The missile strike was just a reminder that the coalition forces would use such force in hot pursuit of the Taliban and against groups and individuals in the tribal belt who are suspected of giving sanctuary to the Taliban
The killing of 82 Pakistanis in a religious seminary in Bajaur agency is a tragedy considering that the government despite its claim of having taken out militants has not been able to prove it yet. Until now, therefore, it is the government’s word against that of local residents, and evidence points to the veracity of the latter’s version than the government’s.
For many others who might know the history and people of this region on our political periphery, it is sad to reflect how our state and the present government have gradually pushed the tribesmen into taking up arms.
Since we tend to overlook or forget lessons of history, let me bring to your notice the role Khan of Bajaur and his people played in countering the intrigues, military incursions and intervention of the Afghan government in September 1961. S. Fida Yunis, one of the most prominent writers and historians, who has very methodically collected and published about the border regions and Afghanistan, narrates the events of Afghanistan’s incursions into Dir and Bajaur in support of ‘Pashtunistan’.
Sardar Daoud, then-prime minister of Afghanistan had been fixated on internationalising the Pashtunistan issue by showing to the great powers and to the UN that peoples of the tribal agencies wanted, and were struggling for, an independent Pashtunistan. To make his claims credible, he raised a tribal lashkar and mobilised large number of troops to Asmar and Chigha Sarai on the other side of the Bajaur agency to stir up trouble for Pakistan. He also sent thousands of Afghan troops disguised as local civilians and gave cash and weapons to the Khan of Jandol and Nawab of Dir who supported the Afghan moves.
A major encounter took place on September 23-24 between the Afghan lashkar and the local tribesmen led by Khan of Khar. The people of Bajaur inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Afghan lashkar, forcing it to retreat. The tribesmen also captured a good number of Afghan troops and handed them over to the Pakistan government. Interestingly, Safi and Mohmand tribes on the Afghan side of the border also fought against their own troops to support the people of Bajaur and their choice for Pakistan. That was the end of Afghanistan’s military option for securing an independent ‘Pashtunistan’.
Now, it is exactly in the same region that some mysterious force has struck the local people with missiles, flattening the seminary and destroying the lives of its teachers and students. The tragedy has left most Pakistanis in shock and disbelief. They wonder why the government would resort to such a method when it has other alternative ways and means of dealing with the militants; and when it changed tactics in Waziristan by signing a treaty with the estranged tribes, and was about to repeat the same in Bajaur in few days time. This is why the official claim that our forces have undertaken this heinous operation doesn’t find any takers in the serious circles of the country. The general perception within the country is that the US forces operating in Afghanistan have fired the missile with or without the concurrence of the Pakistan government. It is a repeat of a similar attack at Damadola village last year, using the same strategy, the same weapon platform and means of delivery.
Why then is the government taking responsibility for such a cruel attack against its own people? Politically it would be less damaging to take the blame than to acknowledge that it has left the area undefended, and that it cannot do anything against NATO and American forces. It is true that Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity to take on coalition forces operating in Afghanistan. We have taken a pragmatic course since 9/11 reversed our old Afghan policy and have, some would argue, rather too faithfully supported the US and coalition forces to defeat the Taliban for securing and stabilizing Afghanistan.
If it is true that American forces have attacked the seminary, which is increasingly becoming crystal clear, then what could be their reason for launching such a brutal act and one that would be politically embarrassing for the government of Pakistan? There are two possible explanations. First, our government has failed to sell the change in its policy of reconciliation with the militants in Waziristan. Many American commentators and policymakers have shown reservations about this policy and have been sceptical about the efficacy of peace accord with the tribal leaders. Rather, they see in it another u-turn, which they believe amounts to surrendering the border regions to the Pakistani tribal Taliban. Second, there is apparently a distrust of Pakistan’s policy and its long-term intentions about Afghanistan, particularly, the Pashtun-dominated regions. The Afghan and American leaders have repeatedly expressed this distrust in telling Pakistan openly and behind the scenes to do more to stop cross-border movement of Taliban fighters. Occasional praise for Pakistan’s pivotal role in defeating the Taliban and the acknowledgement of continual support to the coalition forces or the fact that we have maintained the largest concentration of forces in history along the Afghan border have failed to convince the coalition partners about the sincerity and seriousness of our efforts.
The missile strike was just a reminder that the coalition forces would use such force in hot pursuit of the Taliban and against groups and individuals in the tribal belt who are suspected of giving sanctuary to the Taliban or sending any support to them across the border.
Denying that American or NATO forces launched the missile attack may not give any political respite to the government. Nor will the self-denigrating confession that our forces have done it. In either case, it is a failure of our policy towards Afghanistan, and more importantly towards the peoples of our western borderlands. It might be after counting too many young Americans dead and hundreds of billions of dollars wasted that American government and its neo-conservative strategists realise the futility of war as the only means of restoring peace, stability and unity of divided and fractious societies.
Pakistan took the right step in seeking reconciliation with the tribes in Waziristan with the objective of isolating the militants. It should do the same in Bajaur as quickly as it can. Americans will sooner than later also realise that massacres, indiscriminate bombings, tortures and confinement of suspects in secret prisons would remove it further from its avowed goal of state and nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences