By Afrasiab Khattak
Building on the theme of “cleaning our house”, Khawaja Asif, Foreign Minister of Pakistan, has now publicly said that Hafiz Saeed and Haqqanis are not assets but liabilities and the country needs time to get rid of them. Addressing a function in the US earlier this week, Khawaja Asif reminded his American hosts, who now criticize Pakistan for not effectively dealing with terrorism, that in the past, they themselves once supported the same elements.
It’s an important departure from the past position, particularly in regard to the Haqqani network. Instead of denying its existence in Pakistan, our Foreign Minister is now asking for time to get rid of the liability (which used to be regarded as an “asset” at one stage). Khawaja Asif was right in reminding Americans about their patronage of Haqqanis along with other elements known as the Afghan Mujahideen during the Afghan war in 1980s. Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is a different story altogether as it has only recently increased its footprint in fighting inside Afghanistan. It was originally created to deal with the Indian front.
Bringing the focus back to this theme on the part of Khawaja Asif is interesting because the patrons of these liabilities had done everything to make sure that issues like these do not figure in political discourse in Pakistan and political debates remain confined only to Panama Leaks (that also to the extent of Nawaz Sharif’s or his family’s involvement in it). The charade of accountability is meant not only to politically demolish a Prime Minister (now former) who wants to normalize relations with the neighboring countries but it is also aimed at keeping the real issues like extremism and terrorism out of political discourse. If one looks at the newspaper headlines or TV talk shows of the last few years, this effort has been by and large successful.
It’s quite rare that political analysts would raise questions about implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP). Approved by an APC in December 2014 for elimination of extremism and terrorism, extremist violence was declared to be an existential threat for the country on that occasion. However, this post-APS Peshawar massacre narrative could not exist alongside the policy of making a distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists. It was gradually pushed out of the political discourse of the country by spicier material presented in the name of accountability. We have witnessed the fact that Panama and Iqama have successfully stolen the show on media.
The constant forgiving and ignoring of terrorists is not something new. We have been here before. After all, the “good Taliban” were able to survive the “enlightened moderation” of General Pervez Musharraf after 9/11. The deep state is quite experienced in handling media when it comes to shaping the national narrative in general and narrative on extremist militancy in particular. For some “defense analysts”, it is a full time job.
So how is it that the question of “Jihadist assets” turning into “liabilities” has broken out into public discourse of the country during the crusade on Panama and Iqama? It is obviously the development on international front that has forced the country’s political leadership to address the issue of extremist militancy in the country. President Donald Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the declaration of BRIC’s summit has reminded Pakistani leadership that the fallout of the extremist militancy isn’t just an internal problem as it threatens peace in the entire region and the world at large. Most of the other countries, including some of Pakistan’s best friends, wouldn’t put up with the theory and practice of “good terrorists” anymore. The country is faced with a stark choice. It has to either get rid of these liabilities or face complete isolation.
There have been questions about the position of political parties on extremist militancy. Some of the major political parties were complicit in denying the existence of this problem in Pakistan for quite some time. Most of the rightist political parties used to say that fighting against terrorism isn’t Pakistan’s war although thousands of Pakistanis were killed by terrorists. It was only after massacre of children in APS Peshawar that NAP was approved by an All Parties Conference. Even after that, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has not been consistent on the question of defeating extremism and terrorism. Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) was also reluctant in taking determined and effective action against extremist militancy in Punjab. Some of its provincial ministers were known for flirting with militants for garnering votes during elections. But now it seems to have realized that the country can’t afford to ignore this problem in its own interest. The Ministry of Interior has taken a bold step in the right direction by writing a letter to Election Commission opposing registration of the mainstreamed militant outfits masquerading as political parties. This has punctured and exposed the effort for projecting the liability as an asset yet again under the garb of peaceful political parties.
Khawaja Asif is asking the world for time to overcome the challenge of extremist militancy. However, what Pakistan actually requires is the political will to wrap up the Jihadist project started in 1980s. There is no doubt about the valiant sacrifices by the people of Pakistan and rank and file of the security forces in fighting this menace. But the state (or its effective part) has been reluctant to address the root causes of this problem. For example, there is zero progress in purging curricula of hate materials. So much so that some reform introduced in syllabus in Pakhtunkhwa province by the previous government was brazenly reversed by the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) dominated government (led by PTI). Religious seminaries remain unreformed and are still producing huge numbers of brainwashed youth every year. Support for Afghan Taliban isn’t possible without some sort of Talibanization on local level. FATA remains unintegrated in the state system. Banned outfits publicly operate and collect funds for militant activities. COAS General Bajwa is on the dot when he says that Jihad is a state function. But this position will become meaningful only when Jihadist activities of the non-state actors are criminalized and stopped inside Pakistan.
We have to realize that implementing NAP even after some delay would be serving the best interest of the country. It wouldn’t amount to “doing more” on the diktat of others.
(The author Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)