First of all, Happy New Year everyone! I spent my New Year’s Eve in gloom though, where I was accompanied with the horrific realities of the Peshawar massacre as the news unfolded a thousand miles away. I have developed an infatuation for seagulls, the Fisherman’s Wharf, and sea lions here in Monterey, CA, but in truth not even memories of the Jazz festival can heal the wounds of any Pakistani citizen given that just a few weeks ago, my country, our policymakers, our notorious military establishment, and our society, have all been pushed on the back foot. It’s a wakeup call, and a serious one at that.
To my satisfaction though, glaring images of children perforated with blood and gore seemed to stoke emotions of shock and anguish directed at the Taliban by various segments of Pakistani society (a trend which was missing a few decades ago). It makes one wonder however, as to why is it always an incident of considerable gravity that results in a knee jerk response by all us humans (let alone Pakistanis). We find ourselves suddenly waking up to the gruesome realities that South Asia could find itself in, in times when bureaucrats are assassinated by demagogues and are subsequently garlanded for championing the cause of religion.
I have no hesitation in claiming that my country, in this restive region that we call our own, continues to be muddled between a Kalashnikov culture bestowed by a ruthless dictator, and opulent palaces fomenting discord under the garb of religion which dates back to the days when curbing Soviet influence in Afghanistan and politicization of religion had to come hand in hand. Cometh 16/12 and suddenly Pakistan witnesses even its staunchest advocates for the imposition of Sharia Law in the country to be hushed into oblivion. In comes nationwide outrage and international condemnation over what was arguably the worst incident of 2014.
What follows however might be cosmetic, but goes to the country’s credit:
-The Taliban are viewed as vagrants instead of strategic assets.
-The Prime Minister and the security establishment realize that they have a problem with no room for duality.
-Society is dismayed at what had struck them and a nation, which was historically obsessed with strategic depth, hits rock bottom once again.
-Strategic depth translated into strategic denial and the nation has finally woken up.
So what’s next?
The adage of too many cooks spoiling the broth might work in certain countries – it doesn’t work in Pakistan though. There has always been one cook with a lust to poison his loved ones and rule with an iron fist (which inevitably spoils everything, let alone the food), which has haunted our history for decades. For us, Zia’s poisonous seeds in the form of Hafiz Saeed and Hamid Gul are on everyone’s plates regardless of whether you are a vegetarian or not. Like Godse’s children across the border in India, they are tolerated, and I wonder whether Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif will find time to check whether the lentils have all the right ingredients or have been overcooked. A dream about forging commercial ties with each other requires dispensing with the same spoilers who have wreaked havoc on peace and tranquility in the region and continue to operate freely. Lest we forget that Hafiz Saeed is a ‘charity worker’ and Yogi Aditiyanath is a ‘representative of the BJP.’
With all due fairness, the lentils have certainly been overcooked.
As 2015 approaches, Pakistan has a problem, and a serious one at that. The moment protests erupted outside the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad, against Maulana Abdul Aziz, a warning was issued by the TTP to the orchestrator, to paraphrase: ‘Lay it off, or else you are in big trouble’. Given the history of myopic policy making in Pakistan, where on the one hand the Taliban were considered strategic assets during the late 1970s, to being discarded as phantoms which haunt internal security and challenge the writ of the state on other occasions, this trend is set to stay unless the root causes of the terrorism menace are uprooted. Yes, I know I am being harsh on Pakistan and some may argue that the removal of the moratorium on the death penalty and the setting up of military courts, are steps in the right direction.
These steps, however, are cosmetic measures to ward off a threat that was supposed to be taken seriously years or decades ago. What we have now is a powerful pseudo-clergy spewing narratives that have nothing to do with religion and continue to thrive in a vacuum that has been created by policy makers who have been at the helm of power.
The India-Pakistan relationship in the upcoming year will be defined by whether our leadership persists with its myopic vision of dealing with the Taliban. Zarb E Azb’s blowback was a piece I had written for SAV, and the fact that the government was in slumber over what could have been potentially disastrous consequences came in the form of a Peshawar blowback. Serious questions have always remained over the ability of such groups to operate with gay abandon, which provides much needed fuel to Pakistan-bashers across the border. In reality, a myopic outlook will haunt a relationship that has historically blossomed whenever the center-right PML Ns and the BJPs have come into power. Sharif’s motorways and Modi’s Gujarat models can easily be hijacked by groups that are hell-bent on imposing their ideology on the whole of the subcontinent, let alone in Pakistan. With Afghanistan being in a rebuilding phase after 2014, and India being pushed to take the initiative of helping the war-torn nation come to grips with its fragile democratic transition, a lot depends on how Pakistan (which is saddled in between) deals with the clout of the Taliban and whether we, as a nation, shun away with our obsession with concepts such as strategic depth.
So yes, I am oozing with pessimism as 2015 approaches, but that doesn’t mean I only have Pakistan to feel bad about. I am also wary of the BJP’s antics, which may come to the fore as Pakistan grapples with its internal security dynamics. As much as this is a test for Pakistan, this is also a test for India. Narendra Modi’s ability to hush the hawks that advocate for grinding Pakistan into submission, particularly if an incident such as the Mumbai Attacks takes place again, will be like facing the canny Glenn McGrath on a seaming wicket, where Modi might have to deal with probes outside the batsman’s off stump and occasional half volleys which swing prodigiously after being deployed. The BJP may be a massive right-wing canvass, as many of my Indian counterparts have pointed out to me before, but the hawks, with their Pakistan obsession, are equally a worrisome reality that also needs to be dealt with. Reckless adventurism could prove suicidal, and I believe both Prime Ministers acknowledge that. How the BJP handles the terrorism issue, which to them, emanates from the Western side of the border, is equally important, as is Pakistan’s internal surgical operation.
In theory, nukes on either side render adventurism as preposterous, ludicrous or simply idiotic. Yet, both states continue to grapple with a common threat that continues to tickle, tease, or even probe the respective leaderships in both New Delhi and Islamabad. The sad part is that a vacuum is tacitly available for these spoilers to thrive. Clampdowns and executions may be promising, but one hopes for a more overarching policy of countering terrorism being formed by both governments that goes beyond tolerating certain actors at the expense of others, as is the case with Pakistan, or arousing minority religious sentiment, which is the case with India under the BJP.
My policy recommendation? It’s quite simple, really. It’s time to get real, pragmatic, prudent, shrewd and tactful and stop thinking about seagulls, sea lions or Wharfs. A trip to the aquarium to have a look at the variety of fisheries we have at our disposal will help though.
Image: A Majeed-AFP, Getty