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A contradictory approach

Opinion

May 8, 2016

Despite going all out against the militants, Pakistan’s commitment to weed out terrorism remains under question. Of late, in the wake of one of the deadliest Taliban attacks on Kabul, which left 64 people dead, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came down hard on Islamabad for ‘shying away’ from acting against militant groups like the Haqqanis.

The American Congress has also blocked a $430 million subsidy on the sale of eight F-16 aircraft to Islamabad, for allegedly discriminating amongst the militants, thus casting aspersions on its counterterrorism credentials. Does Pakistan continue to be guilty of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare in the war on terror?

In the past, the fight against terrorism was largely based on the assumption – a favourite not only of strategists but also politicians – that there are good militants and bad militants. The latter were seen as incorrigible enemies of the state, who must be taken head-on. The former, however, were regarded as misguided souls, who were to be separated from the bad ones and either offered an olive branch or left untouched.

The ‘good’ militants, or the Taliban, were further categorised into those who took on the state to protest foreign intervention and social injustices, and those who were pushed to this side of the Durand Line when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, to oust the Taliban regime. While this category of the militants might have been involved in cross-border acts of terrorism, they were deemed to hold no grudge against Pakistan, which was enough to give them a certificate of good behaviour.

As the events of the last one and a half decade show, the distinction between good and bad militants can only be drawn at grave national peril. The militants who are not prepared to give up arms know only one way of living – by the sword. If some of them have not raised their sword against the state of Pakistan or its citizens, it does not mean that they are not a threat.

The distinction between good and bad militants was also made by the US and its European allies in the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but they soon learnt that doing so was a strategic error. While the religious extremists may have helped Washington topple Assad, had they come into power, they would have constituted a more serious threat to American interests than the erstwhile regime.

It is also important for Pakistan to discard the notion of strategic depth once and for all, and convince the world that it has done so. In the past, the quest for so-called strategic depth necessitated that some militant groups continue to be used as strategic assets in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Let’s not forget that it was Islamabad that facilitated the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in 1996, after its disappointment with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in the hope that the student militia that had sprung up in seminaries in Pakistan would serve as an instrument of strategic depth.

It seems that our strategists were oblivious of two essential components of the Taliban ideology: the notion that geographical boundaries in the world of Islam are un-Islamic, and that this retrogressive ideology must be enforced, with opponents either converted or annihilated. If it is not Afghanistan, it is Pakistan – and so on.

The Taliban regime met its logical end after 9/11, and the nation was left to reap the crop in the form of the havoc wrought by militancy. The chickens had come home to roost, and the so-called strategic assets turned out to be an existential threat.

But Pakistan was not the only bad guy. If Islamabad supported the Afghan Taliban, Kabul – under Hamid Karzai – backed the Pakistani Taliban. At the onset of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the top Taliban leadership, including Mullah Fazlullah, crossed over to Afghanistan, where they were provided sanctuaries. But this has been a zero-sum game, with one side supporting the other’s enemies and each reaping a disastrous harvest in the end.

During Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Pakistan after his election in 2014, the two countries agreed not to allow their territories to be used for cross-border terrorism. Kabul also assured Islamabad of action against TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. For Kabul to fulfil its promise, it needed to be sure that the military operation in North Waziristan was against all militant outfits, including the Haqqanis and their affiliates, who are a thorn in the side of the Afghan government.

Thus, Pakistan needs to send out the message that its soil will not be used for acts of terrorism in any part of the world. An unequivocal stance against terrorism must make up the basis of the country’s foreign and security policies. This is particularly true of Pakistan’s relations with its neighbouring nations, all of which have at times suspected the country’s counter-militancy credentials.

Beijing, whose friendship Islamabad highly values and on whom it pins high hopes for an economic turnaround, also wants Pakistan and Afghanistan to help quash the insurgency in its restive, Muslim-majority Xinxiang region. This would require both countries to show zero tolerance for militancy, regardless of whether its target is within or outside their respective borders.

But it seems that the distinction between good and bad militants has not been exclusive to Pakistan. The quadrilateral peace process, which includes the US, China and Afghanistan, in addition to Pakistan, is based on this very assumption. In 2015, the first year after the end of Nato’s combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 11,000 civilians and 5,000 members of the Afghan security forces perished in Taliban attacks. This shows that the Taliban, even if they are interested in the peace process, want to negotiate from a position of strength. Not surprisingly, the Afghan peace process is heading nowhere.

The Afghan Taliban are keen to re-impose their brand of Islamic rule, like they had between 1996 and 2001. The government in Kabul wants Islamabad to force the Afghan Taliban to join peace-talks. At the same time, it would like Islamabad to crush the militants, in case they are reluctant to become part of the peace process.

The extent of Pakistan’s influence on the Afghan Taliban is anybody’s guess. But such an approach, as Pakistan’s own case shows, is contradictory and not likely to bear fruit. In fact, the appeasement of the Taliban is likely to prove counter-productive.

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