Need for review of US anti-terror policy in Pakistan

Since September there have been 19 missile attacks on suspected terrorists by the US, most of them in Waziristan. They have led to the deaths of some foreign fighters; at the same time they have killed numerous innocent persons. As a result there is a widening wave of revulsion against US policies and Pakistan’s support for them.

We are living in a world where truth, rationality and logic are swept aside for the sake of expediency and temporary advantage. Michael Chertoff the powerful czar of US Homeland Security made a significant recommendation in London the other day. He pleaded for the sanctification of a new principle of international law involving the acceptance of the right to attack another country if it was “harbouring a potential terrorist threat.” US defence secretary Robert Gates had commented a few days ago that the US would hold countries that permit sanctuary to terrorists fully accountable for actions. These two statements taken together mean that the US is formulating a doctrine that permits the launching of pre-emptive strike against non-state fighters living within the jurisdiction of another state. In the case of Pakistan this doctrine is already under implementation in FATA. Such a policy needs revision. It is counterproductive for both the US and Pakistan since it plays into the hands of the militants.

The doctrine of pre-emptive strike against another country which has declared its hostile intent to attack another is well known in the Middle Eastern context with regard to Egypt-Israeli conflicts of the past. Such a doctrine may make sense in inter-state relations where regular military forces keep a watch on one another. However, serious anomalies arise in its implementation when the doctrine of pre-emptive strike is cut-and-pasted into the poorly defined, amorphous world of non-state warriors and their organisations. A UAV strike may kill some terrorists, but is not a policy which “dries the pond that breeds the mosquitoes.” Such attacks create ill will against the US and Pakistan; it weakens the response against terrorism in the long run.

After debating the war on terrorism the National Assembly passed a resolution on Oct 22 that condemned US UAV attacks on FATA as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. On the other hand, the US argues that if Pakistani is unable to prevent the misuse of its territory by the militants who launch such attacks against their forces from Waziristan, the US is within its rights to take unilateral action for protecting itself. Such a stance has wider implications. For instance, although the US accuses Pakistan of not doing enough for the removal of terrorist safe havens, it overlooks two aspects about Waziristan. Firstly, this region has always remained a “soft” area which has not been actively administered. It thus allows non-state actors to congregate and challenge the state. This was frequently the case during British rule and has been so since then. Secondly Waziristan apparently has become a pen for corralling Arab terrorists and then eliminating them. Such a conclusion cannot be ignored if we examine the identities of those killed and understand some of the reasons which force these people to take the Waziristan trail.

Most UAV targets have been people who are the creation of political dissent within their own countries and became engaged in resistance due to repression. This is evident in the case of those killed, whether the militant was from Afghanistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, the Central Asian states or China. Most of those who have died have fallen on the wrong side of their respective governments and were subsequently recruited by terrorist organisations and trained as fighters to change the status quo. As Tariq Ali rightly points out, this situation generated new forces and leaders like Muqtada as-Sadr, Ismail Haniya, Hassan Nasrallah or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who organise their people in Baghdad, Gaza, Jenin, Beirut, Sidon and Tehran and I would add Waziristan. The Americans, on the other hand, support the existing order and become associated with repression, and this makes the US a target for the terrorists. Apparently the main reason for generating a demand for safe havens in Waziristan would lie not in Pakistan but within the dynamics of the implementation of US foreign policy in the Muslim world, especially in Palestine. It would seem that as long as the US policy remains on its present course in the Middle East, the ranks of the terrorists will not be depleted; militants will continue to enter Waziristan.

On the other hand there is absolutely everything wrong with the militants’ slogan that the present war is aimed at destroying Islam or that it is a Christian crusade. This is at best a mobilising slogan for Islamists everywhere. Islam is too strong and too spatially indeterminate to be destroyed. The reason why I say this is that like most universal religions–Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism–they are not anchored within a destroyable entity like a state. These religions are universal and have been fused into ethical and national identities that are diverse and spread worldwide. Waging a war against a universal religion today is like fighting the air we breathe. That is why I believe that the present war is not directed against Islam, nor could it cause harm to the religion if it were indeed against Islam. The conclusion that can safely be derived is that Islam is not in danger in Pakistan. Therefore, all those who say that they are fighting for Islam are making this statement to mislead people for reasons of personal power.

However, the same cannot be said of states. They can be weakened and become soft and ineffective because of faulty policies. The example of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia are before us. Life in such states is pure hell for its citizens. They are also highly destabilising to the rest of the world. Thus the militants fighting Pakistan are not defending Islam but are weakening a Muslim state. If Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, doesn’t want Pakistan to be an “international migraine,” then policy changes need to be made both by Pakistan and the US. For the latter it is essential to change its policy in the Muslim world and harmonise them with the aspirations of the majority. The framework for doing so already exists within the US Agenda for Democracy which any new US administration can pursue more aggressively.

In the short term we must prevail upon the US not to weaken the Pakistani state through its unilateral actions. The US must ask Pakistan to enforce its writ within FATA. However, the US should help in providing capacity to Pakistan to deal with its problems. It is thus essential that the US anti-terrorism strategy should be reviewed in consultation with Pakistan. Otherwise the situation will continue to worsen. 

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