Conform or confront

The pros and cons of confronting a superpower should be weighed carefully by Pakistan before the country makes any bravado posture

On the eve of New Year, the US president Donald Trump’s tweet regarding Pakistan took the discourse of war on terror to a new height and plunged the US-Pakistan relations, possibly, to an abyss. Our foreign policy czars, media intellectuals, the ubiquitous self-appointed defence analysts, who know anything and everything under the sun but not their job, portrayed it as a bray of Sheikh Rasheed. Their jabs at Trump were similar to their condescension of Pakistani political leaders putting the US in the same bracket as Afghanistan and India.

If it was for public consumption to whip the already much lashed nationalistic sentiments then there was no much harm. But keeping in mind the policy environment of our country, God forbid, if policy makers take it policy inputs or use it to create a certain policy environment then it is a matter of great concern. It reminds one of an anecdote wherein an oppressed wife once confronted her badmouthed husband to caution him that when he abused other people’s wives it frightened her because she knew he was only bluffing. But others would retaliate by practically acting upon the invectives!

First, the US-Pakistan relations never claimed to be based on shared values, norms and principles but since the beginning the history of this relationship revolves around transaction and clientele. The current phase began post 9/11, not different from the past but accentuated the transaction nature. Immediately, after 9/11 the Bush administration asked us whether we were with or against them. The state of Pakistan decided in the affirmative and now the US want deliverables as per contractual obligations. The US objectives and targets were clear about whom were they coming after, what sort of assistance they demanded of us and the list of demand Pakistan gave to the US in return of assistance. Pakistan deployed its army in the FATA in 2003 to prevent the meltdown of Taliban from Afghanistan running from the US military action against them.

General Kayani declared that the existential threat to Pakistan was internal not external, but policy adjustments remained missing

By 2005, the US started to convey through diplomatic channels its concern of Taliban regrouping in the FATA and by 2006, the drones started targeting the Taliban.  In 2006, the Taliban emerged in Swat headed by Fazlullah to ultimately join the FATA Taliban’s Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007, thereby initiating the military operation against them in Swat. But our conflicting narratives and policy choices are self-defeating. The prevailing narrative was that the Afghan Taliban were fighting a war of liberation and the TTP, though taking oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, were considered a bunch of misled brethren and needed to be talked to. In 2009, the last phase of the four military operations against Swat’s Fazlullah band was conducted that was declared a success story but culminated in constructing cantonments in Swat. So far the army has a presence with special powers  in Swat.

However, this time the narrative regarding terrorism and Talibanisation has changed partially. When General Kayani declared that the existential threat to Pakistan was internal not external, the policy adjustments which needed to be attuned with such assertions were missing.

Prior to Trump’s policy announcement in August 2017, the war on terror was owned as our own war. But suddenly, after the recent tweet by Trump, our narrative shifted from ‘our’ to ‘their’ war. We were now fighting the US war.

Our parroting the line of sacrifice is also losing its weight due to lack of accountability and transparencies regarding the war on terror. The parliament is only used to rubber stamp the demanded measures with no power to monitor and scrutinise the process. Alternate voices of politicians, media and civil society were muzzled in this regard.

But on the other side, the security establishment occasionally makes public its policy concerns through mouthpieces that peace to Afghanistan passes through Kashmir and India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a threat to the interests of Pakistan. Such statements reinforce that Pakistan uses the jihad elements as a policy tool. The ongoing political mainstreaming of the mindset whom we posed to fight further validates the suspicions of the world, particularly of the US that may take it as sign of our defiance and confrontation.

The source of current civil-military tension is also attributed to foreign and security policy difference between the civilian and the security establishment. Nawaz Sharif, himself a conservative nationalist of Kashmiri origin, perhaps reached a logical conclusion that the traditional foreign and security policy can no longer serve the purpose and tried to niche a civilian space in defining the national interests at the outset of his tenure but faced stiff resistance and ultimately ousted from power in July, 2017. If emotionalism recedes in favour of rationalism, it paints a bleak picture of the situation that makes it imposable to have a cake and eat it too. It is a situation where we can no longer tell a lie to the world nor to our own people. Yesterday’s truth turns today’s lie and today’s truth will be tomorrow’s lie. The US watched and observed all these for one and half decades, perhaps waiting to deny us the option of plausible deniability. Trump’s pronouncements are not merely wishes or brags of a person whom we paint as quixotic and mercurial but are the policy of a superpower with physical presence in the neighbourhood.

Moreover, the Trump administration is now moved beyond the ‘do more’ phase to conform or confront. The pros and cons of confronting a superpower should be weighed carefully before making any bravado posture. Internationally, Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation further increases with the passage of time. Internally, the country is being pushed to political uncertainty and instability through relentless political machinations. What is the source of our over confidence in this suicidal mission, nuclear, China or the mullahs? But all these have their own limits!


The writer is a political analyst hailing from Swat. Tweets @MirSwat

Published in Daily Times, January 11th 2018.