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From Villains to Victims: What are the chances of Pakistan surviving the onslaught of ethnic terror?

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

There was a sense that the Pakistani ruling establishment was tempted to point a finger of blame at India as “the foreign hand” behind the audacious, high profile and commando style terror attack on the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore on 3 March 2009. At least 8 policemen died in the carnage. SL cricketers escaped with injuries and have gone back home. According to reports 14 gunmen were involved in the raid and they all escaped in broad daylight.

The temptation of passing the blame on India arose out of the opportunity provided by the perceived discomfort of New Delhi over the developing Pakistan-Sri Lanka military partnership in the backdrop of the on-going war against the LTTE in Sri Lanka. A flip-flop round of allegations/counter-allegations between Pakistan and India in the familiar pattern of the follow up to the 26/11 Mumbai attack has the potential to deflect unwanted international attention on the attack. As was expected, India has condemned Pakistan’s attempt at making such allegations as irresponsible. This is only the beginning and we have not heard the last word yet in the escalating war of words between the two nations. There were also rumours doing the rounds in Pakistan that it was the handiwork of Pakistan’s ISI who wanted to send a warning to the world that like India, Pakistan too was a victim of terror.

That apart, the world will have to wait till police investigations are complete to get an idea about who was or were really responsible for the outrage, whether it was al Qaeda or the Tehreek-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan based in South Waziristan or both or any other interested entity.

From the strategic standpoint, the Lahore terror incident of 3/3 had all the ingredients of a critical chapter in militant Islam’s very own version of the “great game” that is currently being played out in Central Asia and the North Western corner of Pakistan. It is important to note that despite the ceasefire agreement between the Pakistan Army and the Islamist elders led by Sufi Mohammad and his son Maulana Fazlullah and others, signed on the back of the opportunistic go-ahead orders passed by the Pakistan Government for the imposition of Sharia Law in the Swat Valley, it failed to prevent the terror attack from happening. The boom of the AK 47 rifles at the centre of Lahore – the cultural heartland of Pakistan - was a notice delivered loud and clear to Islamabad that the Waziri tribesmen were not going to stop in Swat valley. The al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taleban are closing in; the proverbial barbarians are at the gates. Their war with Pakistan Army is hotting up in right earnest. It will now be a fight to finish.

At first glance, it would be a safe bet to suggest that the Lahore outrage could not have been the handiwork of the Punjabi elements among the ISI-created terror infrastructure like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam, al Badr and others. They are kept well under control by the ISI and are therefore more often than not they are loyal to the State of Pakistan. The only brief these outfits have from their employers - the ISI - is to carry on their armed struggle in Kashmir and run the relentless conflict against India.

That said, it must be acknowledged that, in the light of recent events, all is not hunky dory in the relationship between the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and the Pakistan Government. When the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari accepted India’s charge that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba was involved in the Mumbai attack of 26/11, it didn’t go down well with the Lashkar. A strong rejoinder was issued from Muridke, located in the outskirts of Lahore, the operational headquarters of the Jamat ud Dawa, the mentor group of Lashkar e Tayyaba, rejecting the charge.

Security analysts have suggested that the similarities between the commando style operations of the terror attacks in Mumbai (26/11) and Lahore (3/3) could mean the possible involvement of the Lashkar in the Lahore attack. If this is proved right by the investigating agencies – it should be taken as read that the FBI will be involved in the investigations - it will be a case of complication worse compounded. This would mean that Pakistan was now battling a whole range of terror outfits and was beginning to look as it was now a terminally ill patient and it is time for prayers.

The coalition of the Tehreek-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan and al Qaeda, now well formed and running in the Pashtun dominated mountainous regions of North West Frontier Province, the two Wazirstans and the Malakand region including the beautiful Swat Valley, must be clapping with joy at the prospect of the Lashkar getting involved in Militant Islam’s War against the Pakistan State.

The mountain Jihadists fighting Pakistan Army are motivated by a meticulously calibrated two tier political agenda.

One can see with a fair measure of clarity that there are already some highly evolved signs of a determined effort on the part of the Tehreek-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan to create conditions for the break up of Pakistan as a federal state and establish on the debris of the destruction an independent ethnic state cut away from Pakistan’s body politic. The ultimate aim of forging such a historic course of events would be for the Pakhtuns of Pakistan and the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, united by common language and ethnicity, to join up into a larger territorial entity. There is a huge aspiration among ethnic Pashtuns sweeping across the contagious territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan straddling the Durand Line to create an independent Pashtun homeland, which they can call their own – Greater Afghanistan. Such a demand is an inheritance from history. Khan Abdul Wali Khan, the National Awami Party leader, had dreamt of a Greater Afghanistan and his death has not diluted the dream. Recently Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Muttahida Majlis e Amal, a fundamentalist organisation in Pakistan said he would like to rename NWFP as Pakhtunistan.

The international community would be best advised to respect their demand and help them to achieve their cherished national aspiration. The alternative will be putting Central Asia on the road to hell where there are no traffic jams. It will be the responsibility of a Condominium of Great Powers to come together and set the seal through international agreements of the status of “guaranteed neutrality” of this newly created state in Central Asia.

