Trump calling | Talat Hussain

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Senior Analyst Talat Hussain Article

Of the many goals that new US President Donald J Trump has set for himself, none matters more to Pakistan than his vehement commitment to eradicating radicalism and militancy perpetrated in the name of religion. He calls it ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While he did not sound any different from his predecessors in waving the flag of this goal high, the fact that he chose to make this part of his inaugural speech shows the culmination of a theme he has peddled consistently throughout his campaign. That means that now it is only a question of implementing what he has promised. The planning phase is pretty much done. There is total policy clarity on the matter.

This will challenge our country in more ways than one. The Middle Eastern rout of the Islamic State could be quickened by the new cooperation and coordination between Moscow and Washington. As space is squeezed for these groups and individuals in that region, bands of retreating terror will have to find more convenient places to hide. They will want to get reorganised to re-energise themselves. As we know from our own experience, this relocation either takes them to Africa or to this part of the world where they work hand in glove with hostile intelligence agencies and advance their interests in return for facilitation.

In Afghanistan and in Fata, which has witnessed an unfortunate resurgence of terrorist violence starting from the attack in Parachinar last week, and in poorly governed spots in the urban areas around this region, these groups will attempt ingress. They will do so with the help of India, Afghanistan and even the US, which has a running battle with China whose scope and theatre will now increase as Trump furthers his cold war with Beijing. These groups bring with them a new form of hate and ruthlessness. They are imbued with ideas of creating an Islamic Caliphate and will attempt to create networks or establish alliances with dozens of their local like minded groups and individuals.

It has to be mentioned that, despite denials at all levels, Daesh has been on a recruitment spree in this region. This recruitment is done for money, ideology, and at times requires a simple change of rubric. A local group does not have to swear new allegiance to an organised body upon invitation: it can simply align its activities with those professed by the larger entity and thus be considered a ‘valuable’ asset.

This mutates the local threat into a global concern making it hard for any country, including Pakistan, to insist that what happens within its borders is for it to sort out without any external intervention or support. There is a real danger of the Trump administration becoming far more intrusive and unabashed in striking targets inside Pakistan than its predecessors.

There are many signs that the new US administration would want to push speedily the wheels of its policy to strike at will – or through its regional pivots like India – what it calls ‘militant Islam’. The initial informal interaction between Islamabad and the present occupiers of Washington has centred exclusively on the question of ‘groups operating from the Pakistan’s soil’. US commanders in Afghanistan have also spoken clearly about the need to stem the cross-border activities of these groups.

Our response is obviously to list our mention-worthy achievements in fighting terror and how far we have gone in taking on this dreadful threat. We also mention (as we should) the high cost of this venture and the financial toll that it has taken on the national economy, straining limited resources and forcing reprioritisation of development spending.

But this response will offer limited value in the days ahead. Washington will push for more action and these groups, helped by the seedy operators of hostile intelligence agencies, will attempt to make more resounding statements of their arrival at the scene. In other words, we will have to better our response to become more credible internationally and more secure against the US taking the battle against militants to our mainland through strikes and other measures.

This takes us to the familiar territory of the debate about proscribed organisations, and how quickly we need to bring clarity in our policy about their future. However, the new urgency will not be met by simply developing consensus about groups whose activities can put the country’s core interest in harm’s way. The real test is in developing capacity and national focus on combing our cities and towns of the pernicious presence of the perpetrators of this dynamic threat.

We haven’t done much work on capacity enhancement and our counterterrorism departments have been primarily geared towards knocking deadly blows to more prominent shades of the threat. Clearing territory in Fata and terminating individuals associated with terrorism in legally questionable ways have been the twin pillars of this strategy. We talk much about intelligence-based operations and also quote incredible numbers to prove their success but, given the fact that the soft-end of the threat (recruitment, finances, movement) continues to hover over the horizon, questions are about their efficacy.

In the days ahead, this capacity issue will become a real challenge as the world will not wait for us to move at our own slow pace to build and enhance it. We will have to set up emergency decision-making procedures. The National Security Committee has to be in a near permanent session in the next three months to deliver results.

The more so since Middle Eastern battles are coming our way. The sectarian nature of the attack in Parachinar is indicative of how every sectarian division anywhere is now up for exploitation because the game of Domination and Scuttle between Iran and the Arab world has moved into a heightened phase. Also it should be kept in mind that Parachinar happened less than 12 hours after Trump’s inauguration. This is meant to point him to the area where his energies need to be most concentrated. Those who planned the attack had a strategic objective.

National focus is even harder to obtain. At present, the country looks like a sports stadium hosting multiple events of low significance. The judiciary is high on popular constitutionalism (which does not apply to Gen Musharraf nor the murder of Benazir Bhutto of course), the government is living on a day to day basis, the opposition is smacking its lips over the prospect of the PM’s disqualification, the media is too divided or parts of it have been hijacked and are being deployed to destroy reputations and peddle personal agendas.

State and government resources, in other words, are diffused and there is not a single goal that the national eyes could be fixed on. How do you debate issues of existential nature in a fractured environment like this? How do you create singularity of views over and above this internally broken system? It is unfortunate that just when national focus is needed, the most every vital element of it is pulling in opposite direction.

After Trump’s formal arrival at the White House, US foreign policy will go into high gear. The new administration led by a big-talking president has to show that it means business. We ought to brace ourselves for a tough ride ahead. There is no time to waste or waffle, or indulge in pursuits of personal redemption at the cost of stability, even though this is exactly what we are doing.