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December 3, 2019

Managing war and peace


December 3, 2019

This weekend, the New York Times reported that at least 180 people have been killed in Iran over the last two weeks. The source of the unrest is a series of protests that have metastasized into a wider contest between ordinary citizens and a regime that is motivated by survival in a world that constantly finds new ways to demonize and single out Iran for its political and military positions.

This instinct for survival produces a worldview within the Iranian establishment that privileges loyalty to the Ayatollahs’ regime above all other considerations and by extension treats questions posed to the regime as expressions of dissent that are meant to overthrow the carefully curated post revolution Iran that celebrated forty years of existence this year.

Blood was on the streets in Afghanistan too, throughout the last week. Remember that November began with funerals for at least nine school children in the Takhar province. Sadly, Afghan blood is now treated with such contempt by the entire world that the New York Times does not do a weekly count, as it did last week for Iran. A quick scan of the news from last week quickly exposes the constant agony of Afghanistan.

Fifteen were killed when a roadside bomb exploded in Kunduz. An entire family heading to a wedding was among the dead. Thirteen were killed in in Sar-e-Pol when a car bomb exploded, most likely collateral damage in the fighting between the Taliban and government forces. Three were killed in Helmand, including General Zahir Gul Muqbil. The assassination took place while the general was en route to Marjah, along with at least one journalist for Afghanistan’s Shamshad TV.

Though the big news out of Afghanistan last week was President Donald Trump’s surprise Thanksgiving meal at Bagram Airbase, the US also delivered drone-mounted bombs that killed at least five, including the mother of a newborn child, in Khost. The Taliban, Afghan government forces and the US all combine to continue to make war in Afghanistan a long meandering and ceaseless war that has continued for, coincidentally, forty years.

In Kashmir, the war is much longer. For seventy years, India has waged war on Kashmiris by occupying their homeland, killing their young, and intimidating through injury, rape and scandal anyone that resists the brutality. Pakistan’s support for Kashmir has become a noose (partly because of the rank stupidity of many that have been tasked to lead Pakistan over the last seven decades), but the evil in Kashmir should not be allowed to obfuscate itself. It is New Delhi.

Ensconced within this, and the long wars that the people of this region endure is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan, and especially the armed forces that the people maintain for their security, are under constant threat because great powers, local and global seek to operate in the region to exact and extract outcomes that are beneficial for them. The question, at least for the last forty years, has always been how Pakistan can protect itself from such a geopolitical environment.

There are broadly two schools of thought competing for the answer. The first camp believes in a proactive definition and pursuit of Pakistani interests. In part, the engineers that believe in this approach are responsible for the support that groups like the Kandahari Taliban and the pro-Pakistan Kashmiri fighters received at various points in time from elements within Pakistan. The second school of thought believes that, no matter how profound Pakistan’s stakes in other countries, some degree of passivity is necessary – not because there is any absence of legitimacy to Pakistan’s concerns, but because the fallout of intervention or engagement is too costly for Pakistan to bear.

This second camp points to the emergence of groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as products of the interventionist geopolitical calculus that eventually manifested itself on the streets of Karachi, the graveyards of Quetta, the flood relief camps of lower Sindh, the mosques of central Punjab, and every nook and cranny of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including, most famously: a madressah in Bajaur and an Army Public School in Peshawar. Don’t forget that the churches, shrines, imambargahs that this blowback destroyed get to be mere footnotes in all this.

A country that cannot deliver clean drinking water to its citizens, or functional schools to its children, or neonatal supplements to its expecting mothers is not only tasked with managing an existentially toxic neighbor in the shape of India that is intergenerationally obsessed with territorial disputes with it, but also burdened with this grand debate about how to manage the instability beyond its frontiers.

The principal policy question that today’s Pakistani leader must then reflect on is not so much the outcome of the debate, but on the impact of the continued debate on the task of leadership of the nation itself. Can the external environment that Pakistan must deal with be managed while Pakistan is at war with itself?

Because let there be no doubt. Pakistan – having destroyed the enemy at home and abroad – is incredibly complacent to assume that the war is over. Ending the TTP as we know it, limiting the LeJ to a shadow of itself, and exposing the myth of India’s conventional superiority after Balakot all represent symbolic advances, but they are not signs of peace.

Derided by many, but clearly being waged today across a range of frontiers, is fifth generation warfare (5GW). The blast radius from this war has now come to encompass an incredible range of Pakistani actors. Let’s take stock.

Nawaz Sharif was or is #ModiKaYaar. The #StudentSolidarityMarch is, by poisoning young minds to ask questions and think independently, a grand plan to undermine Pakistan’s status as a sovereign nation. #Lifafa journalists are a dime a dozen, being bought off to slowly corrode national self confidence.

Ask questions about how Kashmir is being handled? Traitor. Ask questions about extrajudicial killings, or disappearances? Traitor. Express unhappiness with the transparency of the reckoning that terrorists must face? Traitor. Use an ancestral language and symbolism to mobilize communities so that the attention of the mighty and the powerful is drawn to injustices like the killing of innocent people by policemen? Traitor.

To top it all off, after a week of institutional wrangling – much of which reflected grandly on how much more mature and well developed Pakistani democracy and institutions are than we often give them credit for – the country’s prime minister tweeted haughtily about how political and institutional partisanship could only be a sign of “external enemies” or “mafias who have stashed their loot abroad”.

But Pakistan’s most powerful men must realize that thanks to the wisdom of Quaid-e-Azam, the genius of the framers of our existing constitution (and most of its amendments), and the sacrifices of Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan is much stronger than they think.

Managing an external environment of war requires ending the wars at home. The political system, the integrity of the country’s institutions, and the people at large can all survive compromises made with Pakistanis, for the sake of Pakistan.

What they cannot survive is the refusal to compromise, for the sake of individuals.

May Allah protect and guide all of Pakistan’s leaders.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.