Clearing Misinformation on Kerry-Lugar and Balochistan

Former Foreign Minister Najmuddin A Shaikh pens an excellent rebuttal to the misinformation being spread about the Kerry-Lugar aid bill in the US and the situation in Balochistan.

The Americans have made no secret of the fact that their interest in Pakistan’s well being, which the assistance package is designed for, flows from their battle against terrorism

Contrary to expectations, the last week has not been a good one for US-Pak relations. The passage in the Senate of the Kerry-Lugar proposed legislation for the provision of $1.5 billion annually for the next five years to Pakistan for economic development was initially hailed by the government. President Obama was congratulated for having secured this passage even while he was co-chairing, with President Zardari and Prime Minister Brown, the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting in New York. The government did not at that time seem to have any idea of the sort of media storm that would arise with regard to the “conditionalities” attached to the bill.

The debate, which focused on the infringement on Pakistan’s sovereignty that this bill was said to represent, did not seem to take account of the fact that much of what the bill requires the Secretary of State to certify is what the Government of Pakistan is by its declared policy endeavouring to do. It has banned the two militant organisations that are specifically mentioned and it has proclaimed loudly and clearly that it will not allow the use of its territory for terrorist activities against neighbouring countries. It has instituted stringent laws to prevent proliferation and has assured the world that the measures in place are as stringent as any in the rest of the world. It has emphasised that in the new democratic dispensation the role of the armed forces would be the same in Pakistan as in other democracies and all politicians have been at one in berating the United States for having supported military dictators in Pakistan and thus subverting the development of a democratic dispensation.

Admittedly all these certifications represent interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs since all these are matters that Pakistan’s leaders should be dealing with on their own. The Americans however have made no secret of the fact that their interest in Pakistan’s well being, which the assistance package is designed for, flows from their battle against terrorism. Congressman Berman, who piloted the passage of the bill in the House, said clearly that “We can’t allow al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that threatens our national security interests to operate with impunity in the tribal regions or any other part of Pakistan” and “Nor can we permit the Pakistani state — and its nuclear arsenal — to be taken over by the Taliban.”

No one commenting on the bill seemed to be aware that these conditions applied, if my reading of the bill is correct, to military aid (which is in addition to the economic aid package) and not to economic assistance. The full text of the bill as passed by the Senate and on Wednesday by the House is not yet available but this is what one gathers from earlier versions of the bill debated in the Senate and the House.

One could even argue, since the battle against extremists will be fought by the Pakistani armed forces, that making military assistance subject to these conditions risks antagonising the very power centre in Pakistan that the Americans should be cultivating. If they have done so, it can only be because they have finally come to the conclusion that only a democratic government with all its flaws can bring about the change in ambience that will rid Pakistan of the menace of terrorism and by natural extension assuage the concerns of a world which believes the epicentre of terrorism aimed at the West lies in the remote and not so remote areas of Pakistan.

Now, of course, another focus has been found for the misgivings and almost paranoid suspicions of American intentions and that is a recent Washington Post interview with Ambassador Anne Patterson, in which she said “In the past, we focused on Al Qaeda because they were a threat to us. The Quetta Shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region… Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washington’s list.”

Earlier there had been reports from Washington with regard to the ongoing debate on the “strategy for Afghanistan” that those who opposed the increase of troop levels in Afghanistan were advocating an extension of drone attacks to the sanctuaries of the Taliban in Balochistan and particularly against the Quetta Shura. Putting the two together, our commentators suggested that drone attacks in Balochistan were imminent or that at the very least Patterson had been guilty of interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

This was not the main issue that should have attracted the attention of the commentators. What we should have focused on was the candid admission by UN official Semple — one of the few westerners who can legitimately claim expertise on Afghanistan — that the Quetta region’s refugee camps are “a great reserve army” for the Taliban. He maintains quite rightly that the Kandahari tribes have strong tribal links across the border and that many of those who have crossed over now have Pakistani ID cards. He dismisses as nonsense the claim that the Taliban live openly in Quetta and even attend weddings etc., and maintains that they have their own agenda and are suspicious of the Pakistanis.

What we should have focused on was the statement by ISPR’s Gen Athar Abbas that of the 10 people identified by US and Afghan officials as members of the Quetta Shura, 6 had been killed, 2 were in Afghanistan and the remaining 2 were insignificant.

What we should have focused on is the daily crossing at Chaman of more than 35,000-40,000 people with nary a check on their movement because of the so-called easement rights and because the Afghans refuse to accept our biometric identification systems at this and other border crossings.

Our view should be that if Patterson’s gaffe — and that is what it would be termed by the British, the Canadians and the Dutch who for the last three-four years have borne the brunt of Taliban attacks in the South — reflects a serious concern about the Afghan-Balochistan border and about the safety of newly deployed American soldiers, then the Americans should take the following steps:

  • Persuade UNHCR to shift the refugee camps currently in Balochistan to nearby areas in Afghanistan and continue to supply their needs from Pakistan if necessary. NATO forces could guard these camps to prevent their misuse by the Taliban. Put into these refugee camps those Afghans who have fraudulently obtained Pakistani identity cards.
  • Persuade the Afghans to accept biometric measures to regulate the flow of human traffic between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Prevent smuggling, which is ruinous for Pakistan’s economy, and which more than anything else breeds the corrupt officials who then permit not only the passage of electronic goods, tea etc. but also narcotics, weapons and, of course, Taliban fighters.
  • Secure the assistance of the so-called knowledgeable Pakistanis inside and outside the ISI to identify the Taliban who can be weaned away by monetary and other inducements from the Mullah Omar camp.

On the Pakistan side perhaps we too should:

  • Recognise that the Afghan Taliban represent as much of a danger to us as the TTP.
  • Acknowledge that the concerns about Balochistan have not emerged just now. As early as May 2003, Carlotta Gall, a New York Times correspondent who was in a subsequent visit to Quetta beaten up by some goons, had written “The border regions of Pakistan, and Quetta in particular, are emerging as the main centre of Taliban support in the region, and a breeding ground for opposition sentiment to the American campaign in Afghanistan and Mr Karzai’s government”. Where there is smoke there has to be some fire.
  • Start a serious effort to use our pool of knowledge to identify the midlevel Taliban commanders and their foot soldiers who can be persuaded to give up their loyalty to Mullah Omar in the South and to Haqqani and Hikmatyar in the East and cooperate with a Karzai administration which shows a willingness to share power and to stop the sort of rapacious activities that his allies are currently engaged in.
  • Bear in mind that the 5,362 dead and 10,483 wounded we have suffered so far in the war in Swat and the tribal areas — this was the figure that an American correspondent was given in an ISI briefing by Gen Pasha and his colleagues — and the 2000 lives lost in terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2008 — a figure used by President Zardari in a New York Times article — could multiply many times if the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate.

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