Tactical approaches sans strategic thought

Published: October 8, 2013
The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

Conflicts are terrible, not just for the bloody trail they leave behind but also because, ironically, they spell the death of any meaningful debate to understand the nature of the conflict and to work towards ending it. The reason is simple: conflict begets entrenched positions grounded in deeply partisan worldviews.

This poses a fundamental problem. Human situations generally defy linearity. Dealing with the complex ones, what Rittel and Webber described as a ‘wicked problem’, is even more problematic. It is a fact of history that while a particular incident might provide the trigger for starting a conflict, it is never the sole cause. If one cares to look closely, one is likely to find multiple causes, gestating over a long time, waiting for that one moment that will unleash the dogs of war.

And when it begins, partisan positions and narratives take over, each, or every, side developing its own truth, filtering out information that conflicts with one’s narrative and retaining only that which supports it. Subtleties are lost; the life of the mind is suppressed in favour of emotions, loyalties, and, very often, the pressure of the circumstances.

To this we might add another fact. The bulk of human beings are not leaders; they look for one. And conflict (also, difficult) situations like the charismatic ones, a Churchill more than an Attlee, in a manner of speaking. Leaders develop narratives; the led lap them up, creating an echo chamber effect.

Nothing strange about this. Humans like to create their comfort zones. In a conflict situation, when life may be nasty, brutish and short, one will always seek the comfort of his own. Walking alone does not remain an option any more. Conflicts are tribal and they require sticking together; divided you fall. Group loyalty is not about right and wrong. It is about survival.

I am reminded of Rose in Pinter’s “The Room”. While the room is warm and cosy, the basement is damp and dark, just like the world outside. The dialogue is irrational, with Rose and Mr Kidd, the landlord, speaking of different things, never listening to what the other is saying. News from outside the room is mysterious and brings trouble. Riley, the black man waiting in the basement, must never come to the room and when he does, trouble reaches its crescendo.

The metaphor of the room (womb) is powerful and works for all of us in varying degrees.

In 2007, as I waited in the front lawns of the Lahore High Court, along with hundreds of others, for the ‘deposed’ Chief Justice of Pakistan to make his appearance, speaker after speaker thundered and charged the already charged-up crowd. Then, at some point, another speaker came. He was soft-spoken. He spoke of nuances, the paradoxes, the requirement of fighting for institutional integrity while remaining within the bounds of law and the Constitution because what was the struggle all about if not to uphold the law?

He was suited for a calm class on law and institutions. He was very smart. No one was interested in him. His voice drowned, despite the microphone, in the din of the slogans raised by the protesting audience. He stepped down in favour of another, who pulled the crowd back in by throwing nuances aside and voicing his intention to break the law, if need be, to restore it, his version of Kipling’s “savage wars of peace”, though it is hard to fathom, given his qualities of head, if he had any acquaintance with Kipling or could figure out the subtlety of his own paradox.

Such is the world we live in now, at home and also in many other parts of the world. States are threatening to implode and the paradox reigns supreme. Globalisation has brought people together; but it’s not just about easy travelling, real-time communication and economic integration. It is also about fragmentation and conflicts travelling the same way and impacting different parts of the world in ways that were unheard of.

States, even the democratic ones, are becoming more authoritarian. And yet, they are also steadily losing space to non-state actors, benign as well as malignant. Even as programmers and software engineers create new applications, the states are either forced, for security reasons, to ban them or, like the US government, legislate for backdoor access to any and everything.

It’s a troubled and troubling world. But the biggest problem is that just when we need more intellectual rigour from greater numbers, the conflicts threaten to reduce the numbers of those who can, and should, take that route, looking at the world with sophistication and appreciating its multiple paradoxes.

The trajectory the conflicts are taking and the way technology is vertically and laterally spreading, means that states will be hard pressed to control the resources and establish their writs. Just the different levels at which wars will be fought, and battles lost and won, will make the task of the states terribly hard. Non-state actors fighting states and other non-state actors; states fighting states and non-state actors, individuals and groups, not just on the battlefields but also in ether; biological weapons, not just used for mass deaths but through designer viruses for assassinations, et cetera are some of the impending trajectories.

