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February 18, 2014

Pigeons and eagles

Opinion

February 18, 2014

May the Lord have mercy on us for our condition is deserving of pity. We know which way the tide is turning but closing our eyes to the obvious we are postponing the inevitable, hoping that somehow through some miracle the need for bestirring ourselves and putting our limbs to some trouble will not arise.
Pigeons are good at this. Pakistan today – a country of nearly 200 million souls, a huge army maintained at considerable expense, and a sizeable nuclear arsenal – resembles nothing so much as the pigeon with its eyes closed.
Iqbal sang of the shaheen, the eagle, exhorting his companions-in-faith to become like it. His soaring poetry we should have retired from the service of patriotism a long time ago, for in the Pakistan of today where whimpering passes for leadership nothing sounds more outdated.
The Taliban are not merely fighting Pakistan. They are mocking it. Even as Pakistani leaders clutch desperately at straws the Taliban feel not the slightest hesitation in accepting responsibility for attacks across the country. On Saturday even as there was talk of an impending ceasefire by the Taliban – conditional of course, after meeting their conditions – a Taliban commander in the Mohmand tribal agency was proudly claiming responsibility for the killing of 23 Frontier Corps soldiers in Taliban captivity, in retaliation, as he helpfully explained, for this and that. Mockery cannot get sharper than this.
The drama of talks with the Taliban has already handed them a propaganda advantage, the government treating them as an equal partner. But the Taliban are trying to have it all their way and the Pakistani state, so tough when it wants to be, is taking this quietly, showcasing itself as a model of forbearance.
But the nagging question we should be asking: is there any running away from this fight which is being forced on Pakistan? We can postpone it. We can give more concessions but is there any escaping its inevitability? Sooner or later, however desperately we try to avoid it, this war, this encounter will be upon us, because in the dictionary of those we are dealing with the word ‘compromise’ is not to be found.
When you are possessed of the gun which has not been defeated, and your ideology you take to be the word of Allah, and your mind is full of images of defeating one superpower and now the other, then what you seek is victory and final redemption, not compromise, that too with a state, in this case Pakistan, whose weaknesses and vulnerabilities you have come to be familiar with.
This then is our problem and there is no point in now saying that we created these monsters and sowed the seeds of folly on the Hindukush Mountains. All that is now past, history’s pages or its footnotes to be pored over by scholars. Relevant now is our present danger and what we do about it. Let’s also remember another thing: if this vacillation and whining are all the leadership we get, some pillar in our temple is bound to give way and even fall. Let me try to make my meaning clearer.
In a state where the available leadership is weak and incompetent and the army is large and relatively well-trained then this state of affairs, this vacuum at the heart of leadership, cannot last forever. Either the leadership gets serious and reads the warning signals emblazoned across the skies, and develops some strength, or the legions get restless and start toying with ideas that should be the farthest from their minds. Take this as the 11th commandment.
There is no guarantee that the soldiery in power will do any better than the incompetent politicians. After the death of Ranjit Singh the Khalsa army was large and well-trained, and battle-hardened, but left to its own devices it added to the prevailing disorder, and although in battle with the British it gave a good account of itself it suffered eventual defeat, Punjab for the next hundred years becoming a loyal part of the British Empire. Weak rulers, and constant intrigue, could not keep a check on the ambitions of the Khalsa army; the army in turn made worse the plight of the kingdom.
Look at what’s just happened in Egypt, a popular upsurge overthrowing the well-entrenched Mubarak order, a new dispensation taking the place of the old, but in about a year middle class disaffection growing and the army, under a clever general, exploiting this popular resentment and engineering a comeback…and Field Marshal Al-Sisi all set to contest elections and become next president of Egypt.
In Egypt there was no Taliban insurgency, only middle class disenchantment. Many would argue that what Pakistan faces is something far greater: a threat to its very survival. Yet the government seems unable to cope, every passing day revealing further its many inadequacies (and skewed priorities…is this a time for more ‘jangla’ bus services?)
Another element in the Egyptian kaleidoscope is also missing in Pakistan: a politically alive middle class. Conditions for military intervention were created by the middle class and other professional classes taking to Tahrir Square and mounting massive rallies. In Thailand the anti-Shinawatra movement has been spearheaded by noisy protesters in the capital, Bangkok.
Here we have a vacillating government on one side, the Taliban testing the limits of the possible on the other side, the army sulking in between and no live-wire civil society taking to the streets, much less the barricades. So the army is alone and isolated, and the country as a whole in a bind, in a limbo, a twilight state betwixt light and darkness.
The army cannot go it alone. North Waziristan is not the only theatre of Taliban concentration, Taliban or extremist influence now to be found in spreading pockets across the country. A military operation can only be one part of a larger strategy. But the galvanising of the country as a whole and putting it on something close to a war footing, is a job for the elected government not the army, unless of course the army steps out of its barracks, a course fraught with the dangers we in Pakistan are so familiar with.
Will then the army get the backing it needs should there be, as looks likely in due season, a recourse to arms? Can pigeons become eagles? Can appeasers suddenly become leaders of a nation at war? Or will the army be left on its own, with the country divided and the government abdicating responsibility?
I am no stranger to cluelessness but I have never been so much in the dark about where as a country we may be headed. This is an enclosed country geographically, bounded by impassable mountains to the north, Iran and Afghanistan to the west where we cannot go, and India to the east which will not open its doors to us. Iraqi and Syrian refugees displaced by war and civil war have gone to neighbouring lands. Afghans have found refuge in Pakistan. If God forbid our turn comes, where do we go?
Email: [email protected]