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Is The Haqqani Network In Pakistan's National Interest?

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (left) signing a constitutional reform law as Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (R) looks on during a ceremony in Islamabad in April 2010.
"It is all media hype" was my reflexive response to a sudden but not unexpected question from a senior colleague as we accidentally met in the office elevator.

It was one day after the much-trumpeted "All Parties Conference" in Islamabad on September 29, and the elected Pakistani government was drumming up anger over the United States' pushing Pakistan for serious action against the Haqqani network in the country's North Waziristan tribal agency.

The Urdu-language electronic media jingoism was high that day with the airing of war songs, both from 1965, when the country was engaged in border clashes with India and new ones, and it was not altogether naive for a foreign observer to invite my views with the line: "Your country is really in turmoil."

To add fuel to the fire, the majority of Urdu-language newspapers carried banner headlines on the need for "national unity," injecting the impression among common Pakistanis that the United States is responsible for everything wrong with Pakistan and bent upon violating its sovereignty.

Journalism, which is rapidly taking the shape of "bomb and war" journalism in Pakistan with little or no focus on social and development issues -- thanks to the journalists' quest for breaking news -- has avoided the root cause of the tension: the Haqqanis.

Such was the war hysteria in the media that none among the newscasters, not even those considered sane voices, bothered to ask the commentators (many of whom happened to be retired army officers) one simple question: Is the Haqqani network or any other militant network in Pakistan's national interest?

Perhaps this simple-sounding question is not so simple for the Pakistani newscasters, commentators, and even leaders of the nearly 60 political and religious parties who gathered on September 29 under the chairmanship of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the watchful eyes of Pakistani security services to discuss the "future line of action" for the country's cooperation with the United States.

To say the least, none of the 13 clauses of the joint declaration released at the conclusion of the closed-door All Parties Conference mentioned the havoc wrought by the Haqqanis or Taliban terrorism, which according to President Zardari's comical op-ed in the "Washington Post," killed 30,000 civilians and 5,000 Pakistani soldiers since 2001.

Media jingoism is not something new in Pakistan, particularly after 2001, where the popularity of a television channel or a newscaster mostly depends on how he or she appeals to the popular public sentiments -- be it right or wrong -- and where a journalist makes his/her profile by walking around with a Taliban commander, fostering close contacts with their purported spokesmen or interviewing their leadership.

It is in this backdrop that the popular public opinion in Pakistan is molded and remolded as and when needed in the name of the rhetorical "greater national interests" and it is the (mal-)treatment of otherwise sensitive issues that provides the hero image to terrorists attacking cities, civilians, and the Pakistani army and its installations.

In a country like Pakistan, where the literacy rate is below 30 percent among adults and where a child starts his first day at school with lessons from jihadi literature, the boiling-up of sentiments and the sudden angry reaction from the public relating to the U.S., India, or Israel, to mention a few, are things that cannot easily be ruled out.

Hence, a vast majority of the 180 million Pakistanis has been turned into a time-ready bomb with the Urdu-langue electronic and print media as the remote-controlled device in the hands of Pakistan's security establishment.

No doubt there are also some sane voices that call for understanding the sensitivities of U.S.-Pakistan relations at this critical time. They mostly go unheeded amid the loud clamor of jingoist-populist newscasters and hard-line religious leaders, often dubbed the "hidden arm" of the country's security establishment.

Instead, the government-sponsored All Parties Conference, apparently toeing the army line, came out with a call that might rightly be termed a counterwarning asking for dialogue with "our own people."

Dialogue, of course, is the best available option to resolve all disputes in a democratic dispensation. But one must also take a moment to regard a past in which peace agreements with militants inevitably resulted in further strengthening of the Laskar, Jaish, and Tehrik terrorist groups.

The conference and the U.S.-Pakistan tension provided the right moment for the Pakistani media and the Pakistani leadership to ask some key questions, like who is and who should be in charge of the country's foreign policy, particularly its policy toward India, Afghanistan, and the United States.

However, instead of focusing on the real issue confronting Pakistan, the media and political leaders create hype to arouse anger among the general public and divert attention from the real issue: Who has been managing Pakistan's policy with respect to Afghanistan?

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL