The Times That Await US

The seeds that we have sown, and some scattered by the howling winds. What will come of this? Of what shape the future when another foreign army, drinking from the cup of humiliation, leaves that graveyard of imperial ambitions, Afghanistan? The furies should know. Mortals, sunk keep in their sofas, can get such things wrong.
I have been reading some books on the Afghan insurgency – by western authors, let me hasten to add – and the more I have read the more red in the face (proper word ‘ashamed’) I have been of my Afghan ignorance.
The clichés we have been fed upon, the most resounding being ‘this is our war’. Whoever sold us this nonsense? This was America’s war. They began it, they came here. This was our war only in the sense that we were sucked into its vortex, forcing first that luckless warrior, Musharraf, then that soaring monument to incompetence, the PPP government, and, all along, the army to take decisions that otherwise, with our wits about us, might have been avoided.
The godfathers of security, keepers of our makeshift destiny, sowed not just the seeds but the wind. The results are before us. We saw to it, almost, that we were left high and dry after the first so-called Afghan jihad. We will again be left facing the elements after the sequel, Jihad Two. The more things change…
The only good thing this time is that the army, to its credit, went only part of the way. Even under Musharraf it did not succumb wholly to American diktat and brainwashing. It swallowed some of the prescriptions the Americans were ramming down its throat but, mercifully, not all.
True, in the process the army command invited charges of playing a double game, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Bad as this indictment sounded at the time, it was better than complying fully with American wishes and, as a consequence, coming close to self-immolation.
The Americans were very careful about their own losses, their fighting men in Afghanistan dressed in fuller armour than the iron-clad knights of the Age of Chivalry. But they wanted the easy fodder of the Pakistan Army to rush in where they feared to tread. The capacity of Pakistan’s generals and mandarins (and journalists) to act like first-class stooges is never to be underestimated. But that in this respect they resisted American pressure and only went so far and no further is to be commended.
And look how the situation has evolved. The Americans are scuttling ship and getting out of Afghanistan. Determined on retreat, no power on earth can stop their retreat. Judge of this then: what if, succumbing to American pressure, Gen Kayani and the high command had gone into North Waziristan, as the Americans so desperately wanted?
The course of the war would not have altered, and the Americans would still have been getting out. But our army would have taken more hits, finding itself in another quagmire, its lines further over-extended. And the Americans wouldn’t have given a damn, just as they didn’t give a damn the last time they straightened their knickers and walked out of Afghanistan.
This time they promised a lasting Afghan commitment. What Gen de Gaulle said about treaties is true also of commitments. “Treaties,” he said, “are like roses and young girls. They last while they last.”
In today’s Pakistan it is not fashionable to say a good word about the army. Our democracy credentials are not substantiated unless we land a kick on the army’s backside. But in the context of the Afghan insurgency/freedom struggle, the army had a limited hand which it has played skilfully. While not breaking with the Americans, which would have been foolish, it has kept them at arm’s length. The Abbottabad raid – leading to Osama’s killing – was also an unwitting blessing, for the humiliation of it helped stiffen the army’s spine.
As another bloody chapter in Afghanistan’s contemporary history draws to a close, certain things are becoming clearer. The Americans are losing, in fact have already lost; the Taliban are winning but as a sign of their new-found maturity they are not crowing about their triumph; and the Karzai regime is giving every indication of not being able to survive if left to its own devices.
Karzai is not to blame. He is caught up in events far bigger than himself. A puppet, no matter his other virtues, is still a puppet. The Soviets tried installing puppets in Kabul. They fell one after the other. The Americans propped up a puppet regime in South Vietnam. Vietnamisation is what they called the process of its supposed strengthening, beefing up the South Vietnamese army and the like. Hanoi bided its time. When two years later (1975) the communist army swept down from the north, the edifice of Vietnamisation collapsed faster than a house of cards.
History doesn’t repeat itself in every particular. But similar handlooms yield similar tapestries. This we are seeing in Afghanistan. The Americans will keep convincing others and convincing themselves that they are leaving behind stability, and defence forces able to withstand the Taliban. But there is a growing sense all around that all this brave talk belies reality. If nothing else, the short tempers on display in Kabul these days are indicative of nervousness, that time is running out.
But Karzai’s plight is of no comfort to us who have our own chestnuts to pull out of the fire. No change in Kabul will solve our Taliban problem. The radical armies holed up in North Waziristan, the suicide bombers, the support network throughout the country, and the surge of confidence resulting from the American withdrawal…what do we do with this challenge? How do we stand up to it?
The American withdrawal will remove a major grievance on the part of the Taliban that the Pakistan Army is acting as a tool of foreign interests. The atmosphere will improve but the underlying problem will not disappear. Other countries have faced similar problems: Russia in Chechnya, Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. But contrary to these examples we seem not sure in our minds about what to do. If talk to the Taliban, on what terms? If fight them, with what resolve? These remain unanswered questions.
And it doesn’t help when national leadership, from one end to the other, is caught up in other things, conflict-of-interest the real name of the game. Honesty may be a blasé subject, eliciting a yawn, but there’s propriety and the appearance of things. Zardari had little of either, but what about his successors? A treatise could be written on the necessity of enterprising sons accompanying the prime minister father on his trip to China, that too in the company of business tycoons with a finger in every pie. Circular debt and the same names appear.
The question that Tolstoy asked: how much land does a man require? How much wealth does anyone require? Or in the Fortress of Islam are such questions irrelevant?
Tailpiece: But not irrelevant are our religious obligations, real or spurious. This was the plea taken by the ruling PML-N before the Supreme Court: that the presidential election falling on August 6, the 27th of Ramazan (a day holy in our calendar, marking the revelation of the Quran) the date should be brought forward so as to allow legislators to perform their various religious obligations.
The 27th of Ramazan (Aug 14, 1947) was good enough for the birth of Pakistan, but it is a tough day for a presidential election…and their lordships agree. Great confusion about everything else but surpassing clarity about religious duties…no one can say we don’t have our priorities right.