A secretive conversation

THE first, tentative steps towards the final frontier — dismantling the infrastructure of jihad in toto — or an all-too-familiar false start?

The detention of Hafiz Saeed and co could be either.

But it is also something else: a signal that the long, state-led conversation of what to do with the good jihadis has begun.

Cloaked in secrecy, debated by vested interests and held, potentially, on terms of compromise rather than a bold reimagining of the Pakistani project, it could go horribly wrong.

To understand why, we have to start with the war against the bad jihadis. Terrible as they were and long as the fight against them will be, the bad jihadis got it wrong on three counts: utility, survivability and strategy.

The strategy was flawed because with a relatively small militant footprint the bad jihadis tried to overthrow the state. And while the state’s response was muddled for years, the state had disproportionately larger resources in what was a prematurely imposed fight for survival.

From there, with their small militant footprint and no real hook in society — no mosque-madressah-social welfare network to sustain ideology and attract recruits — the mass, muscular survivability of the bad jihadis was a low probability outcome.

And then there was the lack of utility — repurpose and redirect the bad jihadis to where?

Afghanistan was the only possibility and it may have made some sense — the bad jihadis were predominantly Pakhtun, while the Punjabi among them were familiar with the Afghan jihad.

The conversation about what to do with the good jihadis isn’t going to be held by the average Pakistani.

But the problem was obvious: the Afghan Taliban already existed and were doing a fine enough job on their own, while the large-scale foreign — US/Western — presence made the deliberate redirection to Afghanistan a non-starter. Even chronic risk-takers here are not suicidal.

Bad strategy, low survivability and no utility made the bad jihadis the obvious candidates for an early demise — or at least a vast diminishment of their numbers.

The worrying thing is that none of that applies to the good jihadis. And institutional memory — both civilian and uniformed — may favour the worst-case outcome in the great conversation that has been opened: what to do with the good jihadis: merge them back into society or dissolve them altogether?

Given the narrow, state-led confines in which the conversation will take place, the institutional — state — view is fundamental.

And from inside the state, a seemingly coherent story can be constructed.

To the Kashmir-centric, anti-India jihadi lot, a debt of gratitude is owed: theirs is the unfinished business of Partition, a noble cause for which they have fought bravely.

A debt like that cannot simply be wiped away.

With the Kashmir-centric, anti-India lot, a continuing reality cannot be ignored: they have not attacked us; they come to heel when ordered; and they remain the one thing that drives India crazy.

A reality like that can’t easily be ignored.

And with the Kashmir-centric, anti-India lot, flexible strategy has ensured survivability, even if their utility may have eroded.

The strategy has adapted: from the large-scale, full-fledged mobilisation of the ’90s to a drip-drip interspersed by the occasional spectacular attack.

The changed strategy has been complemented by a masterful approach to survival: build a vast mosque-madressah-social welfare network that supplies recruits, yes, but also puts hooks deep into society. So even if someone wants to rip those hooks out, they will have to tear open flesh and the social fabric itself.

And while the good jihadis’ utility may be vastly diminished — hence the opening of the conversation in the first place — the debt of the past and reality of the present are significant.

Stack those up — strategy, survivability and (past) utility of the good jihadis — against the conversation that has now been opened, what to do about the good jihadis?

There are, once the nascent conversation turns to strategic choices, only two realistic options.

Either dissolve the groups — dismantle their infrastructure, dislodge their leaderships, and disarm and disband their cadres — or merge them with society — the mythical mainstreaming, whereby the groups retool and repurpose themselves to serve society, through politics and social welfare.

If you are the average citizen — or at least the average citizen who believes in a certain kind of Pakistan — the costs and benefits are easy enough to calculate.

Dissolution — the end of the existence of the groups in any and all forms — will impose a high cost upfront, but will put Pakistan back on track to becoming the country it is supposed to be.

But the conversation about what to do with the good jihadis isn’t going to be held by the average Pakistani, it will be held by the state. And the state’s calculus is necessarily different:

It has been served loyally in the past by the good jihadis; the security apparatus is battle hardened, but the state war weary; and merger is a helluva lot simpler to effect than dissolution.

But therein lies the problem: dissolution versus merger is not a choice that can be revisited easily, if at all.

Look how difficult it has been to even begin the conversation: more than two decades since the savagery and regional instability of the mid-’90s; more than a decade and a half since 9/11; and nearly a decade since Mumbai.

Choose mainstreaming today and dissolution may never be an option again. And eventually survival, post-mainstreaming, of the good jihadis could become a threat to the survival of the state that the bad jihadis could never become.

The more secretive, the more state-led the conversation, the greater the potential threat to all of us.

The Article First Appeared In DAWN

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