Endless collateral damage- Abbas Nasir


IT appears that we Pakistanis are fated to become collateral damage whether it is intelligence agencies trying to gain an upper hand in a regional war or domestic power grabs or, yes, even an election in a distant land.

The former director-general of Pakistan’s premier and all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, retired Lt-Gen Asad Durrani is on record as having described the December 2014 massacre at the Army Public School, Peshawar, as collateral damage in the agencies’ game in the region.

On one of the saddest days in Pakistan’s recent history, six gunmen aligned with the TTP entered the school, firing at everyone they came across and killed some 150 people, the vast majority (134) of whom were schoolchildren. One hundred others were wounded, some gravely. Responsibility for security failures is yet to be pinned as the tragedy occurred despite an alert.

The so-called jihad that had raged in Afghanistan as the United States, and its minions including Pakistan, took on the Soviet Union whose troops had marched all the way to Kabul and beyond, taking over all major cities and installations after crossing the Oxus, was drawing to a close in 1979.

The Soviet Army deployment of troops, said to be in excess of 100,000, came after a bloody tussle bet­ween the two (Parchami and Khalqi) factions of the governing People’s Democratic Party of Afgha­nis­tan, during which Nur Muhammad Taraki was overthrown, killed and replaced by Hafizullah Amin.

Amin himself was executed soon after the Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul and Babrak Karmal entered the president’s office. Who was at the helm in Afghanistan is not significant here but the consequences for Pakistan, as fighting started to rage across the Durand Line, are.

The ‘militants’ funded by the Saudis, trained in cells as per CIA manuals were mostly given in charge of Pakistani intelligence operatives. Erstwhile Fata became not just the training ground for a multinational army of militants but also the launching pad for their operations in Afghanistan.

The Geneva Accords of 1986, following the rise to power of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in 1985 and his policies of glasnost and perestroika, not only facilitated the exit of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan but also triggered the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The Soviets may have left Afghanistan but the multinational army of jihadi militants dropped roots in the region at the same time the US was abandoning Pakistan and Afghanistan as it felt its job was done. We struggle to clear the pile of ‘collateral damage’ rubble to this day.

There is no denying that a different leadership may have played its cards differently but the military dictator, who strived for legitimacy at home all through his 11 years in power, sought to create civilian allies via a system of patronage. An entire political class was thus raised. Corruption became endemic like never before.

Add to this, the impact on society of freely available automatic weapons and drugs ie Kalashnikovs and heroin, as well as raging sectarian and ethnic tensions that the dictator deliberately fomented to perpetuate his rule, and you can probably see today’s issues in a much clearer context.

More recently, when an elected leader tried to assert his constitutional authority over the affairs of the state, including foreign policy, to the chagrin of the security establishment, he was not only removed from office but humiliated and called a traitor.

It was ensured that in the new dispensation which, by definition, had to be more pliable and open to the establishment’s ‘reason’, there could be no say or influence for those just ousted. Now the country has to live with the collateral damage of a hybrid system that has so far failed to deliver.

And while we are dealing with the additional burden of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, it is worrying that the government’s point man cites as examples the United States and Brazil, among others, of how the public health threat has been addressed simultaneously with keeping the economy open. Need I say more?

As if developments at home were not enough. President Trump’s re-election boat seems caught in storms he is finding impossible to navigate. His ratings are taking a beating even in states he won the last time and he is now appealing to the baser instincts of his mostly white supporters.

Apart from lashing out at Black Lives Matter protesters, who don’t seem interested in cosmetic measures to address racism this time around, he is once again harping on his ‘America First’ theme, an area where Pakistanis will likely be part of the collateral damage.

Hundreds of Pakistani students are fearful that if their colleges/universities do not agree to face-to-face learning and insist on distant or e-classes, their student visas will be cancelled under the new rules announced by the administration.

Trump is opposed to any continuing special measures to safeguard against the Covid-19 threat and wants everything to open up. In an election year, with plummeting ratings, he is desperate for an economic turnaround that can’t happen with ongoing closures, public health be damned.

On the VoA Urdu website, one student who is in her fifth year in the US says if her visa is cancelled she will have wasted her entire stay there as she still does not have a degree, ie nothing to show a potential employer at home. Surely, the prime minister can do something to help.

Given their mutual warmth and respect, Imran Khan could ask Donald Trump to make sure our students don’t become collateral damage of the US presidential race. After all, we are yet again assisting the US in its quest to leave the region. We have leverage. Don’t we?