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In the same boat

Publication Date : 25-07-2012


Looking at the headlines over the last month there is one thing that stands out clearly: Pakistan is as much a battle zone as Afghanistan.

A report out of Afghanistan says the Taliban executed a woman before a large audience a short distance away from Kabul, while another report says the Taliban lashed two alleged kidnappers, again before an appreciative audience, only 70 kilometres from Kabul. President Karzai says that people seek the rough-and-ready justice of the Taliban because the officials of the district cannot provide it.

In Pakistan a mentally challenged alleged blasphemer was dragged out of a police station and burnt to death by a vigilante crowd while the police stood by helplessly. President Zardari says “no one should be allowed to take the law into his own hands, no matter what the crime is”, but so far there is no report suggesting that anyone has been arrested, leave alone punished, for instigating mob violence.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are two of the three countries in the world in which polio remains a threat. In Afghanistan the security situation prevents health workers from accessing the children to whom the polio drops need to be administered. In "sovereign" Pakistan a militant leader decrees that no polio-vaccination teams will be allowed into North and South Waziristan unless drone attacks are stopped. The jirga (committee) of local elders put together by the local administration to persuade the militant leaders, who apparently exercise full control of these tribal agencies, to change their minds end up agreeing with him that no vaccination should be permitted until his conditions are met.

Around 250,000 to 350,000 children are at risk in these agencies. But ominously, children are at risk even in Karachi, where a UN team of vaccinators was recently attacked as it entered an Afghan basti in Sohrab Goth.

In April 2011, prisoners — mostly Taliban — escaped from Kandahar jail through a tunnel dug from the outside. In April 2012, prisoners — again mostly Taliban — escaped from a Bannu jail after a frontal attack by the Taliban, who rode up to the prison in pick-up trucks and freed the prisoners while facing no resistance from prison guards. In both cases the attackers boasted of having inside information.

In "insecure" Afghanistan attacks on Afghan police stations and security posts are a matter of routine. Now with attacks on police stations in Bannu and the killing of a party of Pakistani soldiers in the vicinity of Gujarat, "secure and sovereign" Pakistan’s record matches that of the Afghans.

Every day we read reports of Nato and Afghan forces carrying out operations that kill dozens of "insurgents", but which seem to do nothing to restore peace. Now in Pakistan we see daily reports of airforce and army attacks on militant hideouts but with no indication from the people of the area that this has in any way reduced the influence of the militants in the tribal areas.

Every day Nato and Afghan sources accuse Pakistan of harbouring Afghan militants. Now there is increased stridency to Pakistani claims that Afghanistan is harbouring dissidents from Balochistan in farari camps and is allowing India to use Afghan soil to foment the insurgency in this troubled province of Pakistan.

The Afghans and their Nato allies have long accused Pakistan of not preventing the launching of attacks on Afghanistan by militants with "safe havens" in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Pak-Afghan border in Balochistan. Now the Pakistanis are accusing the Afghans and Nato of not preventing attacks on Pakistan from safe havens in Kunar and Nuristan provinces by Mullah Fazlullah and Maulvi Faqir Mohammad’s militias.

With respect to this last similarity, Pakistan is now taking "direct action" to eliminate the threat from these Afghanistan-based insurgents. The Afghans say that Pakistan has laid down artillery barrages in the area, killing a number of civilians and causing an evacuation from the area. They have threatened to take the matter to the UN Security Council and on Sunday summoned the Pakistan ambassador to register a protest and to demand an immediate cessation of such attacks. According to a statement from President Karzai’s office, the Afghan National Security Council has instructed security officials “to put into place all due actions necessary”. Pakistan has denied the charges, saying “Pakistani troops only respond to and engage militants from where they are attacked/fired upon”.

This development may not mean that there is going to be a war between the two countries, though this cannot be ruled out. It does, however, point to the dangers that lie ahead. It suggests that the agreement reached between President Karzai, British prime minster Cameron and our prime minister during his recent visit to Kabul to work together to "eliminate" terrorism which "poses the gravest threat to regional and international security" will not really be the determinant of policy on the ground.

And yet the need for putting into operation a policy to "eliminate terrorism" is urgent. The Americans and their allies are leaving by the end of 2014. The economic situation in both countries is set to deteriorate further. In Afghanistan the withdrawal of foreign forces will deprive it of the main driver of economic activity, and this cannot be compensated for by the limited aid that has been promised by the international community at the Tokyo conference.

In Pakistan, a government in election mode is not going to make the hard decisions needed to put its economic house in order. Economic hardship will compound the deterioration of the security situation.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the same boat, but if this boat is not to be the Titanic, the leaders in the two countries have to work together to promote genuine reconciliation and to eliminate terrorism.

Pakistan, which I believe still has the capacity, has to take action to restore its writ over its territory and to make clear to the "guests" on its soil that Pakistan will not want — any more than Afghanistan’s present leadership and its Nato allies — a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, on its part, has to be more sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns and secure its full cooperation to effect reconciliation and to eliminate the threat that both countries face.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.


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