America’s new responsibilities in the War on Terrorism

By Sohail Mahmood (for Safe Democracy)

Action is needed in Pakistan before it is too late, the support for Musharraf is dropping and force by itself cannot solve the militancy problem. The United States must look into the Asian country with a long-term vision and pin its hopes on democracy which is its own ideal and value.

Sohail Mahmood is the Associate Dean of the Department of International Relations at Preston University in Islamabad. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University, he is one of the leading experts in the world on Musharraf and Pakistan and has published dozens of books and articles on the issue.

PAKISTAN IS A KEY AMERICAN ALLY in its fight against the al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, the search for Al-Qaeda leaders remains a priority for the United States, as well as Pakistan. The al-Qaeda is reportedly present in a safe haven in Pakistan’s remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

The Bush Administration had recently highlighted, once again, Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and said it was working with the Musharraf regime in foiling terrorists attacks and saving lives. The United States realized, according to the Bush administration, that Pakistan was a sovereign country and a very important player in the war on terror. But the United States was also intensifying pressure on President Gen Musharraf to take stronger military action against al-Qaeda safe havens in the tribal area along the Afghanistan border.

The Pakistan military had taken a lead and was moving aggressively into the areas and trying to deal with the militancy problems. Attacks by tribal militants on Pakistan military positions continued and recently about a hundred tribal militants and personnel of the Pakistan military and other security forces had been killed. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was trying to salvage the September 2006 peace deal with tribal leaders. It was widely accepted that the deal had failed to solve the militancy problem. The NWFP governor met with tribal elders on July 23, 2007 in order to revive the earlier peace deal. Given the past history, any deal with the tribal leaders would at best be only a temporary solution to the militancy problem.

The roots of the militancy were deep in the area and could not be easily removed by the efforts of the Musharraf regime and its American backers. Apparently, the Musharraf regime was playing a double game in the tribal areas. On the one hand, the Musharraf Government was earnestly trying to revive the earlier peace deal, but on the other hand it was also bringing troops into the area to try to deal with the violence problems. The problem was that militants had successfully engaged the Pakistan military and had also maintained their hold in the inaccessible area. Both the United States and Pakistan had resolved to deprive them of safe havens in the area. The terrain was the main problem as these areas were remote with little infrastructure available to access the area. Pakistan had some 80,000 troops in the region and had suffered hundreds of casualties in the fighting. The United States had acknowledged the sacrifices rendered by Pakistani security forces in the joint war on terrorism.

The real problem in the war on terrorism is the nature of the militancy threat. The Musharraf regime is simply not equipped to handle the issue. The regime’s popularity is at the lowest level since 1999 when it came into power. The Government of Pakistan has failed to streamline the madrassas breeding militancy into the mainstream educational system of the country. It has not provided the teeming millions of youth with good jobs or even decent living opportunities resulting in despair, disillusionment and hopelessness among the religious youth of the country.

General Musharraf is increasingly secular which has led to resentment in the Islamic circles Islamists would like to see a modern and progressive Islamic regime to replace the one headed by General Musharraf. With the reinstatement of the deposed chief justice last week, General Musharraf has been weakened considerably. The combined opposition is demanding that he resign as the military has no business ruling the country anyways. Pakistan must see a peaceful transition of power from the military rule to that of an elected civilian one. But the support of the West, especially the United States is preventing that development from happening.

When will the Western powers ever learn that supporting a dictator is counter productive to its larger aims of fighting Islamic militancy? Only a popular government having a strong electoral mandate can possibly tackle the religious militancy problem. The militants have strong roots in society and cannot be eradicated by military means alone. It is advisable that the United States not use military force inside Pakistan to clamp down on the al-Qaeda for it will create a backlash that will not be easily containable by either the United States itself or the Government of Pakistan.

Remember the occupation of neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and other Western powers is increasingly unpopular in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Only a long-term solution that gives Muslims a chance to get their own act together and to govern themselves without outside prongs of the Western powers is workable. The Muslims need space and time to shape their own destiny as they deem fit without outside interference. The United States must not be seen to be supporting an increasingly unpopular military dictatorship on Pakistan as it’s own national interests demand a re-think of the entire policy vis -a-vis supporting General Musharraf is concerned.

The matter is beyond the capacity of the ever more beleaguered and isolated Musharraf government. The West must realize that the people of Pakistan are fed up of military rule and want a civilian ruling dispensation instead. The Bush Administration is wrong in putting all eggs in the General’s basket. This regime does not have the capacity to deliver against Islamic militancy. Given the nature of the regime, it can and does emphasize the military option only. Remember Islamic militancy is a political problem demanding political solutions which is beyond the Government of General Musharraf.

The United States must now insist that a peaceful transfer of power take place in Pakistan. Before the matter gets worse, a fair and free general election is held under a new care-taker government and power be transferred to a civilian government. This is however difficult to undertake because the political parties are largely weak and poor leadership is the norm not the exception in Pakistan’s political system. Nevertheless, the United States and other Western powers have no choice in the matter.

Today, general Musharraf is an isolated and increasingly weakened strongman of Pakistan and it is best for the country and the region that he is removed from power. A new national popular leadership might be able to tackle the militancy problem not this ruling dispensation for sure. The shortsighted leadership of the United States is not courageous enough to change course. It can only harp on old tunes and cannot vision a newer option of making peace with Islamic moderates while at the same time cornering the Islamic radicals. Is anyone listening in the corridors of power in the West, especially the United States?

Act before it is too late and remember force by itself cannot solve the militancy problem. Much more is required from both the Western powers and the Government of Pakistan. For once listen to the leadership coming out of the people from which this militancy springs forth in the first place. Nothing else will do as a matter of fact. For once, the United States must get out of it’s fixation with short-term solutions to look into Pakistan with a long-term vision and pin its hopes on democracy which is its own ideal and value.

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its sixty years of independence and has failed each time to deliver. Unfortunately, the civilian rules were also no better but this does not condone military rule over a civilian one. The United States must support Pakistan’s nascent civil society and the party system no matter how rotten. The future of the country lies in a civilian democratic order alone. That much is sure. It is now up to the United States and its Western powers to act meaningfully before it is too late and the scourge of militancy engulfs the region as never before. Wisdom requires prudent action on the political front and not the military one.

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