LIKE a political hot potato, the issue of consensus keeps getting passed around. First the army suggests it cannot launch a military operation in North Waziristan unless there is a political and public consensus. Now President Zardari has said that a consensus — on key issues of national security, not just a North Waziristan operation — is not possible because the civilian political opposition is unwilling to engage the government. And the political opposition is sure to reject the president’s claim and suggest that it is not being consulted meaningfully on any matter, so there is no real role for it. Meanwhile, the main issue — developing a national consensus against militancy, radicalism and extremism — goes unaddressed: a country faced with a growing threat is unable to decide how to counter it. With no one seemingly willing to lead the way and with the logical institutions for such decisions moribund — the Defence Committee of the Cabinet isn’t strong enough, the parliamentary committees on defence and national security are still struggling to find their feet, and the national security adviser slot remains unfilled — perhaps the government and the army need to develop a special mechanism to draft and formalise a national policy against militancy, extremism and radicalism.
A starting point could be to rationally demarcate the various strands of conservatism and Islamism: religious political parties that operate within the constitutional framework are very different from the violent non-state actors, for example. That would help both isolate the real threat and placate conservative political elements that the war against militancy isn’t a surreptitious plot to nudge them out of the political arena. From there, the next step could be to articulate a clear, realistic policy on Afghanistan, the link between militancy in Pakistan and the state’s quest to dominate Afghanistan being fairly well-known though rarely acknowledged. The last step could be to define and articulate the threat from militancy inside Pakistan: identify the various groups, explain their agenda and outline what needs to be done — militarily, politically, governance-wise, etc — to purposefully end the threat.
Will the government and the army demonstrate the necessary leadership, though? The problem is an old one, at least a decade old since the world changed on 9/11 and Pakistan struggled to accept that the sell-by date for non-state actors had passed. Throughout the Musharraf era — when there was no real distinction between the military and civilian leadership — the ambivalence towards militancy and the reluctance to adopt a zero-tolerance policy bedevilled policymaking. A decade on, the problem is more complex — hence the question mark over the will to do what’s necessary.