The upswing

December 20, 2015


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

THIS is what it looks like. Muddling through. But it’s easy to miss when you’re in the middle of it.

This was the year that everything changed. APS made it possible. Never again would the Taliban scare us. We would fight them anywhere we found them. In the name of the martyrs.

But we were already fighting them. Counter-insurgency was at a historic, inarguable peak. Zarb-i-Azb was six months old; Khyber-I had been launched in Oct. There was, literally, nowhere left to go in Fata. The boys had not waited for and did not need universal backing.

There’s something odd about the smartest militants — they are horrifically violent. It’s where their cleverness comes undone.

But it helps to portray it that way. So we have this ex-post, after the event, tweaking of the story. It all began with APS. Pakistan would never be the same.

But it will. And it is. Because all we’re seeing is the flip side of muddling through. Muddling through is about a band — no catastrophe from which we can’t recover, never a situation from which we can escape to a better paradigm.

A band that stretches and contracts, alternately scaring and thrilling us, but that never breaks. At least not yet. To see it for what it is, it helps to start at the beginning of the cycle.

The Taliban had arrived and there were two big unknowns. What if they were really smart? And, on our side, what if we were unable or unwilling to fight them?

For a while, both looked true. Which made hearts sink and fear spike. We were losing our country and our minds. It was terminal.

Then both ends changed. The Taliban didn’t prove as smart or clever as we feared they may be. For the most part, they were rudimentary and gormless.

There were some who were dangerously smart. Frighteningly so. Like the chap from Swat and some of the guys from Mohmand. The second-generation TTP types, who knew technology and understood the power of propaganda.

But there’s something odd about the smartest militants — they are horrifically violent. It’s where their cleverness comes undone. The violence they exhort and perpetrate is so grotesque that it makes the skin crawl of everyone else. Like APS did.

So, either not the brightest or freakishly violent — that limits what the Taliban can achieve, in an existential, take-over-the-state sense. They become a part of the muddle.

The other side is the state itself. The capability to fight wasn’t the main problem. It would take a while to learn how to fight militancy, but throw enough men and resources at the problem and only one side was going to prevail.

The fear — which made it hard to figure out that we were really on the downward slope of muddling through at the time — was that decades of courting Islamism had sapped the state’s will to fight.

Institutional interest dictated that we fight, but had we dabbled so much in religion that we had become the guys we had to fight? Until institutional interest asserted itself, there was real doubt.

Once it did, we were on an upswing again — bringing us to the present side of muddling through. Once again, rhetoric has raced ahead of reality. Pakistan has been saved! Never again! Go Green. Go army. Go Pakistan.

But, for those who care to look, it’s obvious that we have not been saved. There’s a ceiling to this upturn. And it’s built into the system that is muddling through.

To force a paradigm shift there are roughly three parts in the fight against militancy: counterterrorism, counter- insurgency and counter-extremism. But they can’t happen.

Because muddling through itself is a tripod, our own version of a system of checks and balances. One peg is the army. It has the ability to prevent an unravelling, but an unwillingness to let another institution lead.

That hampers counterterrorism, makes counter-extremism impossible and constrains the efficacy of counter-insurgency.

The other peg is the civilians. They are weak, but strong enough to prevent the army from ruling too long or projecting unlimited power. It is the very definition of muddling through.

Counter-insurgency can’t be completed — the civilian component is under-empowered and under-incentivised. Counter-extremism is a non-starter — it’s too complicated and involves too many moving parts to coordinate. And counterterrorism is too specialised, with capture by the army.

The third peg — that would be us, the population — is the one it’s least polite to talk about. Because it tends to be part of the problem. Both the boys and the civilians draw their legitimacy from the population and so both are respectful and fearful of it.

But that divided loyalty tends to reinforce muddling through. First, by picking democracy but supporting the boys’ interventions, the people’s preferences have the unintended effect of perpetuating the civ-mil imbalance.

Second, there’s a limit to what a state can do to progressively wipe out extremism. Take on too many mosques, too many madressahs and too many social welfare networks and the public will resist. Maybe not actively, but there will be reluctance to endorse.

The politicians know this. The boys know this. And there isn’t an anti-Zia among them to do anything about it. You can’t fix what the people don’t want you to address — what is problematic extremism to some is necessary, devout, non-violent belief to many.

And all of that that adds up to the upswing, the upside of muddling through — things have got better and will get better, but there is a ceiling. Who knows when we’ll hit it and who knows what the next downturn will look like.

But you can bet it will happen. Muddling through demands it.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2015