There is a new breed of soldiers in Pakistan. They wear suits to work. Immaculate suits with not-too-loud ties and perfect knots. On rainy days, they even wear overcoats. Leather jackets and stubbles are not tolerated, and neither is dissent. Blazers and cufflinks make more than random appearances among such ranks. Sunglasses decrease as ages increase. Mostly, these serious warriors dress for serious business.
On Fridays, some of these soldiers wear pristinely pressed shallus. These are coupled with form-fitting waistcoats (shallus alone don’t stand a chance as a choice of uniform for this special batch of patrician troops). On such occasions, these soldiers could look the part of the assailants in the political death-match that is Pakistan’s prime-time television talk-show circuit. Given the information they have access to, one can even assume that they would win such broadcast debates. But these soldiers are not into debating, nor even much talking. As officers and gentlemen, they tend to listen more.
Some of these soldiers are hip. No Urdu vulgarities are ever mouthed, unless it’s a one-on-one encounter; yet not all of them invoke Inshallahs and Mashallahs in their diction. They compliment measuredly, but genuinely. Niceties are exchanged only at the beginning of the conference. There are no diversions when the talking begins.
In meetings, they sit cross-legged and at ease, Masters of the Universe in their leather and wood adorned reception rooms. Most of them don’t smoke, but allow and even encourage tobacconists. They read the New York Times and the Washington Post, but several of them think Newsweek and Time are a waste of, well…time. They don’t like the BBC. Or Bruce Reidel. But they don’t mind Bill Keller. Or Daniel Markey.
When tea is served, these soldiers follow peculiar rules. Some of them are mindful enough to not bother inquiring one’s choice: black tea, or green? Both cups arrive simultaneously for their guests, who can then choose impressionably. The soldiers then crack a joke, sympathetic towards their guests’ confusion, and call it a part of their ‘contingency planning hospitality.’ It’s a good joke, and compels one to laugh.
Tea drinking is an interesting tradition among these soldiers. The ranking officer usually nurses his cup and saucer delicately. He sips his tea as he mulls, but his subordinates down their drinks suddenly and invisibly. While he paces though his brew at the right temperature, his juniors wait for their cups to cool and then gulp the beverage down in one, flawless motion. Their chain of command doesn’t tolerate leisure or pleasure. They’re supposed to be listening, not sipping.
These soldiers have several worldviews. But in a huddle with several soldiers, only the worldview of one soldier – the ranking officer in that meeting – comes forth. The lesser soldiers make it a point to carry notepads on which they scribble ideas generated by the ranking soldier, and don’t talk unless they are referred to. Few of them react independently, and when they do, it’s usually as laughter at the pleasantries generated by either the guest or the host, i e the ranking soldier. Social initiatives or interruptions are not to be expected from these second-tier combatants. Even head-nods are rare. After all, poker faces lead to promotions.
Lately, these soldiers haven’t been mentioning India much. They’re not talking shop about Kashmir. They’re not saying anything on nuclear weapons or Siachen or even the MFN status. No, their minds are filled with other, inwardly focused and home-grown problems, where assets and rockets are difficult to deploy. These soldiers are thinking about the NROs and the Memogates, the Balochistans and the Salalas, the media and the judges. Babar Awan and Asma Jahangir are taking up more of their time than Bal Thackeray or Omar Abdullah. Thus, caution is the new coup. Their India-centrism, as their liberal detractors like to call it, has assumed other, more introspective dimensions.
Yet, America figures in prominently. These soldiers seem to think the Americans don’t listen enough, nor like to give much away. They also assume the Americans have made up their minds about India, and grunt c’est la vie at that development. But they sound like they can still convince the Americans about Afghanistan. They know they don’t have much to bargain except one, simple angle: The Americans will leave, the Afghans will stay, and they themselves will keep soldiering on.
Thus, these warriors sit confident, amused by the Americans talking to the front-office of the Taliban in Qatar, for they know that business is always conducted by the back-office, at least in every business that matters. They also sound like they know how Afghanistan’s back-office works, and where it could be. But no addresses are mentioned, only general directions.
As for Afghanistan, these soldiers have a special place in their hearts for that poor country. There is a sense of entitlement that is similar to one which comes, perhaps, with a class and tradition-breaching marriage, for these soldiers assume, perhaps semi-justifiably, that they ‘took the Afghans in’ and ‘opened up this country for them’. Like the horse-riding aristocrat who falls in love with ravaged village girl, weds her honourably and then helps her exact revenge from her violators, only to be abandoned by her as she weds an even richer suitor, they feel they have been betrayed by the Afghans.
So, they have adopted the nothing-but-business practicality of a jilted ex-lover, and want to clean house accordingly. They don’t want the Afghans to be engulfed in a self-immolating ethnic war, but then, they know that may be the only way the Afghans shall learn their lesson. So they’re at ease with Mulla Omar’s recent appeals to the Pakistani Taliban to stop fighting the state here and unite with him for the jihad there. However, they’re magnanimous enough to admit that even though Omar’s call to arms is good for Pakistan in the short-run, its bad news for the region in the long run. Thus, they advise, it would be wise for the Americans to be friends, not voyeurs: listen to our conversations less, and our counsel more.