• July 19, 2024

Between a rock and a hard place, again

It is believed that during Imran Khan’s final year in office, two strong opposing pulls emerged within the ruling dispensation. One exceptionally placatory towards the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. The other, more cosmopolitan, tough on Afghanistan but highly conciliatory towards India. And these intra-podal pulls, among many others, I believe, in the end, broke the dispensation. I do not doubt the sincerity of either party involved but without going too deep into the nuances which go beyond the scope of this piece, let me put it out there. I believe that both approaches were misguided. While I cannot perform a complete autopsy on their motivations, for the time is not ripe, I can explain mine.

The first ever biography I read in my life was of Ataturk. You can imagine a fourth grader sitting under a winter sun absorbed in Gray Wolf, Mustafa Kemal: An Intimate Study of a Dictator by Harold Courtenay Armstrong. For contemporary work, it felt brutally honest. The choice of the book involved more of a happy accident rather than a conscious effort. I want to make it absolutely clear that I had no particular childhood fascination with authoritarianism or the destruction of empires. It was there, and I found it. That’s it.

While most of what was written in the book is gone from my memory, one aspect stood out. Before the First World War, the Ottoman ruler Mehmed V was beholden to Germany, hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II, and declared Jihad on the Entente powers. Since WWI was an unmitigated disaster, his successor and half-brother, Mehmed VI, lost all volition and was entranced by the victors. While the empire was already vanishing, there emerged gruff Mustafa Kemal, who resented the appeasement policies of both these monarchs, offloaded the burden of the empire, and fought to save his country’s territories. While in Erdogan’s Turkiye, Ataturk might have been reduced to a national symbol, modern Turkey owes everything to that one man.

So, the first lesson I learned from this unlikely source was to remain unencumbered by ideological distortions and focus on what is most critical to your people’s survival — the country.

When the war on terror began, no one asked me if the country should join. My first impulse was to oppose it because it meant bringing the war home. My objection to it even threatened to radicalise me. But then my journalistic career and my reading habit saved me. As you observe the fight against terrorist outfits, the sacrifices of your brave soldiers and law enforcement officials change you. They did not get a vote in this matter any more than I did. But here they were, sacrificing their lives beyond the call of duty. The apparatus appeasing the terrorists would gradually slink into the background, but it would never truly disappear. People like me took on the task of keeping memories fresh, reminding everyone who would listen that once it started, the fight against terrorism could not be abandoned without the annihilation of the enemy. If the war was changing us, it was also changing the outfits against whom the nation fought. But to the nation’s rightwing pundits, even the assassination of one of their own, Colonel Imam, at the hands of Hakimullah Mehsud meant nothing. No crime was grave enough that could not be overlooked in the name of brotherly affection and ideology.

When the Afghan Taliban took over in Kabul, it was plain that they would seek to punish the neighbour they considered most responsible for their removal from power. You might think they would prefer you over the TTP, but they don’t. Why would anyone want to toss away an advantage after victory? Why would they change if they thought they could change your people? And there already existed enough appeasers on our side to make their job easy for them. And then someone went to Kabul and opened the floodgates for the deluge of groups on the run. That was not all. Pickets in the erstwhile FATA region were removed as a goodwill gesture, making return a walk in the park for the proscribed groups. Only God knows how many sons of soil will have to die before this menace, so casually allowed back in, is vanquished in this country.

Now a look at the counterpoint. The antithesis of the decades-old Afghan policy. A new approach towards India. Since every costly decision the country took, including the fateful support of the so-called Afghan Jihad in the 1980s, was an offshoot of the country’s India policy, why not, for once and all, make peace with the archrival? Absolutely a capital idea. I am all for it. Come to think of it, I am yet to meet someone who, in principle, does not agree that that is the most preferred way ahead. Except there are a few serious complications. Had this change of heart occurred when Manmohan Singh was in power or even Vajpayee, South Asia’s political situation would have been different. Now the lot that rules New Delhi shows a distinct lack of imagination or humility. Inhaling its own propaganda, this lot professes that within a couple of years, it will take over Pakistan, and the unending era of Akhand Hindu Rashtra will begin. If you are still not convinced, look at the damage they have done to India. At this moment, any one-sided attempt to sue for peace is misconstrued as the success of their policy of economic siege and isolation. Offering some blood to appease a predator can mean only one thing — that you are viewed as the entree.

Time never remains the same. Within the hubris of the Modi regime lies its undoing. After six years of shouting atop our voices that we want peace, it would be prudent that we rededicate our efforts to the one thing that matters in the end: surviving.

Does that mean we undo the modest confidence-building progress made in the past few years? Obviously not. The ceasefire on the LoC benefits both sides. Similarly, at least some trade with India might be helpful at a time when the recent floods imperil the country’s food security. But this once let India show the grace and initiative that suits its size and stature. If it does, no one will say no.

Policies are not made in a vacuum. Those meant for survival have to be highly adaptive and flexible. But any policy shift that discards the gains of the past many years, like the quick concessions made to the TTP did to the successes in the war on terror recently, cannot be good. In peace and war, it profits first to gauge the malice of the other side.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2022.

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