A Six-Month Timeline Is All We Have

By mid-2014 what many Pakistanis have been crying themselves hoarse about will have happened: most of the Americans in Afghanistan will have gone and we will be alone with our terrorist problem. If a residual American presence remains there may be some drones flying around. But we can be reasonably certain that the intensity of the present drone war will subside. Taliban leaders in North Waziristan will heave a sigh of relief.
When the Soviets were in Afghanistan they were afraid of one thing above all: Stinger missiles which made their helicopters vulnerable. The tide of war in Afghanistan changed with the arrival of the Stingers. The one thing for which the Taliban have no answer is drone technology. They will be counting the days when that is gone, or most of it is.
Pakistan was unprepared for post-Soviet Afghanistan. Is it any better prepared for post-American Afghanistan?
Some of the nonsense emanating from the political class can be easily dismissed. Despite all the heat and noise peace talks is a non-starter, not least because no one has been able to define the basis of a peace settlement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Some other illusions can also be put to rest. Once the Americans pack their bags and leave the Taliban will not descend from the mountains and lay down their arms before the Pakistani authorities. The sources of militancy will not dry up. Taliban ardour, far from diminishing, will be on the rise.
Just imagine what the Taliban around their campfires will be saying: Islam and faith defeated one superpower; this combination has now defeated the superpower which remains. The soft state of Pakistan now beckons. The dynamics of the situation in Afghanistan may be different, either the country again descending into civil war or some attempt being made at power-sharing…if Afghanistan is lucky, that is. But over here, given what we know of the TTP, naked ambition will be on the march.
The TTP has tasted power and no one gives up power voluntarily. We have to understand the social transformation that has been wrought: small-time mullahs, village maulvis, have come to wield power and authority, the lower orders of tribal society riding to the top, guns in their hands and fighters at their command, and revelling in the freedom of the mountains, and the previous tribal hierarchy gone, the old order of Maliks eliminated at the point of the bullet.
People with nothing before, now having all this…would they want to give it up? It’s like – just try imagining this – your neighbourhood maulvi suddenly becoming a leader of society, dictating orders and laying down the law. Take this as a test: if anyone thinks that matters can be settled with the TTP, he should first try his hand at discussing something, anything, with his local preacher. If he succeeds then only let him visualise talking to the Taliban.
This is not to run these people down but only to point out that we are dealing with a different set of people and a different worldview. Most of the Taliban figures, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan, are either unlettered or products of madressah education. We have a whole population of madressah students in Pakistan, but the difference is that those who have joined the Taliban have a gun in their hands and are mostly battle-hardened. Primitivism is one thing but add a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher to it and it becomes a deadly combination.
Consider also another aspect of this situation. The Taliban have their mountain fastnesses. The army cannot reach them, or can reach them with considerable difficulty. But the Taliban are free to come down to Peshawar, to the plains of Punjab, and mingle with the population. A whole criminal industry has developed since the onset of our terrorism war, car-lifting, extortion and kidnappings being masterminded from the tribal belt – anarchy at the service of the Taliban.
The Pakistani state can remain where it is, and the Taliban can remain where they are, but the kind of power the Taliban now enjoy they would not like taken away.
If my MQM friends would forgive my saying so, the MQM has also wrought a social transformation in Karachi, a powerless stratum organising itself and rising to a position of power. If the MQM is not going to cede authority in Karachi – the smallest thing happens and gunmen are on the loose and the city is made to shut down – the Taliban are not going to cede authority where they exercise it.
There’s a difference too: MQM power is confined largely to urban Sindh. In the shape of Deobandi madressahs and networks of sympathizers, the Taliban can project power and carry out deadly actions across the country. Mehran, Kamra and GHQ attest to this Taliban capability.
The purpose of this explanation is simply to show that whether we like it or not, we have a fight on our hands. We can close our eyes to it, as we have been doing for a long time, we can bury our heads in the sand, an activity at which we also excel, but this problem is not going away. It’s no use saying that the American presence in Afghanistan has brought this militancy about or has exacerbated it. This is now a futile discussion, of academic interest perhaps but of no practical relevance. Even if we prove to ourselves or to others that it’s all America’s fault how does it help us? We have this problem. What do we do about it?
Before we go on to what we should do, or what choices we have, there is another piece of nonsense that we can nail to the mast: the cliché much beloved of the Pakistani political class that war is no solution to anything. The world as presently constituted, the map-lines we see, all of it is a product of strife and conflict.
Throughout history, through the rise and fall of empires, power and its application, blood and iron to use Bismarck’s phrase, have shaped the destiny of nations. If this is putting it crudely, you can sugar coat the words but the underlying reality would remain the same.
A de Gaulle quote is apt: “The sword is the axis of the world and its power is absolute.”
Power of course doesn’t mean its crude application. What did Horace say? “Brute force bereft of reason falls by its own weight. Power with counsel temper’d even the gods make greater…” That’s it: power with counsel tempered, power balanced by reason. But against the problem we are facing we are showing neither power nor reason…we are just mumbling stupidities, and sometimes shouting these same stupidities from the housetops.
Nobody wants to be harsh on the political class, we are all great democrats and we are all for democracy, but the political class, as heaven is our witness, seems to have given up on thinking altogether. Do we see any analysis, rigorous or not, about the situation facing us not in the remote future but the next six months? Can anyone take the proceedings of parliament, both houses, seriously?
The army is supposed to be great at analysis. At least that is the carefully cultivated myth. But has the army, after all its Afghan travails, discarded its notions of Taliban assets and seeking influence in Afghanistan? Or is it still stuck in the old grooves?
We could have made good use of these six months and pressed the Taliban against their havens, drones in the sky and our forces on the ground. But this is not going to happen. From what we can judge, this opportunity, the only that remains before the Americans are gone and the shape of the horizon changes, will be frittered away. To no one’s surprise really given that both the political class and the military are torn betwixt platitude and irresolution.