There’s a lot of concern about these developments but while the developed states are employing legal and technical means to respond to impending threats, there’s not much strategic thinking available. States can win all the battles and yet be made to lose the war as the late military genius General Giap showed with such determination and elan.

The need is to look into the causes of these conflicts, the resentment that forces peoples to fight despite all the suffering it entails. Tactical approaches to a problem requiring strategic thought are not going to work.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • Babloo
    Oct 8, 2013 - 10:28PM

    As always, the reader is no more wiser than before after reading your column. 4 precious minutes lost.


  • Hemant
    Oct 8, 2013 - 11:07PM

    The Author is well read is evident from the names of books , plays and essays he always liberally quotes .
    Well read he is but readable definitely not .


  • zoro
    Oct 8, 2013 - 11:26PM

    Absolutely … now a days I just have a look at the title … and IGNORE the author ..


  • Dasmir
    Oct 8, 2013 - 11:47PM

    Ezaj wants you to know how clever he is?
    Telling complicating tales of simple issue.
    Just one of many around us.Pity!


  • Let me grow;
    Oct 9, 2013 - 12:17AM

    Pakistan has totally failed at all strategists fronts…..please leave new experiments and let the nation to grow and prosperous.


  • Ali
    Oct 9, 2013 - 12:42AM

    Saroop Ejaz: hard-hitting, moral anger, with a certain poetic style and raw emotional indignation.
    Kamran Shafi: a venerable liberal voice in extremist times, stodgy occasionally, but gruff and sincere.
    Aakar Patel: a refreshing, bawdy but conservative take from the other side of the divide

    Asad Rahim: sharp upcomer with brilliant but temperamental writing, and great potential.
    Anwer Mooraj: A good man whose voice helps me through the day.
    Ejaz Haider: Slow start. Book. Play. Book. Thesis. Word: ‘IDEOLOGICAL MILLENIARISM!’ Anecdote. Ending. Sigh of confusion.


  • Asim
    Oct 9, 2013 - 2:09AM

    Excellent analysis. Bravo!

    It takes a path of serious introspection to be able to understand. Which alas, is beyond most people. Their conditioning is to ‘fix’ the outside world; not focus on the self.

    You’re a voice of sanity.


  • Anjaan
    Oct 9, 2013 - 2:49AM

    All the theories and thesis aside, fighting wars and conflicts needs a lot of money …….. wars and conflicts not only bleed physically, they also bleed economically ……. and at the end of the day, only the stronger survive …..Recommend

  • Arindom
    Oct 9, 2013 - 6:23AM

    …er…..i didnot quite ‘get’ you…..sorry.


  • Hasan
    Oct 9, 2013 - 7:35AM

    I think the best columnist and newspaper writer is no doubt Attorney Tausif Kamal ( Daily Times, Pakistan Today etc). He is simply awesome,, inspiring, motivating, clear, brilliant, super writing skills.. A must read for all.


  • Waqar
    Oct 9, 2013 - 9:04AM

    Ejaz, I struggle a good deal while reading your articles. And I am someone who is not necessarily uncomfortable with big words. Those who are not acquainted with language much, they see the first paragraph of your article, and leave it there and then. This calls for restructuring your writing style, simplifying the arguments and be more reasonable.

    That is not much to ask for, is it?


  • Usman Aziz
    Oct 9, 2013 - 9:16AM

    The simple thing is that the author has tried to show how difficult he can make a simple thing that consequently become useless for readers. knowledge and expertise are to make things easier not to make them further harder to understand.


  • Feroz
    Oct 9, 2013 - 10:03AM

    Non state actors are not non state actors when they were created, at times trained, financed and encouraged by State organs. They should be called unaccountable proxies and I doubt the wise will be fooled by changing descriptions. States that have used the services of these non State actors must suffer terrible consequences, which alone will discourage other countries from following the path.


