The present turmoil began from Syria and from the desire of a range of countries, western and Arab and including Turkey, to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. By aiding the opposition to Assad they helped fuel the fires of civil war in Syria and created a vacuum out of which arose the demon now casting its terror shadow far and wide: Islamic State or Daesh.
And those countries obsessed by Assad are still not getting it. Instead of focusing on Daesh they keep being distracted by Assad. This helps Daesh which has displayed an astonishing ability to hit a wide array of targets: from bringing down a Russian airliner over the Sinai and carrying out suicide bombings at a Hezbollah neighbourhood in Beirut to the most breathtaking atrocity of all, the attacks in Paris.
Our Arab friends are the most confused. The Saudis see only Assad. For them everything else comes afterwards. Iran also weighs on their minds and to add to their woes they find themselves stuck in Yemen where the civil war is dragging on without leading to a decisive outcome.
The Americans are confused too, their attention and concern divided between Daesh and Assad. Whatever the nature of the Assad regime – or what remains of that regime because Daesh controls large stretches of the country – it represents the last symbol of authority in a chaotic situation. Get rid of Assad and there’s no knowing where that will lead.
Britain, France and the United States – with no small help from Qatar – have already tried their hands at regime change in Libya and we know what those efforts have yielded: a state which no longer looks like a state. Thriving on turmoil, Daesh now has a presence in Libya. The US and its allies have tried to do a Libya on Syria and would have succeeded if Assad had not held on…with powerful backing from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
Vladimir Putin is trying to instil some sense into the west, saying that while a political transition is a necessity it should wait as long as Deash is not tackled. Putin tried to forge a common front with the Saudis over this but the Saudis have no time for this reasoning. They want Assad to go, regardless of what this entails. In their eyes apart from his other sins, he is an Alawite Shia, and is friends with Iran and is supported by the Shiite Hezbollah, all of which adds up to unforgivable heresy.
Israel’s enemies are also Iran, Hezbollah and Assad – which makes for a nice convergence of interests between them and the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques. Sometimes it is hard to decide whether the world of Islam should fear itself more or its enemies.
The only way to deal with Daesh is to focus on it and put Assad on the backburner. There will be time enough for a post-Assad transition when the threat from Daesh is eliminated. But can the western powers, especially the Americans, agree on this? My guess is they can’t. Agreeing to this approach means agreeing to the Russian and Iranian viewpoints and that would be too much humble pie for the Americans to swallow.
Pakistan can only look on from a distance. We are not directly involved in all this and it is not for us to give unsolicited advice. But we are concerned with that other centre of turmoil and instability, Afghanistan, because we are next to it and have had our fingers burned by Afghanistan in the past and may yet experience something like that again before peace returns to that troubled land.
The American intervention was a disaster for us because it pushed the Taliban onto our side of the border. And because Pakistan had sided with the Americans – our commanding generals thinking that was in our best interests, and in their best interest as well – the Taliban promptly declared war on Pakistan and quickly turned it into the world’s biggest terrorist battlefield. This situation was reversed, and the tide of violence and terrorism checked, only when the army declared war on the Pakistani Taliban.
But the danger has not passed. Afghanistan remains unsettled and the Taliban remain the most powerful force in the country. They haven’t withstood the American invasion for 13-14 years to lay down their arms now and go home. Their war aim is not compromise. It is to rule Afghanistan again.
It is a measure of how far the Americans have come that they now accept the Taliban as a party to a negotiated settlement. This is the logic of war. That the Taliban withstood the American is why they are being taken seriously, which is all the more reason for Pakistan not to over-estimate the extent of its influence over the Taliban. Pakistan can be a facilitator of sorts. But it can deliver nothing concrete, nor should it try anything along those lines. The Afghan situation will settle according to its own dynamics.
The worst thing to do in Afghanistan is to take sides. It achieves nothing, does not even achieve leverage, and makes an enemy of everyone by feeding Afghan prejudices.
We should look to our own house. We can do nothing for Syria. We can do little for Afghanistan. But we have an obligation to ourselves to eliminate the last traces of terrorism and violence from our land and work to make this a better country.
The days of so-called ‘jihad’ are over. We have to get this into our addled minds. Hafiz Saeed can be made chief relief commissioner, he can even be given an official position, but the kind of stuff at which he specialised is no longer affordable. As for Maulana Aziz of Lal Masjid…he and his followers triggered a full-fledged army assault in the heart of the capital. And he is trying to stage a comeback. Would such a person with his track record be allowed this freedom in any other country? Does the civilian administration also have some responsibility or must the army do everything?
Many of us are still living in the past. This is not Gen Zia’s era or Gen Musharraf’s. Time has moved on and compared to Daesh Al-Qaeda and what it stood for look dated. In those much simpler times the theatre of ‘jihad’ was only one – Pakistan’s western borderlands and Afghanistan. Now the theatre of violence stretches from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria and Libya. And Europe is feeling the effects of this upsurge in the form of the tidal waves of refugees washing on its shores.
That Pakistan has been able to keep itself relatively secure in the midst of all this upheaval is due largely to the decisions and actions of its armed forces. Many of Pakistan’s previous troubles were because of faulty decisions taken by the military. But it is no small mercy that in this new era of disorder, the military, far from repeating past follies, has turned a page and is taking the correct decisions.
Leadership should really have come from the civilians. But since, unfortunately, they shirked the responsibility the challenge was taken up by others.
The thing to remember: Pakistan cannot afford a one-step forward and two-steps back approach. It cannot afford any backsliding from the course adopted by the military. How to ensure continuity so that Pakistan remains safe and secure amidst the turmoil racking the world of Islam? This today is the nation’s foremost problem.