Is it our war or not? and the divisions in Pakistani society?

Is it our war or not?
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Majid Abdullah

What does it mean when politicians argue that we have terrorism in the country because General Musharraf committed the country to the Afghan war in 2001? We hear this quite a lot. From PPP office-bearers when they are under pressure, but much more often from PML-N, Imran Khan and all the religious parties. Of course there is a literal side to part of this proposition which is valid. He was the President on 9/11/2001. And in theory, since he could have said NO to the US, he is responsible for the Pakistani involvement in the present Afghan war. The idea that terror in Pakistan is a consequence of that involvement is in urgent need of clarification. In fact we ought to speculate in an open debate what the likely adverse consequences of a possible non-compliance in 2001 may have been, even if it is accepted (and it ought not to be) that all terrorism in Pakistan is a consequence of the Musharraf government’s compliance. I think it is terribly dangerous for any concerned Pakistani to believe that refusing to facilitate NATO and US forces in the present Afghan war- an unjustifiable imperialist transgression and occupation as it is- would have magically spared Pakistan from all terror and violence.

In fact, it is not unreasonable to hold the view that Pakistan would have been far more damaged compared to its damage today, if the Musharraf government had said NO. Let us be very clear on this one.

The Pakistani governments and State were actively and openly protecting and supporting the Taliban, this global pariah, before 9/11. (Incidentally, Mr Imran Khan that is the reason why there was no terrorism in Northern Pakistan before 9/11. Good observation. Shame about the understanding. Get it? Duh). This support to the Taliban existed consistently across political parties before 9/11. And no, the State was not doing this at the behest of the Americans. It is crucial not to blur this fact. Focus on the dates please. The anti-soviet or first Afghan (1978-1989) jihad coincided with General Zia’s rule (1977-1988) in Pakistan. By 1989 it was over.

The Americans had left the region soon after. Between 1989 and 1996, which is a period of seven years, the Pakistani State continued to organize religious militants that we have come to know as the Taliban. And for the next five years, between 1996 and 2001, the Pakistani state supported them in power in Afghanistan. This work was first and foremost at the Pakistani State’s own behest and not at the bidding of the US. And most critically this period- from 1989 to 2001- had seen the governments of Benazir’s PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League (which included what is the PMLQ) and of course the Military in Pakistan.

The conclusion is obvious: between 1989 and 2001, when there was no external reason to do so, the armed forces and each major political party of Pakistan, when in power, were complicit in supporting the Taliban. This is important to keep in mind for a very specific reason that is relevant to understanding the Musharraf’s government’s going in to compliance after 9/11.

It means that when in 2001 the US inquired of the world: Are you with us or against us? – that rude question did not carry the same meaning for most of the world as it did for Pakistan. At that time Pakistan was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, and its political right were making defensively equivocal statements about bin Laden. The US was really asking Pakistan: Are you still with the Taliban? Refusing to facilitate the US action against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, which was of course an imperialist aggression, was absolutely equivalent to Pakistan fighting against NATO forces alongside the Taliban across the border. It would hardly have been a neutral act, which would have saved Pakistan from damage. The sooner this myth is burst the better. As a result, perhaps Pakistan may have faced less or even no jihadist terrorism from within, but it would probably have faced a whole lot of bombs (as opposed to drone fire) from the allied occupation in Afghanistan, in response to its having becoming a part of the second Afghan jihad. Pakistan’s foreign policy would have in that event, effectively been run by the Taliban.

There would have been terror alright. Ask yourselves honestly, is it not highly plausible that non compliance with the NATO occupation of Afghanistan after 9/11, given Pakistan’s solidarity with the Taliban at the time- would have meant that more Pakistani citizens would be fighting jihad alongside their Afghan mujahidin brothers against NATO?

Perhaps even pro-Taliban Ziaist parts of the State (seriously dismantled by Musharraf after 2001) would be doing the same? We would have been drawn directly in to the war from the side of the Taliban, and part of our political leadership and perhaps not an insignificant minority of the people would have celebrated this, at least initially. We made the right choice in 2001. Those who argue otherwise ought to explicitly declare their view on the likely alternative that was to be, and then see how plausible or responsible that sounds to a citizen.

The attempted political alliance in present day Pakistan between Benazir’s privately compromised PPP, Musharraf’s army-friendly PML-Q, and the chauvinistic MQM was a good one and in the national interest, not because these groups held some moral high ground compared to others, but because they had the greatest chance of standing up as one, in trying to undo the religious radicalisation of a section of society, which is a monstrous outcome of the post Zia decades, and in which no one, I repeat no one, has played a clean role. Musharraf tried to undo this radicalism in the armed forces first, perhaps under the forced catalyst of 9/11, but he did inflict significant damage on the Ziaists in the armed forces. It was time to carefully and obsessively undo in society, what was undone reasonably successfully in the armed forces. It goes without saying that the national political alliances needed for this larger enterprise have suffered serious setbacks because of Benazir’s assassination and the assent to power of her dubious spouse. The logic of the original deal and what went wrong with it is another topic that has been discussed by me in these pages before.

I will leave the details of growth and social welfare implications of non-compliance with NATO and the US in 2001 at bay here to pose the bigger economic question, on which a serious judgment from the reader is also needed. What would have happened to poverty and growth in Pakistan, if it had not facilitated NATO and the US occupation on Afghanistan in 2001? I should add that in making this judgment it would be quite stupid to assume that our international and multilateral arrangements are in some sense independent of our foreign policy. We also need to add to this, a plausible casualty number from a military response of the allied forces on Pakistan as a consequence.

So much for the idea that Musharraf is responsible for terrorism is Pakistan.

But above all in making all these assessments we cannot forget that Pakistan was and is hopefully still divided between a majority and minority. The country as a whole still has a larger population of oppressed yet very noble believers who do not really care for any kind of neighbourhood jihad whatsoever, even though like all decent people also do not wish to publicly face embarrassing questions. However it seems large and significant minorities in some parts of the country do not accept the verdict of the all-Pakistan majority. Of course, it is not very clear how much popularity these groups have in the northern and tribal areas in percentage terms. That they have considerable support perhaps cannot be doubted. And that tragically brings us full circle. Perhaps even to the possibility of another break up – a prospect that will definitely break most of our wretched and worn out hearts.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in London. (The News)