Amidst fierce fighting three more of our soldiers died on Sunday in a remote spot close to the Afghan border in North Waziristan. This was another reminder, if any were needed, of the grimness of the conflict raging there and of the sacrifices of our troops since the start of the present military operation in June this year.
It is only because our troops are there, keeping the heat on the Taliban and other Deobandi militant outfits – Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group having claimed responsibility for the latest assault – that terrorist incidents have gone down markedly in the rest of the country. Since June we can count the major incidents on our fingers, a far cry from the virtually free run militant outfits had prior to the operation. The nation’s leading flavour then was appeasement and a mood not far removed from defeatism. That climate of confusion, generated mostly by the political class and the political leadership, at least stands dissipated.
We have no shortage of other problems – loadshedding, inflation, government incompetence, etc, but one thing is unmistakable: on the security front the national mood is more relaxed only because the army, with critical help from the air force, is engaged on the western marches. We can write our op-eds, hold forth in TV talk-shows, read about fashion shows and watch Hoorum Sultan and other soaps on television, travel on the Motorway and take in the sights of Lahore and other cities, and when the fancy takes us perform as armchair Samurai, only because of this operation.
When the army had not yet made up its mind and the political leadership was not giving it a lead, the advantage lay with the militant forces which had declared war on Pakistan. Unmolested in their Fata rear bases they had the freedom to strike at targets across the country. That ability has not been eliminated but it has been curbed…which is why the threat of terrorism has receded. Who knows this may change tomorrow. Something dramatic can happen all of a sudden. But as of now this threat is not so much on our minds as it used to be. For this we have to salute our men, and the sprinkling of women, in the armed forces.
Our tribal areas had become Iraq and Syria much before the current turmoil in those countries. We were here first; they have arrived at this position later. Our Taliban were no less fearsome or an object of terror than Daish or the Islamic State. Daish has earned notoriety now for beheading opponents. Our Taliban were experts in this art much before. The world’s leading university of suicide bombers was to be found in our tribal areas.
But if Pakistan hasn’t become Iraq and Syria, if the country is holding together, if the forces of militancy are on the defensive, if cracks have appeared in their ranks, if Mullah Fazlullah Deobandi is no longer the undisputed leader of the Taliban, if various militant leaders (like Fazlullah himself and Mangal Bagh) have increasingly to look for safe havens across the Afghan border, it is not because of the sun, the moon or the stars. It is because of one factor alone: the Pakistan military. Take away the military from this equation and Pakistan at once verges on the brink of becoming another Iraq and Syria.
Afghanistan once upon a time was a peaceful country, an oasis of calm and a haven of stability. War and internecine conflict have destroyed that country. Iraq and Syria were stable countries, as close to being secular as it is possible for any Muslim country to be. The rulers of these countries ruled with an iron hand, not tolerating the slightest dissent. But to a large extent the material needs of the people were addressed and minorities felt safe. American-led wars and American-inspired turmoil have dislocated those countries, leading to the kind of suffering that it is difficult for us Pakistanis to imagine. American and Nato-inspired actions have brought ruin to Libya. The west is very concerned about Russian intervention in Ukraine. It seems to forget western intervention in the Middle East.
The original impetus for sustaining a strong military was India. Memories of Partition, especially the bloodletting in Punjab, and the unresolved conflict with India over Kashmir, conspired to make ‘national security’ the defining characteristic of our state. Pakistan has come a long way from that earlier frame of mind. Other challenges loom large on the horizon. When a daily bus service operated between Peshawar and Kabul, the ticket just 30 rupees, who could have imagined that a time would come when Afghanistan would be laid waste and the Pakistan Army would be engaged in a protracted conflict not in the east but the west, that too against indigenous militias?
The army under different leaderships committed its share of mistakes. If only we had not plunged into the morass of the first Afghan ‘jihad’ we might have saved ourselves many complications. But the past is the past and those who, for better or worse, took those decisions are no longer on the scene. The army under the pressure of circumstances, under the burden of the new challenges it faces, has had to reorient itself, in the process redefining its mission. That it has been able to show strategic flexibility – turning its attention to the west without losing sight of the continuing challenge from the east – is a sign both of its resilience and of a new-found maturity of outlook.
A lesser military would have cracked under the strain. The army – with the air force close behind – has risen to the challenge. When so much of Pakistan, so many of its institutions do not work, or don’t work the way they should, when in our bad moments we decry the condition of this and that, it is some consolation to realise that at least some department of national life is performing well. (Although I can’t help adding that if the military could be weaned away from its fascination with real estate it would be all to the good.)
So there is something to think over. If the armed forces are doing their duty by us, don’t we have a duty towards them? Shouldn’t the rest of us be under an obligation to reduce the sum of national confusion and fix the things that can be fixed, without creating unnecessary problems? Shouldn’t our development priorities be different? Can’t leaders give a slightly better account of themselves?
Competence is not something to be plucked from the trees and corruption is not to be eliminated by sermons. But can’t a sincere effort be made to improve law and order, see that courts work better and deliver better justice? What prevents local elections from being held? Why must we keep making a tamasha of the blasphemy law? Why must poor Christian families be persecuted in the name of the faith? Which eye of the cobra prevents us from banning the plastic shopper?
A feature of the new army is that it doesn’t go about huffing and puffing its chest all the time. Even as it holds the line and prevents Pakistan from becoming Iraq and Syria, it remains a modest army – which is as it should be. And, mercifully, we no longer hear the refrain from the army’s lips that Pakistan is a Fortress of Islam. But if the army can change itself, why must the rest of our institutions remain stuck in their old grooves? Will change never come to politics, to the judiciary, to the way we conduct our administrative affairs?
The imbalance we currently see between military and political/civil performance is not to be corrected by oratory alone, or by solemn dissertations on the constitution. The army sets the terms of national discourse not only because it has the tanks and the divisions but because the political class and the Brahmins are not up to the mark. Then they whine about military dominance.