December 16: from Dhaka to Peshawar

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 10, 1436 2015-01-01


by Zafar Bangash (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1436)

Brute force is not the answer to every problem even if the temptation to use force has gained currency in Pakistan in the aftermath of the Peshawar school massacre. Lessons must be learned from the past in order not to repeat them.

December 16 seems to be an inauspicious date for Pakistan. In 1971, half the country was lost when 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendered in Dhaka to the invading Indian army marking the darkest day in Pakistan’s history. On December 16, 2014, seven heavily armed terrorists gunned down more than 141students and teachers in cold blood in what they said was “revenge killing” for military attacks on their villages and hamlets in North Waziristan.

The scale of the two tragedies is not comparable but there are eerie similarities between the flawed policies pursued in both cases. In 1971, the Pakistani military was pushed into a disastrous war against its own people in erstwhile East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). The Machiavellian politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto played a central role in that crisis in pursuit of his raw ambition to become the prime minister even if it meant breaking up the country. Saner voices against the disastrous policy were ignored. General Sahibzada Yakub Ali Khan, GOC Dhaka, opposed the military option as did Admiral Ehsan, Governor of East Pakistan at the time. Both were relieved of their responsibilities as General Yahya Khan, the Pakistan Army Chief and chief martial law administrator sent General Tikka Khan to Dhaka. When the military operation was launched in East Pakistan, Bhutto exclaimed, “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved!” Far from saving Pakistan, the policy ended disastrously with a humiliating surrender.

Bhutto realized his dream; he became prime minister (after initially serving as president) but nothing was learnt from the East Pakistan/Bangladesh debacle. He set up an inquiry commission headed by Justice Hamoodur Rahman to investigate the “military” but not political reasons for the disaster, but its findings remained under lock and key until 2000. Nobody was punished for causing the country’s break-up or for perpetrating so much bloodshed. The Pakistani ruling elite carried on as if nothing had happened.

The Peshawar tragedy of December 16, 2014 cannot be divorced from the failures of successive governments to learn from past disasters. The same mindset that had led to the East Pakistan tragedy is in evidence in dealing with the Taliban and the myriad other groups that are used as proxies for various agendas. Military operations are contracted out to groups and used when needed.

The genesis of this policy lies in the Afghan war that started with the communist coup of April 1978. Sardar Daoud’s government was overthrown and together with his entire family, he was murdered on April 27 creating great instability in the region. Pakistan was sucked into the Afghan quagmire at US’ behest. True, it had little choice because it was the one country most affected by events in Afghanistan but once the Soviet army was driven out in February 1989, no clearly thought-out policy was formulated or pursued. Pakistani generals and politicians worked at cross-purposes often undermining each other. The military-civilian power equation has also become greatly skewed since then.

The prevailing mindset in Pakistan views every problem through the military lens. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Those calling for dialogue or a political solution are immediately branded as Taliban sympathizers. There is no shortage of armchair commentators urging the military to use more force. They do not want to be disturbed in their palatial homes while downing endless glasses of whisky or having sumptuous meals and ignoring the consequences of their ill-conceived advice.

Considering a political solution to any problem is dubbed weakness. They must always look macho and every issue becomes a matter of their inflated egos. That they are subservient to the imperialists and Zionists or even the Hindus does not bruise their egos; their problem is that they do not want to submit to the laws of God in the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan. Religion is passé.

There is massive inequality in Pakistan born of the privileges the elite enjoy. From the landed aristocracy whose estates were granted by the British colonialists in return for betraying fellow Muslims, to their industrial estates today are all the result of corruption, greed, graft and other illegal acts. They have huge bank balances abroad, not because of honest work but naked theft, while the people suffer grinding poverty. The country is grossly mismanaged but there is no accountability.

The rank and file of the Taliban is made up of children of the disenfranchised. One need not agree with their demented ideology but they appear to have been driven to a point where they feel they have nothing to lose. In fact, they feel empowered by using violence. An odd assortment of criminals has also infiltrated their ranks who will stop at nothing: kidnappings, extortion and other unsavory acts. These must be dealt with through smart policing.

The question that decision-makers in Pakistan must ask is whether they want to pursue the same failed policies that have created this disastrous situation or reconsider their options. It is essential to have a clear objective in mind. What do they want to achieve: peace, or endless war, and for what purpose?

Negotiating with the enemy is not weakness, much as the secularists may decry it. Charles De Gaulle had run his 1958 presidential campaign in France pledging not to grant independence to Algeria. After he won, he changed course. When asked why he reneged on his pledge, De Gaulle said he reserved the right to be smarter today than he was yesterday. The Americans negotiated with the Vietnamese and the British with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the latter perhaps the closest example to the Pakistani case.

As Pakistanis ponder their options after the Peshawar tragedy, they must honestly address the question, what would have been better: negotiations with Mujibur Rahman, winner of the 1970 general elections, or the humiliating surrender of 90,000 troops and the loss of half the country? Are Pakistani decision-makers prepared to learn any lessons from history?

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