Under the Magic Tube-Light: A Fantasia

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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!
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