In box office terms this is already a roaring success, the longest comedy show currently running in the country. Three of the four characters tasked by the government to grapple with the Taliban and bring them round to the ways of peace stand retired, replaced by three performers whose names most people would not have heard of and who, I am fairly certain, would not be taken by the Lucky Irani Circus were they to apply there for an opening.
These are the new Talleyrands, along with friend Rustam Shah Mohmand, whose distinguishing feature is the look of permanent displeasure he seems to carry on his face, supposed to bring peace and harmony to the mountains.
Included among these impresarios is someone for whom I have had a soft corner ever since I heard him say at the Administrative Staff College in Lahore, where I had been roped in for a talk, that the government was working day and night to prepare a counterterrorism strategy but that the “enemy” had yet to be identified. He repeated this a second time. No doubt this clarity is one of the strengths he brings to his latest assignment.
No one had explained before, no one is taking the trouble of explaining now, what is the likely basis of a deal with the Taliban (TTP). But everyone is happy and that is the main point. The government can claim to be doing something, even when this something is less than nothing. The army, waving the fig-leaf of civilian authority, can enjoy the luxury of looking stern and forbidding even as it does what suits it best – again nothing. And the Taliban gain time and avoid anything like a military operation.
And peaceful coexistence reigns in North Waziristan, the Frontier Corps headquartered there, the army’s 7th Div headquartered there and, Allah be praised, the TTP headquartered there, with our Arab, Chechen and Uzbek friends, not to forget that ‘strategic asset’ called the Haqqanis, all living in relative peace in the agency headquarters Miranshah and the adjoining villages. Underpinning all this is the peace deal with Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the essence of which is the watchword live and let live. There is no better practical demonstration of this than the sophistication of the living arrangements in North Waziristan.
Only those not aware of these realities talk glibly, and unthinkingly, of an operation there. No one wants it: not the army, not the strategic assets aka the Haqqanis, and certainly not the strategic duo of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. Some red lines have been drawn. You play no games with us, is the message which the army through the recent airstrikes on random villages – ‘targeted strikes’ in the army’s lingo – has conveyed to the TTP, and we don’t mess with you. The great Hafiz Gul Bahadur peace deal thus remains in place. So what is anyone’s problem?
No one wants to precipitate matters. Everyone awaits the departure of the Americans from Afghanistan. Then a new ballgame will ensue, new realities emerge. Why push one’s luck now? So given all this sublime inertia, this elevation of doing nothing to the status of a supreme art form, Nawaz Sharif is not the mug that drawing room sophisticates and armchair samurai tend to make him out to be.
You don’t become an industrial magnate and a political magnate – the country’s longest-serving prime minister if all his terms are added up – all in one, a tutti-frutti of money and power, just like that.
And there’s no point in throwing analogies of Chechnya and Sri Lanka at him. Brandreth Road and Gawalmandi are rough universities. Those schooled in them, as the Sharifs have been, are not easily swayed by sentiment or parallels drawn from faraway history. Their yardstick of judging things is somewhat different.
Nawaz Sharif can now be counted as a master of the waiting game. And behind this talks’ pantomime, this box office success, even if the stooges involved don’t really understand it, this is the game being played. Why rock the boat? Especially when with the strengthening of the rupee against the dollar Dar by eager columnists is being hailed as the new Maynard Keynes.
So from Nawaz Sharif’s standpoint this is no time for any ‘operation’. He played sucker to Pervez Musharraf during Kargil, not really grasping where that mistimed adventure could take the country. So instead of raising objections at the first Kargil briefing Musharraf and his generals laid out for him – this was at the Ojhri Camp, next to Faizabad, Rawalpindi – he praised the sandwiches served him by the army’s liveried bearers, or so legend and gossip would have us believe. Every move he has made regarding the Taliban, his evident reluctance to catch this particular bull by its horns, strongly suggests that he is not about to be made a sucker in the name of any operation again.
This is not the winter of his discontent. It is the summer of his plenitude, the next generation, the Maryams and the Hamzas, already being readied and groomed for the burdens of empire, or the tutti-frutti which passes for empire in this invitation to laughter called by the serious-minded in their more solemn moments as the Citadel of Islam. (Islam itself must quake at the prospect of being protected by such a citadel…but that’s a different line of thought.)
So we can expect the illusion of movement, aanian-jaanian in Punjabi, vows to put an end once and for all to terrorism, hands clasped to the chest, flashes of rhetoric but nothing drastic to imperil this season of full prosperity, at least for those on the commanding heights of power, and the commanding heights of the economy too for that matter. Yes, there is trouble at the edges, parts of the periphery threatening to slip into chaos – but all this is in the future and as the native adage goes, ‘who has seen tomorrow?’
And let’s not forget the larger topography. This is a country which for over a year and a half has been unable to make up its mind about that fearsome St George’s dragon called YouTube. Let sleeping dogs lie is the attitude this denotes. It is too much to expect that when it comes to the more real dragon of the Taliban and extremism, this torpor will shake itself loose and be replaced in dramatic fashion by something fiercer.
Note another piece of hilarity which also throws light on the national condition. What is behind the massive advertising accompanying the launch of a new and high-profile housing society? None other than the Intelligence Bureau, the stakes in this venture so alluring that elections to the society, I am told, are a very hot affair. Brilliant of the IB but where does it leave the business of fighting terrorism?
Let’s not even mention defence housing authorities and the army, a phenomenon so far advanced as to be beyond recall and remedy. Real estate and the idea of war: they don’t travel well together.
So the fight against extremism if it is mean anything has to be an all-out fight, otherwise the Nawaz Sharif approach is best, not to get serious about it at all.
Tailpiece: That centre of higher wisdom, the Council of Islamic Ideology, has struck a fresh blow for Islam by ruling as un-Islamic the requirement in the Family Laws Ordinance requiring a male to obtain the consent of his first wife in writing before contracting a second marriage, or indeed a third or fourth one. The religious establishment, rightly concerned about the true path, had always considered this an unreasonable restriction. Bravo for the council for having its priorities right.