Militants have gained Ground in Pakistan-like in the Swat Valley
THE STRATEGIC TRIANGLE: AFGHANISTAN, FATA, PAKISTAN.
I feel most privileged to be sitting on this panel with such distinguished personalities and I would like to thank WSN and RCDS for inviting me.
I was born and brought up in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and served the better part of my early career in places like Tank, Bannu, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Malakand and Swat. Those were memorable days, if only for the delights these remote areas offered. Partridge and Chikor, Mahsheer and Trout, Flag marches or GASHTS, as they are called, in the wild hilly terrain. We were always conscious of the history of this poverty stricken area, the role it had played in the Great Game and the legendary men that shaped its future, Curzon and Roberts, Amirs Dost Mohammed and Abdur Rahman, Edwardes and Nicholson. But we were there in a time of peace. Admittedly, the turbulent tribes seldom allowed us a complete night’s rest, but only with minor disturbances like sniping or the occasional kidnapping. We felt that the conflicts of the nineteenth century which centred around these barren hills were very much a thing of the past.
Then came Christmas of 1979, when the first bleary-eyed soldiers of the Soviet army awoke to find themselves in a strange land on a cold winter morning. Afghanistan was, once more, brought on the centre stage of global politics. I do not propose to go into the details of events between 1979 and 2001, because these are well-known to you. I only recall them because they sowed the seeds of the whirlwind that we are now reaping. I wonder sometimes whether the luxury of embarrassing a rival superpower was reason enough for the West to plunge the poor Afghan nation into ten years of death and destruction. Supposing we had allowed the Saar Revolution to succeed. Within those same ten years, the Soviet Union would collapse and the very doubtful commitment of the Afghans to communism would have gone with it. There might well have been a stable, moderate society, well entrenched and functional. Instead, in the process of humiliating the Soviet Union, we nurtured a rabid religious fervour, drew Jihadis from all over the world, poured in arms and ammunition, and, at the end of it, left them to their own devices. It is these same elements which today threaten the world with the new phenomenon of international terrorism.
The reaction of the American people to the horrific carnage of 9/11 was perfectly understandable and the President’s address to Congress after it drew praise. Yet no one at that stage imagined that in the process of bringing Osama bin Laden to book, two nations would be destroyed, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a third, Pakistan would be placed at high risk. Eight years have passed and the original objective now seems relatively unimportant. Instead, new enemies have emerged in the shape of the Taliban and the task of restoring normalcy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has reached monumental proportions.
We are talking today of a strategic triangle. The areas of Pakistan, The tribal belt and Afghanistan do indeed constitute, not exactly a triangle, but a straight line which forms a vital land bridge between South and Central Asia. Given the right conditions, it could be the focal point of cooperation between the countries of the region. In the present conditions, it is beginning to emerge as the focal point of rivalries and discord. Many nations have individual interests to promote while the international community collectively has, we hope, a common interest. As always, securing the common interest involves recognizing individual interests. China, India, Iran, Russia, the Central Asian Republics and both Pakistan and Afghanistan have vital stakes. So, the strategic importance of this region cannot be over-stressed.
I feel the best contribution I can make to this debate is to describe for you the current situation as seen by one who lives and has worked in the area. WSN has been seized of the issue for some time and I need not start at the very beginning. Perhaps I could just bring you up to date, taking into account the changes that have occurred in the recent past.
There seems to be a general consensus that over the past year, the militants have gained ground. Inside Afghanistan, the Taliban have captured territory and increased their attacks on Afghan and international forces. Casualties have risen and many innocent people are being killed by both sides. In Pakistan, the situation has deteriorated to an alarming extent. The U.S.-backed governments in both countries, even though elected, have failed to rise to the challenge. The U.S. itself admits the failure of its own policies and the new administration is undertaking a major review, which we might hear about at the NATO Summit in April.
Speaking for Pakistan, let me briefly state what our hopes and fears are, with a relatively new civilian government in our own country and with Mr. Obama in the White House. The cynics say that nothing will change and the Americans will just bring in more troops and increase their aerial assaults on the tribal areas. In other words, military victory will remain the objective that can never be achieved. Most people, however, continue to hope that, despite President Obama’s statements about a surge and about hitting targets inside Pakistan, he will bring to the problem a more mature and constructive approach which will take into account the many variables, military, economic, political, social, cultural and regional that impinge on the situation. His inspiring Inaugural Address brought a sigh of relief when he spoke of America consulting and cooperating with other nations in addressing the critical issues of our time.
As for the Government of Pakistan, perhaps we should not rush to judgement, because it is still finding its feet, but the general feeling among the people is that its attention is not fully devoted to the critical security situation it faces. More time is being spent on domestic politicking and in doling out largesse. Meanwhile, the writ of the State does not run, even in the so-called settled districts of the country. It is, to some extent, understandable that in the Fata areas, counter-insurgency measures have not been altogether successful. The terrain is hostile, the rebels are battle- hardened, the border is porous. Even the 80,000 troops deployed have been unable to establish control. Peace efforts have failed and the local administration is in a shambles. Of course, the FATA has never been under our full administrative control nor have we, over the last sixty years, made any meaningful efforts in this direction. We have, instead, relied on the loose arrangement of treaties with the tribes whereby they receive benefits for good behaviour and bear responsibility for hostile activity. Unfortunately, even this traditional system has, over the years, become dysfunctional like so many other institutions in Pakistan. To engage in effective reforms at this very fragile stage seems highly inopportune.
Much more serious of course is the situation in the settled districts of the NWFP. In Swat, a once model princely State, which I had the misfortune to take over from the Wali in 1969, forty years of misrule and maladministration have come to a head and a lone mullah, by the name of Fazlullah, is holding the entire district to ransom. People are beginning to ask why an army contingent of 15000 well-equipped, well-trained troops, cannot defeat a rebel force of 3000. Swat is a well developed area with good roads and communications, its people are traditionally law-abiding. It is not at all like Waziristan. So, people are naturally asking whether the federal government is genuinely serious. The provincial government, which bears the primary responsibility, has virtually thrown up its hands after it failed in its negotiations with the rebels. I cannot overstress the seriousness of the situation in Swat for it strikes at the very roots of the State. It is today, the biggest challenge facing Pakistan. Not an insuperable challenge by any means. If we cannot overcome it ourselves, then the future is dark indeed.
If my judgement is valid that the international community has recognized the folly of relying solely on military force, we then must examine what actions need to be taken in other areas to supplement the military effort. There is much talk of economic development, political reform etc. The present conditions are hardly conducive to economic development in the accepted sense, but this should not deter us from trying. In Afghanistan and in FATA the security situation must improve before major projects are launched, but we can make a beginning with employment generation, vocational training and community sponsored micro projects. As for political reforms, obviously the close monitoring of corruption and the improvement of administrative methods must be a continuing exercise. Major reforms, if tried at this uncertain stage, might further complicate the situation.
Let me conclude by saying that the threat of terrorism being a global one, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to need the understanding and the help of the international community. The world needs to take account of the peculiar conditions that prevail in the area. The abject poverty, the destruction in the recent past, the danger of excessive use of force and the totally unacceptable idea of imposing one’s own will on others. The region must be helped to decide its own destiny. And the governments of the region must themselves rise to the task. The world community must not side with corrupt and inefficient regimes that listen to outside dictates. Instead it should sponsor good governance, the rule of law and the building of institutions. The ultimate responsibility for their future must rest with the people themselves.
London, February 19, 2009
Ambassador Humayun Khan was former High Commissioner of Pakistan in London and former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Islamabad