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9/11: Pakistan a decade later

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, September 09, 2011

It has been a decade of trauma and pain for most Pakistanis – dominated by a gradual but unprecedented spike in violence, largely attributable to Al Qaeda and its Pakistani force-multipliers (in the words of Daniel Benjamin, the UN Counter-Terrorism coordinator). That basically means the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkare Jhangvi (LeJ), Lashkare Taiba (LeT), and some other shades of the Taliban, mostly nestled in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Most of these groups have, directly or otherwise, been part of the military establishment’s calculus for quite some time until some of them began biting the hand that had fed and raised them. 

Since the first suicide bombing on March 17, 2002 on the only church in Islamabad’s Diplomatic Enclave, nearly 300 suicide bombings across the country have rattled Pakistan to the core, rendering it as one of the most dangerous places on the face of the earth. Ten years on, and Pakistan – used by the US as the bulwark against the Soviet-Russian expansionism in the 1980s – reels under the consequences of multiple crises essentially rooted in the unholy alliance that the United States had cobbled together to defeat the Soviet-Russians; political (polarization), insecurity (raked up by Al Qaeda and its Pakistani Taliban affiliates, insurgency (Balochistan), and economic downturn (stagnation, inflation, diminishing investments). Most of these crises and the cumulative predicament began with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States. 

After General Pervez Musharraf’s September 19 speech, when he offered President George Bush Pakistan’s “unconditional support”, the US-led coalition unleashed a bombing campaign on targets in Kabul on October 7th in a bid to dismantle the hosts of Osama bin Laden i.e. the Taliban regime. This war, initially thought to be a positive venture for the world as well as region’s security, has so far turned out to be politically as well as financially a disaster not only for US, but also for Pakistan. 

Let us have a look at what the past decade has meant for Pakistan; more than 35,000 innocent lives, and roughly 3000 security personnel, displacement of millions of Pakistanis from the conflict-hit areas in the northwest. 

The official Economic Survey of Pakistan (2010-2011) says the financial cost of war that stood at $2.69 billion in 2001-2002, has soared to $17.8 billion in 2010-2011. The cumulative cost, it says is over $67 billion in terms of flight of capital, loss of investments, damages to the infrastructure in terrorist acts since Pakistan became partner in the atrocious war on terror. The resultant singular focus on internal security and counter-terrorism has directly impeded the socio-economic growth. Both gobble up roughly 1.5 billion dollars in addition to the six billion dollars that goes into the defense budget any way. 

The geo-political cost that Pakistan continues to pay is its branding as a failed state or one of the most dangerous places on earth. As a result, foreign investments have dried up, and the tourist industry that used to attract thousands of foreigners to the Northern Areas in particular, is not even five percent of what it was before 9/11. The Taliban upheaval in Swat/Malakand, South Waziristan, the ensuing military response to undo the challenge to the state, displacement of millions due to the army offensive, followed by devastating floods in 2010 simply aggravated the crisis of governance that had already been in the making before the 9/11 tragedy. 

As the war on terror sucked Pakistan deeper into one crisis after another, the response to it has been wanting. The attacks on the heart of Pakistan military establishment – the General Headquarters - (Oct 10, 2009), three ISI regional centres (2009/2010), the daring siege of the PNS Mehran Naval base in Karachi (May 22nd, 2011) are only few examples of the lack of preparedness on the part of security agencies. These agencies still seem to be in a reactive mode that suggests that the response to acts of terror is still based on the conventional intrusive approach i.e. personal information gathering, poor technological skills, coupled with complacency, and socio-political factors such as ethno-linguistic relations within the community, and at times political pressures. 

Secondly, except for a small show-case initiative of deradicalisation programme Sabaoon (the Dawn) run by the army, the government has little to flag in terms of a sustained, comprehensive and focused counter-radicalisation programme to address the creeping monster of religions radicalistaion. While Sabaoon represents a good effort to rehabilitate hard-core militants, it certainly cannot cater to the radicalization of thought that is gradually taking place in the society. 

Thirdly, radical militant movements drew quite a bit of strength from their past nexus with the military establishment. For quite some time, many of the key militants such as Baitullah Mehsud (killed in a CIA-drone strike on August 5, 2009), his successor Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulvi Fazlullah (Swat/Malakand) exploited the grey area that was available to them as a result of their past associations with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or other intelligence outfits. Much of this nexus is clearly broken today but a lot has yet to be done to send a loud and unambiguous message to the militants of all shades that their services are no longer required. Nor are their militant activities tolerable any more. 

This message in fact constitutes the core of any canvassing that Pakistan wants to do in its favour; the Afghan Haqqani Network and the Lashkare Taiba as well as Jaishe Mohammad (both allegedly supported by the military establishment for anti-India operations in Kashmir) remain a big question mark. Only straight messaging and a tangible action on them would help Pakistan in conveying to the world it has turned the page on policies that used militancy as a foreign policy tool and looked at non-state actors as important crutches for advancing its geo-strategic objectives. 

The May 2nd elimination of Osama bin Laden, and an extremely muted reaction by his sympathizers, most probably offers a big opportunity to the Pakistani security establishment to change its view on India and Afghanistan. Without changing the strategic outlook particularly on India, official claims of shift in the security paradigm would simply sound hollow. Besides, a perennial state of confrontation and animosity vis a vis big and economically progressing India will only bleed Pakistan more than achieve anything in geo-strategic or economic terms. Recalibrating Pakistan’s policy on India by no means amounts to capitulation to the eastern neighbor. Islamabad needs to move on in its relations with New Delhi based on a new realism i.e. based on the realization of the international political-economic size and strength of India and Pakistan.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk