Pak mainstreams its terrorists
Islamabad will receive two important American visitors over the next few weeks. Neither will be a bearer of good tidings. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Defence Secretary James Mattis have made no secret of their anger over Pakistan’s long-standing perfidy of harbouring terrorists who have killed over 4,000 US and NATO soldiers since 2001.
Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama gave Pakistan $30 billion over the past 16 years in return for this perfidy. Pakistan’s army not only provides terrorists safe havens on Pakistani soil, but also trains them, funds them, arms them and protects them. Rawalpindi has two objectives. One, to bleed India at little cost to itself through the terrorists it nurtures because it knows it can’t win a conventional war. Two, to intimidate Afghanistan into accepting the Taliban as part of a future Afghan government.
Washington has finally blown the whistle. At a recent US Congressional hearing to the House Armed Services Committee, Mattis was blunt: “We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the President (Donald Trump) is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary.”
Pakistan, though, has two trump cards: First, the land supply route for US/NATO forces in landlocked Afghanistan; second, China. The Pakistan army, famed for its cunning but not its intellect, overestimates the importance of these two key assets. The US has begun developing an alternative land supply route from the north through central Asia. While logistically more complex, it is an antidote to Islamabad’s blackmail over essential NATO supply routes (which Pakistan temporarily blocked after NATO helicopters and fighter jets killed 28 Pakistani troops in northwest Pakistan in November 2011).
China is an even weaker card. Beijing fears Islamist terrorism and has clamped down on its restive Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. China’s investment in Pakistan carries a heavy interest burden which ordinary Pakistanis are only now coming to terms with. Millions of Pakistanis study and live in the US. Very few do so in China. The cultural dissonance with China, along with the economic costs of China’s high interest-bearing loans for new infrastructure will (as Sri Lanka has recently discovered) rapidly erode the idea that China is the all-weather solution to Pakistan’s problems.
As Mattis said at the Congressional hearing: “In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’. One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a diktat.” Mattis (a former Marine commander), who follows Tillerson to Islamabad later this month, says “everything is on the table” in his talks with the Pakistani establishment. That includes cutting all aid, stopping military spares, and ending Pakistan’s status as a non-NATO military ally.
Drone attacks on terror safe havens in Pakistan would be one form of escalated punishment. Sensing the danger, Pakistan’s resourceful generals have begun mainstreaming terrorist organisations into politics as an insurance policy against such attacks. The Milli Muslim League (MML), a “political” party controlled by the terrorist-cum-Islamist evangelist Hafiz Saeed, has the backing of the Pakistani army. The army’s spokesman Asif Ghafoor says: “The government has started some discussion over it, how do we mainstream them, so that they could (make a) constructive contribution.”
Pakistan thus joins the league of chaotic Arab countries like Egypt where quasi-terrorist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood briefly held power and are still a force to reckon with in the Opposition. The Pakistani government has made a show of opposing the MML. The Interior Ministry told the Election Commission of Pakistan that Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League should not have been allowed to participate in a by-election where it won over 5,800 votes. The ministry wrote: “There is evidence to substantiate that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) are affiliates and ideologically of the same hue, and (therefore) the registration of the MML is not supported.”
By mainstreaming terrorist groups into political parties under the army’s patronage, Rawalpindi hopes to kill two birds with one stone. First, counter US pressure on terror safe havens by, in effect, giving them political cover.
(Drone attacks on terror groups masquerading as political parties are problematic.) Second, further blur the line between terrorists, the army and politicians. Attack one, you attack all three, thereby checkmating the US. The Generals in Rawalpindi, who spend their evenings sipping Scotch and obsessing over India, will try to spin Mattis and Tillerson exactly as their predecessors did.
The size of Pakistan’s economy is just 11 per cent of India’s. Its population is less than that of Uttar Pradesh. It has ongoing insurgencies in Balochistan (which comprises 44 per cent of Pakistan’s territory), Sindh, and among the Pashtuns, who are evenly spread on either side of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Like Houdini, Pakistan’s Generals have escaped the shackles Washington has in the past put on them. Mattis, who earned the sobriquet “Mad Dog” when he served in the US army, though, is a different kind of US defence secretary. He could be the most difficult visitor Rawalpindi’s Generals have received.
The writer is author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century