The last week of March has been tumultuous for Pakistan. Two trouble-shooters from Washington – Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and the Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher stayed put in Islamabad for a few days, flew into the Khyber Agency for a day to meet with the tribal chieftains and the Fata officials, took a sense of the situation in meetings with Asif Zardari, Asfandyar Wali Khan, Shujaat Hussain and Maulana Fazlur Rehman inter alia.
It was an unprecedented presence of US envoys coinciding with the new government formation. A Canadian friend in fact called it “shamefully brazen attempt to influence Pakistani politics.”
Both gentlemen, so it looked, made sure that the new power-wielders in Islamabad do not rock the boat they had so painstakingly kept afloat under the oarsmanship of Gen (R) Pervez Musharraf since October 7, 2001, when the US jets began pounding Taliban and al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan.
The message to the US envoys sounded loud and clear; all decisions – whether war on terror or restoration of judges or political reforms – shall have to be routed through the parliament. And the new Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani followed it up with his speech in the parliament on March 29. While underscoring the need to do away with aberrations like the revised Pemra ordinance, or the ban on student unions (since 1984), Gillani also held out the proverbial olive branch to the militants, offered talks and amnesty, and announced the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), that governs the tribal areas, would also be abolished.
The day after Gillani’s announcement, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an embedment of about two dozen militant organisations wedded to the eviction of foreign troops from Afghanistan, responded positively. At a gathering in Bajaur, their representatives welcomed the talks offer. Yet, they reiterated not to sit back until the foreign forces withdrew from the neighbouring country.
Within hours of this gathering, a sledge-hammer came out of Washington; in fact a shocking and surprising statement from Michael Hayden, the CIA director who likened the situation in the border region to a “clear and present danger” to the West.
Speaking at NBC’s “Meet the Press”, on March 30, Hayden, reiterated, “al-Qaeda has established a safe haven in the tribal areas” and that the US has an interest in targeting the border region. If there were another terrorist attack against Americans, Hayden said, it would most certainly originate from that region.
“It’s very clear to us that al-Qaeda has been able for the past 18 months or so to establish a safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before, and that they’re bringing in operatives into the region for training,” he said.
The CIA chief added that terrorist groups in that region are particularly trying to recruit people with Western backgrounds …operatives that . . . wouldn’t attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles with you when you’re coming back from overseas,” Hayden said.
As expected, the new legislators in the NWFP Assembly didn’t swallow the bitter pill Hayden suggested for the Fata region.
During the April 1 session meant to confirm the chief minister, all the MPs got the rules of business suspended, lambasted Hayden one after the other, and eventually managed a joint resolution tabled by the ANP which urged the national government to take note of the CIA chief’s statement. Anger was unanimous and so was the condemnation.
Former chief minister Pir Sabir Shah went to the extent of saying that “Hayden has tried to harass and terrorise the people by suggesting it is the US right to target tribal areas.” It amounts to interference in our affairs and the US ambassadors must be summoned and informed of the outrage Hayden’s statement has caused,” Shah and others fumed.
The events – beginning with the arrival of Negroponte and Boucher – which climaxed with Hayden’s outbursts over the situation in Fata and the provincial assembly’s reaction to it – clearly underscore the divergent views in Islamabad and Washington.
Our leaders including premier Gillani, Asif Zardari and nationalists like Asfandyar Wali believe they can salvage the situation through talks. We want to give our children school bags and not suicide jackets, Wali told a newspaper.
All these leaders want to engage tribal population – regardless of whether they represent Taliban or common Fata people – in an attempt to calm things down.
They believe that without a peaceful Fata dream for a peaceful Frontier province would remain elusive.
But hawks in Washington view things through a different prism for them Fata continues to remain al-Qaeda central, the hotbed of anti-Americanism. They think that any signs of latitude i.e. attempt to open dialogue with the militants in the tribal areas would only provide a breather to al-Qaeda and help it revitalise its efforts against the coalition forces in and outside Afghanistan. They also point to the aborted September 2006 North Waziristan accord, which the anti-talk lobby believed favoured the Taliban only.
Little did the US and its supporters realise that by turning their backs on negotiations, the hawks in and outside Washington basically precipitated an already precarious situation. The very obvious result was 56 suicide attacks across Pakistan, and hundreds of other acts of terrorism that left over 2,000 people dead in 2007, followed by another 17 suicide attacks in 2008 so far.
Now, by keeping his guns directed at Fata again Hayden has left no doubt whatsoever that he and his cohorts will continue to treat the region like a war zone and by implication would keep upping the ante. This will certainly bring more pressure on Islamabad, which would find itself at odds with the provincial government led by the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). Any attempt to stand for or side with the US agenda would immediately discredit these governments, and hence stoke anti-government emotion not only in the province but also in the country elsewhere. What discredited Gen (R) Musharraf was the perception that he is blindly following the US dictate as far as the war against terrorism is concerned.
International obligations – as enunciated in the UN resolution – automatically oblige Pakistan to cooperate with anti-terror coalition. But if this close liaison with the United States and allies entails the same perception as abounded about Musharraf, the governments in Islamabad and Peshawar would start losing the goodwill that they rode on in the pre- and post-Feb 18 elections scenario.
Both Islamabad and Peshawar shall have to very carefully calibrate their responses to Hayden and other hawks while trying to strike a balance between the need for peaceful engagement and the pressure from Washington to do more.