How Long Can This Paralysis Last?
By Ayaz Amir
January 21, 2014
We are losing this war not because the Taliban are strong but because we are weak, our weakness the principal strength of the other side. We have lost the will to fight and the country is in the hands of people more interested in their personal business affairs than the threat facing the country.
And more than half-a-million strong army is helpless and increasingly frustrated because its hands are tied, its feet hobbled, by political irresolution. So each time a bomb goes off and soldiers are killed the army’s response is piecemeal, bombing the Mir Ali bazaar and adjoining villages. In the process civilians are killed and the army is blamed.
The Taliban know what they are doing: fighting the Pakistani state and hoping to bring it down. What there is of Pakistani leadership is stricken by fear and confusion. Fear not just of the Taliban but fear of the army, for if there is to be fighting the army will be in charge, and power will gravitate towards it. And of the army this leadership has bad memories.
For a Punjab-centric leadership there is another fear, that if the ambit of this war widens Punjab, hitherto for the most part out of harm’s way, may also come within the arc of fire and paradise may be lost. So there is method to this feebleness of purpose, the leadership closing its eyes to what is happening and taking cover behind the mindless mantra of talks.
But since these are smart men when it comes to self-preservation what they have done is to push that other punishment for our sins, Imran Khan, out in front, to lead the charge of the talks’ brigade. And Khan, his foot-in-mouth disease by now serious, becomes a lightning rod, attracting to himself the flak that should rightly be directed at the federal government.
How long can this go on? We don’t have to sit in at the corps commanders’ conference to gain some insight into the state of mind of the high command. Any army would grit its teeth under such restrictions: subjected to a full-fledged offensive and constantly hit but unable to respond in kind because the political government says it has yet to make up its mind.
This is a dangerous state of affairs for out of such stuff is born – and here I am necessarily being coy – the unthinkable.
Zardari, because of the aura of corruption around him, could not exercise authority. That’s why security policy was run by Gen Kayani pretty much as he thought fit, Zardari and his horde of inept ministers mumbling the right things and applauding from the sidelines. Nawaz Sharif could exercise authority and could have given both the country and the army a sense of direction…if only the requisite strength and capacity were available. Things are moving so fast and the situation spinning so out of control that very soon it may become difficult to exercise any authority at all.
This is almost a surreal situation. Recorded history, from Herodotus to the present, has few if any instances of warring groups or nations voluntarily surrendering and laying down their arms when they think they are winning, or when they think time is on their side. The Taliban have the initiative and they think time is on their side. They have a secure base in the mountains of North Waziristan to which they return to regroup and from where they strike at will, at targets of their choosing. This is classic guerrilla warfare and the slight window of opportunity we might have had, with drones hitting from one side and the army undertaking an offensive from the other, will close as soon as the Americans complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then we will be left holding the flag of our sovereignty close to our heart. And if anyone thinks the Taliban both here and in Afghanistan will not be on a roll, feeling more emboldened, he lives on another planet.
Here we have a government which even after seven months of being in office feels no qualms in proclaiming that it has yet to frame a ‘counterterrorism strategy’. This takes the prize. Do nations at war wait for counter-strategies? They have the luxury of exercising one of two options: war or surrender. And talks happen either when (a) one side has been beaten into submission or (b) a battlefield stalemate leads to give-and-take on the negotiating table.
What is our approach to talks? Has anyone clarified this point? Are the Taliban surrendering? Have we beaten them into submission? Or is there a stalemate we hope to resolve in the course of talks? Or living in our fantasy world do we really think that our silvery tongues will be so persuasive that Maulana Fazlullah and his Shura will melt at our words and swear allegiance to the flag of Pakistan?
Our follies may be many but what have we done to deserve this, the present emirs of our national caravan? Looking at us and the sum of our national resolve the Taliban must be laughing up their sleeves. Taliban spokesmen, we know, indulge their sense of fun and humour when they talk to media persons. And government and state have no policy at all.
This has gone beyond the point where we could complacently say ‘this is America’s war’. The Americans are getting out: we have to get this into our brilliant heads. And we’ll be left with not just this mess but our soaring rhetoric. And there will be no one else to blame then, no drone attacks on which to pin the blame for our troubles.
There should be a war cabinet and everything should be subsumed to the war against the Taliban. But we are playing games about talks fooling no one except ourselves. And the Prime Minister is either caught up in foreign visits or chimerical projects – a metro-bus service for Islamabad the latest fancy. And Musharraf’s trial must take first priority because the constitution must be protected. And so on. We don’t seem to have much sense of the peril threatening us.
So the fear in uncertain hearts that things can’t go on like this, that something will have to give. Some things are better left unsaid. But the ineptitude on display is having two opposite effects. To one side it is putting the nation to sleep, conditioning people to accept terrorism as a way of life, something about which nothing much can be done. To the other side it is encouraging the muttering, so far mercifully only the muttering, of dangerous thoughts.
Perhaps this is for the good. Stagnation is killing Pakistan, stagnation of thought and action. Maybe we need a shaking up, some kind of creative disorder to set the pulse of the nation to beat faster. Still, it’s a pity seeing the world going where it is, new things happening, new frontiers being explored, and we stuck where we are, deceiving ourselves, refusing to see what should be so obvious, and not having the courage or will to confront the dangers we face.
Owing to involvement in civilian affairs, thanks to Musharraf’s extended stay at the helm, the army by year 2008-9 had virtually lost the will to fight. Not a chocolate army but a real estate army is what it had become. The Swat situation and Maulana Fazlullah’s excesses (the same luminary now heading the Taliban) forced the army’s hands and re-taught it the use of arms. To the Swat Taliban the army thus owes a debt of gratitude.
Now because of a political dispensation the situation facing the army and the nation is worse than anything seen in Swat. But the army’s hands are tied, and it is frothing at the mouth. Can this situation last?