Monday, December 5, 2016

Business Recorder Column Dec 6, 2016

Heartburn at Heart of Asia Conference Rashed Rahman Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz did the right thing by attending the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar, India, despite the tense state of relations between Pakistan and the host country. Because the series of Heart of Asia Conferences since 2011 are focused on ways and means to restore peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s presence was necessary. Besides, absence was tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot. For better or worse, the world recognises that the goals of the Heart of Asia Conference cannot be reached without the participation of Pakistan. As expected, the issue of safe havens on Pakistani soil for the Afghan Taliban remained the main bone of contention. Both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticised Pakistan on this count, with the former painting the issue in more general terms regarding combating all forms of terrorism to include India’s complaint of being on the receiving end of such activities in Indian Held Kashmir. Sartaj Aziz could not hold a press conference in Amritsar after the Heart of Asia Conference, ostensibly for security reasons. He therefore had to wait till he got back to Islamabad on the night of December 4. At the belated press conference in Islamabad, the Adviser expressed ‘serious reservations’ about Modi and Ghani’s remarks and attitude at the Heart of Asia Conference. He sought comfort in the fact that the final Amritsar Declaration of the Conference included in the list of the usual (and some new) suspects responsible for terrorism in the region, the name of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. However, that may prove cold comfort given that the list also included the Afghan Taliban, Islamic State, the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Jamaatul Ahrar, Jundullah and “all other foreign terrorist groups”. Pakistan finds itself in the dock for hosting currently or in the past all these with the notable exceptions of Islamic State and al Qaeda. It was predictable but counterproductive for Sartaj Aziz to dump Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s critique of Pakistan’s undeclared proxy war against his country in the Indian basket. Growing Afghanistan-India ties have the Pakistani authorities worried that the long investment in and costs of the Afghan wars may end up with a ‘coup’ to oust Pakistani influence in Kabul in favour of India. But this outcome is a self-inflicted wound. Pakistan began its long involvement and intervention in Afghan affairs in 1973. Sardar Daud’s Afghan nationalist (pro-Pashtunistan) anti-monarchy coup in that year caused a flutter in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. Bhutto feared Daud would support the Balochistan insurgency and the NWFP militant resistance that emerged after Bhutto dismissed the Sardar Ataullah Mengal ministry in Balochistan. He therefore gave the Islamist professors and students of Kabul University fleeng Daud’s expected repression under Naseerullah Babar’s wing for training and launch as the embryonic Mujahideen. By the time of the Communist coup in 1978, the humble beginnings of the Mujahideen had bloomed into a full blown armed resistance. The coup de grace was delivered by the Soviet invasion in 1979 that brought the US-led west in to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan. For Gorbachev, the Afghan adventure proved too much to sustain and the Soviets withdrew in 1989. An intra-Mujahideen civil war erupted soon after, with the irreconcilable rival factions marginalised by the 1996 Taliban takeover (Naseerullah Babar reportedly nurtured this second avatar of Afghan fundamentalist extremism too). Al Qaeda queered the pitch by abusing the Afghan Taliban’s hospitality in attacking the US on 9/11 as part of a global jihad. The US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan should have given Pakistani policy makers pause for thought regarding the heightened risks of supporting extremist groups in Afghanistan in the teeth of US (and western) hostility to any such continuing adventure. But Musharraf in his infinite wisdom plumped for a duality of policy: give the Americans al Qaeda to satisfy their desire for revenge, save the Afghan Taliban (by now safely ensconced on Pakistani soil) for the rainy day when the US occupiers, like many before them, would tire of the ‘endless’ nature of Afghan wars. That dual policy continues till today. Not only did the Pakistani masterminds of the Afghan proxy wars not take account of the changed circumstances post-9/11, they invested heavily in the guerrilla struggle that had broken out in Indian Held Kashmir after the 1989 rigged election in the state. Secular nationalist leading group in the Kashmiri armed struggle, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, bore the brunt of the Indian repression and the cold shoulder of the ostensibly supportive-of-the-Kashmiris Pakistani authorities. The latter’s penchant for supporting fundamentalist groups in the Kashmiri struggle instead (inspired no doubt by the ‘victory’ against the Soviets in Afghanistan) resulted in the collapse of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s armed struggle and, after splits and what have you, its reinvention as an open party struggling in the constitutionally sanctioned political sphere. The Kashmiri struggle in the meantime veered almost completely into the hands of the fundamentalist groups, where it nestles even today. Pakistan not only failed to correctly read the portents of a post-9/11 region and world, it remains committed to two proxy wars against its neighbours, west and east. One consequence of the hosting of all sorts of foreign militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas during the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan was the presence of Uzbek, Uighur and other Central Asian extremist groups, who used their base in Pakistan to conduct their struggles back home. The Uighurs in particular caused embarrassment in our relations with close friend China, but until Operation Zarb-e-Azb exported the problem across the border into Afghanistan (where all these johnnies, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, are hosted by ‘our boys’ the Haqqanis), the Pakistani authorities did not even blush on this account. The long gestation and development of all these foreign groups on Pakistani soil, with additional nudging by al Qaeda, led to the spread of the fundamentalist extremist worldview and example to the Middle East and further abroad. Thanks to the post-Cold War triumphalism of the west’s interventions and regime overthrows, an arc of destabilisation has emerged, stretching from South Asia through North Africa into Europe. Where memory serves, the role of Pakistan as one of the ‘original sinners’ remains imbedded in the narrative, the others (the west in particular) having changed their spots after 9/11. That is why, “simplistic” (Sartaj Aziz’s formulation) or not, Pakistan is viewed more or less globally today as the ‘mother’ of all terrorism, particularly since it has failed to tack its sails to take account of the changed international geopolitics since 9/11. The only surprise then is the ‘surprise’ on Pakistani officials’ faces when the country is castigated for supporting terrorist proxies in its neighbourhood and reportedly in such hot wars as Syria and Iraq (thankfully we were spared a risky involvement in the Yemen sectarian quagmire). As far as the Afghan imbroglio is concerned, Pakistan has painted itself into a corner with few options except to continue to allow safe havens to the Afghan Taliban on its soil. It is either unable or unwilling to nudge these ‘guests’ towards peace talks with Kabul to turn the corner towards a political settlement in Afghanistan, the only feasible solution on the table. Until it revisits the policy of supporting proxies in its neighbourhood, an enterprise increasingly reaping diminishing returns, Pakistan should be prepared to invite the kind of critique its Adviser had to listen to in Amritsar.

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