Cross-border action breaks international law, will only push terrorists deeper into Afghanistan and may make neighbours retaliate.
Karachi: It was good while it lasted, but it was too good to last for too long. The complacency has ended as we see terrorists still striking nationally. The official reaction has been swift and furious. But swift and furious do not often add up to effective. The top soldier has vowed to avenge terrorism. Top analysts have penned articles on how to do so. But talk of avenging terrorism is troubling, for it often implies anger and disregard for the rules.
Predictably, many immediate reactions have shown such disregard and ineffectiveness. Cross-border action breaks international law, will only push terrorists deeper into Afghanistan and may make neighbours retaliate. Sealing official borders disrupts innocent civilians’ lives and trade without deterring terrorists who may use other paths. Military courts are ineffective and discourage judicial reform. Evicting Afghan refugees breaks refugee law and apes Donald Trump’s mean actions.
Seeking justice is a more apt goal. It implies respecting law, using both military and diplomatic means, and reviewing our own follies. In 2006, terrorism’s hubs lay in plain sight within Pakistan’s borders but we dithered as the Army, ruling then, developed the same compulsions that stop politicians from targeting terrorists. Increasing insecurity hastened democracy’s return in 2008 which transferred the Army’s national (but not regional) compulsions to politicians. This allowed it to start meaningful actions against terrorists, leading to the seemingly very potent Zarb-i-Azb.
By 2016, we had almost perfected the art of having our cake and eating it too: protecting ourselves against major terrorism without curbing our regional aims. But 2017 has broken this myth and shown that blowback is inevitable. Now we are upset and puzzled even though it was inevitable.
What do we do now? We can try to secure soft targets. But terrorists will still find places where desperate suicide bombers can cause fatalities that spread chaos. We can aim to choke the transmission routes and facilitators. Most effective is eliminating hubs. But they lie across the border now. Firing at them may cause initial loss, but nimble-footed terrorists will soon regroup far enough from the border to be safe. We can wade deeper into alien territory chasing them. But that is risky. Afghan forces may attack us. More likely, terrorists may ambush us in areas alien to us but familiar to them. It is also against international law even in retaliation for cross-border attacks.
We can demand from the hosts to clamp down on these groups. But this involves states we have gripes with — Afghanistan, US and even India. We have been stone-walling their similar demands for years under different pretexts: provide better proof, we are busy with our own war, why should we fight your wars, we have already cleared terrorists from our soil; or these are not terrorists but freedom fighters. At best, they will repeat these pretexts back to us and demand reciprocity. At worst, even that may not be enough to gain cooperation.
But this thought must not deter Pakistan from reviewing its regional policies. Basing its policies on principles, laws and logic alone will produce best long-term results whatever the policies of others. In Afghanistan, Pakistan pursues a place for the Afghan Taliban in the political set-up, despite years of efforts not even getting peace talks started earnestly. Chances that they will start now are remote, and that they will succeed and produce a lasting and functional governing coalition which secures Pakistani interests are almost zero. Pakistan should instead focus on working with others to eliminate the Afghan Taliban militarily, by choking their supplies, eliminating their leaders and working to develop good relations with whoever rules Afghanistan, as does China.
In Kashmir, we argue it is not terrorism but a freedom struggle. This mixes goals with means. Freedom is a goal and terrorism one means to it. One can be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist if one kills civilians in pursuing freedom. Terrorism cannot be justified despite Indian state terrorism. Freedom fighters could justify non-terrorist militancy, i.e., targeting only armed forces, as a last resort. But it is wrong for a state to support even that even in a disputed area. We must only support peaceful means in Kashmir and encourage local groups to pursue only them.
We say we no longer support militants in Afghanistan and India. But outsiders and credible local media sources doubt this. Perhaps, it is fringe spy elements and not the state supporting them. But Pakistan must take tangible steps that remove all doubts on this count, including muzzling militant groups operating openly. Only such a basic rethink will secure Pakistan. Otherwise, gains against terrorists will again be temporary. The current uptick will likely subside soon. But future upticks may keep coming.
By arrangement with Dawn