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Pakistan Tries a New Approach to Fighting Terrorism

Eliot Spitzer might sympathize with the U.S. relationship to Pakistan: from time to time the United States spends a lot of money over something that only provides short-term relief.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has received more than $11 billion in aid from the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports (pdf) that close to 60% has gone towards Coalition Support Funds (CSF), which reimburses U.S. partners for their assistance in the War on Terror. A large chunk of the remainder — close to 15% — has been in the form of direct cash transfers to the government of Pakistan; this money leaves no trail. Yet, now in 2008, neither Americans nor Pakistanis feel any safer.

In 2007, more than 1,500 Pakistanis were killed in suicide bombings, including Benazir Bhutto, the leading democratic figure in the country, as well as the Prince of Swat, who waged a grass-roots war (video) against the Sharia-imposing Taliban that resulted in his assassination the day after Bhutto. In 2008, terrorists struck Pakistan’s major city of Lahore, killing 20, including five school-aged girls. Terrorists also launched an attack on a naval college. There is something amiss in Pakistan if after $11 billion in aid and nearly unanimous support among Western leaders for Musharraf’s military government, no one feels any safer.

When Pakistan began receiving aid, CSIS reports, it was supposed to provide the following: Access to its air-space; access to its military bases for U.S. troops to base their operations; protection for U.S. troops and ships in the Indian Ocean; logistical support for the war in Afghanistan; soldiers for the war effort on its western border to capture Al-Qaeda, and finally, intelligence. On the whole, Pakistan has delivered these things. The trouble is that it has delivered them very poorly, to the point where it is not far fetched to conclude that in all the years from 2001 to 2008, General Musharraf engaged in a duplicitous double game with the United States.

The list of Musharraf’s Machiavellian moves goes back to his coup in 1999, when — after coming to power — he refused to allow a 60 person team of Pakistani soldiers that the CIA had trained for a year under the civilian administration of Nawaz Sharif to go and hunt Bin Laden.

Then, in 2001, after Bin Laden struck the U.S., Musharraf foiled the Coalition strategy to crush Bin Laden and the Taliban between the Northern Alliance and Pakistan’s border by leaving open the Miranshah and Mirali mountain routes. This allowed fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda to run into Pakistan’s Waziristan region and beyond.

Later, in 2002, Musharraf rigged the parliamentary elections in the favor of the Islamist parties in order to make Pakistan appear on the brink of Islamization. One strategy he employed was political redistricting. Even though Islamists only received 11% of the vote (their average is usually around 5 – 7 percent), they somehow ended up with significant majorities in two of Pakistan’s four provinces, creating world-wide fears of a Pakistan jihad state. Another one of the strategies he employed in marginalizing secular forces from making a respectable showing in the 2002 elections was to require university degrees of all candidates, all while allowing madrassa diplomas to be equivalent to a university degree. This had the effect of preventing the nationalist, secular leaders in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan who didn’t attend madrassas but also didn’t attend university from running. No surprise that 13 burqa wearing women were elected. (In the 2008 elections, no burqa wearing women won a seat and in fact the Speaker of the Parliament is a woman).

Later, Musharraf would allow Sipah-e-Sahaba, a known terrorist organization, to hold public rallies — as long as it changed its name to Millat-e-Islamia. He used the strategy of changing the names of militant organizations in Kashmir as well. The Carnegie Institute of Peace reports that traditional terror groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish e Muhammad and Jamat el Mujahideen were renamed Al Nasreen, Al Afreen, Farazan de Islam, and al Mansoorah respectively.

Musharraf had such a tight relationship with militants that, according to the Carnegie Institute of Peace, witnesses say that militants were brought in from Quetta — which is where many believe the Taliban hierarchy is situated — to the Afghan border by Pakistani military trucks. Eyewitnesses — including actual victims of suicide attacks themselves — began to insist that some of the suicide attacks weren’t suicide bombings at all. In an attack on the Islamabad Bar Association in 2007 (as I reported on my blog), the eyewitnesses claimed that contrary to the government’s assertion, a bomb had been planted under sand at the entrance of the convention.

Further, as Newsweek reported, Musharraf actually released Obaidullah Akhund, the highest-ranking Taliban official Pakistan had ever captured (who, incidentally, had been captured after a Dick Cheney visit). Such “convenient” arrests and releases began to suggest that Musharraf was closely tied to the militants he was being paid to fight.

Still, perhaps nothing better suggested Musharraf’s complicity with the militants than the infamous Waziristan Truce in late 2006. It wasn’t a truce so much as a concession. The blogger Michael Reynolds characterized it accurately when he asked: “Did we just lose?” In the truce, Pakistani military returned all the weapons and released all the men it had captured since 2001, while allowing the militants free reign in Waziristan. Not only that, but Asfandyar Wali Khan, whom the Jamestown Foundation called “Pakistan’s Progressive Pashtun Politician,” later revealed that the Loya Jirga — a meeting of tribal leaders — was organized by Musharraf to include only the landlords who were on the government payroll and not the financially independent ones who were generally averse to the foreign fighters that came to Pakistan before and after 9/11.