The second aspiration has a demonic dimension for the future of world peace and stability. In the chaos of the disintegration of Pakistan one could count upon both al Qaeda helped by the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan to go for the jugular and swiftly grab the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. Pushed into the corner, even the Punjabi terror outfits could join up with the Pashtuns in this dangerously devilish endeavour. Who gets there first riding the Chariot of Fire will acquire the capacity to destroy the whole world. Debates about climate change will be nothing but a waste of time.

I have a fear that it may have already become a bit too late for the mighty Pakistan Army to stand up to these existential threats and reverse the process. A military coup will be of no consequence. At worst it will only exacerbate the situation.

What then is the alternative? A major crisis management exercise would have to be unfurled by the most powerful nations of the world and take over the entire nuclear arsenal of Pakistan before they fall into the hands of the Al Qaeda & Co.

In the continuing saga of the raging conflict in Central and South Asia, it was significant that Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, dropped a bombshell saying that Pakistan, a long-standing and a determined sponsor of cross-border terrorism and mass murder against India, was now also a victim of terrorism. His pronouncement was seen by sections of the security community in the country as inopportune and unnecessary, although nobody could claim that it was inaccurate or that it was unsupported by evidence. The fear was that it was likely to weaken India’s very own case as a hapless victim of terrorism in the eyes of the international community. That said, questions were also raised as to what stopped him from divulging as to what was the cause or the provocation for making such a dramatic declaration.

In the wider context US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in the Obama Administration in a statement issued on 1 March 2009 made a significant claim saying that “all terrorist networks” have a safe haven in Pakistan to operate from, which was creating a big problem to America’s war against terrorism. Gates added “I think it is the safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border not just for al Qaeda but for the Taleban, for the Haqqani network, for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the affiliated groups that are all working together – they are all separate groups that are all working together - and I think as long as they have a safe haven to operate there, it is going to be a problem for us”.

India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made the startling claim that there were at least thirty Islamist terror outfits operating from the soil of Pakistan. This list included Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, the Taleban in its original form led by Mullah Omar, the Tehreek-e-Taleban-e-Pakistan led by Baitullah Mehsud, Lashkar e Tayyaba, Jash-e-Mohammad and others. Without an approving nod and wink from the Government, these outfits cannot possibly operate from the soil of Pakistan. As Pakistan became a haven of Islamist terrorists peddling dangerous agendas and exporting the cult of death and destruction, the country came to be known as the “epicentre of global Islamist terrorism”.

Robert Gates had met Pakistan Army’s Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani on February 25 in Washington to whom he reportedly conveyed that what was going on in Pakistan’s tribal region was “very dangerous for his country”. He told Kayani that it was big risk to the stability of Pakistan. Was he predicting something sinister? Time alone will tell.

The Defence Secretary said in another interview that Afghanistan was now unlikely to be a safe haven for the terrorists for as long as the US and the allied forces were in that country. There were good reasons for Gates to be so optimistic. President Obama had just announced that he had decided to increase the strength of the American combat forces by 50 percent. The Iraq-like surge, which the President ordered, meant the induction of an additional 17,000 US troops into Afghanistan. The troop strength would swell to a total of 50,000 men from America alone. In another significant move Obama designated Afghanistan and Pakistan as a “single geo-political unit” calling it the “Af-Pak region” rather than singling Afghanistan and Pakistan as two separate entities. If this means the intensification of bombardment of the al Qaeda and Taleban hideouts in the FATA and NWFP, this will be bad news for Pakistan. It will be seen more and more as America’s war against the Pashtuns in which the Government of Pakistan is an accomplice. Such a sentiment will have the effect of sharpening the ethnic divisions in the Pakistani polity even more.

A component of President Barak Obama “Af-Pak” policy that is gradually emerging is that the US is considering a one time $5 billion aid to Pakistan over and above the $1.5 billion annual package for 10 years currently under review for passage through Congress. The sentiment is laudable but can anybody be sure that a chunk of this money will not be allocated for purchase of arms for use against India in a future war. Earlier the New York Times had quoted American military officials as saying that the US Army Special Forces soldiers were training Pakistan Army and paramilitary troops providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics. This secret task force would be overseen by the US Central Command and Special Operating Command, the report said.

In the highly charged political atmosphere in Pakistan when the country is at war with itself battling a civil war which is only increasing in intensity and showing no sign of ending, such a tight embrace of the US military with Pakistan combined with the grant of dollops of dollars as military aid would have the potential to prove counterproductive.

For finding a sustainable long-term solution of the Pakistan problem what is needed is a framework of multilateral great power intervention whose aim should be to help Pakistan to redraw its map, which should fulfil the long-standing ethnic aspirations of the sub-national communities – the Punjabis, the Pakhtuns, the Balochis and the Sindhis - living in their own well demarcated linguistic provinces of the country. I mean no offence to Pakistanis. If one acknowledges that in the contemporary world the bonds of ethnicity and common language have grown stronger than the bond of religion, the road gets much clearer, the mind sets no obstacles. Take Yugoslavia. Its break up has ensured peace in the Balkans. What I am saying is: Give them freedom, that will be the most secure guarantee of peace and stability in the region.

The writer is the author of “A Long Journey Together – India, Pakistan & Bangladesh” published in the US in October 2008.

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