City City Bang Bang, Columns

Instability as strategy

By all accounts, the image of Pakistan has taken a severe beating in the last few days. Most of the world sees its actions as both duplicitous and untrustworthy, confirming what many in India have believed for a long time. The absurdity of Laden living for over 5 years next to a military garrison in a comfortable mansion in an urban settlement is not lost on anyone. The Pakistani version does little to improve things for even if it were to be believed, it is nothing more than an admission of the most staggering ineptitude of both its military and otherwise highly regarded and feared intelligence apparatus.

Many in India are voicing their frustration at the Indian response to cross-border terrorism and understandably so. Pakistan has shown no real intent in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice; the principal suspect roams free as indeed does Dawood Ibrahim. We hear calls for strong action being taken by India along with laments about Indian weakness, particularly when measured against the almost cinema-perfect mission launched by the Americans to assassinate Bin Laden.

And yet, it is instructive to examine traditional notions of strength and weakness at a time like this. The US may look strong today, but in reality it has taken ten years to track down an old man, whose links with the outside world have been tenuous and who was being guarded by a handful of bodyguards. In the course of this search, it has attacked the wrong country, led to loss of thousands of lives, both Iraqi and American and destroyed millions of others, while being mired in another country, Afghanistan, without any meaningful exit option in sight. America’s apparent strength has made it a perpetual target, and its role as the world’s guardian makes it take the most risks and incur the highest costs, often without any worthwhile returns.

Pakistan, on the other hand has thrived on its apparent weakness. Its biggest source of immunity is its fragility, which on the surface at least, looks very real. Between the civilian government, the military, the religious establishment, the intelligence and sundry tribal and regional warlords, nobody is visibly in charge of Pakistan. As a nation state, it is amoebic in definition and shape-shifting in behaviour. Pakistan is the name we give to an amorphous set of competing interest groups, covered loosely by the ill-fitting fabric of nationhood. The law is variable, its borders are broad indicators of very porous intent, the democratic process works but in a way to make the idea of democracy weightless and insubstantial and it has many centres of power that are able to transfer responsibility with giddy agility. It is an unstable mess, a cauldron of primitive passions and canny venalities which impregnates others with its own confusion.

The visibility and the reality that underpins its fragility makes it a grenade waiting to explode but the real genius lies in communicating to the world that it holds the pin. Pakistan’s internal contradictions married with its strategic importance and its status as a nuclear state serve to transfer responsibility for its viability to everyone but itself. Pakistan must be tolerated, because the world cannot handle a failed Pakistan, is the argument. The more confused and confounding its actions, greater is the need to protect it from itself.

And it is a strong argument. Of course, it is entirely possibly and indeed very likely that this apparent weakness becomes a useful cloak to hide under and that elements in Pakistan use this for their own purpose with deliberate intent. But even so, because it continues simultaneously to give the world enough evidence of its own vulnerability and the potential it has to cause damage to itself, by imploding in a minor way ever so often, the narrative it has built continues to prove compelling.

At a larger level, the idea that what looks strong might not be so and what looks fragile and fissile might have greater structural strength, is worth considering. When India went nuclear, it looked like the action of a strong country, but looking back, what it did was to give Pakistan licence to do the same and effectively neutralised India’s great superiority in conventional military strength. A nuclear Pakistan has made all of us shareholders in its viability and has given it licence to act with the knowledge that it can never be seriously attacked. More importantly, it makes the world value any source of stability, no matter how venal or duplicitous, that might exist within, for the alternative is infinitely worse. The desire for stability is value-neutral, and allows for many sins to be tolerated.

We saw a similar argument being made at the time of the economic slowdown, when fat cat investment banks needed to be bailed out by taxpayers in the US, because they were too big to fail and would bring down the entire economic system if they were handed out the punishment they so richly deserved. The world could gnash its teeth all it liked but their executives continued to take home million dollar bonuses out of the bailout money and there was nothing anyone else could do.

Some of the arguments against the Anna Hazare -led movement, too carry a strand of this argument. We cannot attack politicians quite so much for we would end up destroying democracy if we did so. The flaws in the system become its strength, and our complicity is sought in maintaining its stability for the alternative is chaos. The strategy of holding the other side hostage to one’s own weaknesses is a masterful one, for it gives one the freedom to continue to blunder and transfers responsibility to the other side to keep one going.

It becomes particularly important to recognise the difference between apparent strength and delivered strength. Pakistan shows us that one need not be singular, stable or even particularly clear-headed to survive and indeed thrive. Dealing with questions like these requires more than brute strength and blustering bravado; it needs subtlety and wisdom. Sabre-rattling is loud and satisfying in an infantile sort of way, but real strength needs to handle much greater complexity and run much deeper.

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