Pakistani Negotiation with the Islamists
Paris, March 25, 2008 – The worst current news about Pakistan comes from Washington, criticizing the reported intention of Pakistan's new coalition government to negotiate with the militants responsible for recent bombings in that country.
Washington objects to negotiations, saying – as it always does when it comes to talking with enemies – that negotiations would be a signal of weakness, "encouraging" Islamic militants. Encouraging them, one supposes, in what Washington contends is their program to take over Pakistan, Afghanistan, and then the world.
Bush government policy has only one mode: toughness, intimidation and threat, despite the demonstrated failure of this to defeat the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan or to influence domestic disorder and violence inside Pakistan (or for that matter, in Iraq). A recent Washington report on anti-terrorist policy as a whole said that officials are considering fundamental policy change, since after six and a half years "they now recognize that threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe."
The news of the new Islamabad government's shift in stance has come at a time when American officials had begun to exploit the freer hand granted them by President Pervez Musharraf for direct operations against Islamist leaders inside Pakistan, particularly by unmanned rocket-launching CIA drones, operating on what, on more than one occasion, has proven disastrously bad intelligence. This is how the Israelis operate in the Palestinian territories and Gaza, but one would think that no recommendation.
Enlarging the American role in Pakistan has invited popular hostility.
One reason for the fall of General Musharraf was that he had come to be seen as the agent of American policy rather than a defender of Pakistan's own interests.
When the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, took office this week, it was not an intelligent decision for Washington to send both Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher to confer with Musharraf as well as other officials, inviting Pakistani press comment that they had come to put pressure on the new government.
Thought also has been given in Washington to the feasibility of cultivating Musharraf's successor as commander of the Pakistani army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as a possible successor strongman, should the civilian coalition government prove uncooperative. However General Kayani gives sign of wanting to keep the army out of further interference in politics. Renewed collaboration with the Bush administration is not likely to be a smart career move.
The new Pakistani government intends to take a new look at its cooperation with the U.S. in waging NATO and Washington's war against the Taliban. Washington should listen, because the war currently is futile. Both NATO and U.S. officers say that the Taliban cannot be defeated in the field so long as their bases inside Pakistan are secure and the Afghan peasantry remains alienated from the U.S.-supported government in Kabul.
The argument that the struggle with the Taliban has to be won in Pakistan is reasonable, but "winning" is an ambiguous term in these circumstances. The notion that western forces could be any more effective in the badlands of tribal Pakistan than they are inside Afghanistan, trying to win hearts and minds with artillery and air strikes, is absurd. The Pakistanis are not going to do the job for NATO -- against their own countrymen.
The Taliban threat to Afghanistan can only be countered with political measures, and that is what the new Pakistan government is proposing. This is good news, not bad.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the other major figure in the new government, has said that the army is the "wrong instrument" for dealing with the situation. He has made the interesting comment that Pakistan should have less U.S. aid, which undermines Pakistan's own initiatives, and should use its own resources to support its own policy. He says that Pakistan's security should not be sacrificed "to protect other countries." Fair enough. He expects an "exhaustive" debate by the new parliament on how to respond to the Islamist threat.
The recent Pakistan national election resulted in a remarkable success by secular forces over the religious parties, contrary to ingrained American fears about the ascendance of the Islamic movement. In an important article in the current New York Review of Books, the historian William Dalrymple (who writes from Pakistan and lives in New Delhi) describes the elections as having been a triumph by the urban middle classes (from which the lawyers came, whose protests had so much to do with Musharraf's fall) against a rural vote controlled by feudal landowners. He judges the elections "free and fair" and an unequivocal vote for "moderate, secular democracy."
The new government offers the possibility of a constructive approach to dealing with the Islamists. Let it try. What Washington and NATO are now doing in Afghanistan is unmistakably headed for failure.
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