Casualties of war

Published September 17, 2021
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

AT long last, the season of ‘forever wars’ has come to an end. US planes are securely back in their hangars, most likely still busy scraping off the pulverised remains of desperate Afghans from their landing gears. The Taliban, far from storming Kabul with gunpowder vengeance as prophesied, have rather breezily waltzed into the Presidential Palace. The Emirate has been resurrected, and if the wind in its sails keeps up, it may be here for a long time to come.

As we ruminate over the consequences of America making yet another successful mockery of the very basic precepts of international law, it is equally important to take an inward glance — like many, many others, our hands too have had their part to play in shaping this sordid saga. After all, where would empire be without a little help from its front-line friends?

Who better to turn to for the plainest of plain speak than our ex dictator-in-chief: “We helped create the mujahideen, fired them with religious zeal in seminaries, armed them, paid them, fed them and sent them to a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We did not stop to think how we would divert them to productive life after the jihad was won”. This is putting it a bit lightly really.

We also did not stop to think what it truly meant to allow the CIA to send out a global invite for a clandestine military ‘jihad’, internationalising the exercise, rupturing its relatively established position in Islamic law as an activity undertaken by a legitimate state, and turning it into a free-for-all buffet for militant groups, all fuelled specifically on an ideology that was never really meant to transcend beyond the barrel of their guns.

As we ruminate over the consequences of America making a mockery of international law, it is equally important to take an inward glance.

Then, worst of all, rather than trying to fix the mess we helped create, we pursued instead what the late Eqbal Ahmad presciently called the “quest for a mirage misnamed ‘strategic depth’”, which, he lamented, had “squandered historic opportunities and produced a new set of problems for Pakistan’s security”. With the shallow wisdom that accompanies hindsight, it is safe to say that he was quite correct.

Post 9/11, when the United States came knocking at our door with its intention to invade and occupy our neighbour, we became willing conduits to its self-proclaimed ‘war on terror’. A few years into the affair and Musharraf was already boasting of having “earned bounties totalling millions of dollars” — not that our civilian champions of democracy proved any different. Zardari, for instance, was far more blunt. “Collateral damage worries you Americans,” he told them, “it does not worry me.”

Imprisoned by geography and damned by history, our western frontier — particularly the districts that once comprised Fata — became the focal point of the violence that ensued. Long treated as a semi-useful appendage and handcuffed firmly to the FCR, it served, first, as a laboratory for ideological experiments, then, the sanctuary of their bloodthirsty products, and ultimately, the site of their extermination.

It was here that suicidal maniacs unleashed living hell. It was here that millions were displaced by kinetic operations as we fought the wretched TTP. It was here that our soldiers lost their limbs and lives. And of course, it was here that Predator drones blas­ted children to bits, while our ruling elite — be they booted or suited — shed big fat crocodile tears, sho­ok their fists at the sky and screeched of ‘sovereign­ty’ and ‘territorial integrity’, when all the while, they had actually been green-lighting the entire charade.

Luckily, there may be an antidote to what ails us. In his autobiography, Imran Khan once suggested that “we need to have a new relationship with our tribal areas, where the lives of six million proud and honourable people have been devastated” by what was, in essence, a “US-funded jihad”. This, he wrote, could be achieved by nothing less than a “South African-style ‘truth and reconciliation’ process”.

The radical nature of his proposal should not be lost on anyone. Truth and reconciliation forums are very strange creatures of law. Unlike ordinary cou­rts, they are not punitive in their outlook. They seek, not to punish, but to unearth the reality of what oc­­curred — to authenticate the narratives of victims, redress the harm they suffered, and thus, heal and repair fractured polities and broken relationships.

This entails abandoning our traditional logic of retribution and creating a restorative body of justice, one with a mandate so wide that it would be authorised to thoroughly investigate the human cost of our security policies, including the legality, necessity and proportionality of every action committed by the state over the past few decades.

This will not be an easy task. Amnesty would have to be provided to people who did unspeakable things, committed grave illegalities. Difficult questions will be raised, and ugly realities will undoubtedly be exposed — but, if done in earnest, perhaps this could be the elixir of our liberation, a balm with which to soothe our war-weary and tired souls.

Intriguingly, today, demands for truth and reconciliation are being raised by other quarters, some of whose names have mysteriously vanished from all of our dailies. As for the prime minister, despite having more than three-fifths of his term comfortably tucked into his belt, he has thus far neglected to take any concrete step to establish such a forum. Why the hesitancy, one is forced to wonder. What on earth could compel our morally unshakable, indomitable and ironhanded premier from walking this walk, having earlier talked this talk?

War creates countless casualties. Truth, they say, is the very first. It is high time for us to have a grand reckoning with the sins of our past. Dealing in dollars slick with Saudi oil has come at a hefty cost. The ‘truth’, or at least whatever shattered pieces of it we may find, may just provide us with some form of national catharsis. Then, and only then, might we be able to move forward and finally close this dark, dark chapter of our history.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2021

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