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When failure is victory


TO understand them, there’s just two dates you need to know: 1971 and 1977. In 1971, the Pakistan Army contrived to lose half of Pakistan. In 1977, the Pakistan Army was back running Pakistan. Six years was all it took. And if 1971-1977 happened, what’s 2008-2014? Nawaz didn’t stand a chance. But Nawaz has also helped write his political obituary. Twice now he’s been called a liar. First, it was the Musharraf promise: the boys let it be known that Nawaz had reneged on his government’s promise to indict and then allow Musharraf to leave the country.

Maybe the Musharraf promise had been made or maybe it hadn’t. What was alarming was that the boys were quietly letting it be known that they thought they had a deal and the PM double-crossed them. In essence, the boys were accusing the PM of being a dishonourable man. That’s a perception — correct or incorrect, right or wrong — that you don’t want the boys to have. It explains what came this week. Briefly, Nawaz himself tried to shift perceptions, to collar Imran and Qadri and stick them in next to the boys.

Immediately, the boys hit back. This time there were no leaks, no background chatter, no carefully sown doubts. Sorry, Prime Minister, you’re a liar — it was direct, it was blunt and it’s devastating. You have to wonder if a third time will be necessary. Why would Nawaz do it? Even if he’s right — he hasn’t lied — and they’re wrong, why would he so casually let such poison flow so freely in so vital a relationship?

Take your pick. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t know better. Or he thinks it will work. None of them really make sense. It also doesn’t matter. The mandate was already dead. Now, Nawaz will survive on sufferance — their sufferance. You don’t make them out to be liars and stay in control of your destiny. The other thing you don’t do is call them out on their lies.

Nawaz knows plenty of their lies. As does anyone who’s dealt with the boys and dealt with people who’ve had to suffer the boys. Stories, apocryphal and true, suffice. Just this term, Nawaz has caught them twice. Once, he was told the Taliban were lying, that there were no non-combatant captives. Then the Achakzai line to Karzai was opened to get the real story from the other side. Nawaz knew he was being dissembled with.

How strong are they? Nawaz knows. He once told the story of the other Pakistan, the one they contrived to lose in 1971. Nawaz went there, some years ago, and met all the big guns, the fearsome political rivals and the boys in charge there. Each one of them complained about interference and those three letters: I.S.I.
Isn’t it extraordinary? Bitter rivals they are over there, opposing camps, fiercely divided — and yet all speak about our boys and all say the same thing.

Playing all sides against each other in faraway Bangladesh? You’d think everyone has forgotten about Bangladesh, or would like to forget. But that’s our boys: they never forget. It doesn’t take much to figure out what they can do with home advantage. So many sides, so many angles, so many games, so many Qadris and Imrans — always one bottom line: they stay strong; everyone else stays weak.

But Nawaz keeps quiet. As did Zardari. As do all the civilians. Because to call them out is to invoke a wrath that can bring all your skeletons tumbling out. And you don’t want your skeletons to come tumbling out.
Where to now? The transition has ruptured. If that wasn’t dismal enough, there’s no one on the horizon who can help put it back on track. So now we have to go big, to look at epochs and what makes them. There’s two that matter so far.

The boys and their system were forged in the first decade of this country’s existence. Ayesha Jalal in The State of Martial Rule has explained it more convincingly and eloquently than anyone else: in the shadow of the Cold War and in combination with regional and domestic factors, the structure of the Pakistani state was forged. That’s the edifice, that’s the system, that’s the boys and what makes the boys the boys. But the boys are in denial. There is a second epoch. Fast forward to the late 1970s. Three events in quick succession, the meaning and combined effects of which the country has yet to figure out: Zia and his Islamisation; the Shia-Sunni schism reignited by revolution just when petro-dollars were coming into their own; and the Soviets wading into Afghanistan.

The civilians haven’t been allowed to grow, but events — blessed, cursed, events — have grown. Everything the boys are contending with, the big changes they have been forced into stem from those events. See, one hundred and seventy five thousand troops in Fata fighting Islamist militants. So change is here, we’re already living it and the boys are struggling to cope. Which means, eventually, either they’ll have to make choices or events will make the choice for them. When the rupture does come though — when things break apart — it may not be the civilians who will get to collect the pieces and put Pakistan back together; it could be something far uglier.

But that’s the risk. Because Zardari failed, Nawaz is failing and Imran is a failure. But, most of all, because the boys think failure is victory. That’s what got them from 1971 to 1977. And that’s what’s got them from 2008 to 2014.

By Cyril Almeida

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