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South by northwest?

We are yet to come to terms with how destabilising the Taliban’s presence is

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
April 21, 2009 12:45:12 am

The situation in Pakistan is so unprecedented that it cannot be comprehended in conventional terms. Almost every statement about it hangs in the air,so great are the uncertainties. It will one day take the genius of a historian like Tacitus,with deep insight into the moral psychology of elites in self-denial,to diagnose how a nation can open itself up to exonerating the cruelties of the Taliban. It is a more tragic version of Shatranj ke Khiladi. An otherwise sophisticated,cultured elite becomes blinded by a fatal combination: a distorting obsession and a comfortable illusion that its normal quotidian world can go on. Meanwhile,the barbarians at the gate have already transformed the game so much that there is no opportunity to recoup. The distorting passion in this case is India,which has now been used as a pretext much too long to contextualise away all the challenges Pakistan faces internally. And the game is that of a small ruling elite,which refuses to overcome its own ossified divisions; as if the PPP-Nawaz Sharif fight were even the most important game in town. A sense of crisis has made it even more defensive,rather than motivated.

But no one can be any longer sure of what we are dealing with. It used to be easy to make the assumption that the army called the shots in Pakistan. The army remains the strongest institution in the country. Many are clinging to the vestiges of hope that it can take on and clear out the Taliban whenever it wants. But is the assumption warranted? No one quite knows the extent of tacit support for the Taliban within the army. No one knows how its diverse patterns of

recruitment may generate internal conflicts. And the deepest mystery is that if the army knows that it will one day have to take on the Taliban,why not do it early rather than later,when the task might become impossible without serious damage? The spectre that haunts Pakistan is now not that the army dominates,but that it appears conflicted.

Second,what are we dealing with in the Taliban? It is clearly an ideology that revels in cruelty,both to sustain its power and establish an oppressive normative order. While the Americans have managed the astonishing feat of uniting a whole range of different groups inside Af-Pak,the cohesiveness of the different groups and shuras is an open question. Their structure will determine the character of this conflict. For on the face of it the Taliban do not seem to have a single unified structure,more a series of overlapping groups. This may be a glimmer of hope or a source of

despair. In military and financial terms,if not ideological outlook,these divisions could at some point be exploited. But it also suggests that this battle will have to be fought on several fronts at once,a more anarchic prospect. But the real challenge is that the Americans seem not to have been able to make a significant dent in the political economy lifeline that sustains these groups: opium,arms and money seem freely available,as if the years of war in the region were a mere sideshow.

Third,we are yet to come to terms with how profoundly destabilising the Taliban’s presence is. It has moved the question away from narrow concerns of security and violence to the spectre of profound social destabilisation. The issue is not whether the Pakistani state will collapse; in a sense it won’t. The issue is not also whether life seems normal in places like Lahore. The issue is whether the social dislocations induced make for an explosive mix. Given the security situation,the investment climate will remain precarious for some time. There are already more than half a million new internal refugees,always a harbinger of crisis. According to informants in Pakistan,there is such a growing weariness about all existing institutions,that the receptivity towards ideologies that promise a modicum of order increases. Revolutions occur not because of popular support,but when elites lose the will to rule. Pakistan is precariously close to that point.

We may be at the threshold of a momentous geo-political moment. The never-ending Afghan wars have moved eastward,already making a mockery of one border between nation states. And though one should not exaggerate,the prospects of refugees coming to India is no longer a merely academic question. In short,boundaries are being rendered irrelevant in an ironic sense. The ability of the US to control outcomes has also been shown to be seriously wanting,and India should be cautious in its identification with the US.

There are different possible outcomes,each with its own challenges. The first outcome is what one might call status quo minus. Pakistan remains recognisably what it is,but with increasingly eroding authority and susceptibility to radical ideologies. The second option is a reassertion of conventional army authority,but with more protracted fighting. The third is a spectre of deepening anarchy with no centre. It is important to understand that there is no predetermined structural logic that will determine the outcome; it will be political choice all the way down.

Finally,perhaps most optimistically,this crisis is a wake-up call for Pakistan’s elites that the whole paradigm in which they have seen Pakistan’s place in South Asia is transformed.

The nature of the crisis in Pakistan suggests that it cannot be dealt with by traditional security discourses. It is about different visions of Pakistan: this is,at least in part,an ideological war. The fallout of the situation in Pakistan will have immediate security implications. India will have to be vigilant to minimise its own vulnerability to attacks. There is not much it can do. It is unfashionable to say so. But India must keep an eye on the larger ideological war and not become focused exclusively on what has become a war of the dossiers. The fundamental issue remains the same: an obsession with a particular conception of borders,the politics of identity and beggar thy neighbour policies,have brought all of South Asia to a precarious turn. These limiting premises keep pushing us into the same cul de sac. The tragedy is that the Manmohan-Musharraf framework,one attempt to alter these premises,remained largely confined to the level of states and was never deeply articulated at the level of public opinion. That historical task will still need to be carried out; when,is not clear. Only Pakistan can save itself; but what is at stake is larger than Pakistan itself.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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