The Death of Common Sense and Intelligence
By Shaheryar Azhar
What happened in Mumbai was no abstraction for me. Having visited it thrice; basked as a guest in the old-world charm of Taj Palace Hotel and Towers; played a diligent tourist in this multicultural cauldron of 'maximum city'; having partaken of its great shopping and some of its finest cuisines; having friends and relatives who are 'Bombayites' through and through, which means they can not dream of living anywhere else; and, not the least, being an ardent fan of Bollywood movies and film songs from my earliest memory as a child - seeing the horror unfold on November 26th was extremely personal in many ways.
What Churchill said of English and Americans may be paraphrased about Pakistanis and Indians too - they are divided by a common race, cuisine, language, values, culture, emotional make-up but above all by a sense of humor, which is typical to the South Asians. Increasingly, the people of these two countries are realizing their shared heritage even if their leaders, lacking in both imagination and courage, are unable to convert this sentiment into an appropriate and more friendly foreign policy.
As I became progressively sadder watching the perpetrators of carnage in Mumbai monopolizing the world attention for three days on TV, it occurred to me that the greatest casualty of President Bush's version of the 'War on Terror' has been the death of common sense and intelligence itself. At the risk of appearing 'soft' on terror or 'liberal' in the face of an existential threat or 'unpatriotic' at the time of greatest national peril, we have all been forced to abandon common sense and normal intelligent questioning.
A $300,000, 19-man operation on September 11, 2001 has already seen a response from America, which the Nobel-prize winning Economist Joe Stiglitz calls 'a three-trillion dollar war', not to speak of hundreds of thousands of causalities (ours and everyone else's), millions of innocents displaced from their homes and a world that, after all this investment, has become much more unstable Geo-politically and economically. This doesn’t even count what has happened to our moral standing amongst the people of the world and our standing as a nation of laws within and without. We have failed and are failing in the way we have chosen to respond. And as far as the enemy is concerned it appears to have no end to new, more hardened recruits, and no end to continually confounding us. What is most disturbing is that the enemy is increasingly attracting a better-educated and more sophisticated cadre from amongst their potential supporters.
What do we do? Where do we start? Let us begin by giving due respect to the enemy - the very first lesson of conducting a successful war.
We face a foe that is both highly intelligent (and thus strategically brilliant) and, at the same time, incredibly motivated in pursuit of its objectives.
It is highly intelligent because it understood as no one else did (certainly not the political leaders of the 'Free World') that a globalized and inter-connected world presented it a golden opportunity for conducting an asymmetrical warfare. In other words, it grasped the truth that it didn't need sophisticated weapons or a lot of money to mount a deadly challenge to the superpower of the world and all its allies. It also understood, that it didn't need much of a communications strategy (or an alternative vision of how the world ought to be) to keep up the morale of its troops, financiers and future recruits and to sow uncertainty in its adversary. The adversary and its media, the enemy knew, would commendably do its work for it.
How come? Because our public platitudes were all constructed for confronting state enemies, not non-state ones. We have shown to have no mechanism at our disposal other than babbling inanities about the 'barbarians' and 'Islamic fascists' who 'hate our freedoms'. We have miserably failed in defining and describing those who confront us and for what purpose in any believable manner. A large part of our failure is due to our hubris, which prevents us from giving due respect to our enemy and because we determined that it is also 'inconvenient' for us to examine our policies.
In steadfastly refusing to allow a healthy debate from the start about our own vulnerability (in an inter-connected and a globalized world) and about the real motives of the terrorists we have unwittingly continued to strengthen our enemies and weaken ourselves (and our allies). By painting the terrorists as evil incarnate, we have become the first victims of our own propaganda. Above all we have fooled ourselves by calling it a 'war' and thus cornered ourselves into thinking about it and fighting it 'conventionally' - how come, we may well ask, all our technology, our weaponry, our trillions and the bravery of our soldiers appears not enough for the rudimentary resources of the 'yahoos'? How come?
Our leadership soon will be forced to answer that question.
As I sat watching the coverage of the Mumbai massacres, the Western media was so busy bashing Pakistan or talking in platitudes about the threat of hostilities between the 'two nuclear powers', that not once did I hear from all the expert talking-heads about the 'capacity' of Pakistani state to take on the terrorists even if we assumed the best of intentions and the political will of steel.
Not once did the 'wise men of Gotham' say: If thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians have been killed by the terrorists, if its generals and top political leaders have been blown away, if its buses full of 'all-powerful' ISI staff or military men have been bombed, if a five-star VIP-patronized hotel, a stone's throw-away from the Prime Minister's house is suicide-bombed with an incredibly powerful explosive and burned to a shell and if the country’s President, its Prime Minister and Generals can not move about the cities even with all the security at their disposal in the discharge of their normal duties, perhaps, just perhaps, the state of Pakistan does not have the capacity to confront the enemy within.
There is a limit how far one can take 'rogue ISI and military elements in Pakistan' argument to explain everything before it begins to sound trite and lame.
Not sufficient capacity. Can that be the logical answer? And what if it is? What has America done to build that capacity? How much has it wisely invested where it counts? The answer is obvious.
So at this late stage in the game the enemy appears much smarter than us. And we have acted much more stupidly than we, in fact, are. Recognizing how effectively the enemy has adapted to what we have thrown at it is a good place to begin anew.
Further, given the enormous stake to our civilization and what stares us in the face, consider how quickly, for instance, the tension between India and Pakistan developed and escalated in the wake of Mumbai. This is happening when we have been ‘at it’ seven long-years after the formal start of the 'war on terror'. This is unacceptable even if we factor in the 'burden of history’ between these two countries. No, it is simply astounding. We are being played like violin by the terrorists. There cannot be any other conclusion - that all of us are fighting this existential menace with incredible incompetence.
The second thing to consider is that the enemy hates our policies. (Whether it hates us or not is moot since it 'understands' us so much better, that nothing seems to be interfering with its thinking and planning). And which of our policies?
4. Supporting dictators, those who use repression and do not even return rudimentary improvements in people's lives.
5. Using third-world countries for our purposes and then walking away or discarding them as 'used condoms' as a Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, who worked closely with us in the Afghan jihad, once bitterly remarked to me.
6. Following policies (or allowing their drift) that hugely widen economic disparities between nations.
Thirdly, if capacity is the real bottleneck, we need to have well thought-out policies, long-gestation policies, to build capacity (economic, social, military and intelligence) in allied countries where the threat is most acute and this includes having old foes (like India and Pakistan) coming together to fight what is clearly a common threat.
Fourthly, to have immediate policies that will keep our alliances from breaking apart during the gestation period (repeatedly using missiles to hit targets in Pakistan only further takes away the credibility of Pakistani government rendering it even weaker in doing its job).
Mumbai has made it crystal clear that the time has now come to revive (and rely on) common sense and intelligence once again.
Just the way we used intelligence and our best minds fighting another different war -the cold war! Because losing this will be no less devastating to everything we cherish and have built over the last 200 years.