The Pakistani government’s recently announced internal security policy has promised retaliation for every attack conducted against it, and the helicopters and jets of the Pakistani armed forces have now swung into action over FATA and KPK. The intention seems to demonstrate resolve to the TTP, the nation and the world as much as any desire to inflict tangible military gains.

What does history teach us about who wins wars? When it comes down to it, the victorious side usually kills a bunch of people, but more importantly they keep the initiative and persuade a much larger number to  give up and accept change as inevitable.  The smaller the victor, the more powerful and implacable it has always had to seem to bring about wavering or outright resignation in its opponents. This is especially true for non-state actors and guerrilla groups. The most important real estate they fight for night and day through every manner of word and deed is not some mountain top hideout, but that space between our ears.  That focus (call it political, call it psychological) is why they are able to do so much with so little, and why complacent, materially obsessed states do so little with so much.

In purely numerical or technological terms, the TTP has no chance against the armed forces, police and paramilitaries. Many of the various groups that have come together underneath this umbrella have serious differences with each other, sometimes to the point of fratricidal bloodshed. It is also safe to say that the Pakistani military has no interest whatsoever in quietly surrendering to anyone, least of all those who have killed and captured so many of its people in the last decade of conflict.

So the question then is, why are so many people in civil society afraid that ‘they’ might win? For some it was the timing and manner of the TTP’s invitation to the negotiating table. For others it was the appearance of indecision and division within upper levels of the national political system. Most of all it is the sense of ever shrinking space and ever increasing vulnerability, especially if one should speak up. In most wars the minimum requirement of a government’s victory is success in rallying the better part of an entire nation behind the cause (that is why, after all they are called ‘nation-states’). Yet, democracies at war with the consent of their people have an advantage, because they can harness the tremendous energy of the dissenters, the oddballs and free thinkers who at other times are a thorn in the establishment’s side. Many of the people in civil society who would be the first to speak up against abuses of state power are also the ones most likely to passionately oppose surrender to forces who reject the constitution. When the state fails to protect civilians, especially those with different narratives, then the fundamental social contract that binds the citizen to the state begins to dissolve, weakening the state and the citizen alike.

Obviously, the state’s capacity is severely stretched. Obviously, there will be casualties among civilians just as there are casualties among servicemen. But unless the state chooses to actually treat the loss of lives of journalists, artists, academics, healthcare workers, minorities and other targeted groups with the same importance as uniformed personnel, the corner will be much harder to turn. The deaths of these people not only undermines the state’s authority with the nation, it undermines the very idea of the nation itself, making any victory much harder to achieve and much less meaningful.

If the new national security policy results in an escalating tit-for-tat exchange which deters attacks on the military while leaving the civilian population -and especially civil society- vulnerable, then the crippling fear in the air will remain and even grow. The state will be left to fight largely on its own, without the voices that might, under other circumstances, rally a nation behind them. Given the emphasis the TTP places on its media and political strategy, it would seem that they take the fundamental realities of warfare far more seriously than the state. This might well be an entirely erroneous image, but in the battlefield of minds it is one of the most important facts on the ground.

The writer is a Phd student.