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VIEW: A (Deep) State of Denial

First Published in Daily Times / 31 Dec 2012 (Monday)

By: Afrah Jamal

Thank you to the folks interested in publishing this in Urdu

Hapless polio teams are in the crosshair of extremists and people have come up with their own theories to explain the presence of health workers in the montage of violence. If a polio team does not reach any home, the residents can call a number and let them know. Many houses were left wondering about the fate of the drive this year after the three-day carnage that claimed nine lives, six of them women. A maulana on the media attributes the sudden spike in polio-related violence to government. More polio means more $$, he hisses confidentially. Twitter-sphere assigns the subsequent instability to the dreaded ‘deep state’.

According to them, it can sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of national interest or in this case — the lure of more dollars. Every ‘whodunit’ begins or ends with a deep state cameo. Apparently, their interference is legendary, as is their fondness for nation (re)building.

Admittedly, regular matches of political chess are the deep state’s forte. One familiar move is assigning instant stardom to unknowns who then threaten to pull million man marches on the capital city come January 2013. The motive can be anything from putting wayward governments in place to checking the ambitions of an unpopular opponent who has been around the block one too many times already. Ergo, all those raised eyebrows, hushed whispers, and an inexplicable desire to herd the nation’s premier spy agency with the nation’s leading terror group.

On the one hand, the United States is charged with destabilising its ally to take away its nukes. On the other, the ‘establishment’ is accused of meddling with law and order to keep the bogey of terrorism alive and well. Never mind that such antics drive Pakistan closer to earning the elusive failed state award. Then the ‘hidden hands’ are summoned to take the fall for air base attacks because the infiltrators prefer flashy gear or sport fancy markings that tie them to our agencies of choice. Foreign agencies really need to rethink those neon signs that always give away their agents.

Remember Conan Doyle’s famous adage, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” All of these scenarios are improbable but not impossible. All this time spent detecting energy signatures of foreign entities is counter-productive for the national interest but excellent for extremist propaganda.

The war has taken a dangerous turn. A future where the WHO packs up and flees, and a blanket travel ban is imposed on Pakistani citizens, leaving Pakistan vulnerable and isolated from the world, puts the nation, deep state included, in some deep trouble. The loss of prestige and plunging credibility would outweigh any perceived gains, but now as before, when looking for culprits, the line up is composed of a motley crew of agencies, allies and rogue organisations.

The Taliban have been linked to many questionable activities in the past. Whether it is schools, universities, mosques, military installations, government buildings, popular resorts, political rallies or targeted assassinations, they have been busy since January 2007. Nine times out of ten, they have admitted their involvement. Half the time, people have contorted the facts around imaginative explanations of their own to justify the slide to oblivion. This is a rare case where ceding ground to the deep state or the long line of potential suspects somehow gives their cause more traction. There can be no better diversion than to have the people forever searching the pile of wrecked dreams for their favourite motif of hidden hands.

That extremists are now giving healthcare as well as the arts and literacy their personal attention is hardly surprising. With the fear of an ‘Afridi-esque’ (alleged CIA doctor-agent) inspired drive still hanging in the air, the possibility of a health worker accidentally stumbling upon their widespread network must be giving them sleepless nights.

Given Karachi’s growing instability and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s fast deteriorating security, the dream of a polio-free Pakistan will have to wait. The UN has suspended vaccination drives for now. Given that Pakistan is one of three nations yet to eradicate the scourge of polio, the future of an entire generation hangs in the balance. The brave volunteers who ventured out without any armed escort could not have known they were on the frontline of terror. Not after hearing stories about warring nations like Sudan that agreed to a ceasefire to ensure the safety of such drives, or knowing that their work went on even in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Dr Shakeel Afridi’s actions that led to Osama bin Laden’s capture in the heart of the garrison town may have jeopardised the future of polio vaccination but these campaigns have been on the extremist radar since 2005. Not too long ago, a certain radical cleric also known as FM Mullah was casually adding vaccination programs to the stash of crisp conspiracy cards in Swat. In July 2012, members of the UN staff came under attack in Karachi. Six months ago, the Taliban banned polio-related drives in the troubled North, and fear reigned on all three days of the end of the year campaigns.

Despite clear and present danger, the campaign went ahead on schedule, without the necessary precautions or any visible strategy. Blame must then be generously shared between the state for its failure to anticipate and the establishment for not manning the public opinion counter overflowing with a smorgasbord of unsavoury looking conspiracies.

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