Based on the first four months of 2010, one can safely conjecture that things have begun moving in the right direction for Pakistan. The landmark 18th amendment coupled with the unusual surge in Pakistan’s crackdown against militants in the Kurram, Orakzai, Khyber and Mohmand tribal regions, preceded by the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue in late March, should augur well in the immediate to medium term for Pakistan.
While continuing its operations in Mohmand, Orakzai and Khyber, the army on March 1st declared it had cleared the Bajaur region, where it had launched a campaign in August 2008. Recently, the police in Karachi arrested several militants, including a police inspector who happened to be a cousin of Baitullah Mehsud and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Alam Mehsud – both of them were engaged in covert support and resource mobilisation for the Pakistani Taliban.
These arrests came on top of two fatal blows – Baitullah Mehsud on August 5, 2009, and then his vicious successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, in January 2010 – to the TTP, an organization that had since December 2007 undertaken a brutal assault on the interests of Pakistan, targeting its security establishment in particular. Earlier two former TTP spokesmen, Muslim Khan and Maulvi Mohammad Omar had already been captured.
The current state of the TTP, without Baitullah Mehsud or Hakimullah Mehsud and several of their top deputies offers a golden opportunity for the Pakistani Army to consolidate its gains in Waziristan, Bajaur and elsewhere through a military-intelligence campaign, supplemented by US drone strikes, against terrorists operating out of and around the Waziristan region. These advances clearly stopped the retreat of the state that had begun since May 2004 with the first peace deal with the Taliban of South Waziristan at Shakai.
At the operational level, these developments indicate a brighter future for the nation. Yet, despite these successes, three major challenges stare Pakistan in the face, factors that will most likely impact the country’s future politico-economic course:
a) the collusion between religious militancy and crime,
b) the right-wing religious and intellectual discourse that is impacting minds across the country, and
c) the course of relations with the US.
Let us analyse the first factor: blinded by an obscurantist ideology, pampered by vested interests and bulging with a skewed sense of power, the militants are drunk on their own elixir and more vulnerable than they realize. Only time will tell how long will it take to conclusively defeat what has now become a global challenge, a vicious ideology, influenced by Al Qaeda, which cuts across national borders to attract zealous followers who are ready to die and kill. These militants’ contempt for, and rejection of, societies governed by universal democratic values undoubtedly represents a common threat to us all.
More dangerously, many of the religio-political militants have – for monetary benefits – colluded with criminal gangs as well as government informers.
Secondly, this unholy alliance not only thrives due to patronage by the state officials and their nexus with the militants, but also flourishes as a result of the right-wing political discourse that is premised on self-pity and embedded in conspiracy theories.
The third challenging element revolves around the Pak-US relations; the strategic dialogue marks a relatively good beginning in a relationship that remained strained by suspicion and allegations for quite some time.
What provided the foundation for this dialogue is most probably a) the increased cooperation between the Pakistani ground and air force and the US military establishment on the one hand, and the personal rapport that the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Centcom chief General David Petraeus have cultivated with General Kayani and the head of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
The collective picture that emerges from the ever expanding list of Pakistani successes and increasing incidences of US-Pakistan military cooperation suggests new levels of army-to-army trust and understanding. The crackdown on Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan also underscores a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s relations with the United States and other NATO members fighting in Afghanistan.
Most Pakistani observers agree that Musharraf ‘s successor as Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has played a central role in turning the tide on the insurgents and bringing about a fundamental strategic shift in Pakistan’s security paradigm, which for decades had viewed militant groups as crucial allies.
The US government decided early in 2010 to establish a Quick Reaction Force for the protection of its ever-expanding diplomatic and development personnel in Pakistan. Further, it provided the Pakistani government with a 1.5.billion dollars annual aid package under the Kerry-Lugar Act with the hope that it would address some of Pakistan’s pressing financial and energy needs, and improve America’s image among Pakistanis.
A new appreciation for Pakistan’s drive against home grown militants has been mounting outside the administration as well. Prominent journalists such as David Ignatius, an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post, recently pleaded with his readers to take a sympathetic view of Pakistan’s gradual turn-around. The article recounted “several little-noticed steps” that the Obama administration has taken:
One is to implicitly accept Pakistan’s status as a declared nuclear weapons state and thereby counter conspiracy theories that the United States is secretly plotting to seize Pakistani nukes. The United States is also trying to combat Pakistani fears about covert U.S. military or intelligence activities. And the administration has repeated Obama’s assurance last June that “We have no intention of sending U.S. troops into Pakistan.”
One can discern a greater realization within the top echelons in Pakistan and the United States that both countries need each other, despite the widespread anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.
To mitigate Pakistani concerns and improve its image, the U.S. needs to articulate its policy towards Pakistan with a long-term view and with an eye towards strategic engagement, rather than a need-based transitory partnership. It will have to balance its expanding corporate and strategic relationship with India with the need to engage Pakistan for the long-haul.
And to take on these threats, Pakistan shall also have to look inward; a kind of introspection that it’s civilian and military ruling elite requires fixing pressing problems. Rather than externalizing their internal issues, the leadership shall have to address issues such as good governance, rule of law and establishing the state’s writ in the peripheries such as the tribal areas.
As a whole, while the short-term counter-insurgency measures are bearing fruit, the medium to long term success would greatly hinge on Pakistani civilian leadership’s will to address pressing daily life issues of the ‘common man’. A much bigger challenge, however, would be to protect these people from the dangerous intellectual discourse that, in essence, is similar to the Taliban and the Al Qaeda narratives. Countering this discourse represents a far more serious challenge than taking care of a few thousand armed militants and their deadly suicide bombings.