Washington goes tribal
American pressure on the Pakistan president to crack down on Taliban rebels can backfire, writes Prem Shankar Jha.india Updated: Jan 26, 2007 14:58 IST
Only one Indian newspaper has highlighted the US Congress's move to make all defence-related assistance to Pakistan conditional upon a presidential certification that it is doing all it can to "prevent Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control".
But this could become the turning point at which Pakistan loses control of its future and starts down the slippery slope that Iraq and Afghanistan have travelled. Were that to happen, we in India will not go unscathed.
Although the bill requiring presidential certification has been framed by the new, Democrat-dominated US Congress, and although it is being described as the first step in the implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, it has fitted seamlessly into the Bush administration's graduated campaign to make Islamabad reverse course and take drastic military action once again to seal the highly porous Durand Line and deny the Taliban sanctuary in Waziristan and Balochistan.
Washington had begun to apply pressure soon after the Pakistan government signed an agreement with the tribal chiefs of north Waziristan at Miranshahr on September 5, in which Pakistan agreed to stop army operations aimed at the Taliban in exchange for a commitment by the chiefs to police the area themselves.
A spate of articles, with provocative headlines such as 'Pakistan gives up on lair of Osama', and 'Pakistani pullout a deal with the devil', appeared in highly respected newspapers all across the world within days of the agreement. These were based on briefings by American officials based in Pakistan and Washington.
During his visit to the US in September to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly, Pervez Musharraf convinced George Bush to give his method of dealing with the Taliban a chance.
But US intelligence officials in Pakistan continued to call it a sell-out and predict dire consequences.
Within three weeks of the Miranshahr agreement they began to claim that there had been a 300 per cent increase in Taliban attacks.
Although this increase took place over a four-month period from June onwards, the timing of their statements created a link in newspaper readers' minds with the Miranshahr agreement and made Pakistan responsible.
In December, Newsweek disclosed that Al-Qaeda was training Western-born jehadis in camps in Pakistan to set loose in their home countries.
Only days later, US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte asserted that Pakistan was harbouring Mullah Omar in Quetta.
There was nothing new in either of these claims. Every major terrorist from Ramzi Youssef, who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, to the perpetrators of the Nairobi bombings, had been found to have a Pakistan connection.
But the timing of these disclosures was significant. By then, Western analysts had begun to draw parallels openly between Pakistan today and Afghanistan on the eve of 9/11.
The demand for presidential certification is an inevitable consequence, but it is also the latest turn of the screw.
If the US Senate endorses the bill, it will destroy whatever space remains for ambivalence.
Pakistan will face a stark choice between two evils: reversing its policy and starting to pound suspected Taliban hide-outs in the tribal areas once again, and foregoing first military, then bilateral economic, and finally multilateral economic assistance.
This could plunge Pakistan into another 'lost' economic decade.
Pakistan has already tried the first course. Before its agreements with the tribal chiefs of South and North Waziristan, Musharraf had committed more than 80,000 troops to a 30month campaign to close the border and drive the Taliban out of the Tribal Areas.
But all he had succeeded in doing was to enrage the tribes and send streams of young Pashtuns into the Taliban ranks.
What is worse, the attack spurred and - in the eyes of many Pashtuns - justified a Taliban campaign to kill tribal leaders it considered allied to the central government.
This not only eliminated precisely the people who could have controlled them but also threw the tribal hierarchy into disarray. This may be one of the reasons why the policy of maintaining peace through the tribal chiefs has failed.
The truth, which neither the US nor the NATO command wish to hear, is that it is the confusion in their policies towards Afghanistan that is mainly to blame.
In 2001, the US won the war and drove the Taliban out of Kabul. But it could not make peace, because peace, like war and diplomacy, presupposes the existence of a contending State, government or movement.
If the aim of the victor becomes to destroy that State, government or movement altogether, then there is no one left with whom it can broker a peace.
The US's aim has been to eradicate the Taliban because it had nurtured Al-Qaeda and could do so again.
So over five years, they have lost any clear idea they may once have had of who the enemy is.
Today they do not know whether they are fighting the remnants of Mullah Omar's cohorts, Islamic fanatics who have joined them, or young Pashtuns who had nothing to do with the Taliban but have been so dangerously angered by the incessant bombing and the daily toll of human lives and blighted futures that they have picked up the gun to drive the foreign invader out as their forefathers and fathers did.
Thus, far from lecturing Musharraf on what he should be doing, the US and NATO should be asking themselves what their own goal is.
For their current strategy, of wooing ordinary Pashtuns away from the Taliban through economic reconstruction and then eradicating the hard core that remains, has little chance of succeeding, because it is creating more enemies than it eliminates.
As for Pakistan, Musharraf really has no choice but to confront the West, because the loss of military, and possibly economic, aid is by far the lesser price to pay.
But this does not mean that he should fall in line with the hawks in his military establishment who still cling to the belief that they can ride to power in Kabul on the Taliban's backs and give Pakistan the 'defence in depth' that they have coveted for so long.
After 9/11, that is one outcome that the West, Russia and even Iran, will not tolerate. And the West has already made it clear that it will hold Pakistan accountable.
The only constructive course left open to Pakistan is to somehow rediscover the road to peace that the US and NATO have lost.
This will involve getting them to declare a ceasefire, and brokering talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban.
That can only happen if NATO and the US are prepared to accept that their present goal is unattainable.
As New Delhi has found out in Kashmir, there are no economic remedies for political problems once blood has begun to flow.
But Musharraf's government is too heavily compromised by its past ambivalence towards Islamist militancy and jehad, to command the necessary credibility in Western eyes.
It is also regarded with deep suspicion by Kabul. It cannot, therefore, bear this burden alone.
The only alternative - indeed, possibly the only way to restore lasting peace in Afghanistan - is for Pakistan and India to work together.
India has almost as vital a stake in preventing the disintegration or Talibanisation of Pakistan as its own people do.
It also has the necessary credibility both in Kabul and the Western capitals, and with the erstwhile Northern Alliance to complement Pakistan's clout with the Pashtuns and the Taliban.
And together they can offer NATO and the US an honourable way out of Afghanistan.
But India and Pakistan will only be able to do so if they cease to be mired in the past. They have to shed the inherited burden of distrust and learn to work with each other.
The rise of global terrorism, the Bush national security doctrine, and the destruction of the Westphalian international order has given us ample reason to do so.
First Published: Jan 26, 2007 14:58 IST