While the election of a civilian government in Islamabad has been universally welcomed as part of Pakistan’s democratic transition, the new government’s approach to counterterrorism has evoked misgivings in Washington. Reacting to what is viewed as President Pervez Musharraf’s US-backed militarized effort to defeat terrorism, the elected government headed by Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani has sought a more balanced policy combining force with a
"civil dialogue" with misled extremists. Instead of dismissing this as yet another bound-to-fail approach, Washington should be patient and let Gillani recover the legitimacy of Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy.
Memories of Musharraf’s earlier failed "peace accords" lead many to fear that Gillani’s call for dialogue would only end up helping terrorist groups to recover, regroup and rearm. That could well be the case, but before drawing any strong conclusions, several dimensions of Pakistan’s new counterterrorism policy deserve careful attention.
Although the effort at negotiating with insurgent groups has been advertised as a bold policy departure by the new regime in Islamabad -- Gillani called it fighting terrorism "our way" -- it is not unprecedented. The Gilliani government is quick to point out that the new approach has three important differences from Musharraf’s abortive attempts: To begin, "no talks will be held with anyone refusing to lay down arms." Further, negotiations will be conducted only with entities capable of being reconciled and not with those, whom the distinguished Pakistani diplomat Tanvir Ahmad Khan, has aptly labeled, "eternal warriors." Finally, negotiations would involve neither the release of terrorist detainees nor the permanent abdication of force should discussions fail.
Gillani, in effect, thus seeks to drive a wedge between the inveterate terrorists and their tribal supporters. This particular effort may not succeed, but the campaign against terrorism will surely fail if, together with political reforms and economic assistance, it is not tried.
Although negotiating with dissatisfied groups is also packaged as if it represents a fresh unified approach, the "civil dialogue" in fact covers separate discussions with different insurgents conducted by various state actors such as the central government, the provincial administrations, the Pakistan Army or the Inter-Service Intelligence agency. These colloquies have diverse lineages; a few are new and owe their existence to the new governing coalition in Islamabad or the new Awami National Party--led provincial administration in Peshawar, but most are much older and predate the 2008 elections.
Thus, for example, the Pakistan Army has long been involved in negotiations with key insurgent groups in an effort to retrieve personnel captured at the Razmak and Ladha Forts in South Waziristan. A similar effort, aimed at splitting the extremists who operate in the tribal and settled areas, has been underway in the North West Frontier Province. The only negotiation owed entirely to the present government is perhaps the recent release of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi leader Sufi Mohammad, though this may be a prelude to new peace agreements sought for South Waziristan and Baluchistan.
Although the government’s emphasis on "civil dialogue" thus suggests some grand new initiative, it is for most part really a continuation of previous negotiations proceeding more or less independently.
Finally, the emphasis on negotiations, though viewed as an innovation of the new civilian government, is favored most of all by the Pakistan Army, including the chief of army staff, General Parvez Kayani. US skeptics of the Gillani regime sometimes overlook this crucial point.
Thanks to eight years of brutal counterterrorism operations, the Pakistani Army today is a weary, spent force and the focused target of terrorist attacks. Losing hundreds of soldiers in what are widely viewed as futile military operations, losing standing in the eyes of its own populace and at risk of losing its clarity of purpose due to its unpopular involvement in "Washington’s war," the Pakistani Army leadership currently is driving the momentum for dialogue to both buy itself time to recuperate from the stresses of operational employment and recover the national support necessary for the military’s survival as an institution.
The new interest in negotiations, therefore, derives not from woolly-minded civilians but rather from the most powerful institution within the Pakistani state and one that US policymakers acknowledge as their most critical partner in the war on terror.
These realities taken together imply that Washington ought to be patient with the new civilian regime in Islamabad. The emphasis on dialogue with extremist groups no doubt embodies significant risks, including the prospect that terrorist groups could use the breathing space offered by negotiations to prepare for renewed conflict or to secure the release of extremists in custody, or trade their restraint in mounting attacks within Pakistan for increased violence against Afghanistan, India and the United States. Any of these potential hazards would not only undermine Pakistan’s own long-term security but also put at risk its critical relationships with key international partners.
Thankfully, the Gillani government understands these hazards. But, it recognizes equally well that however unnerving these possibilities may be, the dangers to the larger war on terror will be immeasurably greater if the Pakistani polity as a whole does not commit itself wholeheartedly to this struggle. Measured dialogue under strict conditions is thus seen as part of a larger strategy for securing the legitimacy that Musharraf’s anti-terrorism efforts unfortunately lacked.
The new democratic dispensation in Islamabad thus offers the US renewed opportunity to transform Pakistan from being a reluctant ally in the war on terror into an active collaborator determined to defeat those terrorists whom Musharraf deliberately overlooked. To enable Islamabad to pursue such a course, however, the US must respect and strengthen Pakistani democracy just as much as it seeks to encourage active Pakistani involvement in combating terrorism. A strategy obsessed with the latter and neglectful of the former will end up losing on both counts.
The US should therefore afford the prime minister the latitude to define his own approach to counterterrorism so that the corrosive canard propagated by the radicals -- that the war on terror is nothing other than an imperial, anti-Muslim crusade -- can be undermined. Recriminations about Islamabad’s evolving engagement strategy are not helpful. Instead, the US must quietly hold the Gillani administration to implementing its own vision of how the "civil dialogue" would differ from Musharraf’s ill-fated peace accords of earlier years. If the new emphasis on dialogue produces agreements that are transparent and enforceable, results in either the ejection or the surrender of hardened extremists both domestic and foreign, precludes the release of terrorists already in Pakistani custody, and aids the integration of dissatisfied tribal groups through laying down of arms and returning to traditional society, it could contribute more to the success of counterterrorism than some of the kinetic operations conducted by the Pakistani military over the years.
While success in this endeavor is by no means guaranteed, the effort itself is necessary at this point in Pakistan’s political evolution. So long as it is not accompanied by irretrievable losses in the interim -- through the discharge of terrorists in custody for example -- it promises the recovery of legitimacy for national counterterrorism efforts. This is essential if the Pakistani government is compelled to change tack in the future and resort to the use of force.
Ashley J. Tellis is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues. His most recent book is
Strategic Asia 2007-08: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy, written with Michael Wills and published by the National Bureau of Asian Research in 2007.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online