Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Or is it business as usual?

Rio de Janeiro is a very distracting place. Its unique location, its touristy sites and its strange urban flavour, particularly for first-time visitors to Latin America, can leave one breathless with excitement. After two nights in Rio, we – my wife and I – took an inter-city bus back to Sao Paulo and we were two hours out of the city when a text message on our cell suddenly transported us back to Pakistan.

The message that we received at about noon in Brazil was short and vastly intimidating: “A bomb blast at Marriott Islamabad. Forty persons dead. God save Pakistan”. Immediately, we sought to make contacts with friends and relatives. This was difficult because we did not have our Pakistani sims or address books. But our daughters in Los Angeles and London, with access to Geo transmission, soon established a line of communication. There was a constant flow of information until we boarded our long flight to Dubai at midnight.

It was an eerie and lonely experience because no one around us seemed aware of what was happening in Islamabad and to us as concerned citizens of a deeply wounded society. Everything seemed to change for us and the scenic ride through thickly wooded hills, with overcast skies, became a cinematic expression of contrast and an emotional disconnect. Pakistan seemed a world apart, literally as well as figuratively. Every television screen we searched out at the busy Sao Paulo airport was showing a game of soccer, the abiding obsession of Brazil.

Eventually, of course, we landed back to suffer the old wounds and the raw winds of our country. The Sunday newspapers at Dubai offered some clarifications. But mystification about what had happened and what it meant has survived. We have been conditioned to massive acts of terrorism and violence and it is curious how we tend to take all this in our stride. But nothing since the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto nine months ago has something shattered our hopes and equanimity to this extent.

All this week, we have exerted our minds to try to understand the meaning and implications of the Marriott blast. Many difficult questions have been posed and people who are expected to provide some answers – the Rehman Maliks of the present arrangement – have only succeeded in confusing the issue. How was this possible in the most protected sector of the country? Does this mean that the state is withering away? And how can our rulers contend with a challenge of this magnitude?

Alas, the response that we have seen so far does not inspire any confidence in the ability of the government to deal with this most threatening crisis in our recent history. A sense of insecurity, bordering on panic, has spread across the country. Every day, there is fresh evidence of how the jihadists have gained in their operational abilities. Even when our intelligence apparatus and our law enforcement agencies score a hit, as they did in Karachi in the small hours of Friday, the perception of threat does not recede.

Meanwhile, a lot of action is taking place in the tribal areas and our security forces seem to be taking the initiative. But the very, very serious issue of the Americans’ manifest resolve to cross over into our territory on hot pursuit or ‘actionable’ intelligence has apparently not been resolved in President Asif Ali Zardari’s meetings with President Bush and other American officials. Indeed, there have been some perilous encounters on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. On Thursday, General David Petraeus, who will take charge of US forces in this region next month, said in Paris that “Pakistan faces a threat that certainly seems to be an existential threat”. And we have not been unfamiliar with such expressions of alarm.

So what are we doing to counter such dire warnings? In the first place, there is this dangerous split in the national public opinion on whether this war against violent militancy is our own war or is it America’s war that we are duped into fighting. One would think that after the Marriott blast, an attack on the bastion of security in the capital, would leave us with no doubt that it is a war for our own survival. Still, some apparently very sensible individuals, perhaps motivated by their ideological confusion, are arguing that it is America’s war and if we stop our operations in the tribal belt, things would improve. I wonder what they had said when Ziaul Haq was really fighting America’s war and our religious brigade was totally going gaga over it.

Against this flaming backdrop, Zardari made an important observation in his press conference in New York on Wednesday. He said: “The people will have to realise that we are at war….terrorism cannot be eliminated by having wishes and hopes”. Now, what should people expect when they are told by their powerful leader, irrespective of our parliamentary system of government, that their country is at war? And how are we at war when there is still debate about whose war is it?

Even more confusing is the thought that when we are at war, our top leadership is abroad. Not only Zardari is in New York, but the chief of the Army Staff is in China. One can also name other names, such as Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Yes, this is umra time and we do need prayers to win our battles.

It may also be argued that Zardari’s visit to New York was crucial. But what impression has he conveyed during his New York visit about his involvement with the conduct of this war? Is he in a long-distance control of the entire situation, portraying the sense of urgency and resolve that this situation demands? Ah, what we know is about his colourful meeting with Sarah Palin. He may have made a legitimate, light-hearted comment but the message it has conveyed is certainly not positive. You have to look at the response on the net, including on the CNN site.

The point I am making is that there is no impression of our being at war, which should have united us and created a huge nationalistic fervour. Instead, what we have is business as usual. Meanwhile, things are surely falling apart. We are afflicted by not just rumours and inexplicable fears, major events are taking place every day. For instance, there was an explosion on a train near Bahawalpur on Friday. On Thursday, great confusion followed red alert on airports, after a bomb threat. On Thursday – five days after the Marriott blast – the US suspended its consular services such as issuing visas. Britain had done that earlier and suspended British Airways flights to Islamabad.

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