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Optimism — just some

October 31, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn
The writer is a former editor of Dawn

IN these tough, uncertain times, some days you’ll wake up feeling inexplicably optimistic. This is one of those days. Let’s try and put a little flesh on the optimism skeleton if we can.

Pakistan’s long and torrid love affair with religious zealotry and militancy was need-driven. The military leadership witnessed the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s and put down what they saw as a superpower’s ‘defeat’ solely to the thousand cuts inflicted by religious hordes.

Like most of their assessments in the past, this one was hugely simplistic too. We have suffered enough not to know the consequences. But we won’t get into the details of that folly and will leave it for another time. What is important here is that once the military leadership reached that judgment there was no stopping it.

It was insecure, tentative with regard to its own ability to counter arch-enemy India’s military juggernaut. It found comfort in the arms of the hordes of zealots. The zealots started to bleed India in India-held Kashmir and tie down a significant Indian force in the valley. Some estimates suggest up to half the Indian army’s strength was committed there.

The experience of the use of proxies is turning into a very sour one and the latter are being gradually abandoned.

In the Pakistani military’s past assessments, the Indian army’s most likely area of incursion into Pakistani territory would be south of Multan where the country is at its thinnest and therefore the most vulnerable because it is arid and unlike the north offers little natural defences such as mountainous terrain.

Thus, tying down a big proportion of the enemy’s troops in a morass in the Srinagar valley; stationing the bulk of the Cobra attack helicopters visualised in a big anti-tank role in the Multan region; positioning a major force of armour; and bolstering/building military garrisons in Bahawalpur and further south in Pano Akil north of Sukkur, and one in Rahim Yar Khan reflected the same thinking.

If this wasn’t enough, radicalism was injected in southern Punjab. The irony couldn’t have been greater. The Seraiki belt has been long seen as the land of the Sufis. Now among its proudest sons ranked clerics such as Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad. From sectarianism to helping Osama bin Laden hide in Pakistan to sharing Al Qaeda’s goals are among some of Jaish’s claim to fame items.

One could talk of dozens of other groups cut from the same establishment cloth. These were seen as low-cost, high-yield (in terms of their bloodshed capability) assets with the added advantage of bestowing deniability on their handlers. However, the nexus came to be seen as so close that what was supposed to be plausible deniability became just deniability.

One cannot be sure whether Mumbai and Ajmal Kasab and his bunch of cold-blooded mass murderers changed that or intelligence intercepts from dozens of conversations between Afghan Taliban and their handlers did but nobody is willing to believe Pakistan anymore.

Is this then the cause for this morning’s optimism? Not quite. Two other developments are. Well, three. The first is, of course, happening across our border. For the first time since independence, with the exception of Mrs Gandhi’s emergency in the 1970s, our eastern neighbour is at war with itself. And in doing so it seems to be aping us.

Cause for glee? Not at all, as in India even today the fight is between religious zealots and secularists. We know that our tussle is between different shades of the right.

Even then many Pakistanis will be pleased, albeit a small minority saddened, that the world’s largest democracy, one that’s always appeared unified in its stance on key issues, is reopening explosive, divisive issues in the 21st century that seemed settled at its independence in 1947.

The hope is that till they are looking inwards as they are right now, the neighbours will be spared their wrath. In the past, such internal tension could have created the spectre of external conflict if only as a means of uniting a nation, distracting them from their current obsessions. But not now when nuclear weapons have made the cost of adventurism unaffordable for each party.

The second development is Iran’s deal with the US on its nuclear programme which will see sanctions against Tehran lifted and open infinite trading opportunities for Pakistan. But clearly clamping down on extremist networks operating in Balochistan and the border areas with Iran will be a prerequisite.

CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) with its promised multi-billion dollar investment and the anticipated high yields on it whether in infrastructure or energy projects will also require a terrorism-free environment. China’s major motivation for this project is to bring development and growth in its remote and relatively inaccessible western region on a par with its eastern parts.

It is in its western part that it is seeing Uighur unrest and wants to pair economic development with a security crackdown to deal with Muslim militants. It has also made clear to its CPEC partner that militancy has to be curbed for the project to be completed and deliver on all its goals.

The international environment today is different to the one during the Cold War or even post 9/11 when huge amounts of aid flowed into Pakistan. That’s all drying up. The civil and more significantly the military leaders are aware of this. Trade with Iran and the CPEC will bring in badly needed investment and foreign earnings into the country.

Inroads into militant-held areas in northwest Pakistan have given its military commanders a newfound confidence that its battle-hardened troops are now ready to face any external threat on their own. In any case their experience of the use of proxies is turning into a very sour one and the latter are being gradually abandoned.

Isn’t this ground enough for a dash of optimism added to the usual doom and gloom scenario?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2015

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