x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pakistan’s ‘no shoot policy’ plays into the Taliban’s hands

The plight of displaced Pakistani tribesmen is living proof of the outcome of a non-committal national security policy, writes Tom Hussain

Pakistan’s national security policy was unveiled recently by the country’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, in a speech to parliament that could, and ought, to have been delivered in two sentences: if Taliban insurgents shoot at us, we’ll shoot back. If they don’t, we won’t.

It has taken six years of full-blooded insurrection, plus the prior half-dozen years of conflict in the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, for Islamabad to come up with the secret 110-page policy document on a conflict that has killed nearly 50,000 people.

Sadly, the policy’s active ingredient reflects the ignorance within Pakistan about a phenomenon that threatens its very existence.

That ignorance was exploited by the Taliban during last year’s general election, when those political parties who supported a military solution to the problem were prevented from campaigning, leading to a skewed result in favour of the parties who preferred talks with the terrorists.

Predictably, that twisting of the political narrative has continued unabated since Nawaz Sharif assumed the office of prime minister for an unprecedented third term. His theory is that the Taliban can’t be eradicated, but can be contained, giving the government enough room to kick-start investment in the economy.

Viewed in isolation, that might make a kind of sense. Were it not for the intervention of multilateral lenders of the last resort and remittances from Pakistanis working overseas, Pakistan would default on loan repayments and be unable to pay for its imports. It’s also true that the cost of the conflict with the Taliban has been crippling, forcing the government to divert half its development funds to the defence budget for each of the last six years.

But no national economy can be viewed in isolation of political reality – particularly one which has claimed an average of a dozen lives a day during two months of “talks about talks” between government and Taliban intermediaries.

Nor can a national polity be managed as if the country has already been split into two parts, with the north-west and south ravaged by terrorism, while the east is peaceful.

Colleagues I met during a recent visit to Peshawar, the capital of the besieged north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, had just returned from Lahore, capital of the eastern Punjab province and Mr Sharif’s stamping ground. They were shocked that the Lahore public could come and go as it pleases to amusement parks, shopping malls and cinemas, without being concerned about the threat of a terrorist attack. Similarly, they were stunned by the provincial government’s preoccupation with staging youth festivals focused on breaking Guinness World Records.

In stark contrast, you can’t even park your car in Peshawar’s bazaars, which are lined with barbed wire because any stationary vehicle is considered a potential bomb by the police, while the western suburbs of the city are virtually a no-go area because of massive infiltration by the Taliban’s various factions. I went to the city’s Pishtakhara area to meet tribesmen displaced by fighting in the neighbouring Khyber tribal area, and was rightfully considered foolhardy for doing so.

The plight of the displaced Pakistani tribesmen is living proof of the outcome of a non-committal national security policy. Residents of Khyber’s Tirah Valley are de facto citizens of a state-within-the-state operated by the Lashkar-i-Islami, a faction that has over the last year withdrawn from fighting Pakistan’s security forces so that it can focus on making money from the country’s largest hashish crop.

Similarly, large areas of North and South Waziristan have been declared “peaceful” because an Afghan Taliban faction, the Haqqani Network, stopped fighting in 2007 – but only in return for the freedom to impose its despicable misinterpretation of Islam on the resident population, and use of the areas as a staging post for attacks against the Afghan government and its Western allies.

The government counterterrorism offensive, when it comes, won’t touch those terrorists. Instead, it will be focused on the Taliban’s few remaining territorial strongholds.

Even that ignores the strategic preparations made by the Taliban during and before last year’s general election. All said, there are no more than 2,500 Taliban insurgents left in the tribal areas, along with a similar number of Al Qaeda terrorists. As many, if not more, have already migrated to Karachi, the country’s southern metropolis and biggest economic hub, or have linked up with sympathisers elsewhere, including the hitherto safe eastern Punjab province.

The Taliban did so because it had accepted the reality of Pakistan’s political situation. A government counteroffensive, leading to the loss of territory in the tribal areas, was inevitable, so the Taliban prepared a campaign of pre-emptive tit-for-tat attacks, first against security personnel, and then on urban centres.

Thus the Pakistani government’s no-shoot-first policy is actually the realisation of the Taliban’s strategy.

When Mr Sharif finally orders the military to pull the trigger, the Taliban will strike back at his political heartland and economic growth plans, exposing the government’s national security policy as a farce, and plunging the country into a cycle of violence worse than the one that debilitated the country between 2008 and 2011.

Then only, perhaps, might the Pakistani government realise the fallacy of its policy of sticking a plaster on a festering infection that, as events in Afghanistan unfold, would spread throughout the country, threatening it with geopolitical amputation.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist