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The next phase

Updated December 04, 2016


IN a way, a lot of it has been predictable. Nawaz got into trouble because he likes fancy homes and thinks business is politics.

Imran — he hacks away the way he does because he wants power and disdains systems. Insurgents usually need to practise guerrilla politics.

Civ-mil has been rocky because it really is a zero-sum game — the civilians want to get on top, but the boys can’t let them.

India is a familiar flashpoint — the civilians want to open up to trade and normality, the boys don’t. All the better when Kashmir gets activated because it scrambles everything and delays a reckoning internally.

The US — things were going to dip once their troops exited Afghanistan, but the relationship wouldn’t completely fall apart because of security imperatives.

Afghanistan — we can’t abandon the Taliban because they are the pre-eminent Pakhtun players in a country where we have no other allies.

Internally, we’ve settled into the pattern of a long war: eliminating some, coddling others, unsteadily working out how to proceed.

In a way, it’s good things have been predictable. Because it can help point to where the next flashpoints may lie in this next phase of the transition.

In a way, it’s good things have been predictable. Because it can help point to where the next flashpoints may lie in this next phase of the transition.

So let’s give it a shot.

Panama isn’t going to go away nor will the London flats. It doesn’t matter what the court says or does, the Panama Papers and the London flats have become part of a political narrative.

The narrative is that Nawaz and his family have grown immensely rich doing politics. The N-League argues the Sharifs have grown rich doing business, but that doesn’t matter because everyone can see the Sharifs are stupendously rich.

And everyone, rich and poor, knows you don’t become stupendously rich in Pakistan without doing at least several illegal things. Especially and particularly if you’re a politician.

Panama and the London flats have become for the Sharifs what the Surrey palace was for Zardari — a proxy for all the other, vast misdeeds everyone suspects, but no one can prove.

Panama and the London flats are here to stay.

The conflict between Imran and Nawaz will intensify. Nawaz has cultivated an aura of a leader above politics, but in a few cases the mask slips and you can see the fury.

It’s long been apparent that Imran was not going to try a different strategy, but what’s becoming apparent is that Nawaz is willing to fight Imran on Imran’s terms.

It appears to be personal as much as political. Some in the N-League sensed it early and tried to steer matters away, but everyone’s fallen in line now — N-League will fight mud with mud, match blow for blow.

Politics will stay at a simmer and occasionally boil over. Twenty eighteen will feel like a long way away.

Civ-mil will stay hot, too. Not because that’s always been the case, but because the way things are set up at the moment. It’s several things.

First, Nawaz & co haven’t changed their minds — they do think there is a possibility of a real drift towards isolation and the Trump win has injected more alarm.

That means the civilian attempts to elbow themselves back into foreign policy and national security debates — on Afghanistan, the US and the like — will continue. That means more friction.

Second, India will be a problem, in that civ and mil here have different ideas about how to proceed.

The Nawaz team has given up on any big breakthrough with India; they sense Modi is neither in the mood nor in a place where he can do something dramatic on the normalisation front.

But the Nawaz team is concerned that conflict, even just political and diplomatic, could derail the N-League’s domestic agenda of focusing on the economy and putting in place what they think is the infrastructure for eventual regional trade.

That means fighting for restraint, but to the boys in a grim mood restraint means weakness. And you can never be weak on India.

Third, the anti-India militant lot are carving out fresh space for themselves. Knowing that the boys aren’t interested in a general conflagration and want to deflect global pressure by keeping them relatively muzzled, the anti-India militant lot may be testing a new operational strategy.

The strategy: focus on hard, military targets in or close to the disputed territories. It is both clever and dangerous.

Clever because it stays below red lines in a way, say, a Mumbai-like attack would not. Dangerous because any operational activity can give the anti-India lot funny ideas about testing red lines.

And then there’s the clash that’s already been coded into the system.

Winding down counter-insurgency means amping up counterterrorism. Agree or disagree with the plan, the boys have moved methodically and arrived determinedly at this moment.

After the pacification of Fata and the disruption of the links between Pakistan proper and tribal or Afghan bases, the war has to be taken to the provinces.

But Balochistan has long fallen; KP is in the zone of influence because of its proximity to Fata; and Sindh has been prised open. Alone stands Punjab.

If things elsewhere in the civ-mil realm had been more in sync, it would still have been a helluva battle. But with things already so out of whack, the fight over Punjab may turn ugly.

That Nawaz is in the wrong on Punjab and the boys right about the logical progression may make it uglier still.

In a way, it’s good that things have been predictable. Not so good is what they predict next.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn December 4th, 2016