Friday, May 22, 2009

The state that wouldn’t fail

Its so rare that this Pakistani government do the right thing even after all the wrong options have been exhausted.

PAKISTAN is the country that just won’t fail. It threatens to, seemingly always on the brink, always giving the world a collective migraine, always on the verge of chaos, but just when you think we’re done for, when all hope is lost, when it seems nothing can save it from itself, somehow we end up doing just enough of the right thing to keep the country afloat, to live another day to drift into another crisis.

And so it is this time with the operation in Malakand division. The government wants you to believe that it had a plan all along, that the Nizam-i-Adl was a way of stripping away the last vestiges of justification for the militancy in Swat, that the negotiations with the TNSM were a necessary charade to expose the motives of Maulana Fazlullah and his band of savages.

Would that the illusion of a government with a plan in hand were the truth. The fact is, the government, and us, the people, by extension, got lucky. If the ANP government in NWFP and the PPP government in Islamabad had their way, Sufi Mohammad would still quietly be rearranging society in Malakand to his liking, with the TTP the stick with which Sufi would enforce his law in his bailiwick. And thus, with one problem confined to one area, the governments in Peshawar and Islamabad could go about their business of pretending to govern the other areas under their control.

But two things happened to spoil the plan, and while both were always likely to have occurred, it would be charitable in the extreme to argue that the provincial and federal governments anticipated them and had factored them into their plans for Malakand.

First, the militants in Swat, freed from fighting in the district, set forth and began to spread their seed in neighbouring districts. We can know the government didn’t expect this because it installed a pro-Taliban commissioner in Malakand and didn’t do anything to try and stop the militants from slipping into Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla and setting up shop for business.

Fact is, if the government’s plan always was to eventually fight the militants it would have acted to limit the theatre in which the militants were to be fought. But now, even weeks after trying to retake even a small mountain village like Pir Baba in Buner, the army is struggling. What could have been nipped in the bud by local police and administrative action, has become a full-fledged military operation.

Second, Sufi Mohammad reverted to his kooky ideas publicly. Neither the ANP nor the PPP expected it — in fact they planned for something quite the contrary. The massive gathering on that scenic grassy field in Mingora was arranged by the government to give Sufi a grand stage from which to denounce Fazlullah and declare a fatwa against his intransigent militants. But when Sufi got up on the stage, he became giddy at the sight of all those thousands gathered to listen to him and thought, ‘Heck with it, this is my moment. I’ll speak from the heart.’

And so he did, declaring everybody and everything in Pakistan un-Islamic. The cameras focused on the wild applause of the audience, but if they had looked elsewhere they would have captured the stricken faces of government officials. Things had most definitely not gone according to plan.

So, once the original plan — if it can even be called a plan — had failed, the government had to come up with something else; and by then the only option left was the military option. Criticism of the government at this stage may seem churlish, given that so rarely does a Pakistani government do the right thing even after all the wrong options have been exhausted.

But the story of how this government arrived at the military option in Malakand is important because it is not the final stop in the fight against militancy — there is a long road ahead, and it weaves through Fata and Punjab and Pakistan’s cities. The point is, if the road ahead is navigated with a similar mix of lucky breaks and nonsense planning, a fortuitous result is far more unlikely than likely.

Steering blindfolded may yet get the government around another bend or two and burnish the legend of Pakistan being the state that just won’t fail, but it won’t affect the inexorable logic of failure in the long run — you can only get away with mismanagement of a country for so long in the face of a violent threat. If not tomorrow or next year, then five, 10, 15 years down the road, at some point our luck will run out. That isn’t abject cynicism, it is a logical certainty.

But for all the sins of omission and commission, the failures of the government of today — or even the one of tomorrow — are only part of the problem. At the root of the problem of militancy is the security establishment — essentially the Pakistan Army high command with sections of the intelligence apparatus and retired officers as its instruments of policy implementation.

It is that group which sets the parameters of what the state can or cannot do against the militants, and it still cleaves to the distinction between good and bad militants. There is no reason to believe that it is not serious about eliminating the militants in Malakand this time. The militants there have proved intractable and of no utility to the state — in fact, they are a threat to it and therefore are being taken on.

But there is every reason to believe that the security establishment is serious about maintaining that distinction elsewhere. And that is especially problematic when it comes to dealing with Ground Zero of militancy — the Waziristan agencies.

Separating good from bad is tactically possible when the good and bad militants are spatially separated, in small numbers and not in control of territory. So in Punjab and the cities the state can go after Al Qaeda militants — the bad ones — while turning a blind eye to the good ones, our home-grown jihadi networks.

But in the Waziristan agencies the good and the bad are intertwined, exist in larger numbers and control the territory. Trying to whack the bad militants there while avoiding trampling the good ones is a non-starter. To succeed there — and there is no doubt that militancy in Pakistan cannot be defeated without success there — the good/bad distinction would need to be abandoned first.

And if we don’t drop that distinction soon, the legend of the state that just wouldn’t fail may eventually prove untrue.

By Cyril Almeida

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