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Robocop meets Baitullah Mehsud

During the past week or so, militants have carried out serious attacks in Peshawar and nearby Jamrud in Khyber agency. It included the unfortunate murder of development worker Stephen Vance, the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat, a botched kidnapping of two journalists one of them Japanese, a suicide attack at the gates of the stadium where an inter-provincial sports competition was being held. There were other offences in the rural areas close to Peshawar. Clearly the militants aim to break the will of the government and force it to negotiate with them. They want to end operations which are going on in Bajaur and to stop new ones that have been launched in Mohmand Agency. The operation in Bajaur has been extended because the military has unexpectedly run up against resistance from well located tunnels reminiscent of Vietnam.

A serious attack was launched on a NATO convoy by a 400-strong Wazir and Mehsud contingent loyal to Baitullah Mehsud which was stationed at Jamrud. Last Sunday they hijacked 13 NATO trailers, although most were retrieved after the use of helicopter gunships. This force of militants belonging to South Waziristan is operating 270 miles away from its tribal homeland and indicates a level of sophistication which had not been seen before.

After the US failed to obtain Pakistan’s support for the sending US Special Forces into the tribal areas, it has increased the use of UAVs for attacking militants. Many of the drone strikes are now taking place 30 miles deep into Pakistani territory. This brings a new set of worries. In a sense, what we are witnessing is a contest between technology and the ingenuity of the militants. The drone in many ways represents Robocop, who is a fictional character in a movie of the same name. He is a cyborg having the brain of a dead policeman implanted in his metal body, which incorporates a multitude of weapon systems. His programme is designed to fight crime and to achieve public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. In my analogy, the drone is Robocop pitted against the militants in the form of Baitullah Mehsud. In this sense the fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan depicts a battle between a sophisticated military on one hand and the less sophisticated militant on the other. The US does have the advantage of technology, but the drones have not increased public trust. As a matter of fact, Pakistanis have condemned the drone attacks because they have killed many innocent people. Secondly, drones violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and, as such, lowers its authority in the public mind.

As I said in an earlier article, the main reason leading to the creation of militants lie in the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Unless that issue is settled, there will be Arabs who would contest US hegemony and fuel the conflagration in this region. Apparently there is little chance of a reduction in the near future of the number of Arabs seeking refuge in the loosely administered FATA. The impact of the Robocop strategy is mainly negative. It weakens Pakistan’s legitimacy and makes it harder to win the battle for hearts and minds. On the other hand, the militants damage their own cause when they use suicide bombings, which have the same alienating impact. Thus, both the strategies fail the legitimacy test that is so important for success.

However, a new danger is looming, and that is the increasing penetration of the drones into Pakistan. Since they follow militants fleeing the tribal areas because of increased US surveillance into NWFP districts, will the drones now also engage targets in the urban areas of the province? Will there be drone flights over Bannu or Peshawar too in the next few weeks? If so, they will have serious repercussions which may lead to agitations that could, in turn, destabilise the government. They could cause chaos and increase support for the militants. One must therefore define the limits to the use of drones and their other implications. This example clearly shows the type of difficulties that the war on terrorism has unleashed mainly I believe because of the inability to think through the implication of measures adopted to deal with the crisis in Pakistan.

Another important element taken for granted, and one which needs reconsideration, is the administration of Afghanistan as a democracy. Afghanistan remains an under-developed society where nationhood is not complete yet. In many ways we in Pakistan suffer from the same type of problems. Both countries are moving from a traditional political base towards modernity. Both face a large number of challenges. Pakistan’s advantage lies in its more developed institutional framework, its greater urbanisation, larger technological base and its military; Afghanistan suffers deficits in all these areas. Secondly, Afghans have always tried to remain insular. Since the crowning of Ahmed Shah in 1747 as the first Afghan ruler and the country’s progress towards modernity under Amir Abdur Rehman, the first king of modern Afghanistan, we find a constant tussle between a centralising “monarchy” and the tradition-driven countryside, especially in the Pakhtun areas that make up the largest ethnic group of people in Afghanistan. Clearly there is a need to recognise that Afghanistan is basically a tribal union where the conflict between tradition and modernity is unresolved even today. Karzai is seen by the Afghans as a foreign- supported moderniser while the Taliban are identified as nationalists standing for the traditional system. It must be underlined that many of the discontented Pakhtuns in FATA and Afghanistan are not willing to forego their freedom for peace or development.

Secondly, Afghanistan (much like Pakistan) has remained a rentier state where consent was obtained by transferring money to regional elites. For example, revolts occurred when King Amanullah tried to tax people and modernise the Afghan state. History teaches that Afghanistan needs rents to remain stable. In 1894 Amir Abdur Rehman received an annual subsidy of ?1.8 million from the British. This amount was given to prevent him from siding with the Russians. He used the money to strengthen his rule by building an effective army and collecting taxes. This trend of obtaining funds from foreign countries has continued throughout Afghan history. During Sardar Daud’s rule before the Soviet invasion in December 1979, almost 80 percent of Afghanistan’s funds came from the US and the USSR.

In view of the discussion above the following recommendations if implemented will improve the security situation. Firstly, the bands of outside tribesmen present in other Agencies must be forced to return. Secondly, Pakistan should perform the interdiction of foreigners itself, however difficult that may be. Otherwise the drones will destabilise this country. The US needs to formulate a Pakhtun policy since its actions cause region wide repercussions. Secondly, it should accept that success will be achieved in Afghanistan if that country is managed as a tribal and traditional state. 

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