Pakistan: five years after Iraq invasion

Ishrat Saleem

The US invasion on Iraq in 2003 was disastrous in several ways. Apart from dealing a forceful blow to the international system of conduct among nations devised after strenuous efforts of over nearly six decades, it destabilised the entire region, with serious consequences for Pakistan. The US and its major ally UK completely bypassed the UN in attacking Iraq, spreading insecurity among the countries whom the US had labelled as its enemies in the past. The popular reason for attacking Iraq was that the Saddam regime possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The US went on to attack Iraq despite testimony by United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission head Hans Blix that he had found “no smoking gun” during his inspections to suggest that Iraq possessed the WMDs. Instead of serving as a warning, it has strengthened the perception among smaller countries that in a unipolar world, without possessing the deterrent of nuclear technology, their survival is threatened. The American bully with war technology can go to any length to achieve its ‘strategic’ objectives.The occupation of Iraq and the break down of state structure has incredibly strengthened the considerably weakened al Qaeda and provided the most conducive environment for the growth of extremist groups within Iraq which have made their presence felt by holding the populace hostage to their archaic interpretation of Islam and deadly suicide attacks. Impartial observers view US invasion of Iraq as a move to preserve strategic oil reserves in the region and remove a grievous threat to Israel in the form of Saddam Hussain. The failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has exposed that this war had less to do with terror, which was merely used as a ploy, and more to do with the vested interests of the US.The elements that were drawn into Iraq conflict from Afghanistan successfully experimented with improvised explosive device (IED) and suicide bombings in a power vacuum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein. The law and order breakdown presented them with a wonderful opportunity to strengthen their toehold. Iraq served as a laboratory for them to experiment with novel methods of guerilla warfare, which were essential for defeating a superior enemy in a hostile environment. The suicide bombings were refined through practice, increasingly inflicting heavy casualties on civilian population, causing embarrassment to the occupying forces and its handpicked Iraq government. This success gave al Qaeda elements the confidence to employ these techniques at other places where they were embattled. It took little time for the phenomenon of suicide bombing to be exported to Afghanistan. Since 2003, we have seen a steady rise in suicide attacks in Afghanistan.It is no coincidence that in later months and years, Pakistan, with military operation in the tribal areas at its peak, was hit in its soft underbelly by suicide bombers. Important public figures as well as strategic facilities were aimed at with precision. President Musharraf himself was a target of a suicide attack which he survived, as he did two other assassination attempts. In March 2006, a suicide bombing behind the US consulate killed an American diplomat along with three others. In April, an Eid Miladun Nabi congregation at Nishtar Park was attacked, killing more than 60, including the entire leadership of the Sunni Tehrik (of the Beralvi school of thought). In July the same year, Allama Hassan Turabi, head of Islami Tehrik and provincial chief of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, was killed along with his nephew outside his residence in Karachi. In later months, several attacks took place throughout Pakistan, including the capital. The sporadic but consistent suicide attacks that started in 2006 saw a sharp increase after military operation against Lal Masjid in July last year. Military installations, police personnel, and political rallies — whoever was seen as an opponent — were singled out and attacked with precision to give a strong message of resistance to the war against terror. Benazir Bhutto, who had taken and unequivocal stance against terrorism, became a victim of one such bombing in Rawalpindi. The head on collision of the the protege — the jihadists with their mentors — the military establishment —  seems to suggest that terrorists think they are strong enough to take over their own country.

Extremist violence thrives on a conducive environment in Pakistan. The terrorists’ outreach, number of casualties and success in targeting high profile figures are indicators of inadequacy of the Pakistan government in fighting this phenomenon, both in terms of will and human and technical capacity. Here, there are strong pockets of support for the jihadis in the establishment coupled with a confused public opinion. The government’s writ is thin in various parts of the country while the densely populated urban areas provide these elements the necessary cover to hit and run. The failure of Pakistan to pre-empt suicide bombings by busting terror networks from inside the way other countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Spain, Australia and Britain have done, speaks of its double-mindedness in uprooting the networks that it so carefully cultivated during the Afghan war and afterwards.

At the time of Iraq invasion, Pakistan was faced with the critical question of sending its troops to Iraq. Popular opinion against such decision compelled the leadership to refrain from any such move. With hindsight, it has proved to be a sagacious decision, because it would have given another cause celebre to the extremist forces within Pakistan bent on overthrowing the state.

If the US is contemplating attacking Iran even as a remote possibility, it should rethink. Any such measure will give a new lease of life to the al Qaeda and open another Pandora’s box of terrorism which the US it is trying to cap in Afghanistan and Iraq. Essentially, the law and order breakdown in Iraq provided the green pastures to the badly mauled al Qaeda after Afghanistan. If Iran too is attacked, it would stretch the conflict zone from Iraq right up to Pakistan, paving the path for a great war in which the US’s own long-term interests would be threatened.

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