Ex-general’s piece of advice

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AN EX-ARMY colleague has some advice for Pervez Musharraf. General (retired) Jehangir Karamat, who is returning home from Washington after completing his two year term as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, does not appear to be one of those men in khaki who love dabbling in politics while in office.

It was another matter that he did not mind adopting publicly a critical stance as the army chief of staff in 1998 against the government. But rather than behave peevishly as our uniformed men are wont to, General Karamat chose to bow out with dignity when Mr Nawaz Sharif expressed his displeasure. Since then, he has taken up assignments with American thinktanks and for the Pakistan government.

There are four significant issues General Karamat has raised in his wide ranging interview that he gave this paper before his departure from Washington. They are

— Don’t involve the army in Balochistan and Waziristan for ‘too long’ as it will be counter-productive.

— Strengthen the Karzai government in Kabul as it is in our interest to do so.

— Institutionalise our relationship with the United States.

— Treat the 2007 elections as an opportunity to establish democracy in the country and allow Ms Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N to participate in the polls.

These recommendations are important because they come from a person who has a military background, and has been dealing with the Americans on the official as well as the unofficial level. Coming from someone who has been representing the Musharraf government in Washington and would be privy to the American thinking on the critical issues facing Pakistan today, this advice should be taken seriously.

Taking up the last two first, one is intrigued by the suggestion that Islamabad should institutionalise its relationship with the United States. Since General Karamat has not elaborated the nature of the institutionalisation that he (and presumably the Americans) have in mind, it is difficult to comment on it.

The suggestion of holding fair elections has been repeated ad nauseam by so many people — friends and well-wishers and neutral observers of the political scene — that it does not bear the need for further reiteration. The advantages of returning the country to an unalloyed democratic set-up are obvious. No one has disputed them — not even the ruling general — though his actions do not really speak of the evenhanded stance that one expects of a champion of democracy. Can one deduce from General Karamat’s interview that it is believed in Washington that Pakistan should be acting differently in several key areas of foreign policy and domestic politics?

The issues of Balochistan and Waziristan are on the top of the agenda because Pakistan is doing precisely what the former ambassador is counselling it not to do. Why else should the government be advised not to involve the army for too long in these troubled regions? The obvious reason is that the government is allowing itself to be sucked deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Waziristan and Balochistan and is not trying hard enough to work out a political settlement.

Moreover, this approach is linked directly to the adversarial relationship Islamabad is perceived to have with Kabul. General Karamat is certainly correct in asking for an end to the army action in these areas and suggesting a dialogue to facilitate the process of pacification.

Though the Balochistan and Waziristan problems have different roots they have now been linked together and pose a common challenge to Pakistan’s integrity and security. Balochistan’s problem began initially as a political confrontation between the federal government and the Baloch nationalist leaders. This was not the first time this had happened, for periodically the troubled province has had such clashes with Islamabad — the main contention of the Baloch being the familiar one of having been denied a share in power and their economic resources being exploited by outsiders for a pittance. Had this issue been handled at the political level and with a degree of integrity and good faith, it would not have blown out of proportion as it has in the last two years.

Initially, the government in Islamabad understood the danger lurking round the corner and set up a parliamentary committee to sort out the differences. The committee produced a long report with a comprehensive set of recommendations. But these were never taken seriously and the Baloch leaders who had met the committee members and could have been persuaded to cooperate felt betrayed. Ever since, an escalating conflict has destroyed peace in the province as Baloch nationalists termed “miscreants” and “subversive elements” have resorted to sabotage and violence since that is the only weapon they have to fight the army.

Meanwhile the issue in Waziristan begun to hot up once the Taliban had regrouped in the aftermath of 9/11 and the American attack on their country in 2001. It was inevitable that the front in this war eventually extended from the Fata region to the borders of Balochistan. Not surprisingly, Colonel Chris Vernon, a British officer in Afghanistan, has described Quetta as the headquarters of the Taliban.

The tribal areas of Pakistan, which provided sanctuary to the Afghan refugees, ultimately became a training ground for the anti-Russian mujahideen. The Taliban were born in 1994 in the area around Kandahar after the Mujahideen had devastated the country with a deadly civil war. The Pakistan army’s intelligence wing, the ISI, which continued to meddle in Afghanistan even after the Soviet withdrawal, found the Taliban a convenient tool to promote its strategy.

It was the isolation and the Pakhtoon origin of the Taliban which suited the ISI since it drove this fundamentalist group into Pakistan’s arms. Kathy Gannon, a journalist who has reported from Afghanistan for 18 years, gives a lucid account of this phenomenon in her book I is for Infidel. They were also appreciated for their role in imposing with a heavy hand a peace that the war weary Afghans were yearning for.

Pakistan’s policy vis-a-vis the Taliban is an ambiguous one. Publicly, it is fighting with the Americans a war against terror. But from what observers who have been to the war zone have to say it is plain that the battle lines are not so clearly drawn. Kathy Gannon describes events that point to the collusion of some sections of the armed forces with the Taliban. Many of them as well as members of Al Qaeda — especially the foreigners — have been given protection in Pakistan by Islamist parties that enjoy the government’s blessings.

This would explain why the war on terror has become an unwinnable conflict. For the Pakistan military, the strategic concept of territorial depth remains as valid today as it was in 1947 when the country was born. This calls for a government in Kabul that is subservient to Islamabad and can be depended upon to provide the extra territorial space the army thinks it needs in times of war.

Although the modern methods of warfare and new weapon technologies have transformed many strategic concepts, not much has changed in our army’s strategic thinking. A regime in Kabul that is friendly with India and is not preponderantly Pakhtoon does not conventionally find favour with the rulers in Islamabad. That would explain why the Karzai government is not so close to Islamabad.

Link all the various elements — Balochistan, Waziristan and Kabul — and one would understand why the situation is so volatile in the region and why General Karamat’s words acquire a new meaning. The missing piece in the puzzle is the ‘institutionalisation’ of Pakistan’s relations with Washington. If this has the ominous implication for Islamabad of its establishing a permanent structure for an alliance with the US — Cento comes to mind immediately — Pakistan must say “No thanks”.

But this rejection is possible only if we revamp our policy in Waziristan and Balochistan. A military approach will not take us far. It will only drive us further into the American embrace. But a dialogue with the Baloch and tribal leaders of Waziristan offers the only way out of the crisis. Not only must the parliamentary committee on Balochistan be revived. The subcommittee entrusted with the job of drawing up a constitutional package for provincial autonomy should also be asked to resume its work.