Dancing with Dictators: Anti-Terrorism Campaign Missing the BeatSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The arrest of a key Al Qaeda leader in Karachi, Pakistan, and some suspected operatives outside of Buffalo, NY in mid-September have helped the Bush administration blunt criticism that the war against terrorism is not progressing well. With these arrests, the trail in Afghanistan and Pakistan is expected to heat up. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the top Al Qaeda men picked up in Karachi, is now in US custody. He is a valuable quarry for the interrogators. If he chooses to talk, we could be nearing another round of spectacular arrests. President Bush could then argue that he is far from distracted from his campaign against terrorism. That he would be encouraged to pursue his objectives of regime change in Iraq seems almost certain.
The latest high-profile arrests in Karachi and elsewhere have caused a ripple of excitement in Pakistan as well. President Bush applauded these arrests, which means kudos for the beleaguered and autocratic Musharraf government. It also means that in concert with the CIA, the authorities in Pakistan will intensify their search for the remaining Al Qaeda operatives and leaders hiding in the country. At the same time, Al Qaeda could order its men to think of better ways of blending into Pakistan's major cities and farmlands. Could this mean that we would have to wait a little longer to hear the next success involving the arrest of Al Qaeda men? Probably.
Even if the United States and its allies were to pick up one Al Qaeda terrorist after another, the campaign against terrorism will prove both long and frustrating. Indeed, the power of terrorists and their supporters will remain largely unchallenged as long as Pakistan and Afghanistan are not effectively (a) cleansed of what is a gargantuan ideological apparatus and (b) put firmly on rails to democracy. Thus far, we haven't seen any progress in this direction, at least in Pakistan. Hence there is a growing pessimism among thinking Pakistanis about the outcome of President Bush‘s war against terrorism. In Afghanistan too, alienation is on the upsurge.
Most Pakistanis are depressed to see how the post -9/11 situation has impacted their country. Emboldened by US backing, General Musharrf, the military dictator, has now started hammering two mainstream political parties. He has unilaterally amended the constitution, appointed himself the country‘s president and its army chief for the next five years and given the military an overarching role in the national affairs. On the other hand, he has also taken on the country‘s extremist religious groups, much to the pleasure of his supporters in the Bush administration. The latter is seen as his contribution to the US-led campaign against terrorism. His actions, largely ignored by the United States, will no doubt add to political instability in Pakistan. A politically unstable Pakistan would certainly be a setback for the campaign against terrorism. Clearly, the United States has short-term objectives in Pakistan. If it were genuinely concerned with the restoration and strengthening of democracy, it would have restrained General Musharraf, who is often referred to by the US officials as the most dependable ally.
In the past, American leaders have argued that it is much better to work with dictators than unstable democracies in the Third World. The same mindset lingers on. The New York Times calls this phenomenon dancing with dictators. “Like his predecessors, President Bush is falling for the illusion that tyrants make great allies. If he is not careful, The United States will be mopping up for years from the inevitable foreign policy disasters that come of befriending autocrats who maintain a stranglehold on their own people.” We find it odd to see the United States prop up dictators in poor countries as opposed to its support for democracy in Germany and Japan after World War II.
After initial misgivings, most Pakistanis supported General Musharraf‘s decision to join the US-led coalition against terrorism. Contrary to the perception here in the United States, they have opted for this road because of their opposition to religious extremism. They dreaded the Talbanization of their society. Deep down, however, they knew that both the United States and General Musharraf were bound together by a marriage of convenience. One was looking for legitimacy and an end to international alienation; the other for bases and logistical support for launching strike against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This is revisiting the mid-80s, when a similar military dictator ruled Pakistan and was the recipient of enthusiastic US support. General Musharraf is different in that he shares America's disgust for the radical Islamists. In the 80s, General Ziaul Haq helped trigger a revivalist Islamic fervor, a force that the Americans found handy for against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Ironically, the blank checks Washington wrote to General Ziaul Haq then helped nurture what later became Al Qaeda.
What hurts most people in Pakistan is the manipulative and transient role of the United States. Ignoring people and befriending repressive regimes is a recipe for disaster especially in present times when Muslim societies are challenged by powerful religious groups that seek to replace a corrupt and dictatorial ruling elite. There are three specific dangers in Pakistan at this point in time, dangers that can impede the anti-terrorism campaign.
