Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1994 words

Getting serious about Pakistan

18 June 2009

Pakistan needs a greater Australian investment in dollars and people, writes Geoffrey Barker


A Pakistani soldier stands guard as debris is removed from the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar on 10 June 2009, a day after a suicide attack targeted the building. Tariq Mahmood/AFP Photo

A Pakistani soldier stands guard as debris is removed from the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar on 10 June 2009, a day after a suicide attack targeted the building. Tariq Mahmood/AFP Photo

THE BOMBINGS of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar and mosques in Lahore and Nowshera this month have confirmed again that Taliban terrorists can strike at will against civilian targets in Pakistan. While Pakistan’s government and military seem, at last, to be taking the fight up to the Taliban in rural areas, the terrorists can still mount deadly attacks against civilians in big cities.

Given Pakistan’s strategic importance, all western countries – including Australia – have an interest in helping the country to defeat the Taliban and start what will be a long and difficult evolution towards stability and prosperity. But there are limits on what western countries singly and together can do without appearing to compromise the sovereignty of Pakistan and making it appear a western pawn.

Australia, as usual, is taking its cues from the United States. President Obama has appointed tough-minded Richard Holbrooke as special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has appointed tough-minded Ric Smith, former diplomat and defence department secretary, as special Australian envoy to Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, where Australia now has 1550 troops fighting Taliban forces. (There are 58,000 US troops, along with 8000 British, 2000 Canadians and 1650 Dutch, in Afghanistan.)

While the United States is taking a strong lead in encouraging Pakistan to fight the Taliban in its border regions with Afghanistan, and has so far provided up to $US330 million for relief operations, Australia has yet to do significantly more than boost troop numbers in Afghanistan by 450 in April. It has added a modest $12 million in emergency food aid to this year’s $30.5 million aid budget for Pakistan, which will assist the estimated 1.5 million homeless people in the Swat valley, where fierce fighting has been taking place between the military and Taliban fighters.

Western leaders are understandably heartened by the recent national address by Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, who declared the fight against militancy and terrorism “a war of the country’s survival,” which he pledged to win “at every cost.” They are also heartened by the Pakistan military’s moves to expand its war against the Taliban in the south Waziristan province.

But they must be deeply concerned by the Taliban spokesman who, claiming responsibility for the mosque attacks, said: “Anyone who will oppose us to please the Americans will face the same fate.” On the evidence, the Taliban is still capable of carrying out that threat. So what to do to prevent Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 170 million people, from collapsing into anarchy or from falling to militant fundamentalists eager to add weapons of mass destruction to their arsenals?

Pakistan is now arguably the gravest security threat to western strategic interests and Australia has recognised this grim reality. “We cannot afford to neglect a country so strategically vital to security,” foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith told parliament after visiting Pakistan in February. But, as so often seems the case, Australia seems to be speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

The gap between the strength of Australia’s rhetoric and the strength of its policy responses may reflect domestic concerns about the military commitment to Afghanistan. It may also reflect a reluctance to damage relations with India, the rising South Asian economic and military giant which has fought three wars with Pakistan over the contested Kashmir region.

Rory Medcalf, Pakistan analyst for the Lowy Institute for International Policy, highlights the difference between Australia’s efforts in assisting Pakistan and its efforts to assist Indonesia since the fall of President Soeharto. In Indonesia, Australia has helped to develop military, policing and counter-terrorism expertise. It has helped to monitor elections and provided far more aid than it has sent to Pakistan. This year aid to Indonesia will total $452.5 million – more than ten times the amount provided to Pakistan.

According to Medcalf the question for Australia is how serious it is about a country that Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith have said has a direct effect on Australia’s security interests as well as the stability of its immediate region and beyond. Smith has made much of Australia’s membership of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, a group of more than twelve disparate nations seeking, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “to help Pakistan address its security, development, energy and institution building challenges.” But it is not clear how effective this organisation can be.

While giving the government credit for realising that it has to be more serious about Pakistan, Medcalf says: “We have to decide whether to put resources, including human resources, into possibly dangerous situations in Pakistan. Pakistan is a test of what level of risks Australia is prepared to bear… We need to recognise these risks are something we have to take.”

Medcalf recognises the extent to which western hands are tied in Pakistan, but says that Australia should try to persuade China to “take the gloves off in the way that they guide Pakistan government relations with the Taliban” and other terrorist groups. Whether China would take any notice of Australia is, as Medcalf acknowledges, another question.

