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February 20, 2018

Failed tactics and strategic paralysis


February 20, 2018

I was lucky to be among thousands at Asma Jahangir’s namaaz-e-janaza. Lucky for two reasons. One, because the opportunity to pray for a fellow Muslim – and one that had stood up and defended the weak, the oppressed and the vulnerable in the holiest of Muslim traditions – is a religious obligation and a spiritual opportunity. And two, because it meant that I got to avoid watching the funeral on television, as Pakistan’s low-grade, low-intellect, on-the-cheap media sucked the soulfulness out of even a funeral. Hot air coursed thick and fast through our national discourse for 48 hours after the funeral – the faux controversies do not even merit mention – and then, as usual, a new ambulance could be chased, tails wagging.

In terms of a national commitment to stupidity, we are surely not alone. Watching India wage Hindu jihad on itself, or the United Kingdom’s struggle for independence from the European Union, or the United States adopting a hit reality TV show as its overarching ruling family all proves how utterly stupid Facebook, high fructose corn syrup and the globalism of ‘me, me, me’ has made all of humanity. Alas, laments (like charity), must begin at home.

Here at home, for decades, we have allowed small men to make big decisions. Every sub-culture in the country is by definition peripheral, but for the sprinkling of the symbolic ajrak, or namak mandi, or Allan Faqeer video clip. Then when a gorgeous young man gets taken out by the consensus extrajudicial murderer of the decade – then all hell breaks loose. But slow, like Kylie Minogue. The retardation caused not by anything nearly as delightful as Kylie, but rather by a failure of the national imagination to calculate how many angry tribesmen and university graduates with highlander Pashto-heavy accents can tweet hashtags across international borders. Pakistani capacity to process Mehsud suffering from Karachi to Khyber grew exponentially as Ashraf Ghani, that once-great hope for Afghanistan, reduced himself to Zalmay Khalilzad levels of trolling.

The win? The indignity of the Watan card, a frontrunner for least favourite IT project in the country for many years, would suddenly be no more. As a federalist committed to pluralism, I was elated. As a national security hawk, I was concerned. If the Watan card could be so swiftly done away with, why had we been humiliating so many fellow countrymen for so long? If the purpose it served was so easily jettisoned, why did we have it in the first place? And perhaps equally, if it was necessary in the first place, then why was it dumped so unceremoniously, so fast? Are we safer with it or without it? Anyone?

These questions are the luxury of those, like me, that like to think about strategy as something worth having, pursuing and being attached to over long periods of time. Among the criticisms that many national security establishments face the world over is that they are excellent at tactics, but not so good at strategy. But there is a fundamental underlying flaw in this framework. It assumes that there even is such a thing as strategy. The evidence backing this assumption is flimsy, at best.

If the only dimension you ever operate in is tactical, then you never have to worry about downstream consequences in the way that a strategist would. This makes sense for people that are only going to be in a job for short periods of time, like say, three years.

In high-risk under-developed areas, many aid workers and donor organisations post people for one year, or what is known as one-plus-one: which is a fancy, and shorthand way of saying one year to start with, and another if you want to keep collecting the hazard pay (though, in fairness, the cost of living and high risk bonuses available in the past have largely evaporated from the aid compensation structures in Pakistan circa 2017, largely owing to vastly improved security and a fast-approaching status as an honest to goodness middle-income country). The point being, that short tenures are a classical structural guarantor of tactical thinking. Aid agencies are structurally wedded to tactics, rather than strategy, and this helps explain at least some of the frequent strategic failures of aid, despite plenty of tactical wins.

Pakistan’s military is no different. Though made up of exceptionally talented and brave soldiers, it is a lumbering behemoth of a bureaucracy that is institutionally addicted to short-termism and tactical thinking. It uses the word ‘strategy’ as a shorthand for tactics, and in doing so, lubricates Pakistan’s single-track path to strategic paralysis.

Economically, Pakistan has unnecessarily chosen to become more servile to China than it needs to be, adding China to a list of other debtors, such as the IMF, that undermine its fiscal sovereignty.

Socially, it has allowed foreign powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and India to establish dominant, overpowering narratives about history, identity and the present that undermine the official narrative with the ease of a warm knife passing through butter.

Militarily, the bravery and skill of the individual soldier is in no doubt, but the country does not enjoy any competitive or comparative advantage against its principal rival, India.

I have been reading about Elon Musk and Space X this weekend. So to space! India has over 170 satellites orbiting the Earth, the first of which was launched on an Indian rocket in July of 1980, less than a year after the first Indian rocket launch ended up in the Bay of Bengal. Pakistan has three satellites in the earth’s orbit, none of which were launched by Pakistan. India’s space programme is among the most innovative and economical in the world. Pakistan’s is run by a two-star general who was passed over for promotion.

These kinds of facts tend to rattle and anger defenders of the status quo in this country, but the status quo should take a quick look in the mirror before continuing to blow the same hot air into the national discourse that it has since before Bangladesh was a thing.

This week, the Financial Action Task Force meets in Paris. The FATF is the intergovernmental body that sets standards for countering things like money laundering and terrorist financing. Among the top of the agenda for the FATF is whether to place Pakistan on a terror-financing watch list. Why? Because the US, the UK and several other countries feel that Pakistan has been too soft on Hafiz Saeed and the array of acronyms fashioned to fool his own people, the people of Pakistan, and people around the world.

While most of his own people and the people of Pakistan have consumed textbooks designed to sustain fairy tales that exclude people like Bacha Khan from them, the world at large sees what is happening. A new political party by the name of Milli Muslim League has been mainstreamed into politics precisely at a time when the military felt that a corrosion of the right-wing flank of its bête noire, the PML-N, would be good for national security. But maybe our strategic geniuses have just been taken by surprise by all the hullabaloo, and evil old Uncle Sam has just conjured up these ‘Trump’ed up charges to punish Pakistan for losing the war in Afghanistan?

Well maybe. But Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was listed in the Al-Qaeda Sanctions List of the United Nations Security Council on May 2, 2005. Almost thirteen years ago.

Hafiz Saeed was listed on December 10, 2008, two weeks after the Mumbai attacks. Over nine years ago.

The Milli Muslim League was launched in August 2017. About six months ago. But crucially, two months after the FATF referred Pakistan’s case to the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering in June of 2017.

We already know that this is not the profile of a country that knows how to manage its strategic affairs, but the real question, given timelines, the mind-boggling series of decisions, and the mind-numbing propaganda against its own citizens, is this: does any of this qualify even remotely as sound tactics? Whether strategic or tactical, does it feel like Pakistan is winning on any front?

Maybe the truth is that we are neither good at strategy nor at tactics.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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