A new kind of war

06 Mar 2009


The blood of the slain  policemen had not even dried before allegations began to fill the  air in Pakistan that  India had mounted the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore.

It was left to one courageous journalist  to observe, sarcastically, that ''Given how late the Sri Lankan team decided to play the Test in Lahore, and the logistics and other requirements for mounting such an operation, the Indians didn't have much time to put this together - in which case, if these analysts are to be believed, India seems to have done an impressive job''. The worst thing that could happen, he concluded, was for a state is to go into denial.  ''How long will we deny that we have groups that have run amok and whose obvious agenda involves destroying Pakistan as a nation-state?''

It is not only Pakistan that is in denial. President Obama condemned the attack as an ''attempt to damage Pakistan's relations with Sri Lanka''. He could not have been further off the mark. The attack had nothing to do with Sri Lanka - a New Zealand or West Indies team would have served the terrorists' purpose equally well. 

Their  real target  was  Pakistan's tottering  democracy and it's seriously endangered  civil society.  Their purpose was not  to isolate Pakistan from the world of international cricket but from the world itself. For most of the past three decades  Pakistan's cricket team has  been among the three best in the world. Cricket  has therefore become the talisman of  Pakistan's  success as a nation, and almost the sole focus of its national pride.  Killing Pakistani cricket is therefore a surrogate for killing the modern nation state that Pakistan yearns to become.

 By far the most puzzling feature of Pakistan's descent into chaos is that it is happening with the  acquiescence of its armed forces. The Pakistan army has 650,000 soldiers and  528,000 reservists.  Yet barely 16 months after it started a 'major offensive' against the Taliban in Swat, Mullah Fazlullah's rag tag, murderous  militia, which  numbers  barely 2,500, has it on the run. The  army command ascribes  this, and its other failures in the tribal areas,  to the fact that  its army is trained for high intensity combat against India and cannot therefore be retrained and redeployed  to the west until all possibility of a war with India has been eliminated.

This argument is absurd. When a living organism faces both  an immediate  and a distant threat to its existence,  the  instinct for self preservation forces it  to confront the former. But Pakistan's army has still to move one significant unit from the Indian border.

Many explanations have been put forward for Musharraf's, and now Kayani's, willingness to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, but the most obvious is the least  discussed: the army's dread of  getting inextricably bogged down in a war it  cannot win. 

What the Taliban are ruthlessly waging  is a new kind of war, in which civilians are expendable  pawns. The Taliban kills civilians; the civilians turn to their government for protection;  the government fails to protect them; in desperation they submit to the terrorists to buy their peace. he Taliban wins. QED.

Pakistan's ISI understands  this kind of  war only too well, for it has waged it with considerable skill  in Kashmir where, since 1998,  it has tied down more than half a million Indian troops  with fewer than 2,000 armed militants. Today it is getting a dose of its own medicine in  terrain  that  is more difficult than that of Kashmir,  and the number of militants 10  times larger.

It knows, therefore, that it can win battles and inflict the occasional, crippling, defeat. But it does not have the numbers to blanket the countryside, as India has done in Kashmir, so that normal life can continue. Peace  therefore  requires a political settlement, but no such settlement will endure so long as Pakistan remains a partner of the US in the Afghan war. In the meanwhile, appeasement buys time.

America has so far been in a state of denial because it could not bring itself to believe that it is a part of the problem and not of the solution.  That is changing.  It now needs to recognise that the road to peace does not run through the military eradication of the Taliban in Pakistan but through a political settlement in Afghanistan that deprives the Pakistani Taliban of the oxygen of nationalist rage.

But a political settlement will remain out of reach for everyone so long as the security establishments in Islamabad and New Delhi remain at loggerheads with each other. First Mumbai, then Lahore:  isn't it time these capitals learned the obvious lesson?  

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