What is absolutely unforgivable is any state-sponsored proxy war, or non-state actors charged by the righteousness of their cause indulging in mayhem.

Between a rock and a hard place
Friday, December 12, 2008
by Shafqat Mahmood

We have been in trouble for so long that sometimes we do not recognise the intensity of our new difficulties. The Mumbai tragedy may not lead to open hostilities between India and Pakistan but it has certainly created serious problems for us internationally.

Whether the attack was carried out by a Pakistan-based terror group or not, the world certainly seems to think so. There is almost universal acceptance that the banned Pakistani organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved in the attack. It is now rising in stature among terror groups by being compared to Al Qaeda.

A panel of the United Nations Security Council has gone further and declared Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity organisation running schools and other institutions in Pakistan, as a front for Lashkar–e-Taiba. This virtually makes it into a terror group and calls into question its open operations in the country.

The same panel has also declared four people allegedly linked to the Mumbai attacks, terrorists and subject to sanctions. This means, at a minimum, assets freeze and travel restrictions. According to the Associated Press, it was only the threat of a Chinese veto that spared General Hamid Gul a similar fate.

The subtext in all the reporting about these organisations and individuals is their alleged link to our premier intelligence agency, the ISI. This casts a shadow on the Pakistani state and puts further pressure on us. It is possible that the arrests in Muzaffarabad were prompted by these concerns.

Some of the former director generals of the ISI, including Hamid Gul, do us no favour by making claims on international TV channels that seem outlandish to a global audience. It is one thing to spout conspiracy theories in drawing rooms here, or even on local TV channels, but to hold forth about Hindu-Jewish plots in front of an international audience projects a creepy mindset.

This is not to say that there is no truth in what they say. I have little doubt that India, Israel and the US do not like our nuclear programme. It is also possible that sometimes they conspire to undermine us. The way to tackle that is to pinpoint these conspiracies with evidence. But calling 9/11 a Jewish plot robs of any credibility everything else that is said.

There are two ways to respond to the international pressure that is mounting on us. We can become defensive and insist there is nothing wrong here. The other option is to take a hard look inside and try to correct what is. In the process, it may also be useful to look at some of the tools that we have used so far to further our national interest. In the globalised world that we live in today, there is little that can be hidden, certainly by states.

And whatever choices are made by a state has consequences. Non-state actors can hide in the shadows or fight surreptitious wars but this is not an option available to a state. If it indulges in proxy wars or sponsors terrorism, it would become common knowledge and could elicit retaliatory actions. The threshold of acceptance for non-state actors has remarkably changed since 9/11.

It is true that the major powers have a monopoly on determining what is legitimate or not. They often call one insurgency freedom struggle and anther terrorism, but this is a product of power. They know that once they label something as terrorism, they have the means to put a stranglehold on the perpetrators, whether it is a nation or a non-state entity.

There is nothing fair about this, although it often is couched in these terms. The smaller nations have a difficult choice because they may believe firmly in the justness of their cause, and being right has a great moral and spiritual force. They can harness it to fight a generational war, as the Vietnamese did against colonialism and modern imperialism.

But the sacrifices that they made were extraordinary. More than a million of their people killed, their cities and countryside destroyed, their streams and ponds and rivers poisoned and their forests denuded. It is this kind of sacrifice, or worse, that is required.

Smaller nations fighting what they consider are just causes have to consider this and make a determination whether they are ready for these terrible sacrifices. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground or shortcuts. There is an international oligarchy. It sometimes takes a moral stand on issues but more often it determines its interest and goes for it. Those on the receiving end either give in or get ready to pay the price.

We rightly consider our stand on Kashmir to be just and supported by international Security Council resolutions. But the methodology of how we go about seeking justice has been determined by the prevailing international norms, or, if you prefer, the international oligarchy.

The determination is that we can raise the matter at international forums like the United Nations. We can even agitate it bilaterally with India but if nothing happens, we have to lump it. There are no other legitimate choices.

What is absolutely unforgivable is any state-sponsored proxy war, or non-state actors charged by the righteousness of their cause going ahead and indulging in mayhem. We don’t know if this is what happened in Mumbai, but if it did, it is unacceptable in terms of international norms.

Pakistan not only has to demonstrate that it is not involved but has also to go after any non-state actor based here who may have done it. That is the simple equation. Leave aside who is right or wrong. Also forget, for the moment, whether the LeT is involved or not. If it has been determined that it is, then Pakistan had no choice but to go after it, as we have done.

This also now holds true for Jamaat-ud-Dawa. It has now been declared a front for a terror organisation. If we take no action against it or against individuals that have been declared as international terrorist, we will have to bear the consequences. The choice is ours and it may be an unfair choice. Jamaat-ud-Dawa may actually be a charity organisation but this determination has been taken away from us. We either act against it now or sooner or later face the consequences.

The key point is that, fair or not, there is an international order. It may have been devised by western powers to further their interests. But since there are no real countervailing forces – China is growing, but it may yet take another generation – the choice for smaller nations is simply to comply. If not, they should be ready for sanctions, or worse. Look at what is happening to Zimbabwe.

It is not all black and white and I understand that there may be room for manoeuvre given our strategic situation. But this space will shrink very quickly if a broad consensus emerges that we deliberately allow non-state actors to operate from here. Since we do not, it is this consequence that we must guard against.

Email: shafqatmd@gmail.com