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Karachi to Kabul

Updated May 17, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

A blow to the solar plexus and some wretched hope for the mind — it’s been one of those weeks in Pakistan.

So let’s jump right in. First, Karachi. Much has been debated — and more will be. But what of the politics of it?

After Peshawar, Raheel went all-in. And after Peshawar, Nawaz hugged Raheel close and let the boys own the policy.

You can imagine Nawaz going off script, but you can’t imagine Nawaz rewriting the entire script.

Maybe it was a masterstroke, more likely it was haplessness.

Six, nine months down the road, when the militarised strategy inevitably proved inadequate, Raheel would have nowhere to hide — leaving Nawaz more secure than ever.

After all, you only have to look better than the alternative — and Raheel’s all-in approach was fraught with risk.

Five months down the road, we have a partial answer: masterstroke or haplessness, it’s not working.

Karachi is more than just Raheel vs Nawaz. The operation began before Raheel and, given the other players in the mix, it’s really a meta-narrative: civilians vs the boys.

It does though inform the balance of power at the very top. But see what happened this week.

Read: 43 killed in attack on bus carrying Ismailis in Karachi

The grimness of Karachi was apparent to all. As is the inadequacy of the boys’ approach. An army-run, militarised strategy is not going to work.

But no one is blaming the boys. And the boys aren’t really looking all that bad.

Part of the reason is their alacrity and Nawaz’s ponderousness. To swing the narrative, you have to pounce when opportunity arises.

Instead, the army pounced first. Immediately, we heard the stories of RAW. So instead of anger, we got fear.

If fighting one threat — internal — and the strategy isn’t working, folk are liable to get angry. But if amidst the internal fight, the spectre of an external threat re-arises, folk are likely to get worried.

And worry translates into needing security more than ever. Guess who offers security?

Then, the candid admission and not-so-subtle blame-shifting: we admit it, our strategy isn’t working as we thought it would, but, look, we’re not getting the support we need.

It seems honest and — better yet — is the kind of plausible folk are willing to believe. No one can fault a hard worker on the side of the people, especially if that hard worker isn’t getting the support he needs.

The other part of the story is Nawaz and his team: they just don’t get the narrative game.

Plodding on, focusing on the economy will win you votes and possibly the next election — but it won’t win you space.

And without space, you serve at the other guy’s pleasure. Which is never a good place to be if you’re the civilian and the other guy is in a uniform.

But that’s the way it looks like it’s going to be: even as the flawed policy becomes apparent, the boys have more tools in their box than the civilians.

Heads I win, tails you lose — the more things change…

On to Afghanistan then. To hear Nawaz utter those words was quite remarkable. Pakistan’s allies are supposed to be down in the south, not up in Kabul. That was the whole point to the last 14 years.

So, change is here?

Well, it matters who said it (see above).

Also read: Nawaz Sharif pledges support in Afghan fight against Taliban

But then there was the private joke: had Nawaz taken Raheel along or had Raheel taken Nawaz along? If it was the latter, it was telling that Nawaz said it with Raheel in town.

You can imagine Nawaz going off script, but you can’t imagine Nawaz rewriting the entire script — not on this trip, not with Raheel and Rizwan there to get some work done.

You can also imagine that it was intended to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban — a public rebuke on one front to gain some kind of concession on another front.

The other front being the negotiating one.

If you don’t want them to amp up the fight, you must want them to do something else. You can’t expect a standstill.

Does Pakistan really want the Afghan Taliban to negotiate?

If it does, that would be the second plank. So far, we’ve had one problem, militancy, with three approaches, internal, Afghanistan and India.

If true, it would be exciting. Two planks is better than one.

But hope can be a wretched thing. Two cautions are being bandied about.

First, it could be a two-step gamble, which is harder to read than simply never letting talks happen.

The two-step gamble has more benefits than the one-step rejection: you win support and possibly early rewards from those interested in making talks happen.

Then, as that process plays out, certain murky tactics are deployed, leverage is used to make sure talks don’t actually succeed.

You still get what you want — the Taliban as the dominant Afghan power — without seeming to have wanted it.

Could that be the game here?

Part of the problem is that there’s a hidden problem: there’s one institution, but different perspectives, different interests.

For years, the Pakistan Desk and the Afghan Desk have been at odds. One is focused on the internal struggle, can see the linkages and wants the necessary done. And that includes ratcheting down support for the Afghan Taliban.

The Afghan Desk is long term, thinks it’s geostrategic and believes that the war for Pakistan should not be compromised by the domestic battle.

Thus far, no one has figured out how to reconcile the two views. And the Afghan Desk has always won.

But the Pakistan Desk has its supporters too.

The two-step gamble could be a way of splitting the difference, for now: give talks a chance, but don’t let them go anywhere.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2015

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