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Accusations return


May 7, 2018

Just when we thought we were done with these issues, Imran Khan has re-opened the almost-settled debate of the merit of Pakistan’s war against terrorism, now in its 16th year. He has also revived his more recent accusations that in the 2013 elections the army (or part of its command) facilitated Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the crucial province of Punjab. His interview to Geo was most intriguing in the details that he went into while discussing both these issues.

There is no room for putting a fine a spin on his words that have been clearly spoken, recorded and aired. Nor can there be any ambiguity about the line that he has taken on both these scores. On the war on terror what he is insisting is that, since its very beginning, it has been based on US interest and never on Pakistan’s own, and that by fighting this war more harm has been done to the country’s interest than good. On the political front, he is speaking of an active conspiracy or an elaborate plan to deprive him of his share in power and to install Nawaz Sharif in his place as prime minister.

While Mr Khan may not have rolled these thoughts well enough in his head, both suggestions have grave implications that go beyond the defence offered by his party that this is ‘his version, his opinion and that it is also the party line.’ In light of Mr Khan’s statement on the war on terror, the entire effort of the past is made to look like an aggravated mistake that no command structure had the wisdom to roll back. This is a loud claim.

Despite policy and profile differences, the one thing that’s common to all the military commanders heading the Pakistan Army since the beginning of the military push into the Fata region is total ownership of the strategy to cleanse this area of the well-rooted and structured network of militants. It is a long, though critical, debate as to how this structure of militancy was formed in the areas straddling the Pak-Afghan border, but what remains undeniable is that the structure existed and flourished even as 9/11 approached. Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was robust and the Americans had – during the Clinton regime – fired cruise missiles camps in the border region, the blowback of which was felt across Khyber Pakhtunhwa. (Steve Coll’s ‘Ghost Wars’ is a good reminder of what was happening here before 9/11). Many may not recall but it was as far back as 1995 that the Egyptian embassy was attacked in Islamabad by militants, on the grounds that it represented a regime that they had declared ‘kafir’. This was the earliest sign that radical militants had developed both the reach and the capacity to operate and strike at will deep inside the country.

There were other indications as well that things were not exactly calm in this region, and that Pakistan was in the midst of big turmoil. Recall the six-rocket attack at the US Information Resource Centre, embassy and World Bank office in November 1999. While there were no casualties, these remote control attacks – made via empty and parked cars – showed the kind of terrorist actions that were to become endemic and deadly in the decades ahead, ripping lives and peace apart in Pakistan. These were serious developments. Even if this was all a set-up (a dark global agenda) to visit trouble upon this region, this was the beginning of the storm and it was happening here.

This cuts through the assumption that if 9/11 had not happened, nothing would have happened in Pakistan, and this area would have remained an island of peace. In fact, a better argument can be built that, had Pakistan’s governments and its institutions used foresight during the late nineties and taken tough decisions, the country would have been better placed to tackle US pressure in the aftermath of the twin tower attack.

Further, while the manner and motives of General Musharraf to jump on the bandwagon of the Bushites can be debated, he was supported in all these measures by politicians of different hues. Imran Khan did this by voting for General Musharraf in a farcical referendum in April 2002, more than half a year after 9/11, by which time all the commitments Musharraf had made to Washington had become public knowledge. He also endorsed along with other political parties the range of actions that the general took under American pressure, such as imposing sanctions on different NGOs allegedly generating funds for bankrolling militant activities. Mr Khan’s stand at that time was that if Pakistan had not responded to international demands, India would have used this opportunity to harm Pakistan’s interests!

We also forget that it was not just Washington but a global coalition that had been cobbled together, sanctioned and sealed by the UN Security Council’s binding resolutions that created the framework within which a strategically-placed Pakistan, caught in the whirlpool of global and regional dynamics, had to operate.

Much has happened since those years. Now three new army chiefs later, with thousands martyred and billions lost, it has become a national cause to move forward with and end what began a decade and half ago. There have been many mishaps, policy deviations, backtracking and use of the war on terror for other goals, but in essence it is a settled issue that the alternative path to peace in Pakistan’s Fata region is nothing but table talk.

Indeed, if there were better audit of the performance of different institutions in these years perhaps the ground for confusion and criticism now would have been far less than what it is at present. Also, our kinetic engagement in this part of Pakistan would then perhaps have been shorter and more productive. But to suggest that this was all a big mistake and we are now paying a price for it is to turn away from stark realities, which Mr Khan appreciated in 2002 but later found himself at odds with. To restart the debate on the ‘why’ of the war on terror now in 2018 makes little sense, especially since the country is almost over the hump as far as this issue is concerned.

On the rigging charges, what is forgotten is that between 2013, when the PTI first leveled these charges, and 2018 when these are again being reiterated, there was a full-scale judicial investigation that had ruled out any and all systematic and large-scale, pre-planned rigging. The judicial report should have buried this charge forever but apparently it has not. Mr Khan and his party seem to believe that by reviving the charge they are damaging Nawaz Sharif and his party but the insinuation drags the entire institution into controversy without any evidence (old or new) to support the accusation.

The army works as a well-oiled machine because it has a clear command structure and those breaking the chain of command hardly move a step without tripping, falling and getting cleaned out. To point fingers at one is to point fingers at all – unless the institution itself marks the alleged black sheep and separates them from the rest, which has not happened in this case. Mr Khan’s volley against the 2013 polls rigging could reverse swing, leaving many to wonder what his stance would be on the role of those in power now if he were to do not so well in the next elections too.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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