Army, elections and Taliban
Tuesday, May 07, 2013 – The question that army needs to answer is ‘Why militancy and extremism has raged out of control and carries the momentum that it carries today?’ Are appeasement, peace accords and reconciliation with the Taliban leadership not the policy tools which failed and didn’t work in the past? Didn’t its senior generals not embrace, hug and garland militant leaders that killed its soldiers? Are there no lessons that the army has learnt from the ‘failed peace accords with the militant Taliban’s’? Would we be facing the situation that we face today if these lessons were learnt?
For the past 13 years the military has cost the Pakistan economy over 40 billion dollars in fighting the war on terror. Yet all signs indicate that the political parties that don’t own the war on terror and who believe in following the tried, tested and failed ‘appeasement policy with Taliban’s’ may make it to the next assemblies. What would this mean for an army that has fought this war for over a decade and is now over stretched, over fatigued and widely deployed? What would it mean to its leadership that recently communicated to the political leadership of the country ‘to consider this war as its own’?
I am sure that the military leadership must have thought about the question ‘What if hard-line islamists emerge as victors in the elections?’ The Jamaat-e-Islami Chief Syed Munnawar has already called for the Army Chief not to own the war on terror. His party position explicitly states that ‘This is not our war’. The party is also critical about the ongoing military operations that it considers ‘is widening the gap between the army and the people’. Two other major political parties the PTI and PML(N) both also favor pursuing an appeasement policy towards Taliban’s.
This leaves people to wonder what will become of Pakistan if the hard-line islamists together with parties that have soft stance towards Taliban’s win the elections? After all, Hamas succeeded against all predictions in Palestine elections in 2006.MMA also emerged in Pakistan as a formidable political force in the elections held in 2002 forming government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. Besides pushing for the adoption of Sharia laws, we witnessed how these provincial governments worked to strengthening the hands of the extremists. Abolishing co-education system, bringing down and smashing the billboards carrying pictures of female models were only a couple of many pro-Taliban wishes they executed. Would they be any different when they come to power now?
The amount of blood that the militant Taliban’s have so far spilt it is strange that the chief of army staff still considers the laying down of the weapons by them as an option and a way forward for them to be accepted in the national fold; If this is not a considered army option why would the army chief make a mention of it during his speech on Yom-e Shuhadda. It is in the context of this part of army chief’s speech that one finds army already prepared to bandwagon with the political leadership of the parties that do not own the war on terror but which may together form the next government. Together this emerging political leadership and the army may try out once again extending an olive branch and executing an appeasement policy towards the Taliban’s. Having travelled the full circle why would the army choose to come back to the same point?
The military leadership knows that the hard core islamist militants will never surrender. They will have to be eliminated. If Taliban’s success and control over the war on terror can be attributed to a simple rule of engagement, ‘kill or be killed’, the army’s failure also lies in the unclear and confused objective it has pursued for more than a decade; Failed negotiations or inconsistent and limited militarily operations to eliminate the threat.
Predictably once again the preferred tool to seek an end to war on terror post elections seems to be ‘negotiations leading to peace accords’. Unfortunately we fail to learn from history. But this is not what bothers my mind because there is still one long week to go before the elections day and anything can happen. What disturbs my mind is what if Pakistan went up in flames on Election Day? A very sorry but a likely prediction. The Taliban’s have the evil mind as well as the operational capacity today to initiate a coordinated violent activity with large-scale repercussions on a single day. Something they may be forced to try out if their current strategy fails.
They have already cornered and sidelined the secular parties by instilling fear in their leadership. But for all the fear that they may have instilled in the secular parties the good news is that these parties are still determined and adamant to run for the elections and unfortunately for the Taliban’s this runs counter to their narrative. Ideally they expect them to announce boycotting the elections. But if this does not happen, which it seems it wouldn’t than the next phase in the long week before the elections would be to increase the level of punishment being inflicted on these parties.
An army as widely dispersed and deployed to conduct elections as has been planned will be in no position to handle law and order situation as well. The Election Day and the aftermath of elections may turn ugly and the army may find itself right in the line of the resultant cross fire. 70,000 troops deployed all across the country near the sensitive polling stations and not as one unit/body cannot be counted on handling law and order situation developing at the urban centers. Even if this threat does not materialize the army must have a contingency plan to counter it. The best way forward would be to keep a reserve force ready to handle such an eventuality at least at the major urban centers. This reserve force may be nominated now so that the leadership and the troops may understand what they are likely to confront and what is expected from them when performing such a sensitive duty.
The ‘non-interfering army in politics’ that the army chief has led for the last five years may have too much politics and violence to handle on election day. It is hoped that the army will come up to the expectations of the nation and will ensure above anything else that elections are definitely held on 11 May.
—The writer, a retired Lt Col from Pak Army, is doing PhD in Civil-Military relations from KU.