Fate foretold

Fate foretold
The questions are coming fast and furious.

US President Joe Biden has announced September 11, 2021, and not May 2021 as a cut-off date for withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Will the Taliban concede any power-sharing deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, before D-Day, or any leverage or role for Pakistan after it?

Hamza and Shahbaz Sharif have been granted bail; they’re ready to enter the political fray again. What role will they play within the PMLN and PDM? Will the Sharifs split?

Jehangir Tareen is manoeuvering to protect himself from the wrath of Imran Khan. What is the significance, if any, of the support of a dozen or so PTI MPAs/MNAs who are openly backing him?

The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan is on a rampage. The Miltablishment-PTI that once egged it on to destablise the PMLN is now trying to crush it to protect its hybrid system. Will it succeed?

Afghanistan: Since President Trump announced a unilateral withdrawal by May, 2021, the Taliban have engaged in countless rounds of talks but not conceded any significant space to American power-sharing plans for post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Why should they do so now when the Biden administration has confirmed the Trump decision in principle but delayed exit for a few months? The Taliban’s intentions are explained in this critical comment on Biden’s announcement: “Now, as this [withdrawal date in May] agreement is being breached by America, it in principle opens the way for the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate to take every necessary countermeasure, hence the Americans shall be held responsible for all future consequences, and not the Islamic Emirate … The Islamic Emirates will under no circumstances ever relent on complete independence and establishment of a pure Islamic system…” In a leaf from a manual of classic guerilla war, the Taliban have, from 2001 to 2021, successfully traded “time” to manufacture “will” to capture “space”. [Mullah Umar famously said: “The Americans have the Clocks. We have the Time!”] Therefore post withdrawal, the civil war will likely accelerate and the Ghani administration will collapse following depletion of the arms and aid pipeline from the international community. The Taliban will either vanquish all Pashtun, Uzbek and Tajik resistance or Afghanistan will be partitioned de facto along ethnic lines, with powerful neighbours lining up behind various stakeholders. The Taliban didn’t accept the Durand Line with Pakistan when they ruled in Kabul from 1997-2001 and they won’t do so now. At that time, they provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden which provoked the Americans to rain fire on them. This time, they won’t provide sanctuary to any anti-American terrorist group. But they will retain leverage against Pakistan by allowing sanctuaries to specific anti-Pakistan terrorist groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan with which they have always had good relations.

Hamza and Shahbaz Sharif: their freedom comes with the Miltablishment’s expectation that they will dilute the hard anti-Miltablishment narrative of Maryam and Nawaz Sharif. But they know two facts. First, that they were “betrayed” time and time again when the Miltablishment didn’t protect them from the wrath of Imran Khan. Second, that the popular vote for the PMLN belongs to Maryam and Nawaz Sharif. So they won’t be easily persuaded to become party to the weakening of, or splits within, the PMLN or Sharif family. Thus while Shahbaz can certainly play a role in trying to cement the PMLN-PPP cracks in the PDM by offering an effective compromise on the way forward for the combined opposition, we should expect Imran Khan to throw a spanner in the works, maybe by targeting Maryam.

Jehangir Tareen: Thanks to a nudge from the Miltablishment, Imran Khan may possibly agree to take a step back in his crusade without removing Tareen from his gunsights. But the latter won’t be able to crawl back into the PTI. As a long term Miltablishment asset, he will struggle to bide his time  – along with his own batch of Punjabi MPA/MNA assets – until he receives a signal to strike, which could come if the June budget precipitates mass discontent and compels the Miltablishment to reconsider its options.

TLP: A potential Miltablishment ally or asset is threatening to become a dangerous liability like so many in the past. Among politicians, we can point to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Mohammad Khan Junejo and Nawaz Sharif. Now Imran Khan is straining at the leash. Among parties, we can list Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam; among groups, the prominent include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and its various sectarian offshoots that were used for waging jihad in the neighbourhood, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that was molly coddled as a group of “well-meaning but confused Muslims” until they trained their guns on their benefactors and became “condemned terrorists”. Unlike the other militant Islamic groups, however, the Labaik is a militant Islamic party with viable national electoral ambitions like none in the past. The Miltablishment imagined it could guide and control it for its own short-term political goals inside the country, as it did when it unleashed it against the PMLN government and then pulled it back when its objective was achieved. Unfortunately, however, the Labaik has nurtured and steadily grown to threatening proportions in the current environment of rising unemployment, impoverishment and social breakdown that has compelled the “masses” to retreat into the arms of radical faith. Indeed, the more the civil-military propertied elites have clutched at “Islamic” symbols and laws and customs and practices to legitimize their capture of political power and wealth, the more the Labaik has used the same tactics to rouse the “have-nots” to expose, challenge and delegitimize them. Therefore the belated attempt to roll back the Labaik by “banning” it is not going to work – it can reassemble under any new banner at any time with renewed vigour. Indeed, the more the current hybrid system fails to foster mainstream and moderate political consensus and sustained economic growth that is based on notions of social welfare for the poor rather than Miltablishment security, the more the Labaik is likely to extend its tentacles into every section of state and society and become an irreversible force that can lead to societal chaos, state collapse and foreign intervention.

These are chronicles of a fate foretold.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.