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Friday, June 3, 2011

The Woes of an Ostrich Republic

When the cover was blown from Osama bin Laden’s last gift to Pakistan – his choice of residence in Abbottabad, a favour we could have done without – it was only to be expected that the guardians of national ideology would be rendered speechless. There are some situations too embarrassing for words and this was one of them.

A frank admission of failure might have been more sensible. But this being no part of the Pakistani tradition, our guardians did the next best thing: climb the ramparts and blow the trumpets of national dignity and honour. For about 10-12 days it seemed as if Pakistan was trembling on the edge of a new declaration of independence. Politicians of all hues went wild with demands for an end to foreign aid.

It took only two brief visits – the first by Senator John Kerry, the second by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with Admiral Mike Mullen in tow – to puncture this euphoric post-Osama myth of born-again national sovereignty.

Pakistan’s leadership – president, prime minister and the chief guardian himself, Gen Ashfaq Kayani – dutifully lined up before Kerry (who, it bears noting, holds no official position in the US administration) to hear him say that Pakistan’s conduct henceforth would be judged not by words but deeds.

Any doubts persisting about whether the mood of the Pakistani leadership had sobered up were laid to rest by the second visit. Hillary Clinton offered a sop to her interlocutors, something they would have been keen to hear: “...I want to stress again that we have absolutely no reason to believe anyone at the highest level of the government knew (about Osama).” But this came with a sting: “...we have reached a turning point....we look to Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead.”

What those steps were was made clear a few days later by Admiral Mullen who told American TV channels that an operation by the Pakistan army in North Waziristan was on the cards. “It’s a very important fight,” he said, “and a very important operation.”

One doesn’t have to be much of a war genius to figure out what’s going on. The Americans give the army leadership a sort of clean chit about Bin Laden but get the army to agree on a new, and potentially dangerous, operation, something Kayani and company were resisting for some time. So much for national honour and sovereignty.

And look at the ISI’s predicament. Since the Raymond Davis affair its leadership was getting hot under the collar wanting to reduce the American footprint in Pakistan. Now the same leadership has to go along with the opening of a new front in North Waziristan. In other words, taking a strong stand on a relatively small issue but helpless in the face of a larger decision.

The Peshawar corps commander has of course said that an operation in North Waziristan is not imminent and that it will be undertaken “...when we want to do it, when it is militarily and otherwise in the national interest.” While he should be applauded for his outspokenness, he forgets that we often leave it to our foreign friends to define our national interest.

The fight against terrorism should be taken forward but we should think long and hard before going into North Waziristan. This already looks like a compromised operation not because we are talking about it but because, given the present state of army morale, it is hard to imagine any unit of the Pakistan army having its heart in it when the fighting begins.

Swat and South Waziristan were different. There was hope in the air that we were about to turn a corner in our fight against extremism. There was also the feeling that military success would be complemented by something equally daring on the political front. But with no end in sight to what increasingly looks like an intractable struggle, and with the political leadership largely uninvolved (neither the president nor the prime minister having visited the troops even once) that mood has vanished, giving way to a feeling of resignation and despondency.

The effects of the Osama raid and the attack on the Mehran base should also be taken into account. With military morale not at its highest it will take a minor miracle of leadership to inject a gung-ho spirit into the units going into North Waziristan. If at all undertaken, this has to be our own operation, with our hearts and souls in it. If carried out under American pressure, there is a risk it will be a half-cocked affair.

We have to get one thing straight. That we are amenable to American pressure is not so much because of our economic vulnerability, although that too is a problem, but because of our strategic double games: fighting some militants while nurturing and supporting others because of their presumed usefulness against India. Or as future insurance policy for Afghanistan.

The foremost condition for the reclamation of sovereignty is an end to these games, a final farewell to the use of militancy as a tool of foreign policy. Support for such organisations as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and a sovereign Pakistan are mutually contradictory aims. If we want to be masters in our own house we have to rid ourselves of the bitter legacy of ‘jihad’. It has caused Pakistan nothing but unmitigated harm and given a handle to others to use against us.

And can the godfathers of national security kindly get Afghanistan out of their system? Can’t we leave it to geography and cultural proximity to work their influences? Earlier on we propped up Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Then it was the Taliban. Now it is the Haqqanis. Can’t we get over this obsession of wanting to control things in Afghanistan? We never succeeded in the past, we won’t in the future. Afghan history has not been kind to would-be controllers.

The other half of our double games flows from our perceptions about India. The lashkar-this and the jaish-that have been pawns on our Indian chessboard. Without going into the details of our Indian obsession, suffice it to say that the world has changed, the sub-continent has changed, the dragons threatening us are no longer the same.

No one is saying bend the knee before India. Why should that even be a consideration? Larger neighbours can be a problem but we must learn to live with them. There’s no other choice. We have cultivated hostility towards India and all this has done is to drag us down, warping our thoughts and making them morbid, and crippling our ability to behave and function like a normal nation.

Pakistan has two problems – just two and no other: under-development and the curse of religious fundamentalism gone wild. Both are internal problems aggravated not by any international conspiracy – Zionist, Indian or American – but by our external obsessions. Unless the army, and here the key responsibility is the army’s, breaks free from its Indian bondage – and this is a bondage – there can be no peace for Pakistan.

Just think of it, clenching our mailed fist towards India but sucking up to the United States, acting upon American demands about necessary steps, what kind of sovereignty is this?

Islam is not the state religion of Pakistan, denial is. And our national emblem should be the ostrich, given our proclivity to bury our heads in the sand and not see the landscape around us as it is.

We need a drastic change of course, that’s for sure. The kind of civilian leaders we have, their quality we know. No hope for any miracles from that quarter. As for the military side, Kayani has begun to look too much like a dated product, a rep of the old order. He has outlived his usefulness. His extension may have been a Zardari political masterstroke, serving to protect his flanks, but otherwise it wasn’t a bright idea.

We need a change of guard, both political and military, the coming of some rebels to the fore. This is Pakistan’s foremost challenge...dependent, however, on divine grace because the political spectrum, from one end to the other, presents the aspect of a desert, the level and lonely sands (echoes of Shelley) stretching far away.
By Ayaz Amir: Email: winlust@yahoo.com

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