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The consensus myth

October 20, 2012


EVERY so often, a new term enters the Pakitani lexicon. This is the season of ‘consensus’.

There can’t be a military operation in North Waziristan until and unless there’s a consensus. A political consensus. A societal consensus.

A Pakistani consensus that North Waziristan is a Pakistani problem that requires a Pakistan-endorsed solution.

The demand for a consensus is so innocuous, so innocent, so legitimate-sounding that it’s virtually irresistible.

It’s also a ruse.

For so fundamental is this political and societal consensus for a military operation in North Waziristan that … the army has done what exactly to help build it?

Y’know, stuff like putting senior officers before the cameras and microphones and explaining what the threat in NWA is and why it must be taken on.

‘North Waziristan is the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Fata and the militants project power from there. It is an intolerable and unacceptable state of affairs.’

Stuff like the otherwise-regular background briefings for movers and shakers in the media.

‘North Waziristan is the global hub of terrorism. There are Arabs and Chechens and Uzbeks and also folks from Sudan and Maldives — yes, the Maldives — and they have no business being there.’

Stuff like ISPR declarations that are oh so common on matters of lesser national import.

‘North Waziristan is from where they attacked Kamra, from where they behead our soldiers, from where the Bannu jailbreak was planned.’

Or just stuff the army says in private.

‘North Waziristan: we have the resources, we have the troops. We need to do it now; we can’t afford to wait.’

Heard any of that? Of course not.

Because this is what the army has been saying:

We need a consensus, Pakistan. Give us a consensus, Pakistan. But shucks, don’t expect us to do anything about building that consensus.

If only it ended there.

While the army is demanding a consensus, many in the security establishment’s orbit have been running around undermining the possibility of a consensus.

The Difaa-i-Pakistan Council has been running around decrying American agendas and embracing militants. But no one in the army has snapped his fingers and called them to heel.

Imran Khan is talking silly about drones and sorting out militancy with hugs and handshakes.

But no one from the security establishment has challenged his narrative.

So, neither will the army help out with the heavy lifting of building a consensus nor will it slap down those in its orbit working against such a consensus ever emerging.

But the army wants a consensus.

What are we to make of it?

The well-worn theories are well known. They want to protect the Afghan-centric assets. They are shaping the battlefield environment first. They want the American anvil in place before the Pakistani hammer comes down, lest the militant leadership escape across the border.

Leadership, though, no one wants to talk about. Leadership to know what’s necessary and then have the will to do it. Leadership to take on a threat and deal with the consequences, fearsome or not.

But the longer the facile consensus debate carries on, the more difficult it is becoming to avoid talking about the elephant in the room: Gen K and his will to get the job done.

It usually starts with the silly theories and the implausible conspiracies, of the kind being whispered already.

That NWA will happen but after the election, when the question of another extension will be on the table. That way the Indispensable will be indispensable again, a change in command undesirable in the midst of the mother of all battles.

If that sounds silly, it is. If another term is wanted, another term will be had — it’s in the nature of things here and battlefields, big or small, aren’t needed to win the argument.

But it’s telling that the conspiracy theory exists at all. Because it says a lot about the perception that has built up around the chief, a man who prefers the indirect to the direct, the convoluted to the straightforward.

Of the many myths that surround the army here, one is bigger than most: the army works by consensus, the high command decides what can or cannot be done and the army chief is perhaps only a first among equals.

But is it so?

What if a chief said, this is the policy from today, these are my orders, now carry them out or else.

A few may object; it will take a while to filter through the system, for the bottom to figure out the top means business — but altogether impossible?

Only if the chief is OK with it being impossible. Only if the chief is OK with vacillation. Only if the chief is OK with spreading the burden of leadership.

Forgotten now is the original reason the chief is the chief today.

When Musharraf picked his successor he thought he’d be around another five years presiding over the civilian side of things.

If you don’t plan to exit, what kind of person would you pick to occupy the most powerful seat in Pakistan?

A forceful personality, a man of searing conviction and with chutzpah, a straight shooter, someone who won’t let anything or anyone stand in his way?

Probably not.

When civilians have picked a chief to suit their purposes, they’ve made some compelling mistakes: Zia by Bhutto; Musharraf by Sharif.

But when a chief picks, he does so knowing the man better than a civilian ever could. (Ayub to Yahya was a peculiar set of circumstances.)

And so perhaps that’s why we have this silliness over a consensus. This vacillation and vacuousness. This uncertainty and drift.

Perhaps Musharraf did choose well. Except he chose for a very different purpose than what the country needs today.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm