In May 1992, the US threatened to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism based on its covert support to militants fighting India in Kashmir. It was a serious risk; the Americans had real intelligence to support every claim, and they were determined to see it through. The Nawaz government had to do something. So it approved an extra $2 million to improve Pak relations with the US media and Congress. Over the next decade, though the threat continued to linger and Pakistan was sanctioned for a host of its other favourite nefarious activities, the state was never listed as a sponsor of terrorism. Here is what happened: Pakistan became skilled in creating theatres for its laboring. It became the great Impression-Maker; seen at opportune moments running to fighting crime, to uproot militancy, to weed out terrorists, to go after Jihadists in the face of immense difficulty. In April 1993, Pakistan arrested nine Arabs aligned with militant groups, made kitty cat eyes at the White House and declared with all the flamboyance of a country at war, that the crackdown on Islamic extremism had begun. Twenty one years on, and our bare minimum strategy is still working. We are still churning out appearances, still dealing in illusions, still fighting mortal threats with the statement of our intentions.

After the first military strike following the beheading of the 23 FC men, the national narrative changed. Talks of peace talks fell flat, and suddenly it seemed absolutely everybody from the PTI hipsters to the challi-walla wanted a military operation. The news was full of it, the op-eds were full of it, living room conversations, class room conversations, even SMS forwards were full of it. For a short time it seemed the great Impression-Maker was back to its old tricks (only this time, the threat is more violent, more real than history’s ever allowed for before). And then yesterday, just when everybody was getting really high off the shrooms of war and asking all sorts of pertinent questions about IDPs and budget and logistics, the Interior Minister went to enormous pains to ensure the nation, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that nothing of real consequence was happening in North Waziristan. No military operation was yet in sight. No decision had yet been taken. He waved off all that critical hullabuloo at once. Let’s please, please not get ahead of ourselves, is what he was saying. Only, how can we not when it’s all we know to do. Even the most cautious reader understands the sway of a bit of drama. And so, despite Chaudhry Nisar’s best efforts, the nation puts its hands together and pleads to the illusion: Please, please be real this time.