The price of denial
The year, 2017, turned out to be quite tumultuous in terms of political events in Pakistan. The new year did not start on an encouraging note either. Donald Trump’s first tweet in 2018 was about Pakistan. He tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
One can say that this was not unexpected. In August 2017, President Trump had warned Pakistan. He had said: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond… Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Trump’s tweet about Pakistan, that too his first tweet in 2018, set alarm bells ringing across the country. But those at the helm of affairs in Pakistan did not react to Trump’s tweet with as much pomp as some anti-American sections in the media would have wanted them to – this was a good sign.
A few days after Trump’s tweet, the United States of America suspended its security assistance to Pakistan until and unless it proved its commitment to fight terrorist groups in the region. According to reports, it was not a permanent cut-off but a “condition and issue-based approach”.
It is not the first time that the US has warned Pakistan to stop supporting the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban; previous US administrations have done the same. While these demands are not new, there is a sense of uncertainty given that one is not sure what the Trump administration may do. Keeping in mind his speech in August and now his tweet, there were talks of more drone strikes. The possibility of a unilateral strike was not being ruled out either. Some theories were too alarmist, while others were more pragmatic. Some of these theories went even as far as to say that there would be strikes on settled areas in Pakistan, such as Quetta, and maybe even in Punjab. Those talking about Punjab were of the view that the US may target the Lashkar-e-Toiba offices and/or leadership. But others thought this was a bit far-fetched, and that the only reason for the US outrage is the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, not the LeT.
Yesterday, a report in Daily Times by Marvi Sirmed confirmed this to some extent. It said: “Sources in the Foreign Office indicated that the US demand of taking action against groups like LeT/JuD, Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network had now been reduced to just one of these groups. One source at senior level confirmed that the State Department had struck off LeT/JuD and Afghan Taliban from the earlier list of demands for action.”
A recent statement from the Pentagon spokesperson about resumption of security aid seems to say the same in a way. Colonel Rob Manning told reporters that US expectations are straightforward – “Taliban and Haqqani leadership and attack planners should no longer be able to find safe haven or conduct operations from Pakistani soil.” This is not that different from what Trump had said back in August. Pakistan is treading carefully and engaging in backchannel talks with the US.
There are those who think Pakistan should not stop supporting the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban because the US will leave one day but we will always continue to share our borders with Afghanistan. In order to curtail Indian influence in Afghanistan, we engage in this so-called ‘strategic depth’ policy that has led to chaos in our own country and deaths of thousands of Pakistanis. Our flawed policies have only damaged us, our own people. It is election year in Pakistan and we cannot afford further instability. Already the political spectrum is rife with rumours of whether elections would take place on time or not. The Balochistan assembly is facing a crisis; there are speculations that Imran Khan’s party is considering dissolving the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly before the Senate elections and its members may even resign from the National Assembly. Rumours of a ‘technocratic set-up’ are doing the rounds, once again. Political uncertainty is at an all-time high. But if elections do take place this year and a new government is formed, our military and civilian leadership must review this policy of supporting religio-militant organizations.
The US state department also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for “severe violations of religious freedom” last week. There is no denying that there is indeed lack of religious freedom in the country; January is a stark reminder of our lack of religious freedoms. Salmaan Taseer, the former Punjab governor, was assassinated seven years ago on January 4 by his own bodyguard because he took a stand for a Christian woman accused of alleged blasphemy. The recent Faizabad dharna (sit-in) was another testament to the fact that religious goons can get away with anything in this ‘land of the pure’. On top of it, almost all our political parties are trying to woo the religious Right as elections come closer. But it does not seem as if the US administration placed Pakistan on this watch list out of any real goodwill towards the persecuted minorities; it is only another of its pressure tactics.
While the US may have its political reasons to do this, we Pakistanis and our leadership must introspect. Rising extremism in Pakistan has led to our religious freedoms being snatched away, slowly but surely. Thus, it was shocking to see the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief, Imran Khan, saying in a recent interview that extremism is a small/minor issue (” bohot chhota sa masla“) in Pakistan. Khan and other political parties need to be reminded that extremism is certainly not a minor issue in a country where a sitting governor can be shot to death for raising his voice for the persecuted minorities and another federal minister assassinated within a span of two months for the same reason. Extremism is not a minor issue when religious parties can pressurize the government so much that the federal law minister has to step down and the government bends over backwards to give in to all their outrageous demands. Extremism is not a minor issue when one has to be cautious while engaging in a religious debate even at a private gathering. Yes, there are many other pressing issues in Pakistan – from education to healthcare to inflation – but one cannot sweep religious extremism under the rug. It will take decades to reverse this extremist wave but we can only do so if we think it is a huge issue rather than making light of it. Living in denial will do us no good; it is time to take the bull by the horns.