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The march of folly

The title of this column is borrowed from historian Barbara Tuchman’s book with the same name. The book investigates reasons why sane leaders fail to read obvious signs and adopt policies leading to destruction. Pakistani leaders, public and the media are so engrossed in the politics of the PCO that sight is lost of other ominous developments on our north western border. Events are moving rapidly towards an imminent denouement of what began with so much promise after the February 18 elections.

Soon after the new coalition government took office, it received a military briefing which indicated that at least for now the civil and military leaders would work together to counter terrorism. Events indicated that the new strategy would involve a more holistic approach. It was stated that both in Fata and NWFP the federal and provincial governments respectively will hold peace talks to settle the militancy peacefully if possible.

Although the talks with the Swat militants are proceeding in a step by step approach, yet those in South Waziristan have been conducted in haste. Although there is no written agreement yet but strangely, prisoners have been exchanged and the withdrawal of military started in Waziristan. The military has thus begun to act unilaterally.

When the Pakistani military was first deployed in Fata in 2002, the war which was being fought in Afghanistan shifted to Pakistan. It went through many phases. The results of this war for Pakistan were negative. Operations in Fata caused many deaths. Anti terrorist operations in Karachi and elsewhere revived the militants, who had become dormant after counter terrorists activities began in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the administrative institutions in Fata and NWFP nosedived. Most of the prominent elders were killed by the militants so that few were left to defend the state. Not a single military operation was launched to punish the militants for killing of tribal elders. It was clear that the state had forsaken its loyalists. After consolidating their position in Fata, the militants spread to other NWFP districts and are now a dominant feature on the security landscape except in Hazara.

The decision to withdraw the military from South Waziristan will have serious consequences on the war against the militants. Firstly, the militant cross border activity into Afghanistan will increase. The focus of war which was localized in Pakistan since 2004 will return to its source.  Secondly, relationships with the U.S will be marred with more controversies as casualties mount in Afghanistan. Apparently, the allied disquiet has begun to be translated into military activity against Pakistan.

On May 14, a predator strike on Damadola in Bajaur, known as a center of militant activity, was bombed. The house of Moulvi Obaidullah was destroyed. This event is not simple as it appears. Moulvi Obaidullah was the Taliban government’s defense minister when they ruled Kabul prior to 9/11. He was arrested some time ago and was released in exchange for other prisoners in South Waziristan.

The attack on Damadola therefore indicates U.S unhappiness over the exchange of prisoners in Waziristan. Secondly, the Damadola strike could adversely affect the Swat peace talks being conducted by the ANP-PPP coalition government in NWFP.

Since 9/11, we have followed a militaristic approach for defeating insurgency. Although by 2006 the Pakistani military was convinced that it could not suppress it through military means alone. However, we failed to develop a holistic counter insurgency strategy (COIN) as in India or U.S. In its absence we continue to fight militancy with the wrong instruments. Negotiators conducting parleys with the Swat militants have obtained some useful insights about the insurgency and these may point the way forward.

According to the negotiators, the major factor fanning violence relates to the failure to bring reforms leading to the strengthening of institutions. Malakand, which included Swat was merged into Pakistan in 1969. It was expected that Pakistani laws would be implemented there. The first error made was when Malakand was declared a provincially administered tribal area under articles 246-247, of the constitution and placed under the federal government. Our failure to have a long term view of issues placed one fourth of the province outside its full jurisdiction.

We now have an anomalous situation where the writ of the provincial government does not extend fully. The members of parliament from Malakand can legislate for the whole NWFP but not themselves! The result has been a failure to integrate the area into Pakistan. This policy lapse, was exploited by the TNSM Shariat movement demanding the imposition of Islamic law instead.

Ironically, there has also been a failure of will on our part to work seriously on nation building. For instance, the previous NWFP government under the garb of negotiations, was interested in implementing a system of law, which was neither demanded by the militants nor was there a need for it. Who then is setting the real agenda in NWFP?

Secondly, the militants are offended by military policing as compared to civil policing. It led to a breach of pardha, and the arrest of many innocents persons. This caused a further conflagration. Thirdly, by permitting a parallel Madrassah system of education to exist we opened a steady supply of religious scholars, who needed jobs, which the state could not provide.  

The former Wali of Swat had built an elaborate system of governance based on cooptation of religious scholars in the judicial system. He was a wise statesman; he employed the religious scholars for dispute resolution and as consultants to the normal Swat courts. It was ensured that cases were disposed quickly through summary proceedings. Redressal of wrong was quick and the process was comparatively cheap.

The people of Swat lost all this, when the state was merged. During the negotiations, the militants requested to be helped in getting a quick and a cheap dispute resolution system more in tune with their past experience and were thus willing to adopt the 1999 Adal Regulation, which is already on the statute books.

Another cause of militancy and especially of suicide bombings in Swat is stated to be the pain inflicted by the use of general area weapons on civilians these include artillery and gunship helicopters. Such weapons lead to death of innocent persons. It creates grounds for vengeance against the state and thus the insurgency grows. For this reason the good COIN strategies around the world prohibit the use of artillery and aircraft over civilian targets.

The negotiators from Swat also stressed the need to respect Pukhtu culture and respect for human rights. For instance they asked that only woman police should be used for house searches. They also demanded that they should be dealt with under the normal law and by the civil court system. If Pakistan had followed these easy to implement principles, there would have been lesser grievances against the state especially those generated by the issue of the missing persons.

Unfortunately, there is a large gap in the civil-military relationship in Pakistan. Once this is recognized and steps taken to reduce it, Pakistani society would be able to develop a COIN strategy. Existence of such a framework would not only better manage the insurgency but will also permit Pakistan’s allies to recognize the local issues and act collaboratively.

Today, unfortunately the policies of Pakistan and her allies play into the hands of the militants. The future does not lie in acrimony and accusations but in developing a robust strategy which looks at insurgency regionally. There is yet time for the coalition to withdraw from the precipice and the deal with the problems holistically.  Islamabad must not commit the folly of ignoring the equally important life and death struggle arising from the raging insurgency because it is dealing with other matters.

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