Pakistan must remember the lessons of history
IN recent times few countries have deployed their national army against their own civilians. Since being founded in 1947, Pakistan has done it three times. Less than forty years ago, in 1971, Pakistan sent in the army to deal with an uprising in its own territory, in East Pakistan. The strategy met with dire consequences, leading to civil war, the break-up of the country and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Barely four years later, Pakistan's leaders turned to the army again, this time to control an insurgency in the tribal province of Baluchistan. The struggle lasted five years, failed to deliver a politically sustainable solution and left thousands dead.
These messy chapters in this country's brief but colourful history had the common problem that the government addressed political challenges through military strategy and without sufficient civil engagement. Today, as the government deploys the armed forces in the troubled region of South Waziristan, it is important that Pakistan doesn't forget the hard-earned lessons of its history.
In 1971, the theatre of action was East Pakistan, the eastern wing of the country, that proceeded to fight for its independence and become Bangladesh. In 1970, the Awami League (AL), a political party principally representing Bengali interests, emerged victorious in Pakistan's first-ever national elections. The party gained enough seats to gain an overwhelming parliamentary majority and form the next national government. The election victory came on the back of decades of policies which had disempowered Bengalis economically and socially, and left them a bitter people looked down upon by many West Pakistani administrators and officers.
Not willing to transfer power to the Bengalis, Pakistan's leader General Yahya Khan planned a military response in the event of civil unrest in Bengal. Suspicions grew as the AL made demands for greater provincial autonomy, and, rather than allowing Mujib to form a government, Yahya prevaricated and prepared to implement a military solution.
There was a build-up of forces in the eastern wing, and, as tensions boiled over, Pakistan's leaders unleashed a brutal military campaign. This started with an attack on its own civilians on the streets of Dhaka in March 1971, and over nine months led to hundreds of thousands of casualties. The result was the break-up of the country with the creation of Bangladesh and the ultimate humiliation of surrender at the hands of the Indian Army, which had intervened to end the civil war.
Yahya Khan was duly replaced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party, in the same 1970 elections, had won most of the seats in West Pakistan. Bhutto resorted to military strategy in 1974 when faced with insurgence in the province of Baluchistan. Neighbouring Iran, and rife with tribal unrest, Baluchistan had many long-standing political problems. It was Pakistan's least developed province, whose extremes of poverty contrasted painfully with its richness in gas reserves.
Bhutto's approach of seeking a military solution followed his predecessor's, not learning from his mistakes. In fact, the recent loss of Bangladesh heightened Bhutto's resolve to use strong-arm tactics, threatening that without this approach it was possible that Pakistan could lose territory again to a secessionist movement. And, with the Pakistan army still smarting from the Bengal defeat, Bhutto also knew the generals would not overstep their remit.
In 1973 Bhutto dissolved Baluchistan's provincial government, jailed many of its leaders, and within a year some 70,000 Pakistan army troops were in battle with some 50,000 insurgents. The army reportedly used brutal methods and equipment, as they had done in Bengal. The struggle continued until after Bhutto himself was deposed, and ended when his ouster (and executor) General Ziaul Haq made a deal with the Baluchis. To date, over thirty years later, unrest continues in Baluchistan.
The challenges in South Waziristan are as deep-seated as the ones in Bengal and Baluchistan. Barren and undeveloped, Waziristan is an unforgiving mountain territory. Ever since the nineteenth century, when the British faced off to the Russians as they played the Great Game across Central Asia, Waziristan has never been properly integrated, remaining outside the scope of national government and administration. It has remained autonomous, managed indirectly at best through political agents who liaise with tribal elders in resolving criminal, civil and revenue disputes.
The long-standing tribal enmity between the Wazir and Mehsud tribes has in recent times been compounded with the mix of Afghan politics, late and post Cold War geopolitics and the development of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism in North West Pakistan. There are huge complexities to deal with here, and as the current offensive unfolds the government needs to recall that military strategy alone will not be sufficient for a lasting victory. Success can only be sustained if military action to deal with radical elements is supplemented by efforts to properly engage the people of Waziristan, and to find acceptable ways to implement peace, development and progress delivered through infrastructure, health and education.
All through Pakistan's unfortunate history appears the familiar pattern of the lack of vision to engage politically, build consensus and trust, and sincerely foster nationhood. Pakistan made the fatal mistake of ignoring strategies for civil engagement in 1971 and lost half the country, and then repeated the error and almost lost Baluchistan just a few years later.
Domino theories were discredited with the futility of US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s, but it is tempting to think that if South Waziristan is lost once the military effort is over, that more of the country will be put at risk. It is time for Pakistan's leaders to brace themselves for not the military but the huge political task ahead, and they can start by remembering the lessons of history.