Carlotta Gall in her recent article in The New York Times, ‘Pakistan’s Hand in the Rise of International Jihad’ wrote in detail about Pakistan’s (alleged) role in de-stabilising Afghanistan and then talked about Pakistan’s facilitation in the rise of the Islamic State. While many countries all around the world are trying to tackle the problem of terrorist extremism, we can’t possibly discuss the activities of a country in isolation of the regional dynamics, historical realities, and solely place the responsibility on its shoulders. This in no way is an endorsement of the Pakistani government’s, military’s or intelligence agencies’ policies, but rather a criticism on the narrow framework that more often than not is adopted to analyse the so-called Pakistani conundrum.
When we talk about terrorism in the region, we often start our stories by accusing Pakistan of playing a double game or harbouring terrorists in its territory. In this fast paced tech savvy world where we receive new pieces of information by the second, it is hard to keep a track of the beginning. Except for those who suffer at the hands of it, which in this case are people of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Terrorists and terrorism doesn’t exist in vacuum and when it is analysed out of context, we risk being pigeonholed and conforming to stereotypes. The United States of America actively pursued the policy of and funneled millions (if not billions) of dollars supporting the Taliban and other so-called freedom fighters to defeat Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1970s. In retrospect, many experts contend that Pakistan should not have collaborated with the US and made itself susceptible to the years of instability that followed. We would have at least expected some debate on the issue had the civilian government been in power at that time. Alas, the US only had to get a military dictator on board with its plan for the region.
After the defeat of Soviet Union, the United States applauded the efforts of the freedom fighters and shifting its focus somewhere else, left the region. The incident of 9/11 turned the tables and the US was suddenly reminded of horrors of the unfinished business in Afghanistan. Waging the so-called War on Terror, with one stroke, the freedom fighters were turned into terrorists and US troops landed in Afghanistan to fight them. Fourteen years later, America is talking about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan while the Taliban control more territory than 2001 and the civilian casualties are at an all time high. Pakistan may have played its part to exacerbate the security problem in the region but if it all boils down to playing the blame game, then it might as well be argued that Pakistan learnt the dreadful art of interventionist foreign policies from one of the (supposed) biggest democracies in the world — the United States of America. Rhetoric aside, the lingering reality remains that regardless of whichever side of the Durand Line terrorism grew in the past, thousands of people on both sides died as a consequence of that.
It is also relevant to point out that before the 2003 Iraq invasion there was not even a singlereported case of suicide attack in the country. Since then, the number has risen to 1,892 attacks killing around 20,000 people. To drive the point home, let’s also consider the fact that there was no ISIL before 9/11 either. The US (along with the coalition forces), claiming to “defend the world from grave danger” by capturing the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, launched a military operation. While no such weapons were ever found, they did manage to topple off the government of the military dictator Saddam Hussein. However, in the absence of a clear strategy and plan for the post-Saddam Iraq, the disastrous policies that were adopted by the Coalition Provisional Authority made the country’s soil ripe for instability and insurgency. The power vacuum in Iraq became the breeding ground for ISIS that later on extended its operations to Syria and then to the rest of the world.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan at Munich Security Conference 2015, blaming the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq for the rise of the Islamic State, said that “the wholesale disbandment of the security forces, among other measures poured hundreds of thousands of trained and disgruntled soldiers and policemen onto the streets” of Iraq. There have been numerous sources that have confirmed that many fighters of ISIS consist of members of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, and that several of its top lieutenants were officers and intelligence officials in the party.
The United States has approximately spent around 4.4 trillion dollars on the so-called War on Terror, yet looking at the existing mess in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan it seems like the world might be more dangerous than it was before. If the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan are the success stories then God forbid, we don’t want to imagine what failure looks like. It is true that terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State rely on a skewed version of religion (Islam) to draw and maintain its support. But it is an incomplete and misleading story if we selectively focus on the operations and the atrocities committed by these organisations without looking at the factors that led to their creation and their subsequent growth. If it is proven, then Pakistan must and should be held accountable for allowing its land to be used by terrorists against Afghanistan and other countries. However, these same principles of accountability should be extended to all countries that have extensive covert operations in conflict prone regions. Recent reports have revealed thatthe American-supplied vehicles and ammunition are being passed on from the US trained rebels in Syria to al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria. Terrorism, accountability and justice are topics worthy of detailed discussion and debate but it becomes a moot point (if not hypocritical) if we look at everything from the lens of ‘if we do it, it is okay, but if you do it, it is wrong’.
Pakistan’s paranoia of Indian power expansionism might pull it towards excessively intervening in Afghanistan but entire countries and regions bear scars from when America’s paranoia got the better of it. The striking difference remains that unlike the US, these countries share close borders with each other, need to co-exist, and can’t leave the region whenever their strategic focus changes.
If the world is facing the problem of terrorism, then we need to question ourselves why. If it is an ideological battle, then why does it necessarily have to be a violent one? What are the tools that are used by these factions to become so powerful enabling them to stand up against their governments and raise havoc in the world? Who does it benefit to turn every difference into a conflict? Or maybe one man’s terrorist is in fact another man’s freedom fighter.