The Taliban were (are?) our hope of change through violence. Whatever the reason for Pakistan’s geopolitical support and betrayal of them, and whatever their transformations and permutations, that is what they have meant to us. The question then is, how have we been wrong?
Every other day some important figure of the government or establishment will remind the public that the war on terror is our war. We must own it. These words are obviously spoken to the ones who doubt whose war it is.
Notice that it is not said that Pakistan must, for reasons of expediency, strategic commitment or self-defence support NATO operations by taking appropriate measures on its side of the border. This form of words is rarely if ever chosen. Why not? Because there is a perception that it would not suffice? Because something beyond acceptance of a security operation carried out in the interest of the state is involved? Or is it just shabby language, politicians echoing the words of the teleprompters in their heads?
There may be something perverse in taking an interest in what is said about something rather than the something itself. I of course think otherwise. Everyone agrees that in the realm of public communication we are dealing with images, with hearts and minds. Hearts and minds are expressed in speech as well as action. What is our speech telling us about what we think is happening?
The news of tribal goings-on that we hear and the opinions we read about them give us a simulacrum of choice. There is dialogue. There is war. Dialogue is our gesture of defiance against American pressure, the elbow-room bought by a fledgling democracy. War is all that dialogue is not — not available to public scrutiny, not determined by our own needs and desires, yet, in some unavoidable way, ours.
‘To own’ can have two meanings. You own what you buy, what you have paid for. You can also own a thing in the sense of acknowledging it. We have certainly paid for the operations in the tribal areas — we have lost soldiers and civilians, are tensed for further attacks, cannot count on our structures of governance, such as they are, holding up to these assaults. But the appeal to own in this case recognises that, despite paying the price, we do not see what we have acquired. We believe that we have paid the price for someone else’s goods. We cannot acknowledge this thing as ours.
All the commentaries exhorting us to make this acknowledgment, many of them intelligent and right, speak with a sense of breaking down resistance, of bringing the obvious home. Some point out that it is we who are under attack and not someone else through us. Others make the case that even if we were not being attacked per se, the existence of Taliban-like militants is hostile to any state, any viable communal endeavour. Here they move to pre-empt the argument that the Taliban can keep an order of sorts in the areas they ravage, that they are a force against the status quo.
Then many are brought up short by the lack of an alternative. The Taliban may be poison, but the state at best is a shady network of alliances that nurtures only a few. It ostensibly represents the will of a people; it can ostensibly be better. It is too bad that we have only one life, otherwise we could wait out the militancy and the eventual emergence of a benign state in peace.
One of the things that owning the war might mean is that the state needs to do better than what the Taliban want to do. If we want the Taliban gone, then we are asking for a very different kind of state.
Among the more charitable claims made for the Taliban is that they want a form of order, a form of justice, misguided and wrongly derived as it may be. To acknowledge that we have to take them on might require acknowledging that we have to take on what has made them. That is, us. The Taliban, or the mujahideen as they were once called, were for us a dream of pride and independence, of taking by force what is justly ours. The nation lived vicariously through them. They took on the Russians in Afghanistan and they took on the Indians in Kashmir; and then they turned upon their erstwhile benefactors, the Americans. In each case, they took on the stronger one, the oppressor. And that is what the hero of the story does.
The Taliban were (are?) our hope of change through violence. Whatever the reason for Pakistan’s geopolitical support and betrayal of them, and whatever their transformations and permutations, that is what they have meant to us.
The question then is, how have we been wrong? Perhaps we cannot acknowledge that we are fighting them because we would then have to own that our dream of a change through violence — on which, by the way, Pakistan doesn’t have a monopoly — has to be resisted. What other form can resistance and change take? That is what the debate has to be about. And that is why political discussions cannot be about politics alone.
The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds
Daily Times, 24/7/2008