Many are worried that the resignation of Pakistan’s President Musharraf represents a setback in the fight against terrorism and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Thomas Bärthlein thinks this fear is unjustified. On the contrary, he says, Musharraf’s resignation has opened up the possibility of a new beginning, which could benefit from the mistakes of the past.
In the West, and not only there, the erroneous view that Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s only saviour against extremism and terrorism held for a long time. But in practice, this was not really the case, as the Pakistani media have firmly repeated in their reports during the past few days.
Under massive pressure from the United States after September 11, Musharraf took the side of the US in its so-called “war on terror”, opening up Pakistani territory to the struggle. But he played a double-game. In 2001, Musharraf allowed for thousands of encircled Taliban fighters in Kunduz find safety on Pakistani territory. They later organised attacks against Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Musharraf also permitted the leadership of the Afghan Taliban to settle down in Quetta. And it was Musharraf’s secret services that created the alliance of Islamist parties in Pakistan -- the MMF. He also tolerated the radical Red Mosque, which stirred trouble from the centre of Islamabad.
Why did he behave in this way? It is important to understand this. On the one hand, it was a tactical manoeuvre to keep the threatening scenario of the Islamists alive so that Musharraf could portray himself as a liberal and “indispensable” in keeping it under control. And on the other, support for the Afghan Taliban was a foreign policy tactic to preserve Pakistan’s influence in its neighbouring country.
The side effects of this policy were catastrophic. The Pakistani population never considered the fight against the Taliban and terrorism as its own cause but as something that was forced upon it. It considered the secret services as the central player in the fight. They were responsible for hundreds of people disappearing under mysterious circumstances and being brought to Guantanamo or other such places. It was never clear whether agents themselves were not involved with the militants. For their part, the Taliban and other militant groups have tended to consider most Pakistanis as victims in recent years.
What can be learnt from the experiences of the past in the fight against the Taliban? All those who want to halt the renewed advance of the radical Islamists should keep three things in mind -- open debate, regard for human rights and respect for the legitimate interests of all the regional players, especially Pakistan’s.
So first, the debate has to be conducted openly. In Pakistan itself above all -- democratisation will provide an important step. For years, Pakistan shut its eyes to the problem that the Taliban have become, but that has started changing. Extremism and how to fight it have become an increasingly frequent subject of debate in the media.
Secondly, and this is closely linked -- if police and military action must be undertaken against the extremists then care should be taken that innocent people are not affected. The restoration of an independent judiciary in Pakistan would contribute greatly to the transparency of the anti-terror fight. The government has already tried to bring the secret services under its control, i.e. under civilian control, however the army continues to block such a move.
Thirdly, Pakistan should not become isolated in foreign policy terms. The new Pakistani government will play a key role in the fight against the Taliban. In spring, it came into office with the promise that it would renew dialogue with the militant groups in the border region after several failed military actions. Maybe that was naïve but this is something Pakistan should have been able to find out for itself. Instead, the US increased its pressure and began launching air strikes against militant bases in Pakistan more intensively. Then all the negotiations failed.
There will only be progress against the Taliban in Afghanistan if Pakistan allows this. And sustainable progress in Pakistan depends on the US giving the necessary time and space for this instead of insisting on short-term military successes. Pakistan must also have the sense that its interests and those of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are being taken seriously otherwise it will not give up its policy of obstruction there.
Barack Obama has used a harsh tone to attack Pakistan on the matter of the Taliban but he has also declared himself to be in favour of democracy in Pakistan. Maybe soon he will get the chance to act upon his words.