October 23, 2009

We were forty people in a quiet room in DC: defense analysts, think tankers, Hill staffers. A delegation from Pakistan — journalists, military experts, former ambassadors — met their counterparts in DC for a private meeting, away from the eyes and ears of the press, in what turned out to be one of the best and most frank discussions on Pakistan-US foreign policy that I have attended during my stay here.

Around twelve o’clock, Ejaz interrupts his reply to a nuclear proliferation expert to comment that he just received a text from his son in Pakistan. Schools have been shut down for a week.

For all it’s worth, even the bourgeois have to cross the street to get their kids to school every day. In her article “Looking at the War” in the New Yorker (2002), Susan Sontag differentiates between those who watch and read about the war and those who live in its midst:

“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalises the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify “the world” with those zones in the rich countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain, just as it is absurd to generalise about the ability to respond to the sufferings of others on the basis of the mind-set of those consumers of news who know nothing at first hand about war and terror. There are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronising reality.”

In the past on my blog and elsewhere, I have commented, somewhat facetiously, that no one in DC actually wishes this war was over. And in more cynical moments, I understand that if it weren’t for militants in Waziristan I probably would not be privy to many exclusive and important meetings in Washington DC on the basis of being “familiar with the region” — I would not be “gold dust,” as one American described it, reviewing my job prospects. And yet when an eminent journalist from Lahore who gets no end of attention from important people in Washington stops in mid-sentence, picks up his Blackberry and informs the room that his son’s school has been shut down, I realise that while he and I may still be ridiculously removed from the violence, we desperately want it to end.

Later in the afternoon, a retired colonel of the US Army asked our journalist, “With the current volume of attacks in Pakistan’s cities, can we expect public support for the Pakistani Army to continue? How much are the people of Pakistan willing to sacrifice?”

Tactically, it’s clear that militants are trying to frighten the Pakistani public into submission, and make the government and the army operation extremely unpopular. Someone rightly pointed out today that the success in Swat had much to do with the army’s faith that the Pakistani public supported them. And while the violence across Punjab and Pashtun territory over the last month should provide a natural consensus point for the public, something is sorely amiss and is critically short of the kind of unequivocal support we saw for Swat.

No political party has spoken out, clearly and forcefully, against the Lahore bombing or the Shangla attacks. Twenty four hours after four students were killed by this war, no party has had the sense to openly condemn the militants and back the army operation in South Waziristan. Fifteen days and nearly 250 deaths later, no politician has the courage or even the good political sense to say, “This is intolerable, and it doesn’t matter if we or our opponents are in government, we will fight this war.” We are obsessed with sovereignty when it comes to America putting boots or bombs or diplomats on our soil. But the killing of civilians in Lahore, or soldiers at GHQ, or the young women attending a religious-based educational institution is a far greater and more outrageous breach of national sovereignty than anything America could do. This is a no-brainer: any political party that worries that by openly condemning militancy they risk alienating a part of their constituency for the next election are missing the point. Fail to end militancy and terrorism, and there will be no “next election.”

In many ways, this is a presumptuous claim, particularly in a forum where one is expected to be objective and impartial. I cannot count myself amongst those who have, as Sontag puts it, “put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby.” But I do hope to send my sons and daughters to school without fear of them never returning home; I can no longer afford the news-consumer’s luxury of patronizing reality.