The pro-Taliban (pro-Jamaat Islami) elements in Pakistani media and the question of national sovereignty

Questions of sovereignty
By Kunwar Idris
Sunday, 01 Nov, 2009 (Dawn)
If the JI’s referendum is taken to mirror the popular sentiment, the war against terrorism is already lost even if the army wins the battle for South Waziristan. — Photo by AP

Comments in the press and endless TV debates on terrorism and the American offer of aid to combat it have come to sound more like expressions of ego than of realism. These statements appear an exercise in politicking and posturing and do not look the hard economic realities in the eye.

Moreover, the views of political parties are coloured by their own interests. Most unrealistic and perturbing, however, is the stand of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The party advocates a negotiated solution with terrorist outfits and an outright rejection of American aid. If 22 million people have voted for it — as the party claims — in a recent referendum it has indeed made large electoral gains.

The party did not take part in the general election of 2008. In 2002 the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance of religious parties of which JI was a part, polled just over three million votes — 12 per cent of the votes cast. In earlier elections that it contested on its own or as part of other alliances, the votes polled were even fewer.

If the JI’s referendum is taken to mirror the popular sentiment, the war against terrorism is already lost even if the army wins the battle for South Waziristan. And the terrorists too may return to Swat and regain a foothold in areas where they are in retreat at the moment.

It seems that the Taliban, bolstered by fighters from other countries and financed by Al Qaeda, are not the only threat to the peace and order of the country. The threat coming from religious extremists seems more insidious and potent. It will keep hanging over the country even after the military has won.

In making pleas for conciliation, the JI and other like-minded groups must not forget that past conciliatory pauses in the military’s campaigns in Swat and Waziristan enabled foreign militants to tighten their stranglehold on the traditional tribal structure. Since the Pakistani Taliban are now no more than foot-soldiers or ideologues, should we be negotiating with the Arabs, Uzbeks or other Central Asian militants? Conciliation can work only after the army has dislodged, killed or expelled them.

For that to happen our armed forces, especially the troops in South Waziristan, need the unanimous support of peaceable tribal folk and political forces. The troops also need American arms and money as our own near-bankrupt government doesn’t have much to give. The troops must also not lose the goodwill of the Americans operating across the border and constantly watching from the air.

Their drones are already bombing inside our territory and we would not be able to stop them if one day the Americans were to march in because the army is seen losing for want of political support or financial resources, or is trying to placate the terrorists once again.

In the present circumstances it seems that Pakistan can win neither the battles on the ground nor hearts and minds in the tribal borderlands without the undivided support of parties and the people and dollops of American cash and arms for the next five years or so. It may take even longer. Anyone who hopes to the contrary is daydreaming.

Much more money would be needed than our indebted government can spare to rebuild homes and businesses of the tribes — law-abiding and loyal — who have suffered blockades and bombings at the hands of the Taliban and our own troops. It was heartrending to hear a bedraggled man wail on TV the other day: ‘The Taliban kill us on the ground and Pakistan from the air. What is our sin and where should we go?’

Trekking over 100 miles that old man and thousands others like him who are arriving in ‘settled’ Dera Ismail Khan and Tank find no food or shelter, not even a word of comfort. Their numbers are swelling. Thus we have already started losing the battle for hearts and minds. But JI chief Munawar Hassan and even Nawaz Sharif don’t want to accept American aid for it has conditions attached to it. I would urge them both to send their emissaries to the people who are homeless in their own homeland, starving and disoriented, and report back their feelings of anguish and wavering faith in their own country.

The chief objection to US aid is that it hurts our dignity and compromises our sovereignty. Has any aid ever come without conditions and, further, who else is prepared to help us now that the need is desperate not just to carry out the war but to take care of the displaced tribal folk, rehabilitate them when they return to the rubble of their homes and invest to create employment?

Like these unfortunate people, the country also has to carve out its future from this moral and economic rubble. The extremists at home pose a constant threat to our sovereignty. That of the Taliban is passing. Once the army has wrenched control of the area from the terrorists, our own tribesmen have to be the guardians of Pakistan’s borders and sovereignty (as they have always been) and not the military commanders or politicians.

All that the government needs to do is to establish a professional political service, as it once used to be, to bring together the remnants of the maliks (hundreds of them are said to have been killed) and ensure the hierarchy of the jirgas once again.

The ‘Friends of Pakistan’ have withheld the promised financial help for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Swat suspecting that it would be diverted for other uses. If that is the suspicion of friends, how can we protest against the Americans, who may not be our friends, if you like, but who have nevertheless as much stake in the eradication of terrorism in the region as we do.

That notwithstanding, parliament may yet feel persuaded to reject American aid if the parties opposing it are able to persuade the royals and sheikhs of the Middle East, with whom they feel ideologically close or personally indebted, to bring to Pakistan just $7.5bn from their huge holdings in America on conditions of their choosing. Surely nobody would protest.