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Opinion

March 8, 2014

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Talk, time and tactics

The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
The talk tamasha continues. No one has come out looking good from this absurdity. The two committees have only confirmed what we already knew: that they were a farce. Despite their murdering ways, the Taliban have been exposed as being internally in disarray and without control over their own ranks. The government, even if we were to give it the benefit of the doubt, may be sincere but is seen as bumbling and confused.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis continue to die. Pakistanis continue to cry.
There is no joy in knowing that all of this could have been predicted – was predicted. There is only tears and grief for the murder and mayhem that terrorists continue to pile on innocent Pakistanis. Innocent Pakistanis – like the 23-year old Fizza Malik (Fijja to her friends) or Additional Sessions Judge Rafaqat Ahmed Awan, father of two – who were slain in the suicide attack on the Islamabad District Courts.
Tears and grief will not bring Fizza Malik back to her family and friends. It will not matter to Judge Rafaqat Awan’s children whether the bullet that killed their father came from the gun of his own guard or the assassin. It was terror that killed their father; and that terror will stay with them. Our tears will dry – they may already have. Their loss will not go away – it never can.
Of course, tears cannot be held back. Of course, grief cannot be avoided. But tears and grief can do little to change what has happened. Thinking strategically can also do little to change what has happened. But maybe it can help alter the course of what will happen tomorrow. If it does, it will at least mean that all the Pakistanis – soldiers, policemen, citizens – who have been doing the dying for all of us, did not die in vain.
*****
It is in the spirit of thinking beyond one’s tears and

grief that I offer four thoughts about what might affect what happens tomorrow. Here are some things we should be thinking about as we prepare for the day after the talks fail, which they already have, and will again.
1. Time is of essence. For Pakistan there is little time left to lose. For the Taliban time is what they seek to gain. Here is a date that matters: April 5, 2014.
Elections are planned in Afghanistan on that date. The closer we get to that date, the more tense this neighborhood will become. Afghans, Americans, and Afghan Taliban will all be on edge. There will be enough uncertainty within Afghanistan itself for any of them to want more uncertainty seeping in across a very porous border. Whether the elections happen as planned or not, and whatever the results, Afghanistan will have enough tense struggles of its own.
It is a matter of consequence and a diplomatic achievement that the Nawaz Sharif government has been able to convince the US to constrain its drone campaign. Amongst other things, this has taken the wind out of the ‘the Taliban do what they do because of drones’ argument. However, the US constrain is likely to have an expiry date. That the US has been preoccupied in Ukraine may have distracted them from AfPak, but this will not last. The closer we get to April 5, the more worried the US will become about spillover impacts from whatever is happening in Pakistan.
Whatever is to happen – a deal or an operation – should happen before April 5. Beyond that there is a long period of likely confusion and possibly chaos. Who do you think emerges the loser if after all the blood that has been shed things fade away in a whimper, without either a meaningful deal or a conclusive operation?
2. Civil-military relations. Let us acknowledge that it has been good to see the civilian government and the military reading from the same book, even if they have not always been on exactly the same page. It is both useful and important that we have been seeing pictures of the army chief and the prime minister meeting every few days.
However, even as I write these lines the army chief is meeting with his corps commanders and the seeming coziness of the relationship he has struck with the prime minister could soon be tested. It will be catastrophic if the military is seen to be opposing the prime minister. It will be equally catastrophic if the prime minister or his team is seen to care more about what the Taliban want than about their own soldiers. Despite all the focus on the political chatter, it is the civil-military relationship that is most vital to how we deal with the Taliban, and beyond.
3. Party games. If one were to believe what one sees and hears on television it would seem that the real war is not between Pakistan and the Taliban, but between the government and the opposition. Luckily, beyond the high drama that our political parties and our television channels thrive on, this is not quite so.
All the major parties are, in fact, far closer to each other on the Taliban issue than they seem to be; or, maybe, realise. If, indeed, the prime minister can shake himself out of his stupor of indecisiveness and trigger concerted military action against the Taliban, a coalition of the willing seems ready to be formed with the PPP, the MQM, the PML-Q, and the ANP. With the right incentives, even Maulana Fazlur Rahman could be convinced to join.
Of course, the wildcard is Imran Khan. However, as we have recently seen, he is coming across as more confused than committed. If it is demonstrated that the government has made a real effort to talk to the Taliban (which it has) and that the Taliban have failed to reciprocate (which they have), then his argument loses weight. Ultimately, I have no doubt, in any contest that is seen as Pakistan against anyone, that he will side with Pakistan.
4. Building the narrative. Before the prime minister can rally the type of political coalition that is needed, he will have to bring discipline in his own ranks. More than that he will need to take control of the public narrative. The same way he did right before he triggered Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998.
At one level the public is ready for a narrative of action. It was crafted before the Swat operation and, again, a few weeks ago before the targeted air strikes in Waziristan. But what is needed is a narrative that will not only see us through the launch of an operation but to its conclusion. Yes, it is scary to envisage what will happen when the Taliban bring the war to our streets, our schools, or mosques, our offices. However, is that not where the war already is?
There is much campaigning that the government will need to do. But it is doable: That the government did try talks, but was ridiculed and bombed in return. That our fight is for Pakistan, not against Shariah. That the last few weeks have shown that the TTP either will not or cannot control those who commit terror attacks against Pakistan. And if they cannot deliver on that, then what is there to talk about?
Twitter: @adilnajam

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