The News: Spine deficit: Pakistan’s leadership crisis - by Ayaz Amir

It’s like in those old fairy tales: you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The government now wants the army involved in the comedy of talks with the Taliban, almost as if fearing ridicule and isolation it wants the army to drink from the same cup of humiliation it has stirred for itself. The glory of a triumph no one likes to share but the responsibility for confusion and failure one gladly spreads.

The four so-called negotiators from the government side and the three representing the Taliban, let no one say they are the seven stooges…perish the thought. But they are trying to do something clownish: their idea of a peace with the Taliban can only be accomplished by the total surrender of the Pakistani state. There is no other way to satisfy this hard-to-please lot.

Even as our forces are attacked and soldiers killed, the government is finding excuses for the Taliban. Nawaz Sharif’s latest takes the prize. Talking to a group of parliamentarians from Gujrat he said there were reports of the involvement of many groups including RAW in the attack on the Islamabad courts…everyone except the Taliban.

With the government unable to take a decision that could be counted as a decision, and doing little beyond trying to appease a force which makes no secret of its antipathy to the Pakistani state, what we are facing is a leadership crisis. There is a government in charge but for all the resolution and decisiveness it is showing it might as well not be in charge. The government’s indecision is rubbing off on the military which too seems to be swinging this way and that, at the mercy of things not in its control.

The Taliban are net gainers in all this. With their announcement of a ceasefire – an announcement so far honoured more in the breach than the observance, but never mind the government will find excuses for them – they have bought time and forestalled the threat of a full-fledged military operation, without conceding anything.

To look at the other side of the argument, if one-sided appeasement could buy results there would be no quarrel with it. The people of Pakistan could be told that they must be patient, that these things take time and that all will turn out well in the end. But the burden of history instructs us in the falsity of this approach. It tells us that entities like the Taliban do not voluntarily lay down their arms, that sooner or later the challenge they represent has to be met head-on and the longer this is postponed the graver the eventual danger. So what the government may be hoping to achieve by irresolution and appeasement is hard to decipher.

Now the other danger: faced with civilian incompetence there are always people in societies like ours who play with Bonapartism, maintaining that if civilians are no good the army must step forward and take matters into its hands. From bitter experience we know there is no thinking more dangerous than this. Ours is not a Kemalist army. It has fought no war of independence. Whenever military strongmen have taken over power – and it has happened four times – it has been an unmitigated disaster. We can’t go down the same path again unless – and this is a serious thought – we want to see a repeat of 1971.

But, and there is no denying this either, a vacuum such as is being created by the lack of will and spine of the present governing dispensation cannot last forever without grave consequences of its own. The Taliban threat is already very serious. Not only do the Taliban control vital slices of territory in Fata. Their influence through sleeper cells, friendly religious havens and supportive religious militias is now spread across the country. A Taliban sympathiser today can move throughout the country, his board and lodging looked after, without having to check in at a hotel.

These are the fruits of jihad we have assiduously gathered. Army chiefs past and present, ISI chiefs in all their glory, what debt of remembrance does the nation not owe them?

But the past is the past and the present is threatening our survival and where we should have leadership we have appeasement and utter confusion. And if there are no Kemalists in the army there are no men of spine in the echelons of the civilian government.

If the truth be told this is not even a government in the accepted sense of the word – by which I mean the cabinet discussing things and arriving at a collective decision, and the cabinet exercising collective responsibility – but a cabal of four, at the most five, very frightened individuals, clearly out of their depth and hoping for some miracle to come their way whereby the flames of insurgency are confined to the wilds of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while the land of the five rivers basks in peace and prosperity. If there is a surer way of splitting the country we should be informed.

Now the army does not always have to mount a coup to make its viewpoint heard. There are other ways how this can be done. Gen Petraeus and then US secretary of defence Robert Gates did not have to lay siege to the White House to get their ‘surge’ in Afghanistan. But they got it by putting pressure on President Obama. Doesn’t the Pakistani general staff know what the Taliban threat is about? Don’t the generals know that there can be no peace settlement with the Taliban without the capitulation of the Pakistani state? Don’t they know that this is a war that will have to be fought?

So why are they seeing no evil and speaking no evil and generally behaving like so many excavated mummies? How many more FC soldiers must be beheaded and made footballs of before a sense of crisis gets to them and they transmit the same to the frightened cabal supposed to be running the government? Our fate, our kismet, has never been that outstanding but has it really come to the point where it must be hostage in the hands of such seven pillars of wisdom whose antics, and portentous countenances, we must perforce watch?

We should have some sense of what we are actually achieving. By according virtual recognition to the Taliban and finding excuses for their behaviour, we are pulling back the Durand Line from the Hindukush Mountains and redrawing it along the River Indus – mayhem and terrorism on the loose in the Frontier, but anything to maintain peace this side of the river.

Anyone thinking that Punjab can be insulated from this contagion should look more carefully at the recent past. Jihad could not be confined to Afghanistan. It re-crossed the mountains to come back to haunt us. The Taliban now, in one shape or another, are now spread across Pakistan. Punjab is home to a vast madrasseh population. In Lahore itself there is a foreign population (I am being deliberately vague) unaccounted for in any government register. The Lal Masjid was not in Waziristan but in the heart of Islamabad. Wali Khan warned long ago, “Yeh jo aag tum Afghanistan mein laga rahe ho, aik din yeh Attock ke uss paar aa kar tumhe jala degi”…this fire that you are lighting in Afghanistan will one day cross the Attock and burn you. Such warnings seemed fanciful at the time. They are all too real now.

None of this means that the cause is lost or the fight is hopeless. It is not. Other countries have triumphed over far worse dangers, but not if they lost the will to fight. Defeat and victory are first in the mind, then in some other arena of real life. To look at the government’s defeatism – alas, no other word for it – and the strange lassitude which seems to have settled over General Headquarters it is hard to shake off the impression that that vital spark without which no hazardous enterprise was ever undertaken we seem to have lost somewhere along the way.



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