Today’s hero

Published February 15, 2015
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SMART coup, hard coup, calling the shots, pulling the strings, the man in-charge. Anyway you cut it, it’s good to be Raheel.

The troops adore him, the public loves him, the politicians are in awe of him. He’s our warrior-in-chief, our leading diplomat, a grand strategician, a master tactician, a do-er and a thinker. He’s what Pakistan needs, he’s what Pakistan wants and he’s what Pakistan’s got.

Cut through all of that though and it’s fairly obvious: Raheel’s really stuck his neck out and is vulnerable as hell.

Going all-in in the fight against militancy — the narrow, parochial fight against the militants who are attacking Pakistani state and society — has made the chief Pakistan’s hero.

But that may also end up being the problem — Raheel has gone all-in. What happens if the plan doesn’t work? What happens when they strike again?

Read: Militant siege of Peshawar school ends, 141 killed

The Peshawar convulsion was in at least one way a game-changer — for the chief’s approach. He threw everything AND the kitchen sink at the problem. He got military courts. He had people hanged. He dashed to Kabul. His troops turned the screws in North Waziristan. His planes pummelled chunks of Fata.

He’s what Pakistan needs, he’s what Pakistan wants and he’s what Pakistan’s got.

He worked the phones. He spoke to world leaders. He cajoled Pakistan’s leaders. He got everyone to focus. This was going to be his legacy. This was going to his fight. This was going to be his victory.

But what happens if the plan doesn’t work? What happens when they strike again?

Also read: Parliament passes 21st Constitutional Amendment, Army Act Amendment

Shikarpur and the latest Peshawar attack don’t count. It’s too close to the December convulsion. Too near the school carnage. Nobody really thought that would be the last attack so quickly.

If anything, Shikarpur and this week’s Peshawar have underlined the threat that’s out there. If anything, Shikarpur and this week’s Peshawar have proved why we need Raheel.

Go get them for us, General. Finish them. End this. Godspeed.

Which is great — for us, for Raheel, for now. But fast forward a bit. Six months down the road. Maybe nine months or a year.

What if they strike again then? What if they top Peshawar? What’s Raheel got left in the bag?

Hangings, done. Military courts, done. Military operations, done. Aerial pounding, done. Ground attacks, done. Dashes to Afghanistan, done. Raids in the cities — so-called intelligence-based operations — done.

What would there be left for the chief to do? Before Peshawar, before the school carnage, there was so much room. Hence the hangings and military courts and countrywide raids and cross-border diplomacy and clandestine intelligence and military operations.

From NWA in June to Peshawar in December, Raheel cut a path that has put him and his approach front and centre. Because it hasn’t had time to work — or not work — he’s still the darling of the country.

A fearful public isn’t going to abandon its one last hope in the midst of the darkness. But hope has a funny way of turning sour. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s villain. See, Musharraf and Kayani. Each of them had a different approach.

Musharraf was the swaggering commando who straddled the country and vowed to break backbones and snap spines — and wowed the country in the process. He was scared of nobody and everyone loved the brashness — until they started to hate it.

Because, ultimately, things didn’t get better, they got worse. And all the braggadocio in the world can’t hide things going boom and stuff burning and people dying. And that’s really all the public wants — for things not to go boom, for stuff not to burn and people not to die.

Kayani was the mumbly general who saw what happened to the brash Musharraf and learned from it. So he promised little and delivered little.

Rather, Kayani got the cyclical nature of a militarised strategy to fight militancy: sometimes you’re on top — Swat, South Waziristan — sometimes you’re not — pretty much everything in the second term.

Ultimately though, all the philosophising in the world can’t make people accept things sometimes going boom and stuff burning now and then and people dying in waves, cyclical or not.

So both Musharraf and Kayani got it wrong. Now we have Raheel trying to be the best of both of them — decisive but smart; inclined towards action but thinking along the way; fierce but sympathetic; both heard from and listened to.

Once again, it looks good — until it won’t. Because any militarised strategy to fight militancy will meet the same fate. But Raheel has an extra burden — what’s he going to do when the next devastation is wrought, if it’s on his watch in the next two years?

What big move has he got left?

You can sense the government has figured this out. Let him enjoy his moment in the sun. In the meantime, keep him as close to us as possible. Let him lead the way. We’ll follow and take all the flak and insults and taunts.

Then, if it happens again, if something tops Peshawar, we’ll look the nation in the eye and solemnly say, your government and your armed forces have done everything we can, this is a long fight, please bear with us, we’re all in this together.

If you can’t rise, wait for your enemy to fall.

Raheel would have two choices at that point. Go the dictator route: our country is in trouble, I needed to do this, blah, blah, blah. But he’d be a Yahya by then — doomed before he can settle in.

Or he could go the Musharraf and Kayani route, harkening back to a great start, chafing against/resigned to a lousy end.

So yes, Raheel is king today. But only if you ignore the risk — he’s left nothing in the bag and doesn’t have an exit strategy.

Today’s hero is usually tomorrow’s villain here. With a caveat: politicians get a second chance, generals don’t.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn February 15th , 2015

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