The United States has unveiled a comprehensive new strategy to fight the war against the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even while pointing the gun in the right direction, the US aim still seems to stray away from the target.
Pakistan, not Afghanistan is where the battle against religious extremism must be fought and won. Graham Allison and John Deutch point out in a recent oped in the Wall Street Journal that the new US policy acronym should be PakAf, not AfPak — Pakistan is the central front, Afghanistan only the periphery.
To that extent, President Obama’s new policy — which opens a new Pakistan front — is a minor, though welcome, course correction. While US may not, out of concern for Pakistani sensitivities, put boots on the ground in Pakistan, it will demand a higher level of accountability from Islamabad for doing its bit in the war against the Al Qaeda-Taliban alliance.
But it’s not clear whether Washington has realised that the centre of gravity of the threat has shifted away from Helmand and Paktia, and even the Federally Administered Tribal areas; it now lies somewhere in a region between Lahore and Peshawar, uncomfortably east of the Indus.
Devastated Afghanistan can provide nothing but a sanctuary for terrorists. But Pakistan can provide much more. It is a sophisticated country with large urban centres, industry and talented doctors, engineers and a large standing military. It has a nuclear and aerospace industry, as well as universities and research institutes. Significant numbers of professionals in these institutions lean towards religious radicalism, if not extremism. The victory of jehadist radicalism in Pakistan would be a major disaster for the world, comparable, perhaps, to the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols.
The most important military reason for the US to consider Pakistan as the main theatre of the war is Islamabad’s nuclear weapons capability. The A.Q. Khan network proliferated nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran. Even today we are not sure as to how complicit the Pakistani state was in the process. But we do know that Pakistani nuclear scientists have flirted with the Al Qaeda in the past.
Demonstration in front of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan, to mark anniversary of the military operation to clear out militants from there
If the country, or parts of the country fall into the hands of religious extremists, such facilities could be the source of nuclear weapons or materials for a terrorist strike of horrifying power. The only way that the US can prevent a possible terrorist nuclear strike is to remain engaged in Pakistan till religious extremism is utterly defeated.
Afghanistan may be the battle-ground, but almost all observers believe that the higher command of the Al Qaeda-Taliban alliance is located within Pakistan. According to Ahmed Rashid, the Taliban have a vast support structure in Balochistan “ranging from ISI-run training camps near Quetta to huge ammo dumps, arrival points for new weapons and meeting places for the Taliban leadership council.”
The kind of battles the Taliban is fighting in Afghanistan cannot be fought using cottage industry products. It needs thousands of mortar shells, rocket propelled grenades and hundreds of thousands of rounds of AK-47 ammunition every week. The Taliban use the local madarssas to recruit and house fighters and use Pakistani towns and cities to provide medical facilities for their cadre.
The most important reason as to why we must consider Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, as the main theatre of the war is that the dark heart of the ideology that seeks to convert the region into a medieval Islamic emirate lies in Pakistan.
There is a messianic streak in Pakistan whose roots go back to the downfall of the Mogul empire. Its early manifestations were the activities of Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. But the take-off point was during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule when the jehad against the Soviet Union was used to promote religious fundamentalism across society.
Sectarian conflict has become a sordid feature of recent Pakistani history. The Pakistan Army, for its part, has used the religious militias like the Taliban, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the LeT, and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, to pursue strategic goals in Afghanistan and India. They are, as the scholar Ayesha Jalal has pointed out, deeply enmeshed with the Pakistan army strategic doctrine.
The Taliban may be Afghans, but their ideology was born in the refugee camps of Pakistan encouraged by mentors like Samiul Haq of the seminary Darul Uloom Haqqania where Mullah Omar studied, and the late, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of the Binori masjid in Karachi, where the Wahabi-Deobandi alliance between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden was shaped.
The foot-soldiers of the jehad —overwhelmingly from amongst the poor and illiterate — are to be found in the numerous madarssas and mosques run by competing sectarian groups belonging to the Deobandis, Barelvis, and Ahle-Hadith. The key Punjab province is the recruitment pool of the baleful Jamaat ud Dawa aka Lashkar-e-Tayyeba which offers a Wahabist challenge to the more eclectic Barelvi orientation of Punjabi Islam.
The attackers of the Manawan police academy may have come from the radical Deobandi badlands of Waziristan, but unchecked, the Lashkar is breeding even deadlier killing machines like Amir Ajmal Kasab in training camps in Azad Kashmir and elsewhere.
An elite influenced by such an ethos do not easily accept that the Al Qaeda/Taliban pose a mortal threat to their country. That is why the ISI still continues to back the Taliban against the US in Afghanistan. Or the reason for the peculiarly ambiguous Pakistani response to horrific acts of terrorism not only in Mumbai, but their own country.
Their first instinct is to blame some “foreign hand” . These are only a manifestation of the larger Pakistani state of denial which is preventing effective prosecution of the battle against the Al Qaeda/Taliban combine. Or, action against the master-minds of the Mumbai carnage.
This is not to say that there are no forces or trends seeking to counter the growing radicalisation. But they are weak and disunited. On the other hand, the forces of radicalism, preying on poverty, illiteracy and mis-governance provide certitudes that only religious zealots can provide.
The key to the PakAf battle lies in the hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis. So far, alarmingly, its outcome remains a moot issue.
The story of how the Bush Administration was distracted by its obsession with Iraq is too well known to recount. But the consequence, as Obama has pointed out, was that the US war in Afghanistan lost its focus.
The US now plans to remedy all the weaknesses. They have come up with a comprehensive plan — with both military and civilian components — which will be led by a tightly coordinated leadership answerable to the White House. The plan envisages enhanced military action against the Taliban along with a systematic effort to create a larger and more effective Afghan police and army to take over that task by 2011.
But in Pakistan, it expects the Pakistanis to do the needful. Obama has ruled out American boots on ground. He has said that there will be no “blank check” and that the US will “insist that action be taken” against high-level terrorist targets in Pakistan. To help Islamabad, the US will give $1.5 billion per annum for civilian reconstruction and provide civilian personnel to effectively manage the programmes.
But how different is this plan from its predecessor? The US gave massive aid, some $9 billion in the 6 years, after 2002. Then, too, it depended on the Pakistan army to deliver on the Pak-Afghan border. But from its Pakistani sanctuaries, the Al Qaeda regenerated and the Taliban went from strength to strength.
Sure, there is talk of greater accountability and supervision this time around, but there is little by way of the kind of radical solutions that the problem of Pakistan demands.
This article appeared in Mail Today April 2, 2009