With the carnage of Quetta and Swat in perspective, a question to ponder over is: at a time when the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, why is Pakistan setting off? At a juncture, when elections are just around the corner, why has Tahirul Qadri decided to launch a long march? Most importantly, what has caused Pakistan’s military to change its threat perception after more than a decade fighting the war on terror?
There are two prevalent views on what will happen in Pakistan once the US withdraws from Afghanistan. These two differing outlooks complicate the politics of the nation and will very well define its future course.
Two Schools Of Thought
One of these schools proclaims that once NATO forces pull out, the motivation for Afghan Taliban will wither away, and things will move back to normal. The same holds true for the Pakistani and Punjabi Taliban residing in FATA and other parts of Pakistan. This has been a key position of nationalists and conservative elements (Salafi and Deobandi) in Pakistan. Political parties such as the Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has consistently favored a political solution to the Afghan quagmire that has spilled over into the country. This approach and conceptualization to Pakistan’s present political, economic and security challenges also a hold that the threat Pakistan faces is primarily external that desires to trigger a civil war with in the country.
The other school believes that once NATO troops depart from Afghanistan, Islamist forces will get stronger, and this will reinforce similar elements on the Pakistan side of the border. These groups include TTP and other loosely affiliated sectarian militants, including Indian-focused jihadists. This stance is popular among the liberal elements and ethnic minorities of Pakistan that have repeatedly felt the brunt of deadly and brutal extremist onslaught. Just like the US, India, and Afghanistan, this construct stipulates the threat Pakistan is facing mostly internal not external.
Afghan Reconciliation And Pakistan’s Threat Perception
While Afghanistan reconciliation is in the works, NATO efforts are also underway to counter the risk posed by Pakistan-based extremists to the region and beyond. For these efforts to work, however, has required the acquiescence of Pakistan’s military. In this regard, US has carried out a long campaign convincing the nation the danger it faces is not from outside, but from elements within the country that also targeting NATO forces in Afghanistan. The unrelenting lobbying has now produced results, with Pakistan assured of its role in the Afghan reconciliation, and Pakistan-India ties normalizing, its military announced a change in its threat perception. Barely a week later, however, Pakistan-India tensions are on the rise due to incidents on the LOC.
Coincidentally, shift in Pakistan’s threat perception is accompanied by an increase in drone strikes in FATA against both good and bad Taliban. Another evidence of the policy shift was the elimination of Mullah Nazir for which, other than the customary, there was no strong reaction from the Pakistan’s side. During his meeting with Karzai in Washington, President Obama stated that there is growing recognition of the risk posed by the extremists in Pakistan. Obviously, the extremists sense this transformation and will attempt to preempt it. The upsurge of deadly attacks across Pakistan, especially in Peshawar, Swat and Quetta, appear to be a part of this. Far from public awareness and media attention, a dangerous stage in Pakistan’s history may have commenced.
Pakistan’s Politics And Role In The War On Terror
With the war on terror transitioning to a smarter and economical phase, President Obama also declared recently the Afghan dilemma could not be resolved without Pakistan’s cooperation. One cannot overlook the link between the next phase in Afghanistan and who comes to power in Pakistan.
The design of Tahirul Qadri’s long march may be to circumvent the nationalists from significantly impacting the politics of Pakistan after the elections. In PoliTact’s assessment, a coalition of nationalist and conservative Islamic elements, otherwise, is highly probable in the coming elections. These forces are strongly opposed to Pakistan’s involvement in the war against terror and drone strikes. Qadri’s long march could change this scenario and move the election results towards an alliance of liberal and moderate Islamists (Sufi-Barelvi) as the country takes on the groups posing the internal threat.
The thrust of this maneuver may have been to prevent an Egypt like scenario playing out in nuclear-armed Pakistan. In Egypt, and in other Arab Spring impacted countries, it is feared that the extreme Islamists will eventually outmaneuver the moderate Islamists to take on the helms of power, the ultimate nightmare for the security perception of Israel. The lesson from Egypt is once such elements get a hold of power, it is extremely difficult to dislodge them. The Gulf States are also weary of Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to export Arab Spring to their countries. The risk of such a scenario playing out in Pakistan is too high to be ignored.
Consider, for example, the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) traveled to Egypt in June 2011 for a four-day visit at the invitation of the chief of Ikhwannul Muslimoon, Dr. Muhammad Badei. According to media reports, both sides agreed to closer cooperation between Islamic movements in different parts of the world. Such linkages and contacts are probably being closely watched.
For a long-time, Western policies have been driven by the threat of Islamists taking over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Moreover, if Pakistan was to distance itself from the war on terror, NATO’s emerging strategy would be endangered at a delicate stage; when the alliance is eager to exit Afghanistan. In a nutshell, as NATO withdraws, it wants Pakistan to take on the fight against extremist and militant elements with in the country. Without political and public consensus, however, this scenario can lead to increased polarization and towards a dreadful and deadly prospect of a civil war.