February 21, 2020
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To Raise A Siege

To stop its further ruination, Pakistan must make peace with India

To Raise A Siege
To Raise A Siege

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan has broken the ice that had settled on India-Pakistan relations after the cancellation of the last bilateral foreign secretaries’ talk in August, and the firing on the Line of Control in October. But it is only the beginning of the long road towards peace. And it is by no means certain that the countries will be able to travel down it all the way.

Pakistan has by far the stronger reasons for doing so. For it is a state under siege. One of the first things you see when you step out of the Islamabad airport is an armoured personnel carrier, with a 50 mm universal machine gun mounted in its turret. The APC is there not to intimidate terrorists but to kill them.

Hotel security bears the same, hard imprint. In contrast to the perfunctory 30-second check in Delhi, and the scanner placed inside the hotel entrance for guests to walk through, in Islamabad driveways to most hotels are closed and both passengers and their vehicles are given a complete airport scan. The purpose is to make suicide bombers detonate their vests outside. The homes of Islamabad’s elite are surrounded by high walls. Embassies, homes of senior diplomats, ministers and generals resemble medieval forts. High-profile diplomats, journalists, and officials travel around the city in armoured cars.

The siege Pakistan faces is from within, and is largely of its own making.  Since the 1960s, a succession of military reg­imes has pampered religious organisations, and encouraged their militias to wage low intensity war against their neighbours. When they joined the US’s war in Afghanistan, the dogs they had trained began to bite their masters. The civil war in the country after that has so far claimed 53,000 lives.

Pakistan’s first moment of truth came when the Lal Masjid in Islamabad became a centre of Taliban- and Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism in 2007. Its second came when the Tehrik-e-Taliban invaded Swat in 2008. Its third and most traumatic came when the TTP killed 133 children, most of them from army families, on December 16 in Peshawar.

The Peshawar attack has created a rare unity among the three ever-warring contenders for control of the state—the army, the civilian, and the religious establishments. Pakistan’s parliament adopted a 20-point action plan to root out sectarian terrorism and passed an amendment to its constitution that allows military courts to try and sentence terrorists. Since then the army has stepped up Zarb-e-Azb, the war on terror it launched in June 2014, and claims to have killed 2,000 terrorists. The government has arrested over 630 hard­core terrorists, of whom almost half belong to the India-­centred Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. It has executed 24 condemned terrorists too.

Coming on the heels of an agreement with Afghan pre­sident Ashraf Ghani to deny sanctuary to terrorists on eit­her side of the Pak-Afghan border, Sharif’s decisive response to the massacre of children in Peshawar has generated something close to  euphoria in Pakistan’s civil society, but this could be premature.

Denying sanctuary to the TTP in Afghanistan is easier said than done. Its cohorts have tribal relationships across the border; the border is long; the terrain is the most forbidding in the world; the Afghan army is ill-equipped and is being cut down from 3,50,000 to 2,28,000. It is already losing 10 to 15 soldiers a day, and faces the near-certainty of a spring offensive by the Taliban in a few weeks.

It is woefully short of aerial support, and this has led to a revision of the US’s troop and airforce deployment plans. But the longer the US stays, the more will the Taliban dig its heels in and refuse to negotiate a peace.

The Pak army’s heavy reliance on air and artillery strikes has made its killing somewhat indiscriminate. This is not only allowing the TTP’s fighters to escape but is also alienating civilians, among whom the casualties are mounting. The most that the Pak army can, or indeed expects to do, is  drive the TTP’s fighters out of the tribal agencies. But this will not prevent them from reverting to guerilla tactics. This will intensify the civil war, punctuate it with deadly atrocities like Peshawar, bring about greater coordination among sectarian and terrorist organisations and deepen Pakistan’s economic woes by keeping tourists and foreign investors away.

Pakistan cannot therefore afford the luxury of euphoria. Its only way forward is through a rapid resolution of outstanding disputes with India.  New Delhi has been less than cooperative in this during the last ten months, but that is changing rapidly. The window Modi has opened by sending India’s foreign secretary must not therefore be allowed to close.

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