Coming full circle
Friday, 12 Feb, 2010
OUR boys in uniform have a spring in their step again. Domestically, they have taken on two enemies and appear to be winning: the civilian government has been reduced to parroting the army’s line on security issues, while the TTP is a significantly degraded force.
Regionally, they can barely suppress their grins. In a few short weeks, the Americans have gone from threatening a ‘Pakistan first’ option in the war against Al Qaeda and associated movements to desperately seeking someone in Islamabad, or more accurately Pindi, who can put them in touch with the Taliban’s so-called ‘reconcilable’ elements.
It’s not quite a wave of triumphalism that is sweeping over the army but there definitely is a widely shared sense of validation. And that should worry the rest of us.
Here’s why. To hear the generals tell it, they have fought a threat — the TTP — that has managed to inflict more damage on this country than all the damage caused by all the terrorists in the rest of the world put together.
Grimly, they show you the statistics by means of elegant charts and the human cost by means of disturbing photos. Look at what we fought, they seem to say, no one else in the world has done this in recent times.
All true. But they ignore one crucial question: why did we have to fight this fight in the first place? If violence spiked in 2006 and has been sustained by the militants at meteoric levels since, what were we doing between 2001 and then, and even before?There’s no glory in winning a war for a country if the war was never inevitable in the first place. On whose watch did the TTP grow into a monstrous force? Kayani may be winning plaudits for his battlefield victories in Bajaur, Swat and South Waziristan but it was his predecessor, Musharraf, who let the threat build up.
And since the army never fails to tell us that it is an ‘institution’ first and foremost, should it not apologise to the nation for its institutional mistakes? Forget the apology, should it not show more humility in claiming credit for what amounts to cleaning up a mess after creating it in the first place?
I wish this were only an issue about form and not substance. Such are the ways of the world and states that apologies and demonstrations of humility can often be beside the point. What’s done is done and the country needs to move on — but can it if the army, the self-appointed custodian of the country’s security policy, continues to live in denial?
Here’s the problem: there has long been a suspicion that the Pakistan Army lets tactics drive strategy, and the victories against the TTP may actually reinforce that disastrous approach.
The best explanation for what the army has done over the last year has been labelled, for want of a better name, the ‘prioritisation approach’. Crudely, it amounts to this: you attack me repeatedly and viciously and I will destroy you. Exhibit A: the militants in Swat and Baitullah/Hakeemullah’s TTP went on the rampage against the state, so they were made to pay the price.
But this approach suffers from two flaws: one, it tends to treat militant groups more as distinct entities than as an unholy cocktail; and two, it discounts the long-term role of ideology. Essentially, if Group A isn’t attacking us today, it doesn’t mean that it won’t tomorrow. In fact, if you connect the dots as objectively as possible, you will probably reach the conclusion that it will in some way.
The army has leapt at the possibility of reconciling/reintegrating the Afghan Taliban (not least because they ask, what’s the alternative?) but should you and me, the average Pakistani, be anything but scared of the possibility of a return to power of those men in our backyard, regionally speaking?
The last time it took them just a few short years to make a catastrophic misjudgement and allow Osama to let his imagination run murderously wild. Why should we expect them to behave any more responsibly after defeating the world’s only superpower? After all, in some ways that would be an even greater victory than the original mujahideen’s; the originals at least had the support of another superpower.
More problematically, the army’s ‘Taliban solution’ in Afghanistan will continue our disastrous policy of focusing on the Pakhtun population to the exclusion of other groups, and that too through the alternating lenses of Pakhtun nationalism and dogmatic religiosity.
In short, the Pakistan Army seems to have come through the crucible of the last decade with exactly the same ‘strategic’ thinking as it had going into the decade. Given the price this country has paid in that period, that should be an absurd proposition. Yet, the rough outlines increasingly appear to be the same.
Which is why we should be worried about that spring in the army’s step. The generals are so pleased about their ‘success’ in recovering the security situation inside Pakistan and the possibility of a big say in the future of Afghanistan that they seem to have skipped right past the bit about introspection over why we are where we are today.
It’s not that the generals needs to parade around the country in sackcloth and ashes and beg the people’s forgiveness — though the possibility would certainly delight some — but denial has never led to great policy or strategy or tactics anywhere.
A related point can help illustrate the problem. The army has come up with a response to why it did not launch a full-fledged counter-insurgency against the TTP earlier. The reason, the generals say, is that the state/army’s ‘centre of gravity’ was the local population and the wider public.
Until the public was convinced that the TTP was the enemy and had to be defeated, there was never the possibility of military success: locally, the population could have shielded the militants; nationally, the public could have pressured the government to halt the fighting.
Look, though, at the history of the country over the last 30 years and ask yourself this: who has sided with the Islamists and militants the most? Would not generals Zia and Musharraf top that list?
(Don’t scoff at the Musharraf claim: after all, the Islamist parties controlled two provinces and had their largest share in parliament in history on his watch.)
So it’s all well and good for the generals to claim that ‘public support’ to fight the militants wasn’t always there — but then they should also be honest and explain the army’s role in eliminating the possibility of that support existing earlier.
Yes, the reality is that the Pakistan Army will need to be at the forefront of the effort to defeat militancy in this country. But don’t confuse needing them with believing them. They may have earned our gratitude for fighting recently; trust, though, is a separate matter altogether.