A make-or-break moment for Pakistan
Friday, October 23, 2009
Kashmir 1947-48 was the only necessary war we fought. It gave us the parts of Kashmir now in our possession. The 1965 war was a delusional general's supreme folly. The 1971 war was a strategic black hole created by our political failures. Kargil should never have happened. If Pervez Musharraf deserves to be put in the stocks it is for that misconceived adventure.
The war our army is now engaged in is more full of meaning than anything attempted in the past. It is not about territory but the soul and meaning of Pakistan. Iqbal and Jinnah would have been unable to make any sense of bin Laden, Mullah Omar or Ayman Al-Zawahiri. How on earth did Pakistan allow itself to become a playground for characters out of mediaeval history? Our paladins -- mostly in uniform -- told us we were pursuing strategic depth. What we harvested was strategic disaster.
But what is past is past. We must now come to terms with the present. That is why this war is so important. Winning it reclaims the idea of Pakistan and creates space for a better future. Losing it leads to possibilities too horrible to contemplate: among them the erosion of national morale and the death of the notion that the army was the first line of national defence.
The stakes being so high, there is no choice but to win, and win decisively. Of course it is not going to be easy. South Waziristan's fighters, including the foreign elements, are amongst the most battle-hardened on the planet. They have been fighting for decades -- in Afghanistan, disputed Kashmir, now FATA. Add to this the nature of the Waziristani terrain and it is clear that the army has a job on its hands.
3-5,000 Hezbollah fighters defeated the Israeli army in Lebanon in 2006. At the height of the Kashmir uprising (starting from 1989) there could not have been more than 5-10,000 guerrilla fighters in the Valley. But they tied down close to half a million Indian troops, the bulk of which remain in Kashmir. At a conservative guess the Taliban in South Waziristan would be having 10-15,000 fighters, which makes them a formidable foe.
But there is no way out. This is not a war the Pakistan army has chosen to fight. This is a war forced upon us and there is no running away from it.
But the army can only fight, and fight successfully, if the entire nation is behind it, without ifs and buts. The Taliban have amply demonstrated that the only peace talks which suit them are those conducted on their terms. For now, war is the only continuation of politics which matters. There will be time enough for other things when our arms are victorious.
Previous operations in South Waziristan, undertaken when Musharraf was lord and master of the wreckage he helped create, were half-baked affairs -- ill-prepared units thrown hurriedly into battle. The army suffered grievous losses and the Taliban were emboldened. This operation is different in that some thought and preparation have gone into it. Which doesn't make it a cakewalk but at least there is a sense that this time the army knows where it is going.
Musharraf played to American susceptibilities -- with an eye more on Centcom requirements than our own. For that dishonesty -- and it was that -- the army had to pay a heavy price. But as the Swat operation has shown, the army has emerged from the Musharraf mould. It is now marching to a different tune.
Still, the imperative holds that if we are to emerge from this test successfully, nation and army must acquire the not-easy habit of thinking for themselves rather than looking at things through American eyes. While American friendship is something to be cherished, American guidance and tutelage are afflictions to be avoided like the plague. The US has started wars it is having a hard time finishing. It is not doing too good a job of managing Afghanistan. On the question of whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, Washington presents a picture of dithering and irresolution. Contrast this with the steady resolve our army has shown from Swat onwards.
Which only means that while our army can do with the right kind of help -- helicopters and precision-guided munitions above all -- advice and lectures can be kept on hold for later.
In fact, given America's counter-insurgency record -- Vietnam comes to mind -- acting on American advice in such matters is a recipe for disaster and a sure shot guarantee of alienating domestic opinion. So it might help if during these days while our army is engaged in Waziristan there were fewer American high-ups visiting Islamabad. The greater the number of American visitors the more suspicions in Pakistani minds about American intentions.
Just to show America's capacity for rubbing so-called friends the wrong way: as if the Kerry-Lugar Bill wasn't enough, two American congressman have hit upon the bright idea of adding another rider to this year's American defence budget whereby the secretaries of state and defence would have to certify that military aid for Pakistan was actually used for its intended purpose -- fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda -- and that it would not affect "the balance of power in the region". We are up to our necks in the fight of our lives and our friends (friends?) in Washington still can't let go of their suspicions about us.
Anyway, the US Congress is entitled to do what it likes. We have our own problems and it is our soldiers and officers taking on a resolute enemy and putting their lives on the line in the killing fields of South Waziristan. In the first few days of fighting our casualties have been pretty high, a testimony both to the toughness of the Taliban and the courage of our soldiers. We have to think for ourselves.
But where is the sense of duty, and propriety, of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani -- both accidents of history? Shouldn't they be venturing out of their bunkers and visiting the troops on the frontline? If Wana is too risky they could visit the adjoining districts. After all, piquant thought though it is, Zardari is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. It would be interesting to find out how many people actually think he looks like one.
But this is history in the making. We win and we will have reached the other shore. We lose and we could with profit study the history and geography of Sudan and Somalia. But there will be no point in defeating the Taliban if things remain the way they have always been in Pakistan. Victory would make sense only if we turn immediately thereafter to the reconstruction of Pakistani society.
The tide of fake religiosity which was Gen Zia's gift to the nation should gradually be rolled back, starting with the Hadood Ordinance which deserves to be swept for all time into the bin of discarded things. We are of the faith and were born into it. We never needed the services of self-appointed doctors of the faith and other charlatans to reconvert us to Islam.
Education has to be treated as our number one national problem. We must have a one-track system -- a uniform system of education for all: the same books, the same examinations for all students up to the intermediate level. Yes, our books can do with improvement as can our syllabi. But we won't learn how to swim unless we wade into the water.
Once the problem of English-medium and Urdu-medium is tackled, there must be a complete end, without equivocation, to madressah education. For the entire Pakistani nation -- from the northern mountains to the sea, from Waziristan to the eastern frontier --there must be one stream of education. For Islamic studies -- that is, for those who want to pursue them -- there must be centres of higher learning. But, please, no confusion for young and unformed minds.
For too long the rich have been pampered and protected in the Islamic Republic. There has to be a redistribution of resources by investing more in education, health and public transport. Population growth must be checked or we are doomed. And the army would be doing itself and the nation a favour by curbing the culture of commercialism and defence-society-plots which has done so much to ruin its image.
So the race won't end once Waziristan is over. It will have barely begun.
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