Nov 6, 2009

Are we ready for the long war?

By Shafqat Mahmood

The South Waziristan operation seems to be going well. After tough fighting, major terror centres have been captured and the militants are on the run. This is a credit to the bravery and spirit of sacrifice among officers and men of the armed forces. It is also a tribute to the meticulous preparation and thorough planning of the army leadership.

Much has been written about Gen Kayani, most of it in the context of the perpetual political drama in the country, but too little about his ability as a military commander. It is this capability that is of crucial importance in the fight against the barbarians. Having little understanding of military matters, I am not qualified to do it, but I wish others would.

We are in a state of war, and all indications are that it is going to be a long struggle. We have to prepare for it politically, as a society and militarily. The strengths and weaknesses of our military leaders are as important to it as of top officeholders in government. In the press of the United States -- another country in the midst of a long war -- American military figures are discussed in detail from a professional perspective. Why not here?

Acknowledging again my lack of understanding of military matters, what gives me comfort about Gen Kayani as a commander is his personality. He is thorough, deliberate, and careful, unlike Musharraf who was impulsive and reckless. He also has the ability to take a long view and calculate beyond the immediate and the visible.

It was Musharraf's impetuous nature and lack of ability to think through all aspects of the conflict that got us into Kargil. The result was a disaster. Kayani's personality is such that it is difficult to believe he will go into a military campaign before analysing everything in detail and preparing for all eventualities. He may not win everything, but it won't be for lack of deliberation and hard work.

An aspect of that is visible in the current Waziristan campaign. First, it is in the targeting of the anti-Pakistan Tehrik Taliban (TTP) and its foreign allies in the Mehsud area. The Wazirs in the shape of Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir have been left alone, and in effect neutralised. This despite American pressure to take them on as they have links with the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani group. This has ensured protection of an important flank of the campaign.

Secondly, from a layman's perspective the Waziristan operation is proceeding step by small step, carefully and unhurriedly. In this process own casualties are being minimised and important terror centres being taken over. The careful use of air power and artillery has forced the terrorists to run, and although fighting at times is furious, it would have been far more hazardous if not all elements of military power had been deployed judiciously.

Of course, in a campaign like this, the capture of territory is only a small part of the larger war. Breaking up the organisation and fighting ability of the militancy is of greater importance. The test after the capture of South Waziristan would be to take on fighters that have dispersed to other agencies and even into Balochistan.

Orakzai Agency, according to press reports, is emerging as the next battleground. Wherever it is, victory in the Waziristan battle would have to be followed up by success in other battles, and this includes more than a victory of arms. It means, to use a cliché, winning hearts and minds of people in the battle zone and taking out roots of militancy in other parts of the country. It is a long war because winning it not only requires a military victory but changing of mindsets.

It is here that the political part becomes so critical. People of battle zones, whether in Malakand or various agencies of FATA, have been displaced and suffered terrible hardships. They have to be rehabilitated and looked after. Their lives and infrastructure have to be rebuilt. This requires focused political initiatives and a great deal of competence.

Militancy will also have to be taken on with determination in other parts of the country, which requires a strong political will. If some madressahs and mosques are being used to spread hatred or prepare foot soldiers for the militancy, they have to be identified and confronted. If social or political organisations are, wittingly or otherwise, providing comfort to the terrorists, they have to be proceeded against.

If this is done, there will be reaction, some from the extremists, but also from ordinary people who do not understand the larger reality. This would mean putting at risk a degree of popular approval, which is difficult for politicians to do, but it will have to be done. When the future of the country is at stake, political considerations have to take a backseat.

This does not mean that we need military rule. This long war against militancy cannot be won without popular support, and for that democracy is essential. However, within the structure of democracy it is critical for the political players to focus their energies and employ their talents of leadership towards combating militancy. If this requires expending some political capital, it would have to be done. Otherwise, this war cannot be won.

It also means that we need a political leadership that has respect among the people. This is only possible if there is some moral basis to governance. This is where the corruption stories regarding the president, his friends and others in the political field become important. They create an aura of stink around the leadership that not only angers people but makes them lose respect for it. This compromises the war effort, because no one believes what the leaders say.

It is in this context that the outcome of the controversy surrounding President Zardari becomes critical. He had a difficult start because of his image and he has compounded it by allowing his friends and cronies to further tarnish his reputation. His handling of the judicial crisis and now the NRO has also called into question his political abilities. Is he in a position to lead the nation during the difficult time ahead?

The short answer in the democratic context would be that he is elected and this gives him the right to be the president of this country for five years. I am not questioning his legitimacy, though it seems that the courts would soon be asked to judge his eligibility for the high office. My concern is whether he has the moral standing to be the spearhead of a national effort in the long war ahead.

There are no easy alternatives, although talk has started of this or that person being more suitable for the president's position. Unless Mr Zardari resigns, of which I think the possibilities are remote despite Mr Altaf Hussain's advice, the legal and political battle may last for a while.

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