When Words Fail

What is one to say? What really is there to say? A general, commanding a div, gets killed in Upper Dir by a roadside bomb, along with a lieutenant colonel and a lance naik. The Taliban, never ones to beat about the bush, claim responsibility. Their Swat chapter did it, they helpfully explain.
And the prime minister’s office, leading the effort for peace talks with the Taliban, issues a statement beginning with the sentence, “Pakistan Army has made substantial sacrifices to protect the nation against the menace of terrorism…”
Note the choice of adjectives… “substantial”. How many more officers and men must the army lose before its sacrifices can earn a slightly higher grade: say, ‘great’ or ‘tremendous’? If the Americans in Afghanistan had suffered a fifth of the casualties our army has borne there would have been riots across the country.
But this is the Islamic Republic, confused and muddled and with no shortage of Taliban sympathisers. It’s a wonder the sympathisers aren’t saying that it’s the general’s fault who shouldn’t have ventured where he did without informing Maulana Fazlullah or seeking his permission. So ‘substantial’, I suppose, will have to do.
And from the government’s side is there any mention of the Taliban who have brazenly accepted responsibility? Perish the thought. The All-Parties Conference was so coy, talking not of the Taliban but “our people in the tribal areas…” The prime minister’s statement wasn’t about to break this tradition by naming the Taliban, much less saying anything harsh about them. So the picture of appeasement and cravenness so boldly drawn by the APC gets another thick coating of paint.
Nor is this all. The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, refers to two dialogue conditions: army withdrawal from Fata and release of Taliban prisoners, the very day the general and his companions are killed. This is hardly surprising…any fool could have seen these conditions coming. But spelt out like this they still come as a jolt. The related jolt is the news that the seven Wapda employees released by the Taliban were released not for love but a hefty ransom (two and a half crores). The same day as all this happens, there are other casualties, again from IEDs, across Fata.
Strange this situation…Taliban sympathisers in government, the rest of the political parties and the media bombard the Taliban with peace overtures, more olive branches extended than the country’s olive production can afford, but how do ‘our people in the tribal areas’ respond? If only they could bring themselves to say a few soothing words, howsoever vague and imprecise, Ch Nisar and the rest of the sympathiser would fall over backwards to give the impression that the Taliban had taken a mighty step and that peace was close at hand.
But ‘our people in the tribal areas’ hold out not so much as an olive sapling, no word or small gesture, and the government and the rest of the sympathiser class are left holding their bowl of confusion with no help from them.
Stern taskmasters the Taliban, aka ‘our people in the tribal areas’. Hitler could be very charming when he wanted to be. He smiled at Munich and did his best to please Chamberlain. The ‘Fortress of Islam’, as presently constituted, would be grateful for a smile. Even a false smile would do. Even that is not forthcoming.
Our wounds are open and ‘our people’ are pouring salt over them. Our cup of humiliation is full and ‘our people’ want to add more to it. And we have no Plan B, no line of retreat, no other options. We have put all our eggs in the appeasement basket simply because we have no stomach for anything tougher. Playing it safe, turning masterly inactivity into a supreme art form, has brought this dispensation its third coming into power. Are its masters likely to imperil everything by a risky course of action?
So everyone is playing a waiting game: waiting for Gen Kayani to step down and seeing how war and peace play out once a new chief is in; waiting for the Americans to leave Afghanistan and then seeing what happens; waiting for some miracle to occur so that ‘our people in the tribal areas’ see the light and transform their ways and come to some understanding. In short, anything if tough decisions can be avoided. If masterly inactivity has got them thus far, their luck holding out, may it not see them through even this as well?
And what have the Taliban sympathisers to lose? The Taliban are not hitting them. The Taliban spared Punjab, for the most part, for the last 3-4 years. Why take them on now? Why stir this hornet’s nest? It’s the army out there in the front, taking the most hits, and the luckless khasadars, poor devils, and the Frontier Corps. And wasn’t it the army – or its ideological wing, the ISI – which nurtured the Taliban? So if the ghosts have come to haunt their creators there is poetic justice in that and what are we to do?
The army has paid in blood for its past follies. Penance gets no higher than this. But what about the present civilian masters who along with that other monument to confusion, Imran Khan, are giving new touches to the cult of appeasement? They (the present rulers, not Imran Khan) were Gen Zia’s most loyal supporters back in the 1980s. They were jihad sympathisers then. They are Taliban sympathisers now. The army has changed. They have not.
In some particulars they have changed, more maturity, even glimmers of wisdom. This much should be granted to them. But in this most essential of particulars – relating to the extremist threat facing Pakistan – they are still stuck in the grooves of their past confusion. And because, as luck would have it, they are in the driving seat, their thinking on this issue, or the lack of it, is imparting a quality of dithering to national thinking. Because of them the nation as a whole is more confused than it deserves to be.
Through it all runs the thread of past memories – Oct 12, Musharraf, long nights in cold and dimly-lit cells, handcuffs on plane journeys. If a tougher course of action is decided upon, who will be in the lead? The army and the ISI of course, police and other auxiliaries in the second line of defence. At a psychological level, the call to arms is thus hampered by the burden of the past. You won’t get anyone admitting this openly, everyone being very cautious, but that unity of resolve which must be there if tough action is to succeed, can it exist between the army and the PML-N? Not without its piquant aspect this question. The PML-N when first formed used to dance to the ISI’s tune. That it should now be at ideological variance with it…strange how things can unfold.
So as these contradictions even out or become worse, the army too can only wait, narrowing its eyes and perhaps gnashing its teeth in silence when something like the latest casualties in Upper Dir occur but in no position to take the initiative or do things in a big way as long as this extended season of confusion, vacillation and historical distrust lasts.