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More terrorists per square mile

india Updated: May 26, 2009 23:05 IST
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The deeper Pakistan has dug itself into a jihadist dungeon over the past decade and more, the more the US has gotten involved in that country, including in propping up its tottering economy through generous aid, macro-managing Pakistani politics and mollycoddling the powerful military. This political approach contrasts starkly with the current stepped-up US military approach in Afghanistan, exemplified by a troop “surge”.

By fighting the wrong war, the US risks losing the battle against Islamists and transnational terrorists. The real war needs to be fought in Pakistan.

The 2001 US military intervention in Afghanistan was intended to deny that landlocked country’s lawless regions as a base for transnational terrorists. To a large extent, that goal has been realised, despite the threat from a resurgent Taliban. Today, the main global-terrorist base is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. Support and sustenance for Afghan militants also comes from inside Pakistan, which - according to the co-author of President Barack Obama’s ‘Afpak’ strategy review, Bruce Riedel ‘has more terrorists per square mile than any place else on earth’ and a nuclear armoury “growing faster than any place else on earth.”

Still, while revving up its war machine in Afghanistan, America pursues a dubious political strategy in Pakistan, best illustrated by its new $7.5 billion aid package to win hearts and minds in a country that resembles a Molotov cocktail waiting for a match. Even as the US seeks to bribe the Pakistani military to stop providing succour and sanctuary to militants along the Afghan frontier, the major terrorist safe havens remain deep inside Pakistan, not at its borders. And while it frets over the Pakistani Taliban, the scourge of Pakistani terrorism still emanates from military generals who reared the forces of jihad.

Pakistan’s success in employing blackmail to extort ever-more ransom money has only emboldened North Korea to follow suit. Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test is a desperate move to garner international aid. If Islamabad can play nuclear poker to shield its export of terrorism and still get rewarded with $23.6 billion in international aid commitments over the past six months, Pyongyang reckoned it could stage its own nuclear show to draw the world’s attention. When Pakistan’s threat to become a failed state rakes in a windfall, North Korea can hardly be faulted for using the same menace to collect some small change.

If Obama thought that succumbing to Pakistani blackmail would set no international precedent, North Korea’s ailing “dear leader” has made sure the chickens will come home to roost in Washington. And even as America worries about the potential proliferation problem posed by Iran, its handling of the actual problem thrown up by Pakistan’s military-controlled weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and military-nurtured terrorists threatens to send the wrong signal to Tehran. Munificent US aid, in fact, is allowing Pakistan to divert more of its scarce resources to expand WMD capability.

Today, no country challenges international security like Pakistan. Obama cannot hope to secure a US ticket out of Afghanistan without dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for Afghan militants. As Stephen Hadley pointed out just before leaving office as the US national security adviser, ‘You can’t really solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan’. Yet Obama has no real strategy to uproot Pakistan’s terror complex other than to entice the Pakistani military establishment with larger funds and more weapon transfers - inducements that it will gladly grasp, only to continue aiding extremists. Obama’s Pakistan strategy indeed can be summed up in just four words: More of the same.

Actually, it is more of what hasn’t worked in the past. In making Pakistan the largest recipient of US aid in the world, Obama has set out to replicate the past failed approach on a bigger scale. His administration has even managed to dissuade Congress thus far not to impose any rigid condition on the unprecedented $10.5-billion aid for Pakistan — the first $2-billion tranche of which already has been cleared for release. Throwing more money at Islamabad, pampering the Pakistani army and intelligence, and undermining Pakistan’s elected leaders (with Obama publicly excoriating President Asif Ali Zardari’s fledgling government as “very fragile,” ineffectual and unable “to gain the support and loyalty” of the Pakistani people) are examples of more of the same in US policy.

How can Pakistan become a “normal” state if US policy encourages its military, intelligence and nuclear establishments to stay not accountable to the elected government? As long as the army continues to hold the real power and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) remains unreformed, Pakistan is likely to stay a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism. Yet the Obama strategy relies on these very institutions for gains on the Afghan battlefield. By publicising his intent to exit Afghanistan, Obama, however, has undercut his own objective. Now the Pakistani military and its progeny, the Taliban, will prefer to just wait out the Americans to reclaim Afghanistan.

The choice before Washington is to stop treating Pakistan as its favoured pawn or risk letting its egregious policy egg on other renegade nations. The right course is to cut the Pakistani military establishment down to size by actively assisting the country’s elected leaders to undo policies and mindsets implanted by a succession of army rulers. The civilians in office today take all the blame but do not have the power to deliver. The emergence of a fully empowered civilian government and robust civil society will foster democracy, marginalise radicals and bring Pakistan back from the brink.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi