Saturday, November 08, 2008
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar
The way the Syrian government and people reacted to a recent US military raid on a village in Syria near the Iraqi border forced one to reflect on the Pakistani reaction to similar American incursions into its territory. Obviously, the Syrians were angry and protests broke out in Damascus and elsewhere in the country. But a lot more instructive was the strong reaction of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which described the killing of eight Syrians in the attack as a “cold-blooded war crime”, demanded an apology and warned of consequences.
In comparison, governments in Pakistan whether run by the soldiers or civilians are forever trying to find some justification for such cross-border raids. This is useful to escape the blame for being unable to protect citizens from raids by other powers and defend the country’s borders despite spending so much on the armed forces. The reaction by Pakistani governments is belated and mild and no real effort is made to provide facts and figures to the people about the human and material losses resulting from the US ground and missile strikes. The government of President General Pervez Musharraf never demanded an apology from the US for its numerous attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border and it even failed to ask for monetary compensation for the families of those killed and wounded in the frequent American assaults.
The democratically elected government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani has adopted the same policy even though it was expected to forcefully plead Pakistan’s case in keeping with the aspirations of the nation. In fact, the first major ground offensive by helicopter-borne US forces took place on Pakistan’s soil in South Waziristan during the PPP-led government’s rule in early September but its reaction was meek and rhetorical, packing a lot of hot air and signifying nothing. The situation has come to such a pass that now the US is ‘requested’ not to launch missile strikes in Pakistani territory and countries ranging from the United Kingdom to Turkey is asked to intercede on Islamabad’s behalf for convincing the US to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. Though it is true that states such as Pakistan with weak economy and weaker political will cannot hope to safeguard their sovereignty from arrogant superpowers such as the US, most Pakistanis still expect their rulers and armies to make a real effort toward this end instead of making hollow claims and raising false hopes. With such low credibility, the ruling elite cannot hoodwink the people, who shouldn’t be taken for granted as they are able to fully grasp the situation and arrive at intelligent decisions whenever granted an opportunity.
With regard to the reaction by Syria to the US military raid on Syrian border village Abu Kamal, Damascus wasted no time in taking the issue to the UN Security Council. While protesting to the UN Security Council, it branded the US raid as barbaric. It demanded the closure of the US cultural centre and American school in Damascus. The official Syrian press and government officials termed the US attack, in which eight civilians including children were killed, as a war crime. The Syrian government sought an explanation not only from the US but also Iraq because the American troops used Iraqi soil to launch the raid on the Abu Kamal village in Syria. Huge protests were staged in Syria and protestors addressed the Americans as “colonialists” and their attack on Syria as “American terrorism.” They also defined American democracy as the one that justified killing of civilians at Abu Kamal village.
Due to the unusually strong Syrian reaction, a number of foreign governments also started condemning the US raid. Friendly governments such as the one in Iran were obviously vociferous in their condemnation of the US but other countries joined the chorus and blamed Washington for fuelling hostilities in one of the most unstable regions in the world.
The US unofficially tried to justify the raid with one of its unnamed officials arguing that the military operation in Syria targetted a top militant who smuggled arms and fighters into Iraq. In keeping with the US practice of not taking responsibility for all such secret military operations whether the target is Pakistan or Syria, the Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment on the issue. Being vague enabled the US to avoid complications, though there was no doubt that the cross-border raid put to rest any hopes of improving relations between the US and Syria. For long, the two countries have had a rocky relationship and in 2004 the US imposed sanctions against Syria after accusing it of helping insurgents in Iraq and the Hezbullah group in Lebanon.
The furious Syrian reaction to violation of its sovereignty by the US wasn’t unexpected. Given their state of hostile relations, it was natural for Syria to consider the US raid as an act of aggression and react in the strongest possible manner. It was the first time the US launched such an attack and a meek Syrian response would have emboldened Washington to organize more raids. The Syrians have said they reserved the right to take further retaliatory steps, but one shouldn’t expect Damascus to declare war on the US or target its troops based in Iraq. Being a small country under economic sanctions and located in a region dominated by the US, Israel and their Arab allies, Syria cannot embark on an adventurous path. However, the Syrians have showed how even a militarily and economically weak country can respond in an honourable way to protect its sovereignty and defend its borders and citizens.
Pakistan failed to vigorously protest the first time its borders were violated by the US in early 2004 when the CIA-operated drones fired missiles into a village near Wana in South Waziristan to kill Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Mohammad and several of his men only weeks after he signed a peace accord with the Pakistan Army and paved the way for a peaceful political solution of the conflict in its early stages. Instead, the government and military started claiming responsibility for missile attacks that were launched by the US drones. This gave the US an opportunity and justification to organize cross-border attacks as a matter of routine and avoid any condemnation even if it killed Pakistani citizens and destroyed properties.
Unlike Syria which asked for Iraqi explanation for the US raid launched from Iraq’s soil, Pakistan never held the Afghan government responsible for any US cross-border attacks originating from Afghanistan. In fact, there are so many similarities in the situation between the Iraq-Syria and Pak-Afghan border that it is difficult to differentiate the kind of cross-border infiltration of fighters that allegedly takes place from Syria to Iraq and Pakistan to Afghanistan. The US and its allies have all along been alleging that militants based in Syria enter Iraq to attack American and allied forces and destabilize the Iraqi government. In case of Pakistan, the allegation is that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters use sanctuaries in the tribal areas to infiltrate Afghanistan and attack US-led coalition forces and destabilize the Afghan government. It is partly true in both cases but the fact remains that this is just part of the problem as fighters inimical to the US-led forces are also based inside Afghanistan and Iraq and are able to operate freely in areas beyond the control of the Afghan and Iraqi governments. It is almost impossible to stop the flow of Islamic fighters determined to expel western forces occupying Muslim countries and this has been proved beyond doubt despite the efforts of the mighty armies of the US and its NATO allies and Pakistan.
As a close US ally, Pakistan has contributed immensely in men and material to America’s “war on terror” and in the process rendered itself unstable. It is also the conduit for critical supplies, 80 per cent or so, that NATO forces in Afghanistan need to sustain their war effort. However, Pakistan hasn’t been rewarded properly for its efforts or given the respect that it deserved as an ally. The Americans may be at fault for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and killing Pakistani citizens but major powers such as the US seldom concede mistakes or seek apologies. Our governments failed to act boldly and responsibly to earn respect for the country. Syria has done much better and it isn’t surprising that that it merits honourable mention in the comity of nations in spite of being a much smaller country than nuclear-armed Pakistan. (The News)
Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com