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Pakistan, the peacemaker

  • Published at 06:37 pm February 1st, 2016
Pakistan, the peacemaker

I see in the news that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has offered to host talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reconcile the feuding rival nations. This was after meetings with Saudi King Salman and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

According to the news reports, the prime minister considered draining the current hostility between the two countries stating it is a “prime duty and sacred mission” for Pakistan.

At the same time, the Pakistani foreign ministry says it is endeavouring to put some life into the peace process in Afghanistan by including the Taliban in talks that so far have only involved the Afghan government, the US, China, and Pakistan.

Given what appears to be serious fragmentation among different factions of the Afghan Taliban, and the fact that the Taliban (fragmented or not) must feel they are on a roll militarily against the Afghan National Army and the coalition forces, this looks to be a steep uphill task.

When you think you are winning, the incentives to come to the bargaining table are seriously diluted.

There is little progress so far, although some factions of the Taliban may be wavering. On January 24, their envoys (representing some of them, at least) attended a conflict resolution Pugwash Conference in Doha. Some Afghan representatives attended the conference too, but in personal capacity.

Both sides need to learn a little about conflict resolution, and the opportunity to talk seems very inviting. This conference is billed as not being part of the “official” peace process that Pakistan is trying to shepherd.

And there is the big one -- the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries meet in early February to relaunch the dialogue that would, hopefully, lead to a gradual (probably the best we can hope for) normalisation of relations between the two countries.

Given the state of ties over much of the past almost 70 years, this will be conflict resolution at its highest level.

In fact, I hope both countries send representatives to the Pugwash conference for a refresher course.

So now, added to the already ongoing Afghanistan peace process and the about-to-start Pakistan-India talks, there is the possibility of mediation (and conflict resolution) between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For many Pakistan observers like me, it is a real treat to see the country involved, in one way or another, in at least trying to resolve two conflicts at the same time, and yet willing to take on a third. I wonder if the Pakistani foreign ministry will have to raise its hiring quotas.

To be seriously involved in three such important conflict resolution efforts will require much staff work in new areas for the ministry and the government, and may also require added talent.

In the midst of spreading its diplomatic wings, however, we are reminded of the conflict within Pakistan which must be resolved by some very hard-headed decisions and policies.

If there was nothing else to remind us of this, there was the attack last week on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, in which 22 people were killed and many wounded. The toll of the dead and the wounded would have been much greater if some of the teachers had not fought back -- at least one losing his life in the process.

“It is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of Pakistan.”

This was followed by the chilling statement from a senior Pakistani Taliban commander that more attacks against universities and other schools would follow and the Pakistani Taliban will now target “the places where they [soldiers, lawyers, politicians] are prepared ... the schools, the universities, the colleges that lay their foundation.”

While other Taliban spokesmen disavowed the attack (a symptom of the Pakistani Taliban’s  fragmentation), if this were to become the strategy of even some of the Taliban groups then it would be a dagger aimed straight at the heart of Pakistan -- its youth, who will inherit the country. The statement is also aimed at frightening the Pakistani people and undermining support for the current effort to extirpate extremism, the NAP.

Pakistan has taken some surprisingly strong actions in the past week or two against the extremist elements in the country. It may indicate that more is to come.

It would be disheartening, on the other hand, and perhaps prophetic, if these actions are reversed.

The arrest of Maulana Masood Azhar and closing down the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) were long overdue. The JeM has been universally listed as a terrorist organisation by almost every government or international organisation that keeps such lists.

Azhar went underground for a long time, but has recently emerged with the same tired, terrorist, anti-India, hortatory rhetoric.

His arrest immediately brought to mind the 1999 hijacking of an Air India flight which led to the release of Azhar by India and two other terrorists being held for violent acts.

Azhar immediately created a sensation by turning up in Karachi and giving fiery extremist speeches, and was later connected to the attack on the Indian parliament.

Another of those released with Azhar was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the abductor of the journalist Danny Pearl. He was tried and convicted for Pearl’s murder by a Pakistani court in 2002.

Though the verdict is now questioned because of the confession of Khalid Mohammed Sheikh while being tortured in US custody and then in Guantanamo Bay detention -- there is no doubt that he was the leader and brains of the team that abducted Pearl. He is a primary accessory to murder at the very least. In any case, the confession of Khalid Mohammed Sheikh is not to be trusted because of the way it was obtained, and because as he has no hope of ever seeing the outside of a prison again. Why wouldn’t he take the blame for a lot of crimes to help his extremist associates?

I don’t know how many people remember that hijacking, or that both Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh were among its beneficiaries. I remembered immediately, not because of Danny Pearl, but because I followed that hijacking very closely to its denouement in Kandahar. There was an American woman passenger on board we were concerned about.

My friend Zahid Hussain did, because he was there covering the story. And he wrote of the connection a few days ago. But perhaps we both noted it because we see the entire network of extremist groups in Pakistan, and elsewhere, as interconnected in both spirit and in mindset.

For example, the leader of the United Jihad Council (UJC), Syed Salahuddin, who had earlier taken credit for the attack on Pathankot Air Force base in India (to the strong skepticism of Indian intelligence agencies), said the other day that the Pakistani government should not have cracked down on JeM or arrested Azhar.

He said their aims should be supported by all Pakistan, including the government and the media, which should have been the patron of that organisation rather than banning it.

But I think that the Pakistan government, and hopefully the army, may finally be learning that extremism is a virus that spreads widely and quickly if not resisted firmly.

And it ultimately kills. Extremists cannot be divided into good and bad. They are like Frankenstein’s monster. No matter how docile they seem to have been, when thwarted they turn on those who have been their benefactors, without remorse. The only way round this is to beat them to the punch. 

This article was previously published in The Friday Times.