By Pervez Hoodbhoy
June 18th, 2016
In Pakistan, anger has greeted the killing of Afghan Taliban head, Mullah Mansour, by an American drone on Pakistani territory. When senior US officials visited army chief Gen Raheel Sharif at the Rawalpindi GHQ, he expressed strong displeasure at the violation of Pakistan’s air space and demanded that Tehreek-i-Taliban head, Mullah Fazlullah, together with other TTP militants, be targeted by drones. Linked to Al Qaeda, TTP has a history of savage atrocities committed against the people of Pakistan, its children, and armed forces. This demand was duly applauded across the country.
Whether Fazlullah will be droned if he is ever spotted remains to be seen. But the general’s demand raises troubling issues. To call for killing Fazlullah while mourning the loss of Mansour is inconsistent. Fazlullah is to Pakistan what Mansour was to Afghanistan. Their respective organisations — the TTP and the Taliban — are not identical but they share ethnic ties and a common mindset.
Similarities outweigh differences. Both Taliban groups oppose democracy, are religiously inspired, and believe that Islamic rule must be forcibly imposed. Both attack civilian targets, frequently use suicide bombers, and decapitate captured opponents. While the Taliban claim that they are fighting American occupation, the TTP alleges that the Pakistan Army is an American pawn — a ridiculous allegation.
Gen Sharif rightly raised the issue of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. But this vexing matter needs careful consideration. In political science jargon, sovereignty means the exercise of effective control over some polity by some supreme authority. By this definition, drone over-flights and missile attacks on the territory of a sovereign state do indeed violate international law.
But, were Pakistan to bring the issue before the International Court of Justice, it may have a difficult time. It would have to prove that it wields authority truly — rather than just formally — over large swathes of its designated territory. But the fact that the Afghan Taliban have freely used Pakistani territory to attack targets across the border for nearly 15 years, and that its leaders were/are ensconced in Quetta and Peshawar, could gravely weaken Pakistan’s case.
Fazlullah is to Pakistan what Mansour was to Afghanistan.
Mansour’s killing is the result of America’s new-found conviction that the Taliban will not negotiate peace, and that Pakistan is unwilling to rope them in. A US-based Pakistani commentator, Moeed Yusuf, notes that after years of ambivalence Americans have finally concluded that Pakistan is uninterested in having an elected government in Kabul.
Earlier, America’s perception had been that of two Pakistans — one which the US could woo with inducements such as F-16s, and another which it could scold away from supporting the Taliban. But rightly or wrongly, America now sees only one Pakistan — that which part of the problem but not the solution is. Yusuf notes that, after desperately seeking to negotiate with its opponents, “Kabul is focused solely on the battlefield”.
To be on the wrong side of the United States is not necessarily a bad thing. One can seriously differ with its creation of a faith-based response against the Soviet invasion in 1979, its unconditional support for Israel against Palestinians, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the toppling of Qadhafi’s government in 2011.
But Pakistan should definitely be alarmed that, save for China, it stands alone and friendless in its neighbourhood and is viewed with suspicion in much of the world. Iran, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are all Muslim countries with which Pakistan — a country conceived on the basis of Islam — could have expected to enjoy good relations with.
A misconceived foreign policy has led to the very opposite: Pakistani and Afghan troops are exchanging artillery fire today while India is busy with construction projects inside Afghanistan and earning the gratitude of ordinary Afghans. Hence the bitter remark: India gives us dams but Pakistan gives us only the Taliban.
What explains Pakistan’s soft corner for the Taliban? The answer is a no-brainer. Through the decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy has single-mindedly sought to counter India on every front irrespective of the terrible damage it may do to itself. In the early 1990s, Gen Mirza Aslam Beg was explicit about building ‘strategic depth’ inside Afghanistan with Taliban help. Pakistan has yet to plausibly renounce this earlier goal.
Another victim of tunnel vision is the Pak-Iran relationship, now frigid. Even President Rouhani’s visit in March to Islamabad did little to change things. India’s development of Iran’s Chabahar port, a consequence of Pakistan’s refusal to grant overland transit permission to India, feeds into the encirclement syndrome. Few in Pakistan care to remember Iran’s support to Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars, or wonder how we lost an ally.
Neighbours frequently have disputes over land and water, or perhaps over markets and global influence. Many disputes are unsolvable but mature leaders learn to manage conflicts, agree on trade terms, make compromises, and keep communication channels open. This is how politics works.
That politics is practised today by the United States, China, and India. Within this triangle of geopolitical players, each jockeys for economic and military power. All have oversized militaries but their rivalries are not played out as zero-sum games. Even Saudi Arabia plays pragmatically. Its highest civilian award went to Narendra Modi, and it has a de facto alliance with Israel.
Rather than dig an ideological hole so deep that escape becomes impossible, Pakistan too must deal with India pragmatically and politically. A sane and civilised relationship is surely possible without Pakistan dropping the insistence that Kashmir needs a solution.
If Pak-India relations could be recalibrated, Pakistan could repair its poor relations with all its neighbours. With Afghanistan this has special urgency. Pakistan and Afghanistan have suffered enormously from militants who seek to impose their brutal ideology, and who deliberately target innocents. Pakistan has lost more brave soldiers and officers during its war against terror than in all wars against India.
Fazlullah must go, whether by drone or otherwise. But what we want for ourselves, we must also want for those across the Durand Line. For this, the successors of Mullah Mansour — however many are yet to come — will also have to go.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Islamabad and Lahore.