There is talk of an endgame, but in this region the game of wars has a way of lingering on.
“When we arrive at the endgame, these kinds of things are inevitable.” Pakistan's former intelligence chief, General Hamid Gul, was on a TV talkshow referring to the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a midnight NATO attack along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. General Gul sounded reassuring. He made the endgame sound exciting — it was as if we were already playing in extra time and soon we would all be able to do high-fives, go home and watch the highlights.
All except the thousands of Pakistanis and many more Afghans who did not make it to the endgame.
As someone who oversaw the end of another great game three decades ago, General Gul should know that these games have a way of lingering on. He chose to ignore the fact that the last endgame, which started with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, never really ended. As the Soviet troops began to leave Afghanistan in the late 80s, Pakistan was plunged into a series of massacres; bombs exploded in Karachi's busiest bazaar killing hundreds, an ammunition depot blew up near the capital Islamabad, raining fire on bewildered civilians for two days. Pakistan's military dictator General Zia ul Haq, the self-appointed godfather of the Afghan jihad, was killed along with his top generals and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan when a plane blew up in midair. Although none of these atrocities were properly investigated, the masters of the endgame managed to convince people that they were being punished for liberating Afghanistan from godless Communists.
And what happened to that blighted neighbour, Afghanistan, whom Pakistan had helped liberate? Egged on by Pakistan and India, the opposing mujahideen factions turned their guns on their own capital, Kabul, and reduced it to rubble. The fighting rumbled on for two more decades before NATO troops invaded and told the Afghans at gunpoint that they were free. Not all those Afghans were convinced of that during the 10 more years of fighting that followed. Pakistan, during this period, hosted about four million Afghans and two million internal refugees who changed the country's landscape for ever.
And now we are being told that we are approaching another endgame.
There is no dearth of very well educated analysts who tell Pakistanis that what happened 30 years ago is not relevant any more, that the world has changed, that we should move on, get over it. The cheerleaders of a perpetual war in Afghanistan seem to suggest that collective amnesia is the only cure for all our problems. We are told that we should “learn to deal with it” because Pakistan, after all, has been harbouring bad people in its own backyard. The stock argument jumps from a war-torn border to a nuclear-armed state hell-bent on taking down the world with it. Pakistan, it has been suggested often enough, doesn't really need political solutions but some kind of therapy.
In the collective imagination of these analysts, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a rugged area where nothing grows, where people trade in nothing but arms and dreams of world domination; basically a bad place where bad people do bad things. When U.S. drones shoot from the skies they kill bad people. When Pakistani or Afghan troops kill, they kill bad people. The real war is far removed from the media: it happens in villages with unpronounceable names, peopled by tribes whose motives are unfathomable. Whole communities have been lumped together like targets in a videogame. The only time we hear the rumble of war is when people in uniform are killed. These soldiers can be American or Pakistani or sometimes even Afghan. Then our analysts are bewildered, they seem to be suggesting that we might be fighting a war, but who gave the enemy the right to shoot back? Any sign of resistance is trotted out as proof that continued, overwhelming aggression is justified.
It has never occurred to the planners and cheerleaders of this war that maybe there is one thing that these bad tribal people might share with the rest of us and that is the base urge not to get killed. It has never been discussed that only a decade ago, along this border, lived people who farmed and traded and sent their children to schools and hoped that they would get good grades. But then again we are told that those lives belong in an imagined past, we should get over it and throw ourselves into the good fight.
It has often been said that Pakistan's military establishment has been fighting on both sides of this conflict. What is often ignored is the fact that the Pakistan Army has been fighting a third fight: against its own people.
Having bankrolled three earlier military dictatorships in Pakistan, Washington's policy-makers, instead of learning from history, decided to rebrand the “theatre of war” as Af-Pak. It is an attempt to wean Pakistan's military off its Indian obsession. The change of logo in this war doesn't change historic realities, though. Pakistan's military establishment is scared of India's size. India is scared of Pakistan's old habit of using freelance militants. Now both countries seem to have reached the conclusion that Afghanistan must burn so that they can feel safe and secure. India, in a perverse way, is emulating Pakistan, not realising that Pakistan hasn't become any safer by meddling in Afghanistan.
If the declared strategy is fight-build-talk, then there has been a lot of talking about talking to Taliban. Pakistan wants to talk to the Taliban. NATO wants to talk to the Taliban. Pakistan alleges India is talking to the Taliban. But no one wants anyone else to talk to the Taliban.
Meanwhile the NATO war machine grinds on with its own internal logic. Fight-build-talk doesn't make any sense to anyone except the property speculators of Kabul or the war contractors. The exasperation is palpable, why haven't we won after spending all the money and doing all the strategic reviews? America went hunting for Bin Laden in Afghanistan and a decade later found him leading a retired life outside a Pakistan military cantonment. When U.S. leaders scratch their heads and ask whether Pakistan's Army was complicit or just incompetent, all they need to do is to ask Pakistani people and they will get their answer: both.
When you rent an army to fight your battles, you also get a country of 200 million people pulling in another direction. The Pakistan Army might be incompetent, it may not know how to protect the country, but it does know how to protect its own interests. It has seen the future and it looks exactly like the past. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011