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Islamabad diary: Adrift and lost, Pakistan awaits a miracle

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Ayaz Amir

There was nothing lion-like about the supporters of the Swat accord: they looked sheepish from the start. But they assured us there was no other way out and that, reservations notwithstanding, it would buy peace for the stricken valley. Just as in an earlier time, and far removed from Swat, a British prime minister had assured his people that the Munich agreement with Hitler would ensure “peace in our time.”

On the roof of the National Assembly is affixed a huge disc on which, in beautiful calligraphy, are inscribed the 99 names of God. But on that afternoon when the Swat Sharia Regulation was placed before the National Assembly, hanging over that august body was less any reference to the Almighty than a pall of fear, almost visible to the eye and sensible to the touch, Taliban spokesmen not having minced their words in saying that anyone opposing the deal would take himself out of the pale of Islam. Since in Islam the punishment for apostasy is death, everyone knew what the warning implied.

But apart from fear, the National Assembly was also stricken by misjudgement. The resolution had been tabled without warning and members from the ANP (the major ruling party in the Frontier) were crying themselves hoarse that no one was paying heed to the fact that it was Pakhtoon blood being spilt in FATA and Swat. So, apart from a few dissenting voices (the MQM’s Farooq Sattar giving a powerful speech), the National Assembly, closing its eyes, acquiesced in that act of surrender.

Now hardly ten days later, (affirming once again Harold Wilson’s timeless dictum that a week is a long time in politics), the pendulum has swung the other way, with more and more voices criticising the Swat deal. Behind this sudden change of heart lie two stark events.

Firstly, Maulana Sufi Muhammad’s declaration at a well-attended public meeting in Mingora that democracy and higher courts lay outside the circle of Islam. This has had a devastating effect on all those prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the erratic patron saint of the mayhem in Swat.

Secondly, the Taliban’s advance from Swat into the adjoining district of Buner. One of the illusions fostered by the Swat deal was that the Taliban would be content with what they had gained and not try further adventures. The seizure of Buner — not very far from Islamabad, as every pundit has been at pains to emphasise — has underscored the foolishness of this thinking.

All the warnings coming from here and abroad that the Taliban were on the march were falling on deaf ears. Much of Pakistan was in a state of denial. But the Maulana’s rhetoric and Buner, both happening in quick succession, have hit public opinion like a bombshell. All at once Pakistan has woken up to the Taliban danger, the state of denial transformed almost overnight into a state of alarm.

For this we must be thankful to Maulana Sufi Muhammad. He has shaken our minds and helped us to concentrate. What was vague and confusing before is now almost blindingly clear. What seemed distant has been brought closer home. Jinnah’s Pakistan–or rather the mess we have made of it over the years–is not only shrinking but is in mortal peril. Serious-minded people talk candidly of the prospects of the further breakup of Pakistan. For alerting us to this danger, the bishop of Swat deserves our thanks.

The turmoil in Swat thus could be Pakistan’s salvation provided, for a change, we get serious. That Pakistan is in danger should not be a matter of any further doubt. Balochistan is angry and alienated; FATA outside any notion of federal control. Even Punjab, once thought secure, is beginning to sense the approaching storm.

Add to this the weakness of the political leadership, and the army’s scarcely encouraging performance in FATA and Swat, and we have the ingredients of full-fledged despair.

The leadership question is the most vital of all. More than at any other time in its history Pakistan stands in need of a de Gaulle or a Mustafa Kemal to pick up the pieces, rally the nation and summon it to action. There is no such figure around but this only means that instead of lamenting our fate, we make do with whatever is available.

Asif Zardari, alas, hasn’t shown much leadership. Probably he had it not in him to show anything of the kind. But what prevents him from choosing good advisers and acting on good advice? Why doesn’t he rise above his former self? Ronald Reagan was no one’s idea of an intellectual. But the American system throws competent people into the top slots of government. Pakistan is not without its share of bright people. Why don’t we see any of them in higher advisory positions?

But regardless of whether the presidency and the federal government improve their performance a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N. As the party in waiting–as the party governing Punjab, the largest province–it has to deliver the vision and leadership that the PPP has failed to provide, if Pakistan is not to go over the precipice.

But if it is vision that we are talking about, sad to think that the PML-N went along with the Swat resolution when it was tabled in the National Assembly. Some of the reservations it is sounding now should have been voiced then, so that the people of Pakistan could have seen the difference between what was being proposed and what needed to be done.

The PML-N must develop a clear position on terrorism. There can be no countenancing of drone attacks and this must be made clear to the Americans. But the time has also come–and for this we must again be grateful to Maulana Sufi Muhammad–to speak out boldly against the Taliban, without ifs and buts. The nation is looking for a lead. The PML-N, above any other party, has the responsibility of providing one.

Yes, there are some democracy issues still to be sorted out, like doing away with the more egregious of Pervez Musharraf’s constitutional amendments. The party must work to achieve this but without forgetting that democracy is no longer Pakistan’s number one issue. We have enough democracy and the higher judiciary also stands restored. The number one problem is terrorism and the growing ambitions of the Taliban.

Like the rest of the nation, the army too is bewildered and confused and after its reverses in FATA and Swat not a little demoralized. It also needs a direction and an over-arching strategy. But for this it is necessary that the vision of our political leadership should be superior to the army’s . If we begin from the premise that the army’s notions about many things are flawed, the critique makes sense only if someone can present a better alternative.

But for any headway in FATA and Swat, the political leadership and the army (which must work in tandem) need no distraction in Balochistan. The army is engaged on multiple fronts which takes away its focus from the threat posed by the Taliban. The disaffection of the Baloch people must therefore be addressed–and for this we need a grand initiative from the federal government–if we are to move forward elsewhere.

We should have had the good sense to make someone from Balochistan, some respected figure like Sardar Attaullah Mengal, president of the republic to begin assuaging Baloch grievances. Talk of opportunities squandered, we squandered this one too. All the same, we have to look to the anger of the Baloch if Pakistan is to be saved.

Yes, the Americans are a problem and, stuck in Afghanistan, they have their own axes to grind. True also that more often than not we give the impression of being a plaything in their hands, serving their interests more than our own. But this can be corrected and we can be masters of our own fate if we set the direction of our national compass right.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. We shake ourselves and take matters in hand. Or we allow the present drift to continue, in which case we could do worse than study the fate of Yugoslavia.


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