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'Af-Pak' forging ahead to calamity

Publication Date : 28-01-2014


As expected and forewarned, militant extremism is set to soar in Afghanistan and Pakistan when faced only by state encouragement.

Among the problems of international terrorism is that it is often ahead of the curve, while governments purportedly confronting it are some distance behind.

The case of the US and Central Asia, specifically the “AfPak region”, illustrates the point.

During the Bush administration, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was targeted in a supposed response to the September 11 attacks on US soil, even when the attackers were Saudi and their allies were Afghan Taliban.

For Barack Obama, the problem was Afghanistan rather than Iraq. But after his Afghan military campaign and a scheduled pullout from the region, the issues have become Pakistan and a resurgent Afghan Taliban.

There is the Afghan Taliban and also the Pakistani Taliban, together presenting problems to more than just the two countries. Allies include other local extremist groups as well as a transnational al-Qaeda.

In the new year, both Afghan and Pakistani governments have increasingly shown their incapacity, if not also their unwillingness, to face down the problems for good.

Sometimes, through institutional neglect, administrative incompetence or wilful error, these problems are compounded or exacerbated.

Pakistan remains proud of its democracy despite a politically influential military, and of a free media despite an authoritarian Musharraf period. Now there are increasing fears of a resurgent Pakistani Taliban as well.

Earlier this month, three journalists on the Express News were murdered by the Taliban in Karachi. Practically everyone expects the bad situation to get worse.

Opinion varies on the causes of such violence. But there is no disagreement over these killings as part of a spiralling campaign of brutal intimidation.

Increasingly, the “border” – such as it is – between Afghanistan and Pakistan is too porous even for a ruptured membrane. Militant activities pay no heed to any border restrictions and limitations.

In recent days, dozens of people were killed in terrorist attacks in Bannu, Kabul and Rawalpindi. One attack a week ago impudently targeted Pakistan’s army headquarters.

Other people such as health workers are also freely targeted. Polio vaccination teams have been attacked, out of rumours and superstitions about the “dangers” of vaccines.

Afghanistan and Pakistan share another unenviable quality: both rank as the world’s “top” countries where polio remains endemic. Thus the political and security concerns clearly have social and health dimensions as well.

However, journalists have lately become the highest-risk group among civilians. While security has steadily deteriorated all-round, truth is still the first casualty with this set of conflicts.

The media is perhaps the best measure of social and political freedoms. It may thus be seen as a “thermometer” of liberty.

The media is also the first sector or industry to suffer the pangs of authoritarianism, bearing the brunt of undemocratic forces. It is thus a “barometer” of politics.

Regardless of political ideology, virtually all coups, revolutions and reactionary purges prioritise targeting the media. They want their narrative to dominate no less than the status quo they seek to replace.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s media community remains perplexed as to why the Express News was singled out from among the country’s vibrant media.

Meanwhile, Taliban informants are suspected of being “embedded” within the ranks of the newspaper’s staff. The logical conclusion is that Taliban sympathisers are on the newspaper’s payroll.

There is no reason to suppose that the Express News’ plight is limited to only one media outlet. It is more likely to be only the first significant target of the Taliban’s current “surge”.

The dangers posed by the various Taliban or pro-Taliban groups such as Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba are many. These are based on their militant nature, extremist ends and unregulated methods.

As armed groups, they possess military weapons including firearms and bombs to attack and intimidate their perceived enemies. As militants, they have no qualms about who they target or get in the way.

In using the language and garb of religion, they appeal to emotional and psychological factors while leveraging on identity politics. Their methods are beyond rational analysis and reasoned debate.

As extremists, they brook no criticism, opposition or worldly accountability. They claim a mandate not from any public or electorate, but the divine – a source according to their own definition and interpretation.

As militants, they employ all and every means to achieve their own narrow ends. Their impact tears at the social fabric, subverts existing institutions and destroys the economy.

It is dangerous to underestimate their capacity, such as their political or technical savvy. A primitive outlook does not imply a backward approach to communication.

For example, leaders of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are known to be media-savvy. They also follow media reports in multiple languages including English.

For its part, the Lashkar-e-Taiba combines a semblance of nationalism in its exploits. That explains, if not justifies, the support it reportedly enjoys from the authorities.

This particular detail is seen to relate to its militant posture towards neighbouring India. That sometimes tragically takes in Afghanistan as well, in the dodgy position of a “collateral state”.

A complicated situation steadily grows more confounded, further worsening the militancy problem.

Last October the Afghan government reportedly tried to transport a TTP leader, Latif Mehsud, for secret talks to “turn” him in Kabul’s favour. But US forces learned of the intention, intercepted the convoy and arrested Latif.

Afghanistan then said Latif had been invited to talks as a “peace emissary”. In Pakistan, the story was that Latif had been “captured” by Afghanistan.

The fact is that none of the Taliban or Taliban-related groups or their leaders can serve as reliable proxies for any established state. Their record of loyalties is patchy and conflicted.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, these groups ultimately serve nobody but themselves. Even a Taliban-run state can see factionalism, schisms and bitter rivalries.

What is certain is that these groups and individuals cannot be reliable or long-term allies of any established state authority that is not their own. But it would seem that both Afghanistan and Pakistan have yet to realise that.

A segment of each of the Afghan and Pakistani governments still thinks that it can use one or the other militant group for its own agenda in putting down the other country. It is a risky enterprise that has already seen its share of disappointment.

The greater divide is not between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but between militants and governments. There is also greater empathy between militant groups, as there should be between governments.

It is not clear if Kabul and Islamabad understand this yet, given their mutual historical baggage. The militant groups seem to comprehend this better, given their exigencies and ambitions.

The challenges faced by the Express News today are a microcosm of the challenges faced by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The only solution is for both countries to work closer together in their joint and common interests.

In this way, the Taliban challenge can help to patch up relations across the border by default. The vexing alternative is to see more surges by the Taliban groups, acting either separately or together.

Can Afghanistan and Pakistan rise to the challenge and muster the necessary trust and goodwill for this task? The answer to that at least lies with both countries and their leaders, not any Taliban group.


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