Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Under the Magic Tube-Light: A Fantasia




I am a big fan of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s “Magic Lantern” fables, but magic lanterns are for civilized places like Abbasid Baghdad or Fatimid Cairo. In Pakistan, we look for magic in more mundane lighting equipment – except when there is load-shedding, of course.



The other day, having just watched the last episode of Sherlock, I dozed off on the couch and found myself transported to the land of fantasy where most of Pakistan’s elite dwells. There, under a flickering fluorescent light outside a pub somewhere between Badshahi Masjid and Mazar-e-Quaid (hey, this is fantasy, y’all), I heard a voice within the tavern cry out something that Sherlock Holmes once told Dr. Watson: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This revelation re-awakened that ancient part of my brain that had been pickled for many years in Pakistan Studies, and the natural urge to explain the absurd behavior of Pakistani political leadership through serial conspiracy theories became irresistible. After all, conspiracy theories are cheaper in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world, except when Shireen Mazari dines alone at a bistro in Manhattan during her periodic fundraising visits to the Land of Yahood-o-Nasaara. So why not indulge a bit in the national pastime?



Well, first some background.

After the May 2013 elections, all political parties, bullied by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), agreed to “give peace a chance” and negotiate with the Taliban extremists who had been terrorizing many parts of the country for several years. This decision, taken at an All-Parties Conference (APC) in September 2013, was followed by a period of inexplicable stasis, with no visible effort or progress towards negotiations from any quarter. Meanwhile, the Taliban went about their business as usual – a prison break here, an attack on a church there, random assassinations of Shias, suicide bombing of Hazaras, and so on – you know, the normal humdrum work of terrorists addicted to human carnage. Slowly, inexorably, sentiment built up in the country for a military operation against these inconvenient killers, reaching a high point after an extraordinarily courageous 15 year old student, Aitzaz Hassan, set an example. And as this mood developed, so – magically – did momentum for negotiations. A committee of, pardon me, nobodies-in-particular was assembled on behalf of the Government. The Taliban reciprocated by choosing a few gems from the rich showcase of options available to them from among their sympathizers – bearded and beardless. Among this chosen elite was Imran Khan, called upon by his “upset friends” to help them get less upset and kill with greater kindness. But the Sage of Bani Gala (formerly of Zaman Park and Sussex) declined the opportunity, choosing instead to retire into the mists of his fevered fulminations. Nawaz Sharif – in brief moments of visibility – was visibly mum, while his surrogates put forth statements with a remarkably low signal-to-noise ratio. The military too went all quiet, leaving the fray to bloviating mythologists like Hamid Gul, Orya Maqbool Jan and Ansar Abbasi. According to some reports, even the Americans temporarily curtailed their drone strikes so the Taliban could cower less and talk more. Of course, the Taliban gratefully accepted this opportunity and escalated the pace of their pronouncements – in their usual language of murder and mayhem. More explosions, more targeted killings, a few dead journalists, then an attack of policemen in Karachi, on Shia pilgrims in Baluchistan, on cinema-goers in Peshawar and, ultimately, the beheading of 23 captive Pakistani soldiers. By this point, even the hound of the Baskervilles would have howled, but nothing has come from either PML-N or PTI except more prattle about negotiations. And the military has still stayed quiet. These are the things that, as they say, need ‘splainin’.

First, PTI’s unshakeable faith in negotiations in the face of mounting attacks from the other side (though, in fairness, all sides are their “own” for PTI). Perhaps a hint can be found in Imran Khan’s impolitic statement that the military only estimated a 40% chance of success in an attack on FATA (Federally-Administered Tribal Areas), and Gen. Kiyani’s corrective rejoinder clarifying that, in fact, the military had estimated that cleaning up FATA would only result in a 40% reduction in terrorism nationally, and eradicating the remaining 60% would require action throughout the rest of the country. The Taliban, after all, are now a national brand, and combating them would lead to extensive chaos and bloodshed all over Pakistan. That is something that the Government understandably wants to avoid. But, unlike the Government, PTI has no actual responsibility for national security – a position that their spokesmen proclaim proudly in every forum. Now, if PTI knows that negotiations must fail and a military operation will be necessary, they must realize also that things will get a lot worse before they get any better. The Taliban, confronted on their home territory, will create mayhem in all other parts of the country – even in Punjab where the elite seem more interested in golf than in reality. And then people will ask, “Who is responsible for this calamity?” And Imran Khan will say, “See, this is why I wanted to keep negotiating rather than starting a war!” And the poor, innocent, decent and deluded people of Pakistan will nod their heads and say, “Yes, that is true, Great Leader. Can we please kiss your feet?” And Imran Khan will be the savior of Pakistan – the man who looked beyond the last mountain and maintained the serenity of wisdom when everyone else was succumbing to the siren call of war. Thus, in my conspirofantasy, Imran Khan is being pro-peace so he can pick up the pieces after the coming war.

But what of Nawaz Sharif? There’s already a conspiracy theory about his behavior, which says that he is negotiating with the Taliban to spare Punjab and to give them free rein in all other areas. But really, who thinks Shahbaz Sharif is that stupid? Enjoying golf in a landlocked Punjab while the country burns all around? The moderately heavy mandate would go on a terminal diet! So what explains the taciturn calm of the nihari caucus. Well, perhaps they are calm because, in fact, the operation for which so many are clamoring has already begun some time ago – but not where everyone expects it. The Taliban are certainly signaling that something is stressing them in places like Karachi and Peshawar. And sure enough, there in broad daylight, an operation is underway – the so-called operation against targeted killings. There is very little detail, but stories of “encounters” occasionally leak into the media. The iceberg theory of clandestine operations suggests that much more is happening, and that much of it is directed against the Taliban, though the security forces take opportunistic swipes at the MQM and Baloch groups as well. In the context of my first conspiracy theory explaining Imran Khan’s behavior, this makes perfect sense: If the fear is that a Waziristan operation will ignite chaos in the rest of the country, why not reduce the threat there before turning to the home turf of the extremists? So my second conspiracy theory says that the Government and the Army are already well into an operation to push the Taliban from their peripheral positions back into the FATA box where they can then be dealt with in a full operation . If so, PML-N would have neutralized the “pick up the pieces” strategy that Imran Khan might be counting on.

So then, two interlocking conspiracy theories from the Land of Only If! Alas, in the World of What Is, the actors on Pakistan’s stage are too short-sighted to have hatched such conspiracies. As for the Taliban negotiating peace, you’ve heard the story of the scorpion, the frog and the river crossing, right? Yeah, like that!