Much attention has been given lately to a single sentence in a White House report on Afghan war policy that criticises “no clear path to defeating the insurgency in Pakistan”. Unfortunately, defensive reactions have largely missed the larger point which is that neither does the US have a clear plan. Despite almost ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, the US military is still trying to reach a point where they can remove troops without risking Afghanistan returning to a terrorist safe haven. The Americans might wish that we had a better plan for defeating militants, but then again so do we wish the same about them. Perhaps some of the problem is that we’re both looking at the fight the wrong way.
The debate about the fight against Taliban and militants more generally tends to break down into two sides: Kill the militants until there are no more left to cause problems and Negotiate with the militants until they agree to stop causing problems. Both of these sides are inadequate for dealing with the problem.
The military only solution doesn’t work because there is not a finite number of ‘militants’. In fact, some military actions can result in sympathy for the militants, undermining whatever military gains were made. The negotiation solution doesn’t work because militants do not have some minor issues that they are complaining about, they want to see the complete dissolution of democratic Pakistan and the nation replaced with a pan-Islamic Caliphate under their own rule. This has been proven by the fact that every time a negotiated peace has been made with militants, they have soon broken the negotiation to advance their own cause.
Obviously, these two ways of thinking are not sufficient. But what else is there? Actually a more nuanced perspective came not from the military brass of the US or GHQ, but from a place that perhaps people were not expecting it: President’s house.
In a recent interview with UK newspaper The Guardian, President Zardari compared the war in Afghanistan to the drug war in Mexico.
“Just as the Mexican drug war on US borders makes a difference to Texas and American society, we are talking about a war on our border which is obviously having a huge effect. Only today a suicide bomber has attacked a police compound in Baluchistan. I think it [the Afghan war] has an effect on the entire region, and specially our country,” Zardari said.
This is a very interesting observation and one that I think should be taken quite seriously. Military solution has been tried against drugs in Mexico for decades, but during this period drug use and the resulting violence has continued to increase. Some people advocate negotiating a peace with the drug lords, but this would bring with it an increase in the problems that come from drug use like increased crime and health problems.
People are now looking at alternative ways to get rid of drugs and the associated violence. In the drug war, people are discussing ways of removing the profit motive for drug sellers and treating drug addicts not as criminals but as people with a sickness. The goal is to remove the underlying causes of the drug problem rather than trying to eliminate it without addressing the issues that created it.
Could a similar approach work in the fight against militants?
Religious extremism may not have a profit motive the same way drugs do, but there are other underlying reasons why people are attracted to militant groups and these should be addressed. Many people in the tribal areas look to militants to provide a system of law and order that is more just than the FCR. We should be looking for ways to address the concerns of the people so that they find their best interests being met by democracy and rule of law instead of having to settle for Taliban style ‘justice’.
Likewise, any 15-year-old who is willing to turn himself into a bomb to kill innocent people is not a criminal mastermind, he is suffering from a psychological illness. This illness could be the result of stress or despair that has been manipulated by the devious brain washers of the extremists. This must be fought not by seeking out these young men to kill them, but to treat their sickness so that they can return to society and even help to find and treat others who have been manipulated and abused as they were.
Policies that are coming from US military and GHQ both are having some positive effects, but they are clearly not enough. Rather than point blame at one another about who does or who does not have a clear plan to victory, we should be looking for new ideas and new approaches. We have the same goal – defeating the militants and bringing peace to the region – let’s work together to get there.