  • afzaal khan
    Oct 9, 2013 - 12:09PM

    As usual good read and looking at comments it proves authors point :)


  • MSS
    Oct 9, 2013 - 12:10PM

    Mr Haider has shown repeatedly that he is one of the best strategic analysts that Pakistan has. However, this article is devoid of context. It would make more sense to the readers if he had given examples in the contemporary world. For example, had he mentioned,” the government’s attempts to deal with TTP are tactical and lack strategic thought’, or ‘the Pak army’s actualisation of the Hot Stop concept can be tactical ventures but completely missing strategic calculations’, readers might feel they were given some useful food for thought. This piece, as it is, is good for longer essays on strategy, conflict precipitation and conflict resolution.


  • Murad Malik
    Oct 9, 2013 - 12:53PM

    Nicely done Ejaz, always a treat to read and get exposed to new stuff.


  • FHN
    Oct 9, 2013 - 3:38PM

    The comments on this article only prove that subtleties are wasted on most people (which is what the article was about anyways).


  • Oct 9, 2013 - 4:39PM

    It was an effort to tell your readers how many books you have read, rather to convey the message.


  • Gurion
    Oct 9, 2013 - 6:49PM

    Thanks for the self-descriptive title Mr. Haider


  • Babloo
    Oct 9, 2013 - 8:02PM

    Reading Ejaz Haider’s column is like a heart patient going to a doctor. The doctor talks about the history of heart disease, the books he had read written by other heart specialists but has no clue or remedy to offer to the heart patient.
    Total waste.


  • Bilal
    Oct 9, 2013 - 9:17PM

    I think Ejaz is a pretty good writer and thinker. However, we all have our off days. Ezaj had his this time.

    An abstract and academic composition on the subject of Conflict. Not sure if the author was preparing a lecture for a class but suddenly realized that his column was due the following day. In haste he sent this write-up that was intended for the lecture. At best it is a melange on the anatomy of conflict or its resolution, derived from different scholarly endeavors.


  • Sharfuddin
    Oct 9, 2013 - 9:54PM

    I really wonder how the above commentators react when explained the quantum physics or worse still, the string theory. Ejaz’s subject is very abstract and complex and cannot be explained in a single-slide Power Point presentation. At times, it becomes very difficult to explain human social behavior especially when societies start making suicidal choices, as in Pakistan. The world is still trying to explain how such educated and talented people like Germans, who produced such great minds could so easily be fooled and subjugated by a maniac like Hitler. Some realities are explained by the Sufi ‘scatter technique’ where ideas fragment and recur demanding newer perspective sans final analysis. Ejaz is trying to describe a situation through incidents he witnessed and through the experience of some writers. It is the total effect that is of essence. Dear Ejaz rest assured, on the aggregate the wheel of history moves only in one direction, but human beings are spendable. In spite of Holocaust and Hiroshima the world moves on! and beautifully. We may lament the colossal wastes if we choose.


  • Afzal
    Oct 10, 2013 - 4:21AM

    @Hasan…Agree about Mr Kamal, you are right


  • Adil
    Oct 10, 2013 - 7:47AM

    Ejaz’s articles are outstanding as always including this one. I see that some commentators are finding this article complex and difficult to grasp because of its different methodology of writing but I think this piece of academic writing is the best reflection of biased human behavior where the conflicts conquer the mental objectivity and they drive the person to become a participant of an idea or group to use it as a supportive tool. He has given his examples but if we look closely, using conflict as a mean to join any group or tribe to survive is daily demonstrated on our talk shows where our politicians perform their best to protect the naivety of their party leaders by using the term ‘party line’ as doing otherwise will be detrimental to their survival. Breaking this down further, we can see the same exemplar in our families where religious conflicts become a resultant of different groups within a family.

    As said in the article, the driver of argument is not singular but multiple. Already present difference of opinions in our mind play a cunning role because it is always waiting for an opportunity and when it arrives, we use it as our best mean to give the other person hard time which we could not give in the former times.

    Anyhow cherry picking and nitpicking is a nature of human being and we should try to avoid it as much as possible. But as said, its implicit presence can be seen at every level if looked closely.


  • Gurion
    Oct 11, 2013 - 11:09AM


    I really wonder how the above
    commentators react when explained the
    quantum physics or worse still, the
    string theory

    I am not a physicist but I have a fair understanding of theory of relativity. But, I am still struggling to understand what Mr. Haider wrote. And I refuse to believe Mr. Haider wrote something more profound, elegant and monumental than Albert Einstein managed to.


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