Is this our war? —Ijaz Hussain
The mere ownership of the war by the government is not enough to fight it effectively. It is imperative that the people own it too
Ever since Pakistan joined the US-led war on terror in 2001, controversy has raged on whether it is our war or America’s. When Pervez Musharraf ruled the roost, his government owned it while most political parties, including his own PMLQ, refused to. Despite this divide, the debate on the ownership of the war remained low-key.
The devastating Marriott bomb blast has, among other things, revived this debate as never before. Whereas the Pakistan government has reaffirmed its ownership, opposition political parties and the public at large do not seem convinced. Given the shrill, passionate debate that has taken place on the issue in the media following the Marriott tragedy, the divide seems to have widened. Further, it has raised the question: why, if it is our war, has the government failed to sell it to the public?
There is little doubt that when we joined the war, it was not ours. The Musharraf government owned it because the Bush administration imposed it on us as testified by the reported infamous threat by Richard Armitage to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if we did not join the effort.
As a consequence, we abandoned the Taliban and helped the US capture Kabul. Musharraf justified the volte-face on the ground of protecting Pakistan’s vital national interests such as the nuclear assets, the Kashmir cause, etc. However, he failed to mention his own survival as president, which must have factored in this decision.
The war started becoming ours too when Al Qaeda and Taliban escapees from the American bombing started pouring into our tribal areas. With the passage of time they consolidated their positions and as the resistance against foreign forces in Afghanistan picked up, they, along with the Pakistani Taliban, started using these sanctuaries for operations across the Durand Line.
To stop them from doing so, the Musharraf government introduced Pakistani troops in the tribal areas. It did so because in addition to American pressure, international law (chapter on international state responsibility) obligated it to stop elements from using its territory against Afghanistan. Besides, the UNSC resolution on terrorism also required it to fight against them, failing which sanctions could be imposed. It is undeniable that the Pakistani tribals feel free to mount military operations across the border as they do not recognise the Durand Line. However, international law takes no cognisance of this argument.
The war also became ours when the terrorists decided to cause mayhem not only in the tribal areas but also across the length and breadth of Pakistan. They are doing so with the objective of pressurising the government to abandon support for the Bush administration in its war on terror and letting them use Pakistani territory for military operations in Afghanistan. The terrorists also seek to incrementally take over the whole or part of the state of Pakistan and run it according to their ideology. One has sporadic glimpses of this strategy in areas where the Pakistan government has lost its writ in favour of the Taliban.
This is also our war in another sense. The Taliban ideology at present being practiced in parts of Pakistan is nothing but evil incarnate. Even its milder version, practiced when they were in power in Kabul during 1996-2001, was no less evil because it struck at the roots of the progressive and moderate worldview of Islam that we cherish.
If tomorrow the Taliban succeed in militarily chasing foreign forces out of Afghanistan and establish their own government there, they would pose a threat to Pakistan’s polity. Those who reject it as an alarmist view and believe that the Taliban government in Afghanistan would be as benign towards Pakistan as the one that flourished there during the late 1990s are sadly mistaken. Flushed with victory in Afghanistan, this time the Taliban may not rest until they overpower nuclear Pakistan.
Had Musharraf not committed the ‘original sin’ of joining the Bush’s war on terror, could we have been spared the agony of owning it? Our answer is in the negative because even if Pakistan had refused to join it, the terrorists would have forced it on us.
This is so because they would have mounted operations against foreign forces across the Durand Line, which we would not have been able to stop. That in turn would have invited American attacks on the Pakistani territory, as is the case at the moment.
If it is our war as shown above, why has the Pakistani government failed to sell it to the people? There are four main reasons.
First, as is well known, it has failed because of the American dimension of the issue. The US is highly unpopular in the Muslim world for a host of reasons, which includes not only its occupation of two Muslim lands but also the blind support that it extends to Israel against the Palestinians. Besides, the way the Bush Administration has conducted the so-called war on terror has given rise to a common perception in the Muslim world that the US is waging a crusade against Islam instead of fighting terrorism.
Resultantly, Muslims generally hate the US, which in turn has made them lose sight of the fact that American and the Muslim interests could coincide as is the case at present, though the two differ, inter alia, on the methodology to deal with it.
Second, the government has failed to market this war because of the gullibility of our people. The latter are generally so driven by religion they can be easily duped by any clever operator. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Pakistani clerics who have their own axe to grind have taken a line that encourages sympathy rather than revulsion against Taliban.
For example, they believe that the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan during 1996-2001 was the closest ever to the Khulfa-e-Rashidin. Similarly, though they denounce suicide bombings as un-Islamic, they consistently refuse to support the government against the Taliban unless it disassociates itself from the US and/or enforces sharia in the country.
Third, there is constant propaganda that the government is guilty of genocide against its own people. This argument has lot of appeal for the common man though it is utterly fallacious because if the terrorists are bent upon forcing their views upon the people through suicide bombings and other acts of violence, should the government treat them with kid glove methods simply because they are our own people?
Fortunately, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who until recently was one of the principal protagonists of this viewpoint (which he often combined with the lethal plea that military operations in FATA and Swat were a conspiracy against Pukhtuns), has abandoned it with the ascent to power of his ANP. However, notwithstanding this development, the argument continues to have wide appeal, which stops people from owning this war.
Fourth, the government lacks credibility. For example, many believe that suicide bombings and other acts of violence are the handiwork of secret agencies, and that the Taliban living in caves are incapable of mounting sophisticated operations like the Marriott bombing. A variant of this line is the plea by Islamist parties that these atrocious acts are perpetrated by foreign agencies like RAW and Mossad, and that no Muslim can ever imagine to kill another Muslim. Though both arguments are nothing but rubbish, many people believe them. The Taliban are the net beneficiaries of this situation.
It is clear that the mere ownership of the war by the government is not enough to fight it effectively. It is imperative that the people own it too. This can only come about if the government conducts a systematic analysis of the factors that make the people shun the war, and then makes concerted efforts to shape public opinion to its viewpoint. It seems to have done neither. Unless it is prepared to undertake this gargantuan task, it may not win this war.
The writer is a former dean of social sciences at the Quaid-i-Azam University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (Daily Times)