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Legal Eye

January 13, 2018



Leave from sanity

Heaping ridicule on President Trump and calling him crazy as a way to explain his threatening tweet might be cathartic. But is it an intelligent response to the imminent breakdown of Pakistan-US ties?

We have a unique ability to shut down our cognitive processes when we need them most. Trump has a well-deserved reputation of shooting from the hip. But on Pakistan being part of the problem in Afghanistan and not the solution there seems to be across-the-board consensus in the US and most of the world. Shouldn’t this be some cause of concern for us?

The instinct of defending oneself when under attack by someone larger is natural. But shouldn’t one stop to consider why the attack is being mounted, and if mindlessly taking on a Goliath will be in one’s self-interest? We keep rehashing the rhetoric of the innumerable sacrifices we have rendered to fight terror – as if to convince ourselves that we are a good lot. If the world isn’t buying into our narrative, is there a problem with the product we are selling or with the way we are selling it?

Our argument on why the US is mad at us is as follows: it is fighting a losing war in Afghanistan and needs someone to pin the blame on. There are other conspiracy-laced variants of this too. But the bottom line is that the US is pushing its security interest at the expense of ours and we have no option but to fight it out. Let’s break this down further. The US wants us to deny the Haqqani Network and the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. It believes US-led forces in Afghanistan can’t gain advantage against the Taliban till such time that we are patronising them.

Our public response is that we have nothing to do with the Haqqanis or the Taliban. Privately, we argue that working with the Haqqanis/Taliban brings us leverage in a war-ridden Afghanistan where all other actors are tilting towards India. The linked argument is that we might not be able to bring the Haqqanis/Taliban to their knees even if we decide to banish them. And so we could have a bigger problem on our hands: transforming the only lever of influence we have on our Western border into a foe with the ability to inflict harm on us.

If we are earnest, our assessment is that even if we throw our weight behind the American and Afghan forces, we can’t weaken the Taliban enough to enable Afghanistan’s transformation from a land of fiefdoms to a sovereign state, so why make an enemy out of them. The US believes that this isn’t a case of inability but unwillingness: we see Taliban’s ascendency in Afghanistan to be in our interest. The truth might be somewhere in the middle: our unwillingness to take on the Taliban might be rooted in our inability to take them down.

Our approach to the Taliban raises questions about our larger worldview and how our national security and foreign policy choices sync with it. Let’s forget US for a minute. Why do we consider the Taliban to be our best bet on the Western border when we had no ability to influence them when they ruled Afghanistan or when they patronised the TTP while it had set up its emirate in Fata? Didn’t we hear the exact same argument re the TTP? That it wasn’t attacking the state ‘directly’ and we could control it. Or that consequences of a failed fight against it would be dreadful.

Why did we have to wait till after the APS massacre of our children to declare an all-out war on the TTP? Couldn’t we conclude on the basis of its murderous ideology that its existence isn’t compatible with the interests of Pakistani citizens? Or is our good-terrorist-bad-terrorist policy another form of tribalism? Are we incapable of thinking in cause-and-effect terms and will only spring to exact revenge when someone grievously attacks the state and not just citizens?

Why are we programmed such that our national outrage leaps from one incident to another but never solidifies into a solemn resolve to address the root causes of our ills? After APS we contrived a National Action Plan, vowed to eliminate extremism and set up military courts to hang jet-black terrorists. But why have we been unable to prosecute Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid who is free to proliferate hate? We have placed Hafiz Saeed on the proscribed list under world pressure but the state’s view of him as an asset and not a liability is unmistakable.

It’s the same story with Jaish-e-Mohammad. Masood Azhar was arrested after Pathankot. But let’s not hold our breath for him being prosecuted. The other day Sufi Mohammad of TSNM, the father-in-law of Fazlullah, was released on bail. Why did the state fail to build a foolproof case to be able to try him and punish him? So are we playing games with the world or ourselves? Does a national security policy that sees Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed as assets and Abdul Aziz and Sufi Muhammad as untouchables promote Pakistan’s security?

Will there ever be a time opportune enough to be able to critique our security policy without being labelled traitors? The mindset that sees the Taliban as viable levers of power in Afghanistan to be preserved at the cost of our relationship with the US is the same mindset that projects Azhar and Saeed as our best bet to fight an asymmetric war with India, dreads bringing Aziz and Sufi to justice and views politics of religious bigotry and extremism as a useful tool to nudge and control democracy in ‘larger national interest’.

How does one make sense of a thinking that seeks to mainstream extremists and reward hate speech by Khadim Rizvis, but demonises voices critical of the coercive consensus developed around notions of national interest and security? Where are we headed if those who control power in our country believe that bloggers, Ahmad Noorani and Taha Siddiqui are foremost threats to our national interest and security and need to be beaten and silenced, and Milli-Muslim League and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan need to be propped up?

A predatory state will only nurture a predatory society. Our Pavlovian response to bestiality is bloodlust. Post-APS we wanted a lot of folks to be hanged as if that would cull the demons of extremist violence. Rather than breathing life back into defunct components of the criminal justice system (especially investigation and prosecution), we opted for hanging suspects without due process. We are convinced that inhuman punishment is the best way to deter inhuman behaviour: let’s make an example, hang someone. That’ll sort things out.

We have the exact same response to the tragic rape and murder of little Zainab. While we seek revenge and hangings, we neither have the patience nor the sense to consider that protecting innumerable children who are molested and hurt on a daily basis requires institutional response and behavioural change. Will the simultaneous notice taken by the Punjab chief minister, the Supreme Court, the Lahore High Court (and even the army chief), amid national outrage, instil life into our moribund criminal justice system and strengthen rule of law?

That will unfortunately not happen. We won’t consider that child molestation isn’t a cancer unique to our society, but a problem that exists elsewhere too and has been dealt with by institutional responses that help prevent children getting into harm’s way. We won’t consider that certainty of punishment is a more effective deterrent than severity of punishment. We will keep telling ourselves that we can valiantly fight the US and hold on to the Taliban without considering which option serves our interest and which doesn’t.

What explains this leave from sanity? As a polity we have simply lost the ability to think logically about problems and solutions in cause-and-effect sequence.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]