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Between hope and despair

December 13, 2015


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

THERE’S hope and there’s despair and then there’s us — the yo-yos in between. Spinning from one extreme to the other, it can often seem — and sometimes is — bewildering. If we had a national motto, it could well be — what the hell was that?

Comprehensive dialogue with India? On top of internal stability and an economy not in a tailspin? It’s like we’ve hit the trifecta and didn’t even know we had a horse in the race.

Modi changed his mind, we’re told. Fine. But who changed ours? Or what was on our minds before we got into this?

Basically, what are the boys up to?

Remember, it seems only yesterday that Modi gifted us a military NSA. If it weren’t for Ufa, we’d still have a civilian in that job.

Ah, but you’re thinking the NSA switch was about Balochistan; the recently retired general having waded deep into the miasma there.

Well, no. But if you really want to believe that, there’s the curious case of Malik. The retired general had wanted him to stay on. But Malik is gone and Zehri is in. That’s not a very auspicious start for the new NSA and the boys backing him.

Plus, consider what’s happened on India. Full-spectrum talks tips things towards the civilians here.

If it’s just trade being discussed or terrorism or whatever, it’s easier to keep track of and shut down when too much happens too fast.

Modi ranting about terrorism and us going back to Kashmir is the core and raking up allegations of Indian interference suited the boys just fine.

Modi changed his mind, we’re told. Fine. But who changed ours?

It’s not like they’re in a hurry to talk or think there’s a lot that can get — or should — get done. Besides, there’s the internal fight and Afghanistan to attend to first.

If talks weren’t enough, things have switched from Modi being the spoiler to Mumbai being back on the agenda. It’s possible that nothing will happen on the Mumbai trials. But that will just remind the world who we are and whom we are clinging to. Nothing good can come of that.

Slice it any way you like, but this smells like a victory for the civilians. The down-and-out Sharif getting his way on something to do with India? The script sure wasn’t headed in this direction.

It may help to start with the basics. Zero talks — no talks at all — was not the boys’ preference to begin with.

Pak-India has a funny habit of spiralling downwards when things are standing still. The preferred option was doubling down on the security front and talking to India as equals. The security part is well on its way; full-spectrum deterrence balancing the alarm over the conventional gap.

Time — parity — has been bought. But the long-term trajectory is the same. There’s a need to see what can be got at the table before it’s too late.

That still doesn’t get us to comprehensive dialogue at this juncture though. Comprehensive is giddy stuff. Comprehensive is civilian stuff.

You can see where the mistake crept in: the dossiers. They were a blunder — never claw yourself into a corner.

The dossiers were an unnecessary innovation. Modi had reduced Pak-India to the one-point agenda of terrorism, so the boys wanted to make that a two-way street.

Sensitive to being labelled terror supporters and angry at the complications being caused in the righteous fight against the TTP and in Balochistan, it didn’t just seem like a clever response — it was the truth too.

But there was a vulnerability — if Modi dropped his one-point agenda and offered broader dialogue, it would be hard to force the civilians to reject the offer or prevent them from even broadening it.

Terror and security aren’t a priority for Nawaz — it’s not like he has a prayer of directly shaping policy there — but he wants to move fast on everything else: trade, travel, investment, sport, culture, whatever the hell he or anyone else interested in peace can dream up.

And his opportunity has come with a deadline that has hit the sweet spot: nine months to lay the ground for or unveil something big when Modi arrives.

Nine months is long enough to get agreement on some things, but short enough to push back against the usual resistance.

Nine months from now, the chief will be on the verge of retirement — assuming the schedule is adhered to — and a gaggle of potential successors will be vying for the prime ministerial nod, or the chosen one will be enjoying the fresh glow of a lifetime ambition achieved.

Nine months from now — assuming the succession schedule is not adhered to — the incumbent will be busy trying to justify grabbing an extension. Immediately using his veto on India would make him seem more dictator-like than ever.

Either way, the next nine months are the sweetest nine months of opportunity Nawaz may ever see.

But nine months is also long enough for us to yo-yo again. In the Modi-Nawaz-boys triangle, only one side seems reliable.

Modi? He could just as quickly change his mind again. The talks chimera could disappear as suddenly as it appeared.

Nawaz? For all his certainty on India he still seems to rely more on good fortune than sound strategy — at home and with India. It does not inspire confidence.

But the boys? They have the certainty of knowing what they want and the means to get it. Their veto is eternal and their bag of tricks heavy.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2015