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Black and white narrative

Updated September 03, 2013

WE live in a land of black and white. Our choices are between polar opposites without any middle ground or any nuance.

Be it the role of Gen Pervez Musharraf or the Taliban, we are only allowed to hate or love but not debate.

This is also the case with militancy where the options are to fight or to talk.

But what sort of a debate or policy offers only two options — both mutually exclusive?

On the one side are those who believe that talks will only allow the “ruthless fanatics” to gain strength, cause more destruction and death. Hence, they argue, that the use of force is a necessary evil.

On the other hand are those who believe that those who fight are simply “misguided patriots” who can be shown the right path by a little TLC.

After 10 years of fighting militancy, can no nuance or detail be added to these two options?

Consider the United States in Afghanistan. Its policy there has taken twists and turns as circumstances changed and there continues to be a heated debate and discussion on Washington’s various mistakes.

From the initial invasion to the change of focus towards Iraq and then the re-focus on Afghanistan, the story of the American involvement in Afghanistan offers details on political, diplomatic and military strategies.

In Pentagon itself, the policy has shifted from the light footprint introduced by Donald Rumsfeld to the counterinsurgency doctrine of Gen David Petraeus, which was implemented among others by Gen Stanley McChrystal and then Petraeus himself.

Even the Petraeus doctrine was accompanied by buzzwords that provided further detail — winning hearts and minds; holding the population centres (McChrystal’s contribution while he was there) and the famous ‘surge’.

Just this military side of the policy has been dissected and criticised incessantly.

Those in the State Department who worked with Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Af-Pak, and were unhappy that his political solutions were not heard by Obama, are among these critics.

Vali Nasr’s latest book is a case in point where he documents how Holbrooke predicted that the surge would not work and that eventually Washington would have to talk to the Afghan Taliban.

Unfortunately, by the time Holbrooke’s prediction proved true, he had passed away.

These are just a few examples of the existing narrative of how a war was fought or not fought; how it was perceived; how it was analysed and solutions found and discarded.

In contrast, the Pakistani narrative goes something like this.

The military entered the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 2004, uninterested in fighting because of Musharraf’s infamous ‘dual’ policy.

Those serving under him preferred deals with the militants which simply strengthened the militants.

Only when Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took over did the army start fighting in earnest (though the current COAS seems to have acquiesced to Musharraf’s ‘dual policy’ when he served as the DG ISI). In Fata, Bajaur was one of the first to be cleansed and then in 2009, it was Swat — the real success story.

But what really changed from Musharraf to Kayani? What changed in the military tactics or strategy from Kalosha in 2004 to Mingora in 2009?

Apparently only the intentions; a ‘professional soldier’ who wasn’t preoccupied with his political survival and an internal dialogue inside the military (triggered by the series of attacks across the country) led to the change in policy.

And of course such is the logic of the system in Pakistan that no one ever thought of asking an institution what it was doing ‘pretending’ to fight a war from 2004 to 2008.

In 2007 when the ‘will’ was missing, there were hushed whispers about lack of equipment; the poor training of the FC; and reluctant soldiers who didn’t want to fight their own countrymen.

How this last problem was resolved post-2008 remains a mystery. As for the first two, we were told that the FC salary structure was improved and the Americans provided some equipment and training.

Was there any change in the strategy or tactics? Have we evolved a counterstrategy policy?

It’s hard to tell.

If the PAF chief’s testimony to the Abbottabad Commission report is to be believed, the defence policy was formed back in 2004. Since then there has been no review —10 years of fighting a war inside the borders to the extent that the army chief can’t open his mouth without lamenting the threat within from extremism and there has been no review of this defence policy.

No wonder then that the debate is black and white because the gaps in our information are so large that what is available is but a small oasis in a vast desert of ignorance.

And the gaps need to be filled if the debate is to be meaningful.

Strategies, tactics and options — more detailed than a high school level debate on the benefits of fighting vs talking.

Surely, if the Americans’ involvement in Afghanistan tells us something it is that there is more than one way of dealing with militancy — even if there is a consensus on the use of force.

Is North Waziristan the only target? Will an operation there rid us of those militants operating in Quetta and Karachi? How effective is the current strategy if four years after the most successful operation in Swat, the valley is still not fully under civilian control? Did the military operation in Swat differ from the one conducted in Bajaur?

What mistakes were made in Swat and what was learnt from them? Or did the Pakistan Army make none?

For once Imran Khan is not wrong when he asks for more facts before an all parties conference. But it would help if some of this information is shared with more than a handful of politicians sitting in the parliament.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.