Clinging to survival-By Cyril Almeida

LET the Americans bomb us. In Fata, northern Pakistan, wherever they think militants are hiding with their predators, supersonic bombers and helicopter gunships. Let them pummel militant hideouts and sanctuaries until they have fired their last cruise missile and bunker buster.

This was the recommendation of a retired bureaucrat and scholar with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Pakistan.

The suggestion came in response to the question I ask people who believe that Pakistan is fighting America’s war, not our own: what would you do instead? Stunned by his answer, I asked why. Better that the Americans bomb us, he replied, than our army turn to Gen Hamid Gul for its orders instead of Gen Kayani.

According to my interlocutor, we — people with superficial knowledge inside the media echo chamber — didn’t understand the nature of the Taliban’s power. Their locus of power is the mosque, not the ISI headquarters, so unless their locus is destroyed — metaphorically — militancy will not be defeated. Short of that, sending in the Pakistan army to take on the militants in a social milieu that is hostile to any outsider, foreign interference will cause the rank and file in the army to, at best, disobey direct orders or, at worst, defect.

So if this war is militarily unwinnable but American expediency demands that the militants be bombed, self-interest demands that we let the Americans do it themselves, he explained. If Pakistan wants to be around to pick up the pieces after the Americans leave, he reasoned, it’s essential that we have a disciplined, unified army.

It is about as controversial as an opinion can get. For those defending the sovereign Pakistan chimera, a foreign presence on Pakistani soil is an anathema. But this ignores the fact that $70bn have flowed into this country since 2001 and that the Americans have 35,000 troops in Afghanistan. Such numbers have a logic and power of their own. Then there is the anti-military camp. Having crossed swords with our politicians more often than with an enemy, the military’s popularity is at its lowest ebb — the secession of East Pakistan perhaps being the only comparable point. Inflicting new pain on the country to save the army is a bit too much for all but the most rabid, dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the army today.

Yet, the suggestion by a thoughtful, patriotic man that the Americans be allowed to bomb us signals how dire our predicament is. Pakistan has kicked down the road the problem of militancy and extremism for so long that easy solutions — if they ever existed — are no longer an option. As things fall apart and the old system collapses, people are no longer contemplating a measured, cautious response.

The Pakistani landscape is increasingly a frightening one: the frankenstein of militant Islam is on the prowl inside the country; the state has frozen as its monopoly on violence has been shattered; the rabid, Islamist Gul and his cohorts are out to finish the job that Zia began; and a frightened, clueless political elite is wringing its hands.

Even so, perhaps we have not reached the stage of letting the Americans bomb us. A newspaper editor recoiled in horror at the suggestion. Not out of any sympathy for the militants, he explained, but the fear of losing his own way of life. Barely will the first American bombs have fallen on militants that symbols of the US or the West will be attacked in Pakistani cities. Soon vice and virtue squads will start patrolling the streets, scything down the population in the name of Allah and all that is good. The argument that the Pakistan army be kept unified at all costs was dangerously close to having the tail, a unified army, wag the dog, the country itself, he suggested. Agreed. But if the militants need to be hammered — and hammered quickly — maybe the Americans should be ones to do it after all. Our home-grown options are not very encouraging. Counter-insurgencies, we are told, are best fought by some combination of paramilitary and police forces in coordination with political and administrative officials. By all accounts, these forces are not up to the task here. When the Frontier Constabulary rolls into town or the first police checkpoint is set up, the militants melt away, only to return later to wage a sophisticated war of attrition that frightens our troops and saps morale.

Meanwhile, the politicians are abdicating their duties. The ANP has become a peace-monger, desperately avoiding decisiveness because it is divisive. The People’s Party is fighting an internal war without an interior minister. The man tasked with protecting the homeland, Rehman Malik, has spent months trying to secure a peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the man who ordered the murder of the woman, Benazir Bhutto, Malik was meant to protect. Nawaz is obsessed with the judges and his right-wing proclivities lead him to spout woolly talk of Islam and peace. Which leaves the army. In Rumsfeld-speak, there are a few known unknowns and other unknown unknowns here. The army high command acquiesced to the civilians’ demand that the government negotiate with militants, but the generals’ reasons for doing so are not known. Some believe that the army needed a breather. Others argue that Gen. Kayani was trying to convince his generals that the army needs to be re-orientated towards counter-terrorism rather than its current, India-centric vision.

Who has won this battle we do not know. We do know that violence briefly flared up in Kashmir recently. And we do know that the government has handed over to the army operational control of the latest thrust against the militants. But it’s not at all clear that the army is itself up to the task. The Pakistan army went into Swat last year promising that by Dec 15 the resort at Malam Jabba would be open for business. Last week, the abandoned motel there was burned down.

So if no one is going to — or can — do anything about it, then let the bumbling Americans go in and put a new kind of fear of God into the militants. A pounding will not bring peace. But as the militants have grown bolder and are looking to grab territory, this is the time to hit them and hit them hard. Madness? Perhaps. But what isn’t mad is to fear both the militants and the state; the militants, because they want to snatch this country away and the state because it doesn’t seem capable of doing much to stop that from happening.

cyril.a@gmail.com

 Source: Daily Dawn, 2/7/2008

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