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Defending the ‘geographical’ frontiers

Riaz Missen
The baton of command changing hands at General Headquarters (GHQ) has urged the commentators and analysts to highlight the challenges confronting the new army chief. The mixed legacy of the outgoing general, Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani,  whereby he endorsed the civilian supremacy over army but was also assertive on the freedom of choosing the time to act against FATA militants, is very much in the limelight.

The fear of Afghan instability in post-2014 scenario has turned the realist stock of strategist and the new chief has been courted loudly by the right-wing elements urging him to essentially win peace with local Taliban through talks rather than military offensive. There is nothing to be decided by the army chief alone. Ultimately, it is the civilian government which has to respond to varying nature of threats, arising out of socio-economic structure of the society (which is simultaneously sectarian as well as ethnic) and the strategic environment to chalk out a middle course.
The western media, while reviewing Kiyani’s tenure, has stuck to the line that Pakistan could not come up to the expectations of the US, which was spearheading the War on Terror, as for as playing it’s frontline state role was concerned.

For seven long years, including the extended tenure of Kiyani, Washington continued demanding more but only meeting a cold response.
In early 2010, the Obama administration passed “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act 2009” pledging $ 1.5 billion annual assistance to Islamabad in a hope that it will reciprocate and help it turn tables on militants in the areas around Durand Line but it could not secure any assent till monsoon came roaring in and flash floods displaced 20 million people across the country. 

But the US did revive its demand for all out military operation along the Durand Line after extended full-fledged help to the victims of natural disaster.

“What could be more appropriate time after the 33,000 surge forces had landed into Afghanistan in late 2009 and ready to wipe out militants on that side of the border,” the US Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff Mike Mullen, wondered as he shuttled between Washington and Islamabad urging Kiyani, who got 3-years extension in his tenure in October 2010, to move army into FATA but met only a cold logic, “We have our own time to choose”.

While Pakistan showed no willingness to accept and meet deadlines, the growing American frustrations ended up in Salala incident of November 2011 and finally closure of its airbases by Pakistan and suspension of every operational links with the NATO for seven months. Mistrust between Islamabad and Washington grew further after US unilateral military operation against Al-Qaeda chief, who was found and killed by US SEALs in Abbotabad in May 2012 at a walking distance from a military academy.
Actually, military’s experience with FATA had started long before the PPP-led regime came to power or Kiyani was promoted as army chief from his top position in the country’s spy agency. Pakistan’s frontline state role, which had qualified it for a $ 10 billion favor from the US, had required it to renounce, first of all, the militancy as a tool to advance political ends in the neighborhood and deny sanctuaries in FATA to the militants fleeing the haze of the War on Terror.

The US military strategists had relied heavily on Islamabad’s role in establishing a constitutional government in Afghanistan, after the overthrow of Taliban regime, and undertaking necessary rebuilding and rehabilitation work. What they had missed was Indian viewpoint on the War on Terror and its ability to divert Pakistan’s attention that it did through mobilizing and stationing its troops for one long year on its western borders following attacks on Indian Parliament.

The war hysteria, fuelled by religious right not only delayed military action in FATA but also, due to religious rights forming government in the-then NWFP after 2002 elections and its opposition role in Parliament as well. When Musharraf-led regime got a space to take on FATA, it was too late. Here came 2004 when US launched drone strikes inside FATA, as the only way to secure foreign armies from cross border attacks. The drone attacks continue to hit militants in the regions which the military has yet to clear off militants.
By the time General Kiyani took charge of the army chief, militants had become a force to be reckoned with. They moved into Swat, under the banner of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariah Muhammadi (TNSM) in October 2007 commanding a prompt reaction from the Army but no significant breakthrough could be made for 2 years of battle. The civilian government sealed an agreement with the militants to put the region under Shariah rule. However, the TNSM backed out due to President Zardari’s insisting on the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in Swat.

Military launched Operation Rah-e-Raast in May 2009; it was an all out assault which broke the backbone of the TNSM. The process did not stop and was later extended to other tribal agencies as well, where Tehrik-e-Taliban, patronized by Al-Qaeda and having cross border ties, particularly, with notorious Haqqani group, had established its rule of terror.

The drive against militancy remains half the way. Though army has suffered huge losses in the war against militants, whether to negotiate or fight, remains the prerogative to decide, not the army chief.

The PML-N, before taking up reins of power had believed Pakistan had been dragged into an American war, which had brought in the drones and suicide bombs. The best national interest, to the party’s leadership, had constituted pulling out of war as early as possible; it was in favor of ending drone attacks and starting peace negotiations with militants so as to get rid of suicide attacks.

While in power, the PML-N, shown interest in having negotiated settlement of militancy in FATA while it has shed its rhetoric over. At the same time, the regime doesn’t find an alternative means to fill its budgetary gaps and equip its military with modern weaponry except the US.
Pak-US relations are at the cross roads, indeed. The US is willing to renew its pledge for economic and military assistance but doesn’t want to see Pakistan as a reluctant partner.  The Enhanced Partnership Act offers hope for civilian control over army as well as reviving economy through multipurpose engagement through Strategic Dialogue.

The new army chief is the choice of the premier Nawaz Sharif. The government policy to deal with the militants will reflect in army’s strategy. No army chief can do wonders if the civilian government stands confused on a point (whether to act against militancy on the urge of US or to have its own policy to this end).

There are pressures on the PML-N government, from within and without, and there is still a lack of clear vision on its part as to how to get Pakistan free of unauthorized and illegitimate violent groups using sectarianism and ethnicity as their shields. As per the rule of the game, it is the only the civilian government which has to succeed or fail on the question of militancy.

Army, on its part, has to be efficient and effective; it has, for sure, to pass through massive re-organization drive given the changed nature of threat to the country’s existence; reorientation of jawans and officers constitute the focal point of reforms. Also, the army’s first and the foremost responsibility is to defend the territorial frontiers; if made free of ideological burdens, the handful militants will find no place under the sun to disturb the peace of the land anymore.