Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Are the salad days over?

Are the salad days over?
William B Milam

Daily Times August 8, 2007

One measure of whether the government is no longer in a state of denial and is conducting a serious campaign to restore its sovereignty in its territory will come from the extremists themselves. They will fight back

Shakespeare’s Mark Antony typified one of the basic cleavages of human nature: we are all torn between the idyllic life of the imagination on the one hand and dealing with the real world of danger and aggression on the other. Antony, as a young man, was an activist — leading armies and conquering aggressors who came at Rome with blind, raw force. But somewhere along the way, perhaps when he met Cleopatra, he became weary of the incessant violence, of the constant bad news of new aggression, new enemies, and new battles.

As a veteran campaigner, Antony knew that those who deny the reality of a dangerous world, and try to retire from it, are doomed to be subjugated by it. Yet he became sceptical that any good could come from all the mindless bashing of nations and empires vying for small bits of territory, and ultimately for domination. He explained his violent and politically active past as “my salad days, when I was green in judgement”.

He wanted to spend the rest of his life, short though it might be, sporting the remaining sunlit years away with the beautiful, sensuous, and charming Queen of the Nile. Cleopatra, like the Nile itself, life-giving, simple and optimistic, immune from all the bad news of politics and strife, represented all that Antony had come to desire. It was a fatal choice, but he accepted it; rather a short idyllic life with his exotic Queen than a life driven by the illusion that he could make the world better by war and intrigue.

In one respect, we are all like Antony, wanting a simple easy life, a humane life, one that does not involve dealing with aggression, danger, or enemies. However, he did not deny the dangerous reality of the inexorable and deadly advance of Rome’s legions; he accepted that they would arrive and kill him. Antony simply wanted to live truly in the arms of the beautiful, sensuous Queen as long as he could until the legions arrived — which they did.

Most of us do not make that simple, but radical, choice. Unlike Antony, we justify leading a self-centred life by denying that there are serious problems — until some traumatic event brings us around to face reality. All but a few Americans were in denial about international terrorism, seeing no danger in it to them until 9/11. That traumatic event changed their reality in a few seconds, and they came out of denial overnight, though it can be argued that their new reality became warped and was used to justify many harmful actions and policies. This is the problem often with denial — it can lead to over-reaction.

Bangladeshis were in deep denial about the encroachment of extremist Islamism into their heretofore tolerant, sufist Bengali society for most of the past 15 years. Not even the almost 400 bombs set off nearly simultaneously one day in August 2005 convinced all of my Bangladesh friends of the rising danger. I heard the same old arguments six months later — that Bengali society was inherently tolerant and would always reject a fundamentalist credo.

The swiftly rising wave of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment may have made these traditionalists think again. The previous government, in the only real effective action of its five-year tenure, took down the leadership of the extremist organisation, the JMB, that had claimed credit for the August 2005 bombings, and executed some of them earlier this year. But I am inclined to believe that the BNP/Jama’at-e Islami government did so not out of conviction, but because international pressure demanded it. In other words, that government remained in denial but acted anyway.

Pakistani too has been in denial over the past few years. The encroachment of Taliban/Al Qaeda extremists in the Tribal Areas and along the Frontier/Balochistan border was explained as taking place in areas where the State’s writ has traditionally been weak to non-existent. I was never sure why this argument was considered so persuasive; it always seemed to me that if the State’s writ is weak anywhere, it as an inducement to aggressive behaviour by those who want to see it weaker, who have a strategy to make it weaker until the state falls into their arms.

This was epitomised by the increased extremist behaviour of the Red Mosque over the past year or so. The mosque, as well as its madrassas, had been there for a number of years, and likely always leaned toward the Taliban point of view, though some believe that the leaders were radicalised by the killing of their father a few years ago. But in my memory the Red Mosque was rather modest in its behaviour until recently. I suspect its increased radical behaviour was a direct challenge to the government — throwing down the gauntlet after witnessing the pusillanimous reaction of the government to the encroachments in parts of the Frontier in which the government writ had been taken away by the extremist organisations.

It was more than an abstraction called ‘writ’ that was being lost. It was territorial control itself, something that was critical if Pakistan was to serve its own interests and defeat the extremists and the terrorists that threaten it more than anyone else. The Red Mosque seemed to me a direct challenge to President Musharraf and the Pakistani state — a bold statement that the Taliban and their allies intended to lay claim to parts of the state and a dare to do anything about it.

The president and his government could not ignore or deny the challenge, or the risk of inaction. The government’s action against the Red Mosque, and later the strengthening of its position in the Frontier and FATA gives rise to hope that the period of denial is over and the period of action to take back the territory and restore the state’s writ is beginning.

One measure of whether the government is no longer in a state of denial and is conducting a serious campaign to restore its sovereignty in its territory will come from the extremists themselves. They will fight back. Sadly that will mean innocent civilian casualties, as they seem to care not about protecting the innocent. While the government must do its best to safeguard civilian lives, it must also not flinch from its campaign against those who want to take over the state.

I do not believe that any rational analyst, nor any rational Western policy maker, expects the government to use only the raw brutal force that Rome’s legions used against rebellious regions in Antony’s time. A combination of the threat of hard power and use of soft power will be the strategy, if in fact there is a strategy to retake territory and restore writ. But the threat of force has to be there — and overwhelming force that these anti-state organisations have no hope of overcoming.

We have to remember that these organisations used force or the threat of force to take the territory in the first place. They operated through intimidation of the common people and often murder of the leaders to get their way. Moreover their goal is clear — to weaken the state enough to get their way, to control society and state enough to implement their retrogressive, scriptural philosophy.

And so Pakistanis will relive the dilemmas that Shakespeare described so eloquently and poignantly in Antony and Cleopatra. And many will often wonder, as Antony did, if any good can come from the bad news and trauma that a government strategy to extirpate the threat to its very existence will bring.

Perhaps, as usual, the best response was Shakespeare’s: “We, ignorant of ourselves, beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our own good: so find we profit by losing our prayers.”

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

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