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Islamabad diary: Battle for Pakistan

Ayaz Amir

This battle — now a simmering war of attrition — has been on for some time and we are losing it. The Pakistan army was always meant for wars against India. It hasn’t a clue about fighting the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan. Indeed, the army’s less than brilliant interventions in both these regions have been a powerful factor in making the Taliban more powerful.

We must understand the nature of this war. It is not between two armies. It is between two world-views and unless the world-view that the Pakistani state seemingly stands for is more powerful and makes more sense, the Taliban will win and the Pakistani state, as represented by its increasingly decrepit administrative machinery, will lose.

We should make no mistake about it: this is the mother of all battles, more grave and far-reaching in its implications than our lost war against India in 1971, and on its outcome hinges the future of what’s left of Pakistan.

What’s our world-view? Let us not get ensnared in the metaphysics of something we have been unable to define since the blood-laden circumstances of our fitful birth. To come straight to the point, to win against the Frankenstein brigades created by our past follies — baptismal games at which our American friends played the role of Godfather — the Pakistani state in all its functions must perform better, and must be seen by the wretched of the earth (or rather the wretched of Pakistan) as a better alternative, than the Taliban.

The Taliban have empowered the poor, the dispossessed, and the out-of-work in both Swat and Waziristan. Those in the service of the Taliban are better paid and have a better sense of their worth, and go about with a grander swagger, than those in the service of the Pakistani state. If they get killed in combat, or as a result of a strike by a CIA drone, their families are looked after. So if the shirtless and the out-of-work in those embattled regions, where life is tough and choices are limited, choose to serve under the banner of the Taliban, would management gurus dub it an irrational choice?

The Americans can pour in all the arms and money they choose into this bizarre conflict, of whose spin-off ramifications they had not the remotest idea when they attacked and occupied Afghanistan post-Sept 11, 2001, but they won’t win because they have learnt no lessons from Afghan history and they have chosen to ignore what happened to the Russian army when it tried the same thing in Afghanistan 25-30 years ago.

And if the Americans are doomed to fail in Afghanistan — indeed, President Obama already sounds as if he is looking for an exit door through the mountains — the Pakistan army, and by extension the state of Pakistan, are doomed to fail over here if they confine themselves to the same tactics and the flawed strategy the Americans are employing in their chosen battlefield.

We must be smarter than the Americans if we are to succeed where they are failing. Key to this smartness lies in two things: (1) reforming the Pakistani state and making its administrative structure more efficient; and (2) burning some of the fat around the Pakistan army and turning it into a more efficient fighting force. This last won’t be easy but there is no other way out.

Pakistan is suffering from administrative paralysis. The administrative system is able to deliver very little: neither law and order nor health and education. It can’t preserve the peace and it can’t collect taxes. It can’t fight corruption and bribery. It is helpless before the plastic shopping bag (which will overcome Pakistan sooner than Baitullah Mehsud). How can it fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban?

We have one of the biggest armies in the world and maintaining it is the biggest drain on our budget. The mantra is unexceptionable: national defence must come before everything else. Very true. But the army could do with a better advertisement of its usefulness than its performance in Swat and Waziristan.

The Battle for Pakistan will not be won, and the Taliban not eventually defeated, if the culture of luxury and undue privilege at the top of the military — a culture symbolised by the multiplicity of residential plots appropriated by the topmost ranks — is not drastically curtailed.

The size of the federal cabinet is a scandal, and rightly so. But what about the number of senior ranks in our armed services? There are more than 130 major generals and lieutenant generals in the army. In the air force there seem to be more air marshals and air vice marshals than the number of fighting squadrons and in the navy more vice admirals and rear admirals than the number of fighting ships. This may be an exaggeration but not much.

In short, braid, and too much brass, and luxury limos and generals acquiring, while still in service, the mentality of real estate agents is no way to fight the Taliban and rescue Pakistan from the predicament into which it is slipping.

But to go from the general to the particular, on two individuals is history currently placing the heaviest responsibility: Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif. President Asif Zardari, sadly, does not count. He has proved himself a washout. No more need be said of him. As for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, he is cut out for a supporting, not a leading, role.

If the Battle for Pakistan is to be won Iftikhar Chaudhry and his fellow judges in the Supreme Court must rise above themselves, and above the din and bitterness of the trials they have been through, and make not only the Supreme Court a fount of justice but also rid the judicial system as a whole, from the high courts to the lower courts, of delay and corruption. Maulana Sufi Muhammad of Swat will be defeated the day better and quicker and fairer justice is dispensed in the courts of Islamabad and the other provincial capitals than the Qazi courts of Swat.

If the Supreme Court, now blessed with public acclaim but also burdened with the weight of public expectations, acts wisely not only will the judiciary come into its own — and not only will the public’s faith in the institutions of Pakistan be restored — but democracy will also be strengthened. A Chaudhry-led Supreme Court is bound to be hyper-active, responding to public needs and grievances. This should encourage a competitive spirit of sorts to come into play so that parliament and the executive, both federal and in the provinces, also become more active in addressing public concerns.

For example, why did it have to take the Supreme Court to revisit one of its old orders and call upon the Punjab government to regularise the services of 96 ad-hoc lecturers within three days? Why couldn’t the Punjab government have done this on its own? Why didn’t Shahbaz Sharif do this when he was chief minister?

One caveat, however, may be in order. The Supreme Court’s suo motu jurisdiction should be exercised sparingly, reserved only for issues for which there is no other recourse or redress. It should not become a joke or be seen as an unnecessary intrusion into the domain of executive authority.

After leading the agitation for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other deposed judges, Nawaz Sharif has become Pakistan’s most important and popular political figure, dominating the national landscape. He is not about to become prime minister tomorrow but he is very much the leader-in-waiting. The PPP is a national party but with Zardari proving true to himself and shooting himself in the foot it has no national leader.

This leaves Nawaz Sharif. He may not be the Salahuddin Ayyubi we are looking for but he is the only one in the market, the only one available. This is his challenge and opportunity: his call to greatness or his invitation to another damp squib of a stab at national leadership. His last stint as prime minister (1997-99) was largely a record of opportunities wasted. If Pakistan is to be saved it must be different this time.

It would help, however, if in Punjab, the PML-N’s power base, reliance was placed more on the party than the bureaucracy when it comes to exercising power. In adversity it is the party which counts. But in the season of wine and roses the party takes a back seat and the Punjab bureaucracy, for some odd reason, takes centre stage. To strike the right note, and take people along, a balance has to be kept. Shahbaz Sharif must not just sing Habib Jalib’s verses. He must be guided by Jalib’s spirit and passion.

It would also help if something could be done about the prevailing culture of butter in our political parties (I am deliberately refraining from naming names). In the kingdom of flattery we could teach North Korea a thing or two. Those who can’t talk in measured tones, how can they be expected to perform in exemplary fashion?

As a long-standing observer of such tamashas (shenanigans) I always think I have seen the ultimate in flattery. But at every fresh turn when flattery has an opportunity to come into its own I am always taken by surprise because the leading masters of this timeless art invariably manage to go one better than their last performance.

A bit easy on the butter: not a bad way to begin fighting the Battle for Pakistan.


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