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Sleepwalking to disaster

Sleepwalking to disaster

Author: Irfan Husain
Publication: Dawn
Date: April 18, 2009
URL: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/columnists/irfan-husain-sleepwalking-to-disaster

When faced with a frightening civil war and reeling from repeated blows from a ruthless and determined foe, how does our government react? It puts the country's clocks forward by an hour. I suppose this is one of the few things it can do to show it exists at all.

The rest of us can be excused for doubting the presence of an administration, given the slide and drift we have been seeing over the last year. As the Taliban have made rapid inroads, and now strut about with greater impunity - to say nothing of immunity - than ever before, it has been painful to watch how ineffective the PPP-led coalition has been.

When her widower, Asif Zardari, signed that infamous instrument of surrender known as the Nizam-i-Adl, Benazir Bhutto must have turned in her grave. Whatever else she might have been accused of in her lifetime, even her worst enemies concede she was a courageous fighter. And although the original demand for Sharialaw in Malakand surfaced during her tenure in 1994, I doubt very much that she would have surrendered the state's writ as easily as this government has done.

Another major politician who would have thoroughly disapproved of the turn of events in Swat and elsewhere is Khan Abdul Wali Khan. The late father of ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, a member of the ruling coalition, was an avowed secularist. His National Awami Party was committed to Bacha Khan's democratic ideals and struggled to keep religion separate from politics. The sight of his son cravenly handing over Swat (with the NWFP to follow) to the Taliban would have broken the tough old Pashtun leader's heart.

To their credit, a handful of politicians did not roll over as the Nizam-i-Adl was propelled smoothly through the National Assembly. My old friend Ayaz Amir made sure this law did not pass without some serious doubts being expressed. And the MQM lived up to its secular credentials, although I would have been happier if they had resisted rather than boycotted the proceedings. By contrast, the PPP succumbed and feebly maintained the party line of surrender.

But the deed is done, and we are left to face the consequences of the government's gutless display. However, we must also accept the fact that we are where we are because the army refused to fight the Taliban in Swat. It can be argued that due to this lack of military resolve, the provincial and federal governments had few options. But surely, given political will, the administration had enough resources at its disposal to confront around 5,000 militants.

This resounding defeat is the cumulative result of years of pandering to extremists. Partly, this happened because the army thought it expedient to use them to further its agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir. But mainly, it is due to the massive confusion about the true nature of the threat. After my column ('The high cost of defeat') appeared in this space last week, I must have received at least a score of emails accusing me of, among other things, not wanting a dialogue with the Taliban. Several readers asked why I did not wish to treat the militants as errant brothers, and reason with them.

I wrote back saying that if any brother of mine went around blowing people up, and chopping off the heads of innocent people, I would want him locked up and tried for murder. No society anywhere advocates negotiations with known killers, whatever their stated motives.

This exchange goes to the heart of the muddled thinking that has thus far characterised our response to the Taliban threat. TV channels are full of so-called religious scholars and conservative pundits who have tried to justify the deal, assuring us that it would bring peace to Swat. While the gullible might buy this line, I paid more attention to a recent statement by Muslim Khan, the Swat Taliban spokesman. He is quoted as saying that "Muslims should take up arms instead of laying them down". Thus, he has already broken a key provision of the deal that called for the militants to disarm.

Asif Zardari has declared that the deal brings Islamic justice, and not the Sharia, to Swat. Tell that to the women who can no longer leave their homes without their husband's permission and to the thousands of young girls deprived of an education. And just to remind the government who's in charge, Maulana Sufi Mohammed has declared that under the deal, those militants who terrorised Swat during their year-long campaign, cannot be tried for the murders and other atrocities they committed. So much for swift justice.

Over the last year, as the Taliban have edged closer to seizing control of the state, the country's rulers have been indulging in irrelevant power plays. First it was about the reinstatement of the chief justice; then it was the Punjab government being sacked; and now the government and the opposition are squabbling over the implementation of the Charter of Democracy. Meanwhile, Gen Kayani is travelling the globe instead of seeing to the country's defence.

And as the economy falters and stalls, the rest of the world is being asked to rescue us yet again. We are telling the Americans that we will not accept any strings to their assistance, while the Friends of Pakistan are being told that the country will collapse without a bailout. In some ways, we are holding a begging bowl in one hand, and a raised middle finger in the other. If we had a third hand, it would be holding a gun to our head. In fact, this is now our preferred negotiation mode.

It would help a lot if the government had a coherent plan to combat the militant menace. In fact, Pakistanis as well as the international community would welcome some sign that somebody in the government is doing some serious thinking. So far, we have been fed with clichés and idiotic waffle. Perhaps this absence of any sensible policy is even scarier than the continuing inaction. It seems the government is sleepwalking its way to disaster, with our leaders more interested in scoring political points than doing their duty, and fighting the Taliban threat.

We have been told that somehow, the government will separate the 'moderate' Taliban from the really bad guys and talk to the former, while using force against the latter. I wonder if the abandoned and terrorised people of Swat can tell the difference.

- irfan.husain@gmail.com

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