(I had prepared this paper for presentation at a conference being
organised by the Heritage Foundation of Washington DC on May 14, 2009, to which
I had been invited. I have had to cancel my participation due to unforeseen
Shortly after the commando action ordered by the then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf into the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in the beginning of July, 2007, I had received a message from one of my readers asking: "Pakistan on the boil or on the brink?" Both, I replied and wrote an article [Pakistan: Iraq in the Making] on the wave of Pashtun anger, which had started sweeping across the Pashtun belt after the commando raid.
I wrote in that article: "Pakistan is on the brink of a destabilising
situation. It brings Iraq to one's mind, but it is not yet Iraq. It can turn
into an Iraq-like situation at least in the Pashtun belt if Musharraf and his
American backers do not conduct themselves with restraint and wisdom."
The post-Lal Masjid raid Pashtun anger, which caused death and destruction right across Pakistan, gave birth to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and triggered the assassination of Benazir Bhutto at Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, had recently shown some signs of subsiding following some conciliatory steps taken by the government of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani such as facilitating the release on bail of those arrested during the raid and allotment of land outside the mosque for re-starting the two madrasas attached to the mosque before the raid. These madrasas had catered to the requirements of the children of many poor Pashtun families from the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), including Swat, which is presently under the effective control of Maulana Fazlullah of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).
If the US were wise, it would have taken the initiative in funding the establishment of well-equipped schools with facilities for boarding and lodging located outside the tribal belt for the children of internally displaced Pashtun families from the FATA and the Malakand Division, who have been forced to leave their villages due to the fighting between the TNSM and the TTP on the one side and the security forces on the other.
But wisdom has not been a defining characteristic of the US policy in Pakistan. Billions of US dollars have been earmarked for the security forces and for other projects with a long gestation period meant for the benefit of the civilians. But hardly any money has been earmarked for providing humanitarian relief to the internally-displaced persons from the tribal belt and for looking after their children. A new crop of suicide and non-suicide terrorists has started coming out of these internally-displaced Pashtuns and providing a surge to the forces of the TNSM and the TTP.
The Pashtun anger is the root cause of the mushrooming Taliban organisations right across the Pashtun belt. There are Talibans and Talibans. There are as many Talibans as there are tribal chiefs. Instead of trying to understand the Pashtun anger and to mitigate it, President Barack Obama, his advisers and aides have been fueling it further through their insensitive and thoughtless statements and comments, which tend to project the Pashtuns as a whole as accomplices of Al Qaeda, paint an apocalyptic characterisation of the developments in the Pashtun belt and unnecessarily over-stress the role of the security forces in dealing with the violence resulting from the Pashtun anger.
Unless and until the Pashtun anger is understood, addressed and mitigated, the spread of the Taliban virus cannot be arrested and reversed. The most important role in this regard has to be that of the progressive Pashtun politicians of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. There are many progressive Pashtun leaders. Let us not forget that the leftist movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan had its strongest roots in the Pashtun belt. Neither the Obama Administration nor its predecessor administration of George Bush has had time for the Pashtun leaders of the Pashtun soil.
The entire focus of the US administration and the US think tanks has been on the Islamabad-based leaders--political and military-- many of whom enjoy very little credibility in the eyes of the Pakistani people in general and the Pashtuns in particular. Whatever little credibility they might have enjoyed, has been weakened, if not destroyed, by the unthinking statements and comments coming out of Obama and his advisers. The limited credibility, which President Asif Ali Zardari enjoyed, has been irreparably damaged by Obama's negative remarks on Pakistan's civilian leadership during his interactions with the media on his completing 100 days in office. The subsequent damage control exercise by Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy for the Af-Pak region, who praised Pakistan's civilian leadership, could not repair the damage.
Of Pakistan's mainstream leaders, Nawaz Sharif enjoyed a high level of credibility among the Punjabis and the Pashtuns. This was because of his independent line on the way American influence, according to him, has distorted Pakistan's handling of the situation in the tribal belt. His call for a re-think on the way Pakistan has been uncritically supporting the US operations added to his popularity. He projected himself as a man who can stand up to US pressure. Pakistan needs more such leaders who are seen by its people as not amenable to US pressure and as capable of taking an independent line suited to Pakistan's national interests.
Comments, reports and articles in the US media projecting Nawaz Sharif as a leader with whom the US can do business and as a possible alternative to Zardari, have damaged his credibility as a man capable of independent thinking and new ideas as to how to deal with the cancer of terrorism. Both Zardari and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan have created a negative image of themselves in the eyes of their respective people by the manner in which they responded to the American summons to go to Washington DC to discuss their counter-terrorism policy and co-operation.
The statements and comments of Obama and his advisers praising the Pakistan Army in general and Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), in particular have created suspicions of a new American game to reinforce the role of the Army even at the cost of further weakening the democratic forces in Pakistan. The repeated comments of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighting his personal equation with Kayani and praising Kayani's positive response to American concerns on the ground situation have had the unintended effect of making him seen by a growing number of people not only in the Pakistani civil society, but also even in the armed forces as America's man in the GHQ.
Political and military leaders who are seen by the people of Pakistan as carrying out the American diktats cannot succeed in winning the support of their people for their policies. The plethora of statements and comments on Pakistan's internal situation coming from the Obama Administration without any concerns about their impact on the minds of the Pakistani people are going to add to the difficulties of any government in Islamabad in adopting a counter-terrorism and counter-Taliban strategy, which would be seen as motivated by the interests of Pakistan and not of the US.
Obama and his advisers have been conducting themselves as if they are still in the midst of their election campaign and not as the new rulers of the US already in office, who have to be careful about their public comments. The internal security situation in Pakistan arising from the activities of the Pakistani Taliban is alarming, but this cannot detract from the fact that how the Taliban is handled in the Pashtun belt is an internal affair of Pakistan. Others such as the US can give it discreet advice and whatever help it needs in dealing with the situation, but they should not give the impression that they are back-seat driving Pakistan's internal security management.
Dealing with the difficult situation in Pakistan at this critical time in its history requires a lot of intelligence, sensitivity and discretion. These qualities have been in short supply in the Obama Administration.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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