Thursday, July 15, 2010

A foregone conclusion

Daily Times Thursday, July 15, 2010

Only after the disaster in Swat spilled over into Buner and the media spotlight showed the true colours of Sufi Muhammad, did both the military and civilian leadership spring into action

The Pakistani parliament’s Special Committee on National Security (SCNS) received a briefing this past week from the Secretary Defence Lieutenant General (R) Syed Athar Ali and Director General ISI Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

An English language daily, reporting on the proceedings at the SCNS, noted that “the members were told in categorical terms that no Punjabi Taliban network exists in any part of the country and no organisation under the banner of the Taliban in any particular area of the country has been found. The recent terror incidents are the handiwork of the splinter groups and persons of outlawed organisations, which have lost their bases in the tribal areas and elsewhere.”

If this press report is indeed true — and no statement contradicting it has yet appeared — then coming on the heels of the Data Darbar bombing and a day before the massacre in the Mohmand Agency, this briefing was nothing more than hogwash. But given the history of such briefings and those delivering them, it is hardly a surprise.

On the eve of the crisis in Swat last year, General Pasha, apparently defending the jihadists, asked his Der Spiegel interviewer, “Should they not be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe that jihad is their obligation. Is that not freedom of opinion?” Just a few months before this January 2009 interview, he had certified Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah as ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis because they had offered not only a ‘ceasefire’ with the army but also the offer to fight alongside the military against India, in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.

Exactly a year before that, General Pasha — then the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) Pakistan Army — had declared on January 17, 2008 that the “operation Rah-e-Haq in Swat to re-establish the writ of the government and clean the area from miscreants has been successfully accomplished.”

Prior to these musings, the general had served as the commandant of the Command and Staff College in Quetta. While the position may not have had any operational responsibilities, it is hard to assume that someone in charge of a course almost mandatory for promotions beyond the lieutenant colonel rank would be unaware of the Quetta Shura taking shape in his neck of the woods.

That Rawalpindi’s line has been to consistently deny the existence of the Taliban and al Qaeda networks, first in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or FATA and now in Punjab, is not surprising but the civilian leadership’s constant acceptance of such denials at face-value is rather perplexing.

Upon assuming power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2008, the coalition partners, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) reluctantly signed on to the military effort already underway in Swat since July 2007, to supposedly flush out the Taliban from Swat. While drawing severe criticism from its supporters, the coalition government then inked the well-publicised peace deal with the Swat Taliban on May 21, 2008 and agreed to impose shariah in Swat.

Barring an occasional muffled protest from the ANP’s provincial assembly members, the coalition did own the army campaign in Swat, over which it had little or no operational control. While privately complaining about the army’s inaction, the spin-masters of the federal and provincial governments worked hard then to present the breakdown in the state’s writ as the greatest breakthrough.

Only after the disaster in Swat spilled over into Buner and the media spotlight showed the true colours of Sufi Muhammad, did both the military and civilian leadership spring into action. However, the civilian leadership subsequently made startling revelations about how they had to negotiate with the Taliban under duress and with suicide bombers standing guard on occasion.

At its peril, the civilian government, especially the ANP, had opted not to take the people of Pakistan, or even its own leaders like Afzal Khan, into confidence about the shenanigans of the army and the Taliban in Swat. No effort was made to mobilise the street or media to ask why, if at all, in less than a year the people who had voted overwhelmingly against the mullahs were suddenly craving shariat. The information given by the political leadership, off and on record, later about the civilian government being between the army’s inaction and the Taliban onslaught, was too little and too late to mould opinion around the world.

The 18-member SCNS led by Senator Raza Rabbani, which is supposedly the eyes and ears of the civilian government on national security issues, has apparently fallen into the same trap as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in 2008 and the two Benazir Bhutto administrations before that. The deliberations of this committee potentially have far-reaching impact in terms of formulating a counter-terrorism doctrine.

Throughout their attacks in Punjab during 2009 and 2010, the terrorists have displayed a level of impunity and a variety of tactics that only outfits deeply entrenched in the heartland can muster. No evidence has been brought to the fore that from the June 12, 2009 bombing of the Jamia Naeemia in Lahore to the Data Darbar bombing a year later, any of the attacks carried out in Punjab had been planned or manned by anyone from outside the province.

From the capture of al Qaeda bigwigs like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (Rawalpindi), Abu Zubaidah and Sheikh Isa al-Masri (both Faisalabad) to the more recent arrival in Punjab of west-born would-be terrorists, the province has been the crossroads of terrorist traffic in and out of Pakistan. With its sprawling madrassa network, it is a recruitment ground, nursery and sanctuary of jihadist terrorism, complete with indoctrination and training capabilities.

Without acknowledging the existence of these militant networks in Punjab, it is hard to make a case for countering them effectively, whether by police-led domestic counter-terrorism or the army. Through its complacency at the briefing, the SCNS is letting the military continually dictate foreign and national security policies, setting the civilian government up for a disaster much bigger in magnitude and fallout than Swat. That the jihadist menace in Punjab will continue to grow is a foregone conclusion.

The writer teaches and practices Medicine at the University of Florida and contributes to the think-tanks www.politact.com and Aryana Institute. He can be reached at mazdaki@me.com

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