In the era of information age and media wars, nations and governments have to manage the strategic discourse around major themes. It is critical what message gets conveyed to the masses, and at the same time, it is also important to manage the global perceptions concerning a country. The exercise is a prerequisite towards building consensus. In absence of this, paralysis may develop; a predicament Pakistan is pretty much facing presently.
Information overload without any guidance, leads to confusion. The representative and legislative bodies of the nation, the media, and its people, all appear perplexed about where the country stands on the major challenges facing the country, especially as it relates to the campaign against extremism. This in turn causes other nations to worry about the future of Pakistan.
The narrative the country has used regarding some of the key political, security and economic challenges appear to be the source of much confusion and need to be reshaped.
Nowhere else is this more prevalent than in the case drone strikes and the related discussion of their efficacy, civilian causalities they cause, and if they occur with government consent. The nation itself raised international raucous on these issues and has now presented statistics that counters its own case regarding high civilian causalities. Convoluting the drone narrative has dire long-term serious repercussions. With the approach Pakistan has adopted, it is loosing the confidence of its own public and damaging its international credibility.
In order to reframe the drone narrative, a good start would be for the country to ask these key questions. For example, when everyone knows, what good is plausible deniability? If Pakistan is at war with Taliban, why can’t it own the drone strikes? Did Al Qaeda and other extremists pardoned the government because they could not ascertain its role in the Osama operation? Most important of all, which is more damaging to state sovereignty, national psyche, and global repute: to claim that the strikes occur without its consent, or with it?
Economy and Security
The second issue that needs reframing has to do with the economy. Markets strive when there is law and order. How can the nation achieve an economic turnaround when it is being consumed in an endless war, which it even fails to own and define? The country is pretending it can fight a war and achieve an economic miracle simultaneously. It simply cannot be done and it’s a loose-loose proposition. It would have been another matter if the war was restricted to only one tribal agency or area, clearly not the case now. In fact, the Taliban phenomenon, and the government’s ineffectiveness, has bolstered criminal activity and lawlessness around the country.
Instead, the nation may have to take the traditional route. First fight the war decisively and then focus on the economic recovery. Alternatively, it may not want to carry on fighting any more being aware of the consequences this may bring, yet avert a full economic meltdown. Not deciding, or fighting without clear direction, can lead to the same fate the nation is dreading and attempting to avoid, albeit in slow motion.
Understandably, the nature of the conflict is complex. It’s hard to have clear winners and losers, and that is why there is even a greater need for an indigenously evolved strategy, tactics, and narrative, which the country has the will and capability to adopt. The fight-talk-fight leads to no end in sight dilemma, and is an approach that only great powers have the stamina to endure, and even they are paying an economic and social price for such an open-ended stratagem.
After 9/11, the western powers decided they would fight the war where the enemy is located so they do not have to at home. The question is, how did Pakistan interpret this policy, and what conclusions it derived from any associated cost benefit analysis?
Post 2014 – Fight, Talk, Fight
The post 2014 scenario is another discussion that continues to polarize the nation. With the US and NATO withdrawal in 2014, will Pakistan Taliban and other extremists get more influential?
The liberal school of thought, shared by regional countries and the West, is that Afghan reconciliation will make the extremists in Pakistan stronger and they’ll try to extend their influence. The other angle is that once Afghan Taliban reconcile and foreign troops withdraw, Pakistan Taliban will loose their raison d’être. The second premise, held by the conservatives, moderate Islamists, and the nationalists, appears to be the one adopted by the government, but it has never made a public case for it.
Moreover, the debate has failed to take in to account the linkages of various Taliban and extremist groups. The liberals, regional nations and the West, place the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban to be affiliated. On the other hand, the nationalists, moderate Islamists, and conservatives, seem to classify them as good and bad Taliban, and distinct.
To tackle the brewing crisis caused by the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, there is an opportunity to develop a fresh narrative that reconciles the differences. While some may think the people are unsophisticated and cannot grapple with the harsh reality, no war was ever won without public support.
High frequency of change has to be accompanied by high level of communication from the leadership. Unfortunately, we are seeing the opposite: less and less interaction and higher and higher levels of change and uncertainly. Such a course is a recipe for economic, political, and social suicide. Public and international confidence is build by first stating what one intends to do, followed by aligned actions. We are witnessing the intent being declared but actions are nullifying that intent.
Lack of incoherent narrative means others have the room to fill the vacuum, build their argument, and demoralize the nation. Once the people lose hope, the war is as good as lost.