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So adept at own goals

May 25, 2012

NONE of us knew who Dr Shakil Afridi was till the Guardian’s Saeed Shah broke the story about the Pakhtun medic’s arrest after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

That was towards the middle of last year. A year on, everyone who follows the news not only knows the man but also has a strong view on whether the doctor’s sentencing to a 33-year prison term for ‘treason’ was just or a mere travesty, an outrage.

Newspaper editorials, articles, online blogs, even social media content are all laden with the entire spectrum of opinion on Afridi’s prison sentence and the manner in which a jirga of tribal elders convened by a political agent under the Frontier Crimes Regulation convicted him.

There is no point in adding my two bits worth to the ‘debate’ apart from saying its timing represents the larger malaise, the royal mess that is Pakistan’s decision-making ability. There appears to be no leadership even in areas of utmost import to the health of the republic.

Consider Pakistan’s reaction to the Salala incident of last November where two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed when their post on the border with Afghanistan came under attack by Nato (read US) helicopter gunships called in by a ground patrol.

Our anger was just. But the chain reaction of events it triggered can hardly be described as wise. If we had taken a policy decision to shut the Nato supply route after a sane cost-benefit analysis, there wouldn’t be a problem. Ours was a knee-jerk reaction, a manifestation of perilous emotionalism.

While there was method to the madness of the Japanese kamikaze pilot who sacrificed his own life to destroy a formidable military target and inflict a debilitating loss on the enemy; here, the Shuja Pashas of this world nudged us closer to mass suicide almost without reason.

For its part, the US has also been wanting in terms of sanity. The ‘duplicity’ of the Pakistanis notwithstanding, by constantly going public with its charges against GHQ in often pointlessly arrogant terms, Washington fuelled anti-Americanism in the country as well.

It converted a willing, if occasionally devious, ally into a reluctant partner. In a country where people are known to hack their own flesh and blood in the name of ‘honour’, the US didn’t gauge well the reaction of an army high command feeling perpetually slighted and sorry for itself.

The war in Iraq may have planted the seeds of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, but a military and its intelligence set-up unsure of its place at the table of the superpower it served enthusiastically and rather cunningly tried to short-change at the same time added booster rockets to the hate spiral.

When the US started to go public with its charge-sheet against GHQ and the ISI, the latter reacted through proxies such as the Difa-i-Pakistan Council and equally patriotic sympathisers, even surrogates, in the media. Where has the resultant hysteria left us? Well not too far from where officially orchestrated militancy left us: with a runaway monster. Now we are told key military leaders spend their Friday afternoons analysing ‘pulse’ (finger-on-the-pulse) reports based on the prayer congregations across the country and decide their next move.

The PPP-led government has its eyes firmly on an election less than a year away and appears keen not to let its popularity slide further. It may have done deals with the army behind the scenes to complete its term, but appears determined not to raise its head above the parapet As it invited President Zardari to Chicago, Nato may also have underestimated (like many of us) the reluctance of the PPP to continue to act as a decoy to draw fire away from the military for some of GHQ’s own policies and decisions.

In fact, the fear of perceived backlash is so pronounced and the spines of leaders both civil and military so weakened that they don’t even go public in defence of their policies some of which, in one’s humble opinion, may well be in the longer-term national interest.

And many in the country and abroad may have to wait for the next round of Wikileaks to learn the truth hidden behind the patriotic bombast of the leaders — take for example our refusal to nominate an officer to join the US-led inquiry into the Salala incident when invited.

Then several months later a Pakistani general quietly (and anonymously of course) tells a US newspaper that our army is now aware that someone from the Salala post fired first. This story has been denied. Even if it’s true, the loss of life remains tragic and irreplaceable.

But the incident would get downgraded from a deliberate, hostile act to an unfortunate ‘friendly fire’ incident, the result of a misunderstanding where both forces misidentified each other/misread each other’s intentions, underlining no more than the need for better coordination.

One isn’t saying this was the case. Neither is one advocating the expeditious reopening of the supply routes. All one is asking for is a little more effort at sharing the truth; only then people will understand a decision and more significantly its repercussions.

And one is seeking a little more serious reflection before we unleash media campaigns to kick up mass hysteria to ‘strengthen’ our negotiating hand. Wouldn’t it be prudent to also assess how this hysteria may itself limit the range of options we can exercise in the end?

Rather than making a dent in the armour of an adversary when our propaganda war starts looking more and more like an own goal, shouldn’t we say it’s time for some serious soul-searching? And what do we do? We live up to the worst stereotype of ourselves with our atrocious sense of timing.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@dawn.com