There are multiple reasons for Musharraf to have engaged in such a game. The most straightforward is that as long as the terror threat existed, he could keep getting paid. The more cynical — though equally grounded in fact — reason is that jihadists have been part of Pakistan’s geo-political strategy at least since 1948, when Pathan fighters were bussed to Kashmir to fight against the stronger Indian military. Another reason for Pakistan to play close with the jihadists is because of the fear of a violent power vacuum in Afghanistan — which is what occurred after the Soviet Union retreated in 1989. Finally, Pakistani military leaders like to keep the jihadists close in order to frighten the world of its ethnic separatist movements. In 2005, under the guise of fighting terrorism, Musharraf bombed and killed Baloch leader Akbar Bugti, who had been keeping terrorists at bay.

Had the Bush administration paid more attention, they might have been able to coerce the Musharraf government to either straighten up, or simply give way to the democratic forces in the country. However, the US didn’t worry about Musharraf’s status. In fact, right through the 2007 Emergency announcement by Musharraf, the Bush administration continued to support their man in Islamabad.

In all fairness to the State Department, Musharraf’s double game was quite sophisticated. While he hung the threat of Islamization over the country, he had given a great deal of freedom to the press, a fact celebrated not just by Pakistan’s leading Dawn newspaper as late as 2008 but also previously by pro-democracy progressives such as Junaid Ahmed. The freedom for the press led many to think that perhaps Musharraf’s failure to tackle extremism wasn’t due to connivance, but simply bad luck. A great deal of blame falls upon Pakistan’s media, which was happy to co-exist with Musharraf. It wasn’t until he began tossing judges, lawyers, and media personalities into jail that the tide of opinion truly turned against him.

While many (including myself in 2006) looked at Pakistan objectively and recognized that a dictator wasn’t good for fighting extremism, there was a great leadership crisis in Pakistan, preventing the availability of viable alternatives. The anti-Musharraf forces only became galvanized in 2007 when the United States began backing Benazir Bhutto. This illustrates the importance of the U.S. when it comes to bringing about democratic reform in the Muslim world. Her revival, in itself, was quite a miracle. I am told by Ayesha Siddiqa, currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Military Inc., that in 2005 Bhutto couldn’t even get an audience with lowly staffers in Washington think-tanks. For the longest time, the lack of international support for a viable alternative to Musharraf made it impossible to look at any options besides him.

Free and fair elections in Pakistan brought a mixture of leftist, ethnic, feudal, nationalist and secular parties together, which I called a secular resurgence and consider a defeat for Pakistan’s Islamists and all those in the US who argued that Pakistan was a jihad state.

With the late Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, sitting on the sidelines, a former political prisoner of Musharraf named Yusuf Raza Gilani became prime minister, and promptly released the Supreme Court justices that Musharraf had jailed. Already committed to keeping Musharraf from the reigns of power after Bhutto’s assassination, the new democrats were equally committed to fighting terrorists. But there was one major caveat. They insisted in taking a new approach to fighting militants, one that was a mixture of military and political solutions and that no longer relied solely on the gun.

When Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Richard Boucher recently went to Pakistan to impress on the new government that they should continue pursuing the old model of fighting terrorists, they were promptly told that “a new sheriff is in town.” Perhaps indicative of how closely Pakistanis (rightly) associated the United States with Musharraf’s failed policies towards terrorists, the arrival of the State Dept. delegation prompted the Daily Times, one of Pakistan’s leading anti-extremist newspapers, to write an editorial entitled: “American interference and our rage.” The News, another leading anti-extremist newspaper, wrote an editorial headlined “Hands Off Please, Uncle Sam.”

After the monumental counter-terrorism failure that was the Musharraf government, it is time for the United States to let Pakistan’s new democrats try a different approach. What exactly is the chance of success for a mixed political-and-military approach to fighting terrorists? On its face, the chance for success seems rather high. As I have previously argued, the military is not designed to fight terrorism, rather it is the police, with its civilian and paramilitary component, which is the best institution to resist terrorism. Pakistan’s police must be strengthened. There is some evidence to suggest that the United States has learned this and has been working on strengthening a para-military force in Pakistan.

Pakistani rejection of the American approach to fighting terrorism does not, as many Americans believe, create more extremism. On the contrary, it actually empowers the civil society groups best situated to combat extremism. A recent example is instructive. Recently, officials in the North West Frontier Province stated that when it came to extremists they would consider force a last resort. The officials further added that they did not want to be handmaidens of the CIA when it came to fighting extremists. Conventional wisdom in the United States says that such talk leads to the extremists expanding their influence. Incorrect. Coming on the heels of these declarations was another statement, this one released by lawyers in FATA, the infamous tribal region, whereby the lawyers rejected the demands for Shariah law, demanding “Pakistani laws” instead. If American restraint leads to people becoming more likely to reject Shariah, then isn’t that the course the US should pursue?

In other words, its probably high-time that post 9/11 Americans begin to realize that there are multiple strategies of countering extremist Muslims around the world. In some situations shock and awe work, but in other situations the required prescription is something more subtle; i.e. a mixture of local intelligence, tribal councils, legal reform, and surgical military strikes. In Pakistan, Musharraf’s failures have helped us see that even the shock and awe approach to fighting terrorists can be counter-productive (even turned against us). It is time, therefore, for a new strategy, one that respects the method being used by Pakistan’s new democrats. The fact that Benazir Bhutto, a mother and leading Pakistani democrat, was violently killed by terrorists should suggest to us that these democrats have a lot more at stake in defeating terrorists than Musharraf and the military — with their give and take relationship with the militants — ever did.

Ali Eteraz writes frequently about Islam. He is also working on a book, set in Pakistan, about freedom and fundamentalism, entitled “Children of Dust.”