Ideas Can Win the War

Shahid Javed Burki (Dawn)

Now that the military has begun its Rah-i-Nijat operation in South Waziristan, the question has begun to be asked whether it will succeed. We will not know the answer for several weeks, perhaps not even then.

The real victory will come only when the people not just in the tribal areas but in all parts of the country decide that they have been misled by a small of group of extremists.

The people must make clear that they don’t see their country and religion being under assault by the West, in particular the United States, and that it is their own people who are attacking them. In addition to the use of military power, what is required is the use of people’s power. The war being fought in the hills of South Waziristan is not simply a military war; it is more a war of ideas.

There has been much reflection in the American press in recent days about the meaning and ends of war. This was prompted by the on-going review of the options Washington has in the war in Afghanistan. There appears to be consensus among the commentators that no matter what the American president decides regarding the course of the conflict, it will, from now on, be ‘Obama’s war.’

One analyst, Gordon M. Goldstein, writing for The New York Times, drew a number of lessons for the current president based on the experiences of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in conducting the American war in Vietnam. Kennedy chose the middle course, preferring to concentrate on building the capacity of the state to help the people who had turned to insurgency since they saw no other way to better their rapidly deteriorating economic and social situation. Johnson, on the other hand, was overawed by the military and opted for the military option.

What is the relevance of this debate in the United States for Pakistan’s policymakers as they conduct their operations in South Waziristan? There are several. Of these I would like to focus on the following three. First the civilians must provide credible leadership to this effort by the military. We know from our own history that the military cannot galvanise popular support when it goes into battle to protect the interests of the state.

There was great popular support for troops in the brief war with India in September 1965 but it could not be sustained when the politicians, led by the leadership that had come from the military, were not be able to credibly explain the purpose of the war and its aftermath.

Similarly, while the civil war in East Pakistan was provoked by the military, its aftermath had to be handled by the civilians. In the present context, we should recognise that a good start was made by convening a well-attended meeting of political leaders that authorised the use of force against the entrenched Taliban in South Waziristan.

Second, there has to be only one system of governance in one country. Pakistan allowed the Taliban to run a parallel government in the areas they control. The jihadists in the populous province of Punjab would like to do the same in the areas where they have influence. They will succeed only if the state abdicates its responsibility of providing basic services to the people. This should not happen if the institutions of the state are strong and the government has the resources to provide for the people. The cash-strapped government in Pakistan has to collect more resources to finance its operations and to use the money it spends effectively and efficiently. It is doing neither at this time.

Third, people have also to act. Let me quote at length from a recent article by the journalist Thomas L. Friedman who has written extensively on the developing world, especially on Muslim countries. ‘In places like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan you have violent religious extremist movements fighting with state security services. … And while the regimes in these countries are committed to crushing their extremists, they rarely take on their extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives. And when these extremists aim elsewhere … these regimes are indifferent. That is why there is no true war of ideas inside these countries — just a war.’

This is a correct and insightful observation. ‘These states are not promoting an inclusive and tolerant interpretation of Islam that could be the foundation of people power,’ Friedman continues.

Pakistan, unlike the countries on Friedman’s list has had a ‘people power’ movement when the lawyers demonstrated that by acting with courage and resolution, they could bring about more than regime change. They could also force a strong executive to begin to show respect to the judiciary and its opinions. The same people power needs to be mobilised to rescue religion from the clutches of the extremists.

Those on the margins of Pakistani society have found leadership from the ranks of the people who, although basically illiterate and poorly informed, are able to compensate for their shortcomings by the extremely strong courage of their convictions. The lawyers managed to find leaders from their own ranks. The progressive elements within the Pakistani society must search for those who can lead them in a much-needed people’s movement in the war against extremism.

What is needed at this critical moment in the country’s history is a group of civilian leaders who can galvanise broad support for the difficult journey on which the armed forces have embarked. Also needed is an economic plan for building state institutions to deliver the appropriate services to the people in stress and also improve their access to basic needs. Finally the moderates in Pakistani society need to let it be known that they are not in agreement with the extremists in the way they interpret Islam, the way they see the functioning of the state and the way they would place Pakistan in the international community.


1 Comment

Filed under Pakistan, War On Terror

One response to “Ideas Can Win the War

  1. AZW

    “In places like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan you have violent religious extremist movements fighting with state security services. … And while the regimes in these countries are committed to crushing their extremists, they rarely take on their extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives. And when these extremists aim elsewhere … these regimes are indifferent. That is why there is no true war of ideas inside these countries — just a war.”

    So true; Thomas Freidman has nailed the essence of the turmoil plaguing Pakistan, or for that matter the Muslim world. Unable to give Pakistanis a platform of a progressive Pakistan where each and every Pakistani has his rights protected by the state, the state has itself been caught wrong footed as a band of Islamists came up with their idea of a utopian Islamic alternative.

    It is perplexing to see why many Pakistanis kept on supporting these Taliban even as they blew up schools, mercilessly forced women to their homes, and killed condemned convicts in gory public gatherings. Taliban never showed any intellect that climbed the lowly walls of vice and virtue. They had no social plan, no economic ideas, and no human capital development scheme. Their knowledge of modern sciences has been abysmally low. The world according to them is a simple divided realm between the righteous ones and the infidels. A bloody battle that they termed a religious Jihad is the pinnacle of their dreams.

    Why this nihilistic group was supported by first Pakistan, and then Pakistanis? Why so many in Pakistan still call them the Ghazis and the Shaheeds? Why were more than the 50% of Pakistanis thought Taliban as our friends as late as early 2007?

    Maybe because Pakistan has not offered its poor, yet unbelievably patient masses the progressive pillars around which the nation can rally. Because Pakistan is a nation that remains unsure of exactly what she stands for. It is here that the state has embarked on a haphazard strategy of amalgamating religion into its very fabric, without realizing that its own people are being discriminated now due to this uneven amalgamation. It is here that more than 60% of the population never had a chance to access education, or proper healthcare. In our singular obsession that the world has conspired against Pakistan, no one in our country had the audacity to own up to our complete failure to build upon a healthy society where masses have the most basic of their rights protected by state.

    Pakistan has yet to give its masses the progressive and palpable alternative to the nihilistic, yet a definable platform offered by the Taliban. It is in the chasms of our indecisiveness that the cancer of their extremist ideology has grown.

    I have no doubt that Pakistan will overcome Taliban. The indiscriminate murders committed specifically against the vulnerable innocents is rather a stark example that the enemy is becoming exceedingly desperate. Yet so many families are being shattered, so many children are losing their parents and are destined to have terrible lives in front of them.

    Yet, will Pakistan learn from the terrible tragedy that it faces? Or it will blame everyone again and thereby keep on doing what it has done for all its existence. Will Pakistan realize that the Pakistanis will never succumb to another religiously fanatic group if their basic fundamental rights (protection of life, property, equality, and access to basic education and healthcare) are ensured by the state? That a Pakistan where each Pakistani is secure first and foremost as an equal Pakistani can be one of the strongest states in the world, without ever having to have a 1.50MM strong army.

    If we don’t do that, the present war will just be another war. And Pakistan will be fighting another war in a few decades; with an enemy with a more tangible alternative than the one offered by the state of Pakistan.