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Slipping off the agenda

February 03, 2013

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THE problem with conspiracy theories is that reality has a way of interrupting, eventually.

Remember the time when the US was out to get Pakistan: snatch Balochistan away; defang our nuclear deterrent; punish us for making their time in Afghanistan that much more complicated and difficult?

That was just a couple of years ago. The ally from hell was being primed to earn its comeuppance.

Today, Pakistan struggles to get a mention in conversations about the world’s most urgent trouble spots and what to do about them.

Mali is the hot new topic, and Syria the subject of much handwringing. Iran is the big foreign policy challenge: will it cut a deal with the US or will it creep further towards nuclearisation?

‘Af’ still makes people nervous and ‘Pak’ does too. But in a kind of we’ve-tried-to-fix-it-but-it-won’t-get-fixed-and-now-we’d-just-like-to-move-on way.

Mission liquidation is the name of the game and with the troops headed for the exit, the appetite to think about Afghanistan and obsess over Pakistan’s perfidy is vanishing.

Simply, the world is a complicated place and attention spans aren’t endless; Pakistan’s extended moment in the international limelight, spotlight of shame really, has almost passed.

As ever, Pakistan, believing it is the centre of everyone else’s universe, missed all the obvious signs. Obama filled the skies above Pakistan with drones but he was also determined to end the wars Bush had started.

When they got Osama, we obsessed over how Americans were able to enter and exit Pakistan unmolested. So we missed all the folks who said, we got our guy, now let’s get outta here.

Confident about even our weakest assumption and steeped in a culture of conspiracy, it never really occurred to us that the world could, well, just move on.

We have nukes, we have 180 million Muslims, we are geo-strategically vital. The Western world, led by the US, is surely working to some kind of plan in its great game to unravel Pakistan.

Not so much, it turns out.

They know they should pay more attention and that it may come back to bite them just as it did 20 years after the Soviets pulled out, but unwinnable wars in godforsaken corners of the world with no immediate interests at stake have a tendency to tire people out.

Even if they’re American and want to unravel Pakistan.

This being Pakistan, the hard-core conspiracy theorists will simply adjust: the immediacy of the threat will quietly be reset to some kind of longer-term goal once again.

We thwarted them this time because the Taliban are beloved by the Afghan people and Allah is kind, but the perfidious Americans will never give up trying to break Pakistan. We must remain vigilant!

And therein lies the tragedy of Pakistan: an inability to adjust to reality, or grab the opportunities it throws our way.

For years, the army-led security establishment and its acolytes have argued that the Taliban insurgency inside Pakistan is oxygenated by the war in Afghanistan.

Take the foreign troops out of the equation there, let the Afghan conundrum become about the Afghan people once again, and the fight against militancy in Fata and Pakistan proper would become that much more manageable.

Now they’re about to get their wish.

But the fibs we tell ourselves about ourselves are easier to overlook than the elaborate theories we have about others.

So already we have a subtle shift: what for years wasn’t doable because the war in Afghanistan rendered it undoable, now it’s not doable because the civilians aren’t up to scratch at home.

The civilians aren’t up to scratch — that isn’t a fib.

But neither are the ones who deal with the outside world, who formulate policy and/or preach about national security and the outside world.

And that’s an older, more dangerous truth than all the fibs we tell ourselves.

Think through this sequence. Worried that the US may have some grand plans to put Pakistan to the mat, our boys helped foment anti-Americanism among the public at large as a buffer against American demands.

We can’t do this — allow drones, go into NWA, take out Taliban sanctuaries in and around Quetta, dismantle the infrastructure of jihad — because if we tried to, the people won’t accept it.

All well and good — if in fact the US wants to put us to the mat.

But if the US is confused and unsure and deeply opposed to being dragged into the epic mess that intervention in Pakistan would be — then whipping up anti-Americanism in society as a buffer against American demands is a pretty poor idea.

For then you end up with a problem that far outlives the military departure of the US from your backyard.

The problem that we have precisely now and the problem that the politicians are precisely aware of: the fight against militancy has been indelibly linked to imperialistic American demands.

The politicians won’t own the fight because the public doesn’t own the fight — and the public doesn’t own the fight because it’s been deliberately manipulated to act as a buffer against American demands.

You can’t make people think the Americans fighting the Taliban is a bad thing but us fighting the Taliban is a good thing.

What you can do is blame the politicians for not showing spine — and that’s the narrative being spun now.

The difference between the US and Pakistan?

America is a big country that can afford to make big mistakes. See, US policy in Afghanistan over the past decade.

Pakistan is a small country that makes big mistakes — and then even bigger ones in trying to adjust for the original mistakes. See, Pakistan today.

The writer is a Dawn staffer.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm