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Missing the forest for the trees
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Sunday, September 21, 2008
From Print Edition
Focus, verb: the concentration of energy or attention on one particular goal or subject, to the exclusion of everything else. For example, the audience focused on the models bodies rather than the clothes they were wearing. Each level of Counter-Strike focuses on a different challenge. We can see the recent American incursions into Pakistani territory as another opportunity to focus on the real issue of militant fundamentalism.
Nobody likes to be told what to do. I know this because I have cut off my nose to spite my face more times than I can count. Thankfully, I have the egotistical resilience of a bouncy ball and it always grows back. I doubt, however, that it works the same way with nation states. Let me elaborate further with the aid of a handy rodent analogy.
The family living in house No.7 has rats in the cellar. The rats eat their food, gnaw on their furniture, pee on the dishes, abduct their children, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. But the family tolerates them, because it's against their culture to refuse hospitality to other living creatures. Having lucked out with their choice of host, the rats get bolder and start travelling outwards, in time striking at others, even the big house on the hill at the top of the road, house No.1. The family living in house No.1 asks house No.7 to exercise a little bit of pest control. House No.7 puts down a trap or two, using cotton wool as bait instead of cheese because, well, frankly there isn't enough cheese to go around. House No.1 demands more. House No.7 says you didn't say please. House No.1 sends in its own exterminators. House No.7 cocks and loads. In no time, 1 and 7 are squabbling, then shoving, then launching projectiles at each other. And as the squabble erupts into a full blown conflagration, the rats scurry merrily back to their cellar, where they are certain to survive any potential nuclear holocaust, chuckling to themselves and squeaking 'a plague on both your houses' into the wind.
A plague on both our houses indeed.
I understand and sympathize with the position of those in this blighted country who are (figuratively) up in arms about American violations of our territorial sovereignty. The strikes should, and have been, condemned in the strongest possible terms by most for being cold blooded, short-sighted, counter productive, self-serving and just plain stupid. NATO was the first to distance itself from the incidents, with spokesman James Appathurai saying "The NATO policy, that is our mandate, ends at the border. There are no ground or air incursions by NATO forces into Pakistani territory." UK PM Gordon Brown on Saturday echoed the stance taken by Jack Straw on September 17 when, in an apt illustration of why he is secretary of the UK's Ministry of Justice and not, say, the UK's Ministry of History, he said "The United Kingdom position is very clear: We respect the territorial integrity of sovereign states, we always have done…"
In short, with the exception of a country or two (ok three, or four, or twenty, you know who you are!), immediately subsequent to the escalation of incursions there was widespread agreement with the views expressed by former CIA field officer Robert Baer in an excellent article for Time when he wrote "But the fact remains that American forces have and are violating Pakistani sovereignty…You have to wonder whether the Bush administration understands what it is getting into. In case anyone has forgotten, Pakistan has a hundred plus nuclear weapons. It's a country on the edge of civil war. Its political leadership is bitterly divided. In other words, it's the perfect recipe for a catastrophe…All of which begs the question, is it worth the ghost hunt we've been on since September 11?... Before it is too late, someone needs to sit the President down and give him the bad news that Pakistan is a bridge too far in the "war on terror."
And the pressure of public opinion seems to have worked, at least in terms of the de-escalation of the rhetorical conflict. A mere few days after Chief of the Army staff General Kayani threw down the verbal gauntlet (interesting timing, General Kayani, what are you not telling us?) and said Pakistan's armed forces would shoot back if foreign troops entered the country, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was quoted as saying "I think the best way forward for both of our countries is to try to deal with the situation in that border area on a cooperative basis".
Translation: let's calm people down, and then we can figure out how to do what we have to do without attracting so much negative attention. That might well be the first good idea American policy makers have had since 9/11.
So, having peacefully lodged our well justified protests, and while debates about sovereignty, ground realities, the rules of engagement or lack thereof are in the capable hands and mouths of those who really excel at them i.e. analysts, politicians, academics, army officers and my mother, why don't the rest of us take a step back and focus on the real issue? And that is, the rats in the cellar. Because, if we take our opposition beyond the rhetorical, that is really who we will be defending.
Let's take a brief look at their priorities before we decide our own. According to an assistant district officer in the governments Planning and Development department in the NWFP, 193 girls schools have been blown up in recent times, depriving an estimated 14,000 girls of access to education. Scores have lost their means of sustenance or been maimed or died in violence fuelled by extremists, often from different factions, within our borders recently. 636 Pakistanis were killed in 56 suicide bombings in 2007 alone. Many of those bombers were children.
It is perverse that the more we are exposed to violence, the more our appetite for it seems to grow. If groups who seek to destroy Pakistan operate with impunity within a certain part of it, following no code other than that laid down by their criminal, self-avowedly 'spiritual' leaders, why shouldn't individuals do the same? On September 10 2008 an Asian Human Rights Commission appeal detailed the killings of two members of the a sect after a prominent- self-professed- religious scholar famously dubbed 'Jahil Online' deemed the killing of members of the sect to be 'necessary' . We can go blue in the face shouting about the pernicious Predators, but we stay silent while innocents are slain within our own borders. What does this sovereignty we are paying homage to apparently mean to us? That the right to hurt/oppress/kill each other should exclusively be ours. Make America Bad Guy No.1 if you will, but in the race to destroy our already wounded society, I'm placing my bet on the enemy within. That's who we need to focus on fighting.
The writer's first novel, Tunnel Vision (2007), was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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