Medcalf’s case is strong. Senior US and other intelligence sources have warned that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be in danger of falling into Taliban or al Qaeda hands if Pakistan’s nuclear security arrangements are not improved. Pakistan has yet to punish Abdul Qadeer Khan, the notorious physicist who headed the world’s most dangerous nuclear proliferation network. Khan has been released from house arrest despite uncontested evidence that he and his network sold nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Given the concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons it could be argued – as the New York Times has done – that there is more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than there is in stabilising neighbouring Afghanistan, which is now the focus of increased and more vigorous US and Australian long-term military attention. Indeed it might also be the case that the key to stabilising Afghanistan is in stabilising Pakistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have found sanctuary and support. South Asia expert Christopher Snedden, senior lecturer in relations at Victoria’s Deakin University, argues: “The need to strategically deny terrorism has moved beyond Afghanistan with Pakistan now the greater problem.”

Snedden says there are now unconfirmed reports that al Qaeda terrorist leaders have moved from the border areas of north-west Pakistan to Baluchistan, the arid region on the Iranian plateau between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. “Australia should not still be in Afghanistan,” he says. “It is an open-ended imbroglio taking place in a distant nation that is strategically unimportant to Australia.”

Nor does Snedden believe Australia can play any useful diplomatic role in resolving the long-running conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, which continues to fester despite unofficial efforts by the two countries in recent years to resolve their differences. “India is now in the box seat,” he says. “It has a growing economy and Pakistan can’t do much about it.”

Earlier this year President Barack Obama was widely criticised for saying he wanted to “work with” India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue and that he had considered appointing former President Bill Clinton as a special mediator. Obama backed off quickly following Indian complaints and eliminated Kashmir from Richard Holbrooke’s job description.

(Ironically, as Snedden notes, Australia has longstanding historical ties to efforts to resolve Kashmir. In 1950 the High Court justice, Owen Dixon, was appointed the first United Nations special representative on the issue. He travelled to the region and met all the players and wrote a report proposing a plebiscite in the contested areas, but was ultimately unsuccessful. From 1950 until his death in 1966 an Australian general, Robert Nimmo, commanded UN peacekeeping forces in Kashmir, and there was a token Australian military presence on the so-called Kashmir line of control from 1949 to 1984.)

There are nevertheless signs that Australia has started to take Pakistan more seriously since the end of April, when Prime Minister Rudd increased Australia’s troop commitment to Afghanistan and announced Ric Smith’s appointment. Rudd said at the time: “To make the community’s efforts into Afghanistan effective we and other partners need to engage diplomatically more deeply with Pakistan.” Around the same time, largely as a result of US pressure, the Pakistan government started to take on the Taliban forces, who were conducting operations in Afghanistan from bases and staging posts in remote border areas of Pakistan. It is not yet clear whether this is a serious and sustained effort or merely a gesture designed to placate the United States and win more aid.

But the evidence does increasingly suggest that the Pakistan military is wresting back the Swat valley, which it effectively ceded to the Taliban in a grotesque peace deal that led to the Taliban murdering police officials, implementing sharia law, locking women away and denying schooling to girls. President Zardari has announced the establishment of a military cantonment in Swat to support local people displaced and brutalised by the Taliban.

Whether the gains will be held and consolidated remains to be seen. The government of Pakistan is weak, incompetent and corrupt. The military is deeply divided in its loyalties between the government and the Taliban and other terror groups. Fighting in the Swat valley has been bloody. More than 1100 Taliban fighters are reported to have been killed and there are now reportedly two million refugees in the area.

But the continuing ability of the Taliban to bomb big city hotels, public buildings and mosques is a devastating reality for Pakistan’s population. The bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel last September killed fifty-four people and injured twenty-six. Last month the bombing of the Lahore headquarters of the Pakistan police force and intelligence agency ISI resulted in thirty deaths and 250 injuries. At least eleven died and fifty-two were injured in the Pearl Continental bombing and the two latest mosque bombings killed at least six and injured more than 100.

For what it’s worth, the United States appears to be growing more optimistic about Pakistan. When the Taliban was running riot in the Swat valley the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said the security situation in Pakistan posed a mortal threat to the security and safety of the United States and the world. Last week, though, following a visit to Pakistan, US envoy Richard Holbrooke said the Pakistanis and their leaders were showing a new resolve to defeat the Taliban. “I found a new determination in Islamabad,” he said.

Australia might have seen early evidence of that new determination when the chief of the Pakistan general staff, General Tariq Majid, visited Australia in late May. Australia boosted its food aid to Pakistan after he and Australian political and military officials reached an agreement to step up anti-terrorist cooperation. Rory Medcalf is hopeful that Pakistan has had a wake-up call and believes that Pakistan’s depth and resilience has not yet been fully tested.

This was a substantial advance on how things stood after Stephen Smith’s visit to Pakistan in February. The best he could do then was to make a limp parliamentary statement announcing a few million dollars for community organisations and agribusiness in Pakistan and outlining aims to boost bilateral trade and to increase aid to Pakistan’s north-west frontier region.

Clearly the situation demands a greater Australian investment of dollars and people to help build civilian and military capacity in Pakistan. The question, as Rory Medcalf observes, is whether Australia will put its money and its people where its mouth is in Pakistan. •

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