Peshawar school song: Where have all the flowers gone?
Ever since US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan to the stone age unless it joined the post 9/11 global war on terror, Pakistan has faced an existential tragedy of choice. It was being called upon to kill the very mujahideen it had trained to become hardened Islamic fighters, also at America’s behest, to help expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
Some in the Pakistan Army got into the drill, led by the Americans, to eliminate the mujahideen; some did not. The world’s mightiest power and the world’s only nuclear Islamic state have been fighting the Al Qaeda, Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), one mutating into the other, for the past 13 years without any conclusion.
Every year, specifically since 2010, the US threatens to leave Afghanistan but finds itself unable to. Islamabad and Kabul are both obliged to fight a continuous war against their own people. To get even in an asymmetrical war, a faction of the TTP has heaped such brutality on the families of school children in Peshawar as to leave human beings everywhere numb and speechless.
Immediately after the carnage in Peshawar, Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif and ISI chief Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar flew to Kabul for an emergency meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. They also met NATO commander Gen. John Campbell. There is no Afghan counterpart to Raheel yet in harness. What would they have discussed? Hot pursuit of Maulana Fazlullah, the faction of the TTP allegedly responsible for the massacre? Can Ghani, who held onto the presidentship only by the skin of his teeth, oblige? His political rival and the CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, has already raised the bar for both sides. There is no such thing as a good Taliban as opposed to a bad Taliban, he says. The implication is to have no talks with Taliban -- which knocks out the Pakistani expectation to have a structure in Kabul which is leavened by Talibani presence.
Remember the spells of Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani opposite numbers. When they coordinated action against the Taliban, Pushtoon nationalism grew in geometrical progression. When the two became suspicious of each other and relaxed a bit, Taliban mopped up all the sympathy. That dynamic has not changed.
Among the numerous flip flops of the Americans in Afghanistan has been their inability to have a consistent policy on Taliban. Initially, the Taliban had to be destroyed. Then they had to be only weakened. This latter line suited Kabul’s calculations. A weakened Taliban was useful so long as it expanded horizontally. The Pushtoons in control in Kabul believed Taliban expansion was Pushtoon expansion which, in the long run, was in their interest.
NATO never had a strategy in the region because it had no policy towards Pakistan. They knew they could never defeat the Taliban without hitting hard at their bases in Pakistan. And that, NATO could not do. And now, NATO are packing up their bags.
One reason (in addition to scores of conspiracy theories) Benazir Bhutto paid with her life was that she was seen to be an American nominee in an atmosphere of rampaging anti-Americanism. Nawaz Sharif, it was believed, would be relatively more acceptable to the Taliban because he had been a Saudi ward.
With the emergence of the Islamic Caliphate of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Iraq and Syria, a new dimension has been added to the TTP narrative. Names of Maulana Abdul Aziz and his brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi were media headlines when the Pakistan Rangers attacked the Lal Masjid in July 2007, which gave phenomenal boost to mutual bitterness. The school massacre in Peshawar is a continuation in that zigzag.
President Zia ul Haq, at whose door lies all the blame for wrenching Pakistani Islam away from Islam’s mellow sub-continental culture towards the faith’s more Arabised variant, was the earliest patron of Lal Masjid. Located near the mosque was the world’s biggest seminary for women with 6,000 students.
Musharraf’s support for the global war on terror brought him into direct conflict with Lal Masjid. Most of the students were Pushtoon. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of religious parties, claimed that 400-1,000 students were killed - European news channels gave the death figure as 300. That boosted militancy sky high. But the murder of 132 school children in uniform is an unspeakable tragedy of a different order. It brings to mind Habib Tanvir’s translation of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” (Phool woh saarey gaye to aakhir kahaan gaye?)
We now have a leadership in Kabul which is so much a creature of America that it can never stand on its own feet. Then there is a besieged Nawaz Sharif, half-hearted American forces in the region, and a Pakistan Army exceedingly unpopular in the Frontier. The irony is that Pakistan is secure precisely because of its weaknesses. Because, as extremism expands, the shrill chant worldwide will be: Pakistan is too nuclear to fail. A nuclear Pakistan will invite American oversight from the Afghan Machaan or watch towers which will be required for a long time. On the other front, meanwhile, the bail to Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi has brought out the hawks in India on their shrillest howl. Pakistan, shortsightedly, has decided to accord a “low priority” in the management of cross border terrorism in Kashmir. In other words, it will attend to the Afghan front first. The outcome is clear as daylight: it will fall between stools.
There was the hope that after picking up the trophy in Cuba, Barack Obama may be eyeing the bigger prize in Tehran. But that may give heart to the Northern Alliance elements in Afghanistan. Would that not bring the Pushtoons on both sides of the nonexistent Durand line closer together? Why would the Americans worry on that count?
As former US ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, used to say: There can be no coherent US game in Afghanistan and Iraq without Iran being on board. Khalilzad was the US ambassador to Iraq too.