By Jonathan Power
It looks like the recent slaying of 130 school children by rabid Islamic extremists finally has brought a halt to the long time policy of Pakistan facing both ways. Pakistan, because of policies developed over decades by its all-powerful army and its intelligence service, the ISI, has long played both ends against the middle.
On one end is the West, especially the US, trying to tug Pakistan into its orbit, so that it becomes a strategic partner in defeating the Afghan Taliban and its associates, and bringing peaceful democracy to Afghanistan. At the other end is what has been seen as the need to encourage and support the Islamic warriors in their effort to wrest a good slice of Kashmir away from India and, besides that, to make sure that Afghanistan under American tutelage doesn’t fall into the reach of Indian influence and thus threaten Pakistan’s deepest interests.
This clash of policies hitherto has been settled, say many, in favour of the militants, with the ISI for decades giving them arms, training and direction.
At last, very belatedly, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is upending this policy – one that has been practiced since the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
There have been too many cases when the militants have turned on their own people: trying to kill General Pervez Musharraf when he was president; murdering Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, during an election campaign; killing health workers who were giving anti-polio drops; murdering Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Punjab, who campaigned against the blasphemy law; trying to kill Malala Yousafzal, the campaigner for girls’ education; and now in cold blood killing 130 children. There has also been the murderous anti-Sh’ia campaign. It has taken too long for the turnaround to arrive, but it seems to be happening.
It means that the government, its army and even the ISI, are taking the militants head on, not least the home-grown Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It means supporting the new government in Afghanistan. Above all it means modifying its paranoia about Indian encirclement.
It would help if it could pick up where Musharraf left off and seek, with the same generous concessions he made, a peace agreement with India. It is its ultra antagonistic attitude towards India, more than anything else, that has made the conflict with India – which has led to four wars, one of which might have become nuclear – the central plank in the country’s foreign and military policies, pushing other priorities aside.
So it would mean also stopping supporting the militant fighters in Kashmir who confront India. These are affiliated with the Islamist terrorists in the heartland of Pakistan and with the extremists focused on Afghanistan in their redoubt on the Afghan-Pakistan border in semi-governable North Waziristan.
There have long been question marks over how the army defines its enemies. One litmus test must be its relationship to Punjabi-based militant groups such as Lashkar e Taiba, which are accused of carrying out the horrific attacks on Mumbai in 2008. Are they still free to operate in Pakistan without interference because the government is obsessed with the supposed help they give by attacking Indian targets?
To be fair to Pakistan from 2004 to 2009, in response to intensifying TPP violence, the army initiated a series of cease-fire agreements with the TPP. But they were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the army accommodated the Afghan Taliban.
The price of this was destabilize Pakistan’s productive urban areas and to frighten off foreign investment. Moreover, since then Islamic extremists of all sorts have gathered under the umbrella of the Pakistan Taliban. Many even want to defeat the army, topple the government and impose a caliphate
In 2010 when it became clear that President Barack Obama was intent on withdrawing US military from Afghanistan the government changed tack and began to support the idea of a rapprochement between the Afghan government and the Afghani Taliban.
Today the mass murder of defenceless school children has turned the tide. The mainstream of public opinion is calling “enough”. The government now says it is committed to a zero-tolerance of terrorism. It has rallied all the main political parties to its side and observers in Pakistan think the government means what it says.
It is time well overdue. One government after another has ignored the warning signs of totally counterproductive policies. This one now has to reign in the ISI and detain ex and retired members of the organization that give advice to the militants.
The army has to go in force into the border areas and capture the cadres of the Pakistan Taliban. It must avoid torture and make sure it doesn’t harm civilians. The government must seize the initiative with a crash program of schools, health centres and hospitals.
Only this has a chance of saving Pakistan from itself.
Copyright: Jonathan Power.