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J. Sri Raman: Pakistan's Anti-Terror Priority

America, the Army and Pakistan's Anti-Terror Priority

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

The first of the issues likely to pose a serious, if not formidable, challenge to Pakistan's incoming government involves two of the three A's associated with the country: Army and America. The coalition regime, expected to be in place soon, may find it extremely hot either to concur with the specific US demand for military cooperation in the "war on terror" or to turn it down categorically.

Washington has let Islamabad know the US Army "is developing a plan to send around 100 trainers to work with a Pakistani para-military force that is the vanguard in the fight against al-Qaeda and other groups in Pakistan's restive tribal areas." It has further been indicated that "US trainers initially would be restricted to training compounds, but with Pakistani consent could eventually accompany Pakistani troops on missions 'to the point of contact' with militants as American trainers now do with Iraqi troops in Iraq."

Eventually, we are informed, the Pentagon plans to build a training base and spend over $400 million through the next several years on this project.

Some sources insist the term "trainers" used by the Americans is a camouflage for "private contractors" like "Blackwater USA," which has figured with unsavory prominence in several reports on Iraq.

According to reports in popular Pakistani media, denied by US spokespersons, but still not retracted, Washington has presented a set of 11 demands to the government of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Defense, in order to facilitate the envisaged joint operations. These include conferment on US personnel of a right to carry arms across Pakistan and a waiver of damages claims for any loss of life and property caused by such personnel, presumably in the course of anti-terror campaigns.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his recent visit to the region, claimed Pakistani leaders were re-evaluating their security priorities as al-Qaeda had begun using its safe havens in western Pakistan to launch attacks inside the country. Gates added, "We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis, to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations should they desire to do so."

The Pervez Musharraf regime protested innocence of any such proposal and asserted its opposition to the idea. The report, however, retained its credibility for most Pakistanis. Very few of them believe that the proposal won't be pressed again or that the new government can afford to say a clear "no" to it.

Some observers expect the proposal to be modified somewhat. not ruled out is the possibility of the Pentagon actually proposing the participation of many more than a mere hundred "trainers" in the joint operations. Slender, by most accounts, are the chances of the new rulers in Islamabad avoiding the matter that involves not much of a real choice for them.

With or without the taint of cooperation with the US "trainers," the coalition of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will have to launch a campaign against internal extremism as one of its primary tasks.

Terrorism has already served its grim notice on the incoming government. Suiciders' bombs and other explosives have rocked all the major cities - including initially untouched Lahore and Islamabad, where the offices of the federal intelligence agency and a foreigner-frequented restaurant have been targeted respectively. Not a day passes, meanwhile, without terrorism striking and claiming innocent lives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the government and the Army face their fiercest adversaries.

There is hardly any guarantee the new government and the Army will react to the proposal in the same manner. The Army is known to have its special problem in the FATA posed by the large proportion of tribesmen in its ranks. New Army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, is known to be particularly close to Washington and the Pentagon. He has also gone out of his way to let it be known the Army continues to have a political outlook and this need not be the same as the government's. Notably, he has done this by following PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari's plea for a secondary priority for the Kashmir issue with the assertion that the Army continues to be "committed to the cause of Kashmir in line with the Pakistani people's aspirations." Whether Kiyani can also demarcate the Army's position from the government's on the issue involving the western border remains to be watched.

The third Pakistan-associated "A" stands for Allah, and is tauntingly used these days to equate Islam with terror. It is true, however, those who claim a divine sanction for it have heightened the danger of terrorism in Pakistan manifold. An increasing number of Pakistanis now see the importance of combating clergy-driven "jihadism" and reject its justification as anti-imperialism, as illustrated by the electoral rout of religious parties allied with Musharraf. But a large number still do not.

Pakistani peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy asks, "Why do many Pakistanis who should know better suddenly lose their voice

when it comes to condemning suicide bombings?" Speaking of the politically inspired public silence on the issue, he says, "Many choose to believe that the suicide bomber is a consequence of Pakistan's acquiescence to being America's junior partner in its war against terror. Conversely, there is a widespread opinion that suicide attacks will disappear if Pakistan dissociates itself from this war. But, few admit the brutal fact that even if America retreats or an elected government calls off the Army, the terror of jihadism will remain."

Hoodbhoy adds, "They refuse to accept the obvious fact that more and more mullahs have created cults around themselves and exercise control over the lives of worshipers. An enabling environment of poverty, deprivation, lack of justice, and extreme differences of wealth is perfect for demagogues ... As the mullah's indoctrination gains strength, the power to reason weakens."

The ease of jihadi operations makes extremism all the more dangerous. As Salim J. Ali, reviewing a book by Ibrahim Warde on the low budgets behind some of the bloodiest crimes of terrorism, says, "... the sobering lesson for Pakistanis is that some of the most dreadful acts of violence that we are seeing on the streets today can be caused with minimal expenditure, especially given the ease of access to explosives in the country."

The wide-scale availability of explosives is traceable to a large population of trained bomb-makers, their craft a legacy of the long Afghan war when the US and Pakistan were anti-Soviet allies of the Taliban. Some observers think Musharraf, had he meant his anti-terror rhetoric, could have achieved much by dismantling the bomb-makers' network.

Most Pakistanis agree much more needs to be done for a true and lasting solution to the problem of terrorism in the tribal belt. Zardari speaks for them when he says, "The key to improving security there (in the FATA) is not to make citizens in Pakistan's tribal areas feel like second-rate citizens kept under lock and key, caught between the threats of violence from militants and the military." He adds, "While immediate steps must be taken to hunt down identified terrorists, the long-term solution to extremism lies in respecting the will of the people and in providing them with a means of livelihood at every level - food, clothing, shelter, jobs and education. By talking to and respecting our people, we will be able to isolate the extremists and terrorists."

The question is whether the two A's - America and the Army - will allow such a course of action.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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