No Touching Syria

Published in The Express Tribune

Picture hell on earth.

Civil war rages. The good neighbours are getting sucked in. The bad neighbours are looking for a fight.

The cast comes with the territory: professional soldiers, mercenaries aping those soldiers, career criminals aping the mercenaries, and everyone killing everyone in between. Local currency is skyrocketing, life expectancy is in freefall. Kids are bombed every day. Rape is a weapon.

There’s not been much press. Or at least, press beyond experts with accents feigning concern twice a month. It doesn’t help that the U.S. has forgotten about the whole thing, after making the standard gargling noises.

A former doctor serves as president, a black joke to anyone in the healing business. He’s a walking foreign policy trap: a man that massacres his people, but wears business suits and smiles a lot. The West’s sort of embarrassed – he’s a noisy anti-American, but also the only secularist in sight. The Russians are less sensitive, plying him with guns and flag-pins, because they can. Russians don’t blink.

Then there’s the resistance. They’re scrambling for funds. Their P.R. is only slightly better than the state’s – they’re not above ‘atrocities’ of their own, they hunt down minorities and upset the wider world. They have a million different ideas how to run the war, and zero planning for what happens next.

And then there’s the nutjobs – zombies that speak of paradise and smell of petrodollars, lopping off hands all the way to the capital. They’ve sprung up out of nowhere, these foreign-sounding, alien-looking gentlemen. Talking heads tell us they’re not Native to the Soil, but they’re busy planting black-and-white flags all over said soil anyway. There’s not a lot of them, but they’re harder than the lot.

It now dawns on everyone that, as far as candidates go, the crazies are a great fit for running hell. By then, it’s already too late.

Welcome to ’90s Afghanistan, where life is cheap and the world doesn’t care. If it checks out for Syria, chances are it checks out for Pakistan’s Last Big Proxy Project.

Like Syria, there were plenty proxies to contend with: as was mentioned in an earlier offering, the Iranians backed Mazari. The Indians backed Massoud. The Saudis liked Sayyaf. The Russians stuck to Najib, the hammy ex-communist.

The Afghans waited. The Afghans, whose country it was.

Dostum turned on Najib, but Najib survived. Tanai turned on Najib, but Najib survived. Pakistan lost its cool and tried to take Jalalabad from Najib, in a manic attack that saw thousands die. Najib survived. In a long line of policy disasters, Jalalabad stands out as utterly shameful.

What we did later, of course, requires little recap. Massoud took Kabul. Gulbuddin began rocketing Massoud. A brand new outfit calling themselves the Taliban grabbed Kandahar. And as far as covering blood in blood goes, they were better at delivering than anyone else.

They killed Najib. They killed Mazari. They – or their friends – killed Massoud. It doesn’t take war theory to figure out who won. Just Gulbuddin was left, and he was busy fighting Armenia (Armenia won).

Yes, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Engineer was a born loser, and Pakistan decided to cut its losses and bet on winners. That bet has stayed with us over 18 years later. A generation of Pakistanis has come of age knowing only war.

Jumping into Syria will damn the next one.

Pakistan required no justification for siding against the Soviets during the ‘80s – it was that or hailing Comrade Lenin like the other –stans, which continue to read Gorky. But it sadly has no justification for what it did afterwards in the ‘90s. And it has no justification for what it may do in Syria. A better exchange rate doesn’t cut it.

Syria is one big, blood-splattered mess. Assad is mowing kids down. The Free Syrian Army has lost the plot. And I.S.I.S. – i.e. the usual al-Qaeda boys – have started stoning girls in Aleppo. Fresh from managing mayhem in Iraq, I.S.I.S. is tripping over bodies to take down Northern Syria. The Turks are reeling, Iran and Hezbollah are tag-teaming the Gulf, and everyone’s pushing the Kurds over.

And we’resupposed to pick a side?

Though the Bhuttos and Assads have long been too close for comfort, the P.P.P.’s distancing itself from the war was exactly the right move – for a wounded army, a worried people, and a Pakistan bombed weekly. Mightn’t Nawaz League understand that?

In typical N.-League fashion, it says it does, denies everything, and goes off to repeat the same with Bahrain.

It’s called I.R. 101, the N.-Leaguers say, give-and-take. Lots of money for a bad economy means a stronger stomach…for arming Arab concerns. Pakistan’s being bailed out by its Old Friends, but don’t forget that Pakistan’s bailed out its Old Friends too. It stationed troops in Saudi Arabia to fend off another brutal Ba’athist (Saddam before Assad).

But that cannot go on, not anymore. The world’s gotten much messier since then.

Mr. Nawaz Sharif in Bahrain will not be Brigadier Zia in Jordan, the defender of the Kingdom. What’s crucial is that he stop trying to be, and reasons abound.

One, Pakistan cannot become an exporter of Sunni supremacy, when that exact narrative is what feeds sectarian blackness in Southern Punjab. Two, it cannot be dishing out military might when it’s fighting tooth-and-nail along its own frontier. Three, it cannot become a meddling middle power when it screams itself hoarse over foreigners playing Great Games in Quetta and KP (not to mention a native population that blames milk prices on Masonic conspiracy).

The President of Pakistan recently said that all diplomacy is hypocrisy. While this makes for some sound Kissinger-for-Kids, Pakistan is in desperate need for actual statesmen. Either we bring Yaqub Khan out of retirement, or get ourselves a foreign minister. Devoid of either, let’s not begin to think of touching Syria. Pakistani peacekeepers enjoy a cherished history, at times with more active U.N. personnel than any other place.

It is that side – not the dark, desperate one we showed in Jalalabad – that needs nurturing.