A grim trajectory

Published March 11, 2011

PEOPLE killed in suicide bombings, people killed in a hail of bullets, people killed by remote-controlled IEDs — dead, dead, dead. At every step, at every turn, people are dying violent deaths in Pakistan. And there is no end in sight.

Are the militants and the terrorists winning?

The short, glib answer, yes, they are. The longer, more nuanced answer: if this keeps up, they will. 

'Winning' here doesn't mean toppling the state and running the place the Afghan Taliban in the '90s.

Winning just means pulling the country into a low-level equilibrium: endemic violence and insecurity; low growth and few economic prospects; poor social indicators; a populace that is further under-educated and distanced from the modern world; the reign of intolerance, misogyny and misanthropy.

The parasitic state would still exist in this nightmare scenario, but it would be too worried about its own security and well-being to do anything for a frightened and defenceless population.

Sounds Orwellian?

Not really. If you think about it, that pretty much describes the trajectory Pakistan has been on the past few years. Now, the convulsions have been more and more frequent; the orgy of violence is near constant.

The 'solutions' are well-known. Operational and tactical: infiltrate the new sub-groups; improve intelligence-gathering; better coordination between the various law-enforcement and security agencies.

Policy level: stop trying to parse the various strands of militancy — the good from the bad — it is an amorphous whole, a threat in totality to the country and the people. Suck the extremist 'oxygen' out of the air, present a counter-narrative to the extremist vision. Refine the instruments at the disposal of the state — legal, law-enforcement, intelligence — to progressively excise the extremists embedded in society.

If the solutions are so well-known, why aren't they being implemented?

To partly answer that, think about the state and how if functions. In what area has it succeeded?

Poverty is rampant. Growth is uneven. Educational system is dysfunctional. Health sector is poor. Crime, of the non-militant kind, is commonplace. Financial system is weak. Manufacturing base is wobbly. Agricultural market is broken.

This is a Third World country and it's a Third World country for a bunch of reasons. Across the board, institutions of state are frail and ineffectual. If they fail at ordinary stuff — the stuff of making people's lives better — why would they succeed at the extraordinary stuff, fighting a violent insurgency?

Does that mean we give up?

No. We haven't given up on the state system after more than six decades of anaemic results, so why should we give up on the state system after half a dozen years of poor results in fighting an insurgency?

New challenges mean developing new responses. Take intelligence-sharing. Director of X agency may be worried that if he shares his intelligence with other agencies, X agency's clout will diminish. No one likes seeing their clout diminish.

Or Director of Y agency simply prefers to keep his head down because if you do nothing — good or bad — you don't get blamed, and not getting blamed is the first rule of survival in a bureaucracy.

Inter-agency rivalries and bureaucratic anxieties exist the world over — see, 9/11 and the spectacular failures — but just because they are real and formidable doesn't mean they can't be overcome.

Paradoxically, the relentless wave of violence may jolt the state system into a better response. Security officials across the country are — after dismissing their own culpability — worried men. Self-preservation is causing them to rethink their approach.

So much for the somewhat good news. The bad news: time isn't on our side.

The militants may not be any closer to toppling the state, but they are threatening to permanently alter the trajectory of the country.

In a race between reversing bureaucratic and political inertia and encouraging a robust institutional response on the one side and militants with bombs and guns and dreams of suicide on the other side, it isn't looking good.

Suppose it takes the state another five to six years to figure out how to get the desired results (a generous calculation). By then Pakistan would have already been in a vortex of violence for over a decade. Add another decade for the praxis to take hold. Not much may be left to save by the time we are in a position to try and save.

Now, to the other part of why the state has not been able to implement well-known solutions. Two words: Pakistan Army. But here, too, the answer has become more nuanced in recent times.

The army now 'gets' the threat from militancy. At least it understands the internal threat. Senior army officers are worried men.

Even from the narrowest of self-interests, the current state of Pakistan is not good for the army. If you like playing golf, taking the kids out to buy the latest iPad, fancy yourself to be a real-estate investor, dabble in the stock market a bit, sit around with friends and shoot the breeze, none of what is going on is helpful.

But there remain two problems. One, the army is largely clueless, a conventional army trying to fight an unconventional conflict. Note the wholesale borrowing of terms from the American COIN manual — clear, hold, build, etc. Real life isn't like the movies: helping create a monster doesn't mean you know the secret to take it down.

Two, they remain blind. India-centric led to a fear of a two-front war which led to certain choices that have led to a three-front war — soldiers are stationed on the eastern and western borders and are fighting inside Pakistan. But the army, at least publicly, remains unwilling or unable to connect the dots so.

Clueless, blind, a broken system and no political will — that about sums up the Pakistani state at the moment.The militants haven't won. But neither will they be worried. Time is on their side.

The writer is a member of staff.




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