Dance of death —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

What might have been America’s war in 2001 has become Pakistan’s war and, in the eastern theatre, the insurgents now collectively consider Islamabad as a major enemy. The new strategy must not load the dice against Pakistan further

In small places you don’t know / of, yet big for having no / chance to scream or say good-bye, / people die.

People die as you elect / new apostles of neglect, / self-restraint, etc-whereby / people die.

— Brodsky, Bosnia Tune

In the north-western borderlands of Pakistan, people whose daily desires do not go beyond eking out a living from a forbidding terrain die, as the poet Joseph Brodsky would say, ‘not knowing why’.

They die at the hands of builders of empires who regard their land as one of the theatres of an imperial enterprise extending from the blue waters of the Mediterranean to their rugged dusty hills.

They also die at the hands of others — of their own faith and blood — who, unasked, wish to transform their lives by using the same theatre of war to bring back a past, the humanity and compassion of which these new crusaders have never heard of.

The hapless people of the area are told by the contenders that they are the gateway to great things but they know in their incinerated bones that it was only a gateway to hell. The tragedy is made more poignant by the insouciance of the state to which they bear allegiance; it is either indifferent or helpless or both.

Politicians and diplomats trade platitudes or, worse still, their skills of denial; their words designed to obscure the agony of death and the pain of deprivation under a pitiless sky. They forget that even in their death, the victims unleash forces of retribution that change maps and bring down kingdoms. They die but only to live forever in the collective memory of a clan, a tribe and a people who would one day make choices that nobody would want to see.

By virtue of his ethnic background, President Zardari knows the dynamics of resistance and revolt. He must have thought that he would slow down the drift of events by making the grand gesture of inviting President Karzai as the ceremonial star at his historic inauguration and as a major interlocutor at a press conference that would perforce have a strong domestic focus. This was a demonstration of the importance he attaches to relations with Afghanistan. In fact, he claimed that the camaraderie visible at the august event had softened Karzai.

Not quite. As soon as Karzai got back to Kabul, he, rather grandiloquently, succumbed to the temptation of playing the great strategist: it was Karzai, he reminded the world, who had demanded for a full three years the enlargement of the battlefield to include Pakistan. He wants an expanded zone of foreign occupation, forgetting that after seven years of “reconstruction” by the mandated powers, Afghanistan ranks 174th on human development index in a UN list of 178 countries, and cannot provide a minimum intake of food to 20 percent of its people.

The ‘new strategy’ aims at the already well established pattern of deadly aerial attacks escalating into cross-border ground assaults on the small scattered villages suspected of sheltering the Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders. The best guess is that President George W Bush is despairing of hunting down the evil trio — Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar — as the presidential election curtails the time available to him. Bush is, therefore, settling for a policy that would, at least, bring the destruction of the secondary and tertiary commanders of the bands of insurgents trying to operate on both sides of the border.

The tragic fact is that his Hellfire missiles, Delta Force and Navy Seals end up killing and wounding many more civilians. That is exactly what enabled the ragtag remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan to build up once again a formidable presence that now threatens to choke the Wardak and Sarobi approaches to Kabul. That is what would prolong the conflict on the border and add to Pakistan’s instability.

The people of Pakistan are angry with their own successive governments that were unable to arrive at a shared, jointly crafted strategy for a speedy victory. Several reasons are cited for this failure. Among them is the fact that neither President Bush nor General Musharraf was interested in pacification of the region.

Bush had it on the authority of his evangelist friends that this crusade would last a generation. There were others who told him that the wars of the Middle East were good for the economy — at least the sectors that mattered to them.

On his part, Musharraf believed that a protracted conflict would ensure his perpetual rule in Pakistan. It is a different matter that these trillion-dollar wars hastened the process by which the United States would cease to be the sole superpower of the 21st century. As for Musharraf, he has all the time now to ponder over the humiliating collapse of his Reich.

The ‘new strategy’ has thrown the political government in Islamabad on the defensive because it was launched with a self-serving innuendo that Pakistan was complicit in it. Islamabad had even to deny the preposterous whispering that the chief of army staff had blessed it on board an aircraft carrier. It has not as yet found the right approach with which to engage the Americans in a constructive dialogue that would convince them that a repetition in 2008 of their unilateralism of 2001 would be disastrous for Pakistan and counter-productive for them too.

What might have been America’s war in 2001 has become Pakistan’s war and, in the eastern theatre, the insurgents — Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban — now collectively consider Islamabad as a major enemy. The new strategy must not load the dice against Pakistan further just for the sake of some putative gains in the electoral battle of the United States. American policy planners are thinking of that gain and not the future of Afghanistan or Pakistan. This has to change in the long-term interest of both Pakistan and the United States.

The writer is a former foreign secretary who can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 15/9/2008

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