Shafqat Mahmood: No more confusion on terrorism

Reality check

Friday, April 03, 2009

Three main challenges we face as a nation came together last Monday. Terror came to haunt us again in Lahore with the attack on the Manawan Police Training School. Despite prior information, the lack of preparedness displayed by the police spotlighted our crisis of governance. And political change played its part through the unfamiliarity of newly shuffled officials’ with their jobs and diversion of their focus to survival in office.

The blanket media coverage also demonstrated our hopeless amateurishness in tackling emergencies. The police response seemed uncoordinated and purposeless. Isolated individuals were firing guns in apparently aimless direction and, it often felt, as if for the benefit of TV cameras. It was good that a terrorist was caught but then the law enforcers almost kicked him to death. Again, why he was dragged through a slogan-chanting crowd who could have easily pummelled him to death is beyond me.

It was also embarrassing to watch, considering international media coverage, the way the injured were being taken away. There seemed to be a shortage of stretchers because many profusely bleeding wounded were carted via their hand and feet. It surely would have aggravated their injuries. Ambulances also seemed to be scarce. And this in the provincial capital, Lahore! What the scene would be in smaller places can only be imagined.

All this can be put under the rubric of crisis of governance. The police are neither properly organised nor trained for such emergencies. Taking care of the wounded in such situations and their shifting to a medical facility is quite a science and we are nowhere close to getting it. But the real tragedy was not the gloss put on the event but media commentators.

It is truly sad that there are people among us who still refuse to recognise that we face a home grown challenge of extremism. They put all the blame on the American presence in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that the thirty-year war in that country, and the way Americans have gone about conducting the occupation after 9/11, have contributed to extremism in Pakistan. Some of our domestic terror attacks are related to it. But that is only a part of the problem.

We also a face a problem of extremism within the country and these people will stop at nothing short of taking over the state. Inch by inch they are creating a space for themselves. They have virtually taken control of Swat and, as events of the last few days have demonstrated, are moving strongly into Dir. This is not anger against the Americans. It is fight for power.

In places where they can take on the state apparatus directly, they don’t shy of doing so. Besides the places they have already captured, like the tribal area and Swat, they are actively challenging the state in many parts of the Frontier. In provinces like Punjab, where they are not yet in a position to confront the state machinery, they indulge in acts of terror. This is not rocket science. Yet some people still don’t get it.

Another level of extremist incursion has been written about by columnist Kamal Siddiqui in this paper. There are enough examples of women being openly harassed in many of our cities, sometimes with guns, for being “immodestly dressed.” Other examples also abound. This is insidious extremism that is not so visible but is affecting the life of ordinary people everywhere. It has nothing to do with American presence in Afghanistan.

We have a weak state apparatus and there is not one cause for it, though our frequent experimentations, particularly the last one by Musharraf, have played havoc with it. It will take quite an effort to rebuild it, but this will not happen if we do not have a consensus about the nature of the terrorist challenge we face. The confusion we face on this score is the principal impediment.

Let us face it. There are some opinion-makers amongst us who would rather have a Taliban-type state in our country. They eulogise the rule of Mullah Umar in Afghanistan and want something similar here. They are welcome to their views, but their frequent access to mass media spreads confusion.

The people of this country, in election after election, have chosen moderate parties to rule over them. They do not subscribe to any extremist or medieval interpretation of how a state should be run. Yet, by supplying them with a convenient American scapegoat for their woes, the Taliban sympathisers hinder the emergence of a broad national consensus. And, without it, the state will never have the single-minded determination that is needed to fight the menace of internal terrorism.

This confusion is reflected in the mantra of dialogue and peace deals that even moderate parties succumb to. It is now widely recognised that the peace deals Musharraf negotiated in the tribal areas strengthened people like Baitullah Mehsud. Now Mehsud controls most of FATA, either directly or through proxies.

The peace deal in Swat too is now becoming an obvious failure. Yes, it has given the poor people of that valley some respite from violence, but this has been bought by ceding control of territory. There are newspaper reports that the insurgents have started to take over emerald mines by force. This can happen only because they are in control. Is this what we wanted from this peace?

A serious test is now coming in the shape of President Obama’s policy for what is now being called, to our discomfort, Af-Pak. Being linked with a seriously dysfunctional country like Afghanistan is not pleasant. What is more worrying is Obama’s fear that the next attack on the US is likely to emanate from the Pakistani tribal areas. And since the new and narrowly defined objective of American presence in Afghanistan is the protection of the American homeland against attacks by non state actors, we can expect much greater American focus on Pakistan.

There is a fair amount of aid in the pipeline, but unlike what happened during the Bush administration, it is going to be measured against benchmarks of success. One view is to look at this as a selling our soul for a few pennies, but another view can, and should, be that we have to move against extremism for our own good. We rightly worry about our sovereignty and its violation through drone attacks. Why do we not feel any anguish that large parts of our tribal territory are infested by foreigners?

Drone attacks are not good, but every time they happen, it is largely foreigners who are killed. Why is it that we worry about the one aspect but not the other? Clearly, the world is deeply concerned about the presence of extremist elements in our country who threaten their security. If we do not take notice of their concern, they will not wait for us to get our act together.

It is this challenge that we have to meet. We will have to demonstrate to the international community that we are a responsible nation that will not allow people on its territory to threaten them. In the process of addressing this concern, we will also redeem ourselves from the scourge of extremism. (The News)