Most analysts agree that Pakistan has now become a regrouping center for fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban hands. Al Qaeda has blended into Pakistan‘s major cities, while some Taliban leaders are said to have found refuge along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This is happening against the backdrop of an alliance among Pakistan‘s powerful religious groups and parties, some of which have links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And, most importantly, the 10,000 madrassa or seminaries that provided training to Taliban soldiers are still in existence. One year later, the speed of United States‘ military operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has indeed surprised the world. Realistically speaking, however, this victory has only disrupted these groups. The bigger battle in what is regarded as the War of Ideas is yet to come. The elimination of these 10,000 seminaries as a worthy objective of war against terrorism is nowhere in sight. This is the first danger. Some people believe that a failure in this regard is in fact a failure in addressing terrorism in its broader and deeper dimensions. Are the Saudis still sending in their petro-dollars to underwrite these religious schools? And if they aren‘t, can this be verified? It is one thing to detect this money when it is headed to the US or Europe. It is another if it arrives through clandestine channels into a poor country. So the question of whether the Global Terror University has shut its campus in Afghanistan and Pakistan draws a blank.
Doesn‘t US policy seem politically naïve and morally obtuse in my part of the world? General Musharraf faces life threats from the extremists. He does not appear in public. He has to look over his shoulder wherever he goes. With the extremists‘ infrastructure largely intact in Pakistan, we can expect a showdown sooner rather than later. Whatever the nature of US support, he cannot risk confrontation with the religious right. Pakistanis are generally apprehensive about this, for they recognize the extent and influence of the militant Islamists. The second danger is the growing political instability that has been engendered by General Musharraf‘s quest for the perpetuation of his rule. Thus far, Pakistan‘s political parties have steered clear of the religious groups. We cannot rule out their joining of hands in ousting the military dictator. This would be catastrophic in terms of Pakistan‘s role against terrorism. The third danger is, of course, the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. All of these dangers can have serious ramifications for the current war against terrorism.
Now let‘s look at post-9/11 Afghanistan, especially the status of the War of Ideas. The military campaign remains open ended. Afghanistan is still a victim of warlordism. Pushtuns, being a majority ethnic group, feel largely alienated. The impression that the balance of power remains tilted in favor of smaller northern ethnic groups, who are disproportionately represented in the Karzai government, is widespread. The bombing of a marriage party by US war planes and the discovery of mass graves have angered the Pushtuns. Instability stalks the land. The assassination bid on President Karzai has had a dispiriting impact. In this daunting environment we see, at best, feeble attempts at nation building or state building. The United States is seeking now to build a national army out of ragtag ordinary Afghans. Instead of sending more weapons and Green Berets to train these men, how about sending in educators, doctors, agronomists, entrepreneurs and engineers? They could offer skills and resources to rebuild homes, businesses, schools, clinics. This is the only way to fight terrorist diasporas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sending experts to rebuild Afghanistan would also counter the perception in the region that the current war is a mandate for expanding the use of American power. A vigorous US involvement in reforming these two countries would do the job. In Pakistan's case, it is not so much the US money as the support for democratic people that would yield results. Regardless of the latest high-profile Al Qaeda arrests, what we are witnessing already is a tapering off of US economic and political commitment.
While military operation against the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is expected to continue with rigor, we have yet to see a vigorous move aimed at choking off Pakistan‘s labyrinthine seminaries, the birthplace of the Taliban. The international community is facing the realization that most terrorist acts across the world have had something to do with one or another fanatical labyrinth in Pakistan. And yet there are no remedial initiatives. Daniel Pipes argues in his Militant Islam Reaches America that, like it or not, the United States is now a party to the difficult task of modernizing Islam globally. He argues that this is the ultimate aim of the war against terrorism. Whether we accept his argument or not, there is an agreement that the schools that produced the despicable Taliban mindset ought to go. General Musharraf has ostensibly agreed to eliminate threats emanating from these seminaries. But is Washington monitoring progress in that regard? The prosecution of the war against extremism has a number of essential dimensions, including a spirited secular thrust in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Democracy can alone provide the right environment for the strengthening and success of a tolerant culture.
For a nation that loves freedom and democracy, the United States has an unsavory reputation of supporting dictators. Whatever civil society exists in Muslim countries, the United States has failed to make a lasting connection with it.
Javed Nazir is the visiting Howard R. Marsh Professor of journalism (Communication Studies), an International Institute Sponsored research scholar. He is the former editor of The Frontier Post, an English-language newspaper published in Peshawar, Pakistan.