If Pakistan were a patient in a hospital and you were reading the chart at her bedside, the prognosis would look bleak. The Taliban occupy parts of the country. Close to two million refugees have been displaced from the fighting in Swat. And this is before the fight for the main Swati city of Mingora has begun - a fight which is likely to turn into a grinding house-to-house urban war. To the West, Osama and gang are thought to be holed up, and in Bauchistan province, a major insurgency is raging.
So why am I more optimistic than I was a week ago? Its quite simple really. I've always maintained that the battles being fought in Pakistan will be won or lost based on whether Pakistanis came to believe that this was their fight or whether they kept living in denial and insisting that this was America's war and not theirs.
It took the Taliban take over first of Swat then Buner, and the accompanying reign of terror with floggings and beheadings, for Pakistanis to come around to the view that the Taliban threatened not just their way of life but the very existence of the Pakistani state. But finally, belatedly, at long last, a majority of Pakistanis seem to have woken up to the existential challenge facing them. For the longest time Pakistanis have been blaming India, the US, Israel and mysterious foreign powers for all that ails Pakistan. The Pakistani government has actively encouraged this thinking, preferring to deflect attention from its own shortcomings. For now at least, this blame game has been pushed aside. "Enough is enough" are the headlines of many a column in papers across Pakistan.
The other optimistic sign is the unusual sight of mainstream religious leaders speaking out against the Taliban and their excesses. No liberals themselves, even some of the Islamists seem to have been taken aback by the suicide bombings, the destruction of girl's schools, and the dispensation of medieval punishments in the name of Islam. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the major opposition parties have also thrown their weight behind the government's offensive. Nawaz Sharif, a leading opposition politician and a Prime Minister in waiting popular with religious minded voters has come out and stated for the first time that Pakistan had no choice but to engage in the military offensive in Swat. This lends the government much needed credibility, and puts the leadership, the opposition, the military and the Pakistani people on the same page. It is this recognition of a common threat, this acknowledgment of imminent danger, this coming together of diverse parties in a common fight that is giving me hope that the military campaign against the Taliban has a chance of success. And when I see that despite decades of cynical "Islamicization" policies by successive Pakisani rulers, the people of Pakistan are still unwilling to accept retrogressive, extreme brands of Islam, It gives me hope that in the long run, the battle for ideas can still be won.
Before that can happen though, many short term remedies have to succeed. The Army has to win in Swat and clear it of militants. It then has to hold and build in the area so that the enemy doesn't simply melt away and reappear once the offensive is over. And it has to do this in a reasonable time frame - if the Swat war drags on for many months, support will start to wane and calls for negotiations with the Taliban will gain traction again.
On another front, the government has to take care of close to two million refugees who have streamed out of Swat. These people have first been victimized by the Taliban and have now been victimized by the government offensive. The key to winning their hearts and minds is to make sure that they are clothed, fed, given care and given hope. Otherwise, living in tents in sweltering heat, they will soon start wondering whether they might have been better off under the Taliban.
Lastly, Pakistan's leadership, for a change, has to demonstrate a modicum of competence in managing the affairs of the country and at a bare minimum has to inspire confidence among the Pakistani people. At the moment, President Zardari's approval ratings are in the 20% range.
Just to be clear - these are the short term immediate steps that need to be taken to get the patient out of the ICU. The long term fixes are harder and require much more foresight and competence. Primary and secondary education needs to be revamped and expanded, economic development needs to make its way to Swat and tribal areas, functioning courts need to provide a semblance of justice, and several decades worth of deliberate policies of replacing Pakistan's moderate Islam with a Saudi inspired extreme version have to be reversed.
The Taliban have simply stepped into a void created by neglect. This void needs to be filled through sustained good governance. That is a tall order for Pakistan, but one without which it has no chance of recovery.
Farrukh Rehan writes about issues related to Pakistan, Islam and politics at www.fullcomment.com
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