a huge cry on the internet from the Indian side against the discussions. These people, as I understand, might not be pro-war but still do not support the dialogue unless Pakistan takes concrete actions against the 26/11 accused who are roaming scot-free in Pakistan. Amid a strong opposition from the domestic front, Mr Krishna came to Pakistan and in his first pre-negotiations statement, reiterated India’s desire for an open dialogue for the sake of long-term peace. 

Many analyses have been heard about the course of discussions, the post-discussions scenario, the body language of the two ministers and the ensuing diplomatic spat that ended the episode on a rather bitter note. While the media was not very hopeful regarding the outcome, the stiff stance maintained by Shah Mehmood Qureshi and an equal display of terseness by S M Krishna was far from the expectations of many. 

The press conference started with a comparatively lukewarm opening by Qureshi, but gradually showed signs of unprecedented bluntness and marked an unpleasant departure from diplomatic finesse. Towards the end of the event, Krishna had established himself as the mature diplomat, avoiding indulging in personal criticisms. It is important to note that Qureshi continuously used the word ‘engagement’, while Krishna adopted ‘concern’. This difference in the substance of the discourse — a willingness to engage as opposed to the element of distrust as the primary matter of concern — resulted in a poorly written soap opera.

My Twitter account was flooded with taunts by a host of Indians from different walks of life — from media and film celebrities, youngsters from universities to marketing and sales persons — all directed against the Pakistani foreign minister. It seems that generally, Indians were following the Indo-Pak talks with more interest and anxiety as opposed to a strange indifference in Pakistan. Upon my deliberate provocative statements (the usual way to get response from Pakistanis on social media because they seem to be there for fun, not intellectual discourse), some of the responses were of a reactive nature rather than antagonistic to the peace process. Indians, on the other hand, were lambasting their government for making the ‘wrong’ decision to engage in talks with Pakistan. Hawks on both sides were smiling with a “See, didn’t we say earlier?” kind of arrogance.

Things were different a day before Krishna arrived. What went wrong then? It is intriguing to note that Krishna was to meet the prime minister (PM) at 3:30 pm and see President Zardari exactly two hours later. Around 3:00 pm, he was notified of the change in schedule and that he would call on the president prior to the PM. While he was meeting the president, the PM was giving an audience to the army chief (who had already met the president earlier in the day). Reportedly, both the meetings involving General Kayani were regarding the security situation and the army’s operational matters. When the talks between the two foreign ministers resumed, the atmosphere, according to a fly on wall, had totally changed.

Considering the establishment’s numerous attempts in the past to disgrace the civilian leadership both domestically and internationally, it is particularly disturbing to see the latter not trying to understand the hazards involved if it keeps on kneeling before the former. Whatever truth may be behind the Kargil misadventure, it was the civilian administration that had to take the brunt of embarrassment internationally. Likewise, in the wake of this badly handled ministerial engagement, it is the political leadership that has made itself a target of international humiliation by appearing unreasonable even in a media briefing. 

Analysts have been heard advising those in power not to touch an organised and dreadful militant outfit such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and its leader Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks. The view is that since LeT is not bothering Pakistan as much, it would be better not to divert the military’s attention from the Taliban on the northern front. If we even have some sense of learning left in our poisoned minds, it might not be very difficult to ascertain that giving militancy, even if it is dormant, a free hand is going to be fatal for Pakistan itself. The moment (which has probably come) when these ‘dormant’ militant organisations gel with their ideological brethren in the north, turmoil, destruction and blood will be the only things Pakistanis would witness.

Pushing the Pakistani Taliban to the corner, while safeguarding their Afghan parents and potential allies at home would only make them join hands rather swiftly because those fighting against the Pakistan Army need hard cash, logistics and supplies. Who better than the establishment would know that among the entities in the settled plains, which one can provide these services to the warring Taliban? Instead of making dormant militant groups a future asset against regional rivals, we need to deal with them firmly in order to save our country.

The faulty paradigm of strategic depth has to be replaced immediately with an alternative foreign policy free of the establishment’s influence that relies on pulling regional powers with the economic magnet rather than winning their support through planted troublemakers. The current strategy has been tested time and again, and has miserably failed over the past three decades, bringing not only humiliation and shame to Pakistan, but also harm to the people and the economy. A quick way would be to completely halt all the covert operations in the region, give the political government a free hand to deal with international and regional actors, and allow the economy to be viewed through a lens that sees manufacturing and industrial development as key to progress. Absence of terrorists and terrorism is going to bring long lost foreign investment to our courtyard. 

We all are to benefit from this progress, not the civilian leadership alone. The establishment must understand, and accept this.