Friday, October 23, 2009
Military gains upper hand in conflict over US aid in Pakistan
The things that are currently happening in Pakistan are unbelievable. Suicide and ordinary bombings causing deaths and destruction that are “breaking news” elsewhere are ordinary news in Pakistan. But the attack by the militants on the army headquarter in Rawalpindi early this month is absurd even by Pakistani standards. The militants followed the Rawalpindi attack with three attacks simultaneously carried out in Lahore on top security installations that have underscored the tightening of alliance between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant groups in Punjab.
The militants, under attack by Pakistan's military in recent months, are determined to prove their capability to carry out acts of terror pretty much where they like. The Talibans are anxious to demonstrate that their leader Baitullah Meshud's death has not diminished their ability. There was a time though when the government of Pakistan, its military intelligence, and the people supported the militants. Some of the militant groups were created and sustained by Pakistan's military intelligence to fight Indian troops in Kashmir. Although General Musharraf joined Bush's war on terror in 2001, part of his own military establishment and majority of the people of Pakistan remained on the side of the militants.
The militants eventually turned their guns on their creators/hosts as a result of the military's action against them in recent months and weeks. The Talibans who had established rule in Swat disgusted the people there by their actions, reminding the Pakistanis about what they did in Afghanistan which disgusted the world. These actions led to widespread public anger in Pakistan against the militants that they had once supported. The army, whose popularity was sinking towards the end of President Mushraff's rule, particularly following the dismissal of the popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury that pitted the military against the civilians, used the public sentiments against the Talibans to crackdown on them in the Swat valley, helping them regain their standing with the public in Pakistan's continuing love-hate relationship with their military. The success of commandos in rescuing hostages in the recent Rawalpindi attack has enhanced the standing of the army with the people that is being further extended by fighting the Talibans in South Wazirstan at the time of writing this piece.
The above notwithstanding, militancy and internal turmoil have reached a stage in Pakistan where questions are being raised about Pakistan's viability. The fact that Pakistan is also a nuclear state in the most volatile region of the world makes its problem also a problem for the rest of the world. One's worst nightmare would be imagining Pakistan failing as a state with Al Qaeda, Taliban and the other militant groups still active. The solution to Pakistan's problems is, however, deep rooted in its history. Pakistan was created in 1947 as an anti-thesis to India. Pakistan's political leaders have implanted deep into the psyche of every Pakistani that India is the enemy which would annihilate them if they let their defense down. This argument helped create for Pakistan a very strong military establishment that eventually used the strength of the anti-India campaign of the politicians to claim a dominant role in Pakistan's politics. The military's cup of power was filled when Pakistan eventually became a nuclear power. The political campaign for the nuclear power was carried out by the politicians with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto publicly saying that Pakistanis would eat grass if need be to posses the nuclear bomb.
Unfortunately, Bhutto's and Pakistan's desire for civilian rule have fallen victim to the military's power in Pakistan. The Pakistan military's rise to political power was also encouraged from outside. In the 1960s, Pakistan's first military dictator Ayub Khan became the darling of the United States and their support for him was largely responsible for keeping the civilians from political power for a decade. The case of 1971 was even worse where the Nixon-Kissinger clique led the US to support the genocide of Pakistan in Bangladesh. Under General Ziaul Huq, the US was perhaps the closest with the military and together built up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to stop the Soviets from taking the country and opening their access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, a strategic dream of the Soviets at that time.
The US did not take time to leave the Pakistanis to their fate as the Soviet Union fell and the need for them to be in Afghanistan was over. Unfortunately, it was not that easy for Pakistan to wash its hands off Afghanistan because by then two million Afghans were in Pakistan's volatile and fragile NWFP and in them, the seeds of the Taliban movement had already been sown. Pakistan's military rulers were deeply involved in training the Talibans, providing them with weapons to fight for Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan where Indian presence was additional encouragement for them to support the Talibans. The Al Qaeda came on board in due course and the rest is history.
When the US came to Pakistan for support a second time immediately after 9/11, Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, was deeply involved with the Talibans and other militants and Jihadists. Thus, when General Musharraf responded positively to Bush's call to join the war on terror, his own military intelligence and many of his people were against the Americans. In fact, towards the end of Bush's presidency, the US was openly suspicious of the General's own commitment and even more suspicious of the ISI. General Musharraf's departure; an overtly pro-US President Asif Zardari; a General that the US feels it can trust in General Kayani, the present army chief of Pakistan and anger across the country against the terrorists and the militants have combined to put Pakistan-US relations in a somewhat better perspective in recent weeks after relations nosedived towards the end of Bush's tenure on US military's unilateral incursions into Pakistan for destroying the Talibans and Al Qaeda.
Thus, the US is trying to realign its relations with Pakistan under President Obama and slightly favourable circumstances. President Obama initially wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to end the war on terror. Unfortunately, USA is getting more entangled there and the fight against Talibans and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan will take much longer than what President Obama had initially anticipated. Pakistan's cooperation is now more important than before because Pakistan holds the key to success in US and allied efforts in Afghanistan. To cash on the favourable wind for improving relations due to excesses of the Talibans/Al Qaeda and militant groups, USA recently announced a US 7.5 billion civilian aid package for the next five years over the US $ 1 billion annually in military aid to appease the Pakistanis. The package, however, ran into trouble immediately over two conditions that angered the military which has come back into favour with the public. The offending conditions are greater civilian oversight over the military and commitment to stop aiding the militants. In a dramatic gesture, Pakistan's Army Chief General Kayani flew in his helicopter to the President's quarters and demanded that a special emissary should be sent to Washington to impress upon the US government to withdraw the conditions.
President Zardari, whose fight with the General is now common knowledge, acceded to the demand and Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi was dispatched to Washington. The US is making efforts to appease Pakistan's military. Nevertheless, the incident underscored President Zardari's precarious position that should not bother the US because the military is once again holding centre stage in Islamabad and finally committed to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda that was not there when General Musharraf was in office. USA now needs to backtrack from its support for Zardari and shift it more to Pakistan's military. The US would do better if it could also encourage India to keep its hands off Pakistan in the Afghan-Pakistan border so that Pakistan's military could commit itself totally to destroy the Frankstein it has created and sustained without worrying about India. All these, sadly, are not good news for the future of democracy in Pakistan but it has no choice. Pakistan's future rests on whether the military is totally ready to crush the militants and terrorists. Democracy can wait to give Pakistan a chance.
Published in The Daily Star, October 24, 2009
Posted by Ambassador Serajul Islam