Mr Sharif appears to have missed the window of opportunity he had after the martyrdom of General Sanaullah Niazi and the All Saints Church massacre to wrestle back the narrative from Mr Khan
Terror unleashed on yet another bloody Sunday in Pakistan and yet another round of apologetics for the mass murderers ensued. My city, Peshawar, has grown used to the death inflicted on it consistently by the religious zealots. But even by Peshawar standards the havoc unleashed this September 22 is particularly brutal as it targeted one of the smallest, weakest and most peaceful communities of the city. Over 80 Christian worshippers were slaughtered in a double suicide bombing when they had gathered for the Sunday mass at the All Saints Memorial Church, Kohati Gate. We have come a long way from when the All Saints first opened its doors in 1883, to when the local elders and tribal Pashtun chiefs attended the service there with one of its pioneer missionaries Thomas Patrick Hughes, to this carnage.
Reverend Hughes had written in his 1885 monograph: “This Memorial Church now stands in an Oriental dress. It is an attempt to adapt Saracenic (Islamic) architecture to the purposes of Christian worship, the whole building having been constructed by a native architect under the superintendence of the Missionaries.” All Saints Church or the ‘Girja’, as they have always called it, has been a landmark for generations of Peshawaris. It stood as a serene structure through the most turbulent of times next door to the Edwardes Church Mission High School — the province’s oldest school — built in 1855 by another early priest, Robert Clarke with help from the Commissioner of Peshawar, Sir Herbert Edwardes. I must have strolled pass by it hundreds of times without once fearing that those buildings or the hustle and bustle around mid-day Sundays endangered my faith or political beliefs. But those who soaked the peaceful white building in the innocent blood of the martyred worshippers must have thought otherwise. Perhaps we would never be able to look at the snowy façade of the All Saints Church — and the white strip in the Pakistani flag representing minorities — the same way again.
But the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) — the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — wants the public to quickly ignore the blood splatters and the dozens of Christian caskets and hop back on to the peace talk bandwagon. The PTI leader Mr Imran Khan, its spokesmen and cadres are out full force with their callous confabulations about some mysterious forces trying to sabotage the peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). By Mr Khan’s immediate response after the Peshawar carnage it would seem that the outgoing Awami National Party (ANP) and not the TTP is to blame for the massacre. Thankfully, Mr Khan stopped short of directly blaming the Christians for bringing it upon themselves as he had done with Benazir Bhutto after the Karsaz bombing. Mr Khan keeps invoking ANP’s actions to justify his inaction. He forgets that nothing exposes a government and its leader more than their dithering. In their protests the battered and grieving Christian community showed more political maturity than everyone else. The mourners could see through Mr Khan bending over backwards to justify every atrocity the jihadists have perpetrated including this tragedy. By agitating against Mr Khan specifically, the tiny Christian community has underscored the most important fact that it is not merely the TTP that is an existential threat to society but also those leaders that afford the jihadists an ideological space to thrive in.
Mr Khan claims that others like the ANP are doing politics in a time of grief. That coming from a man who has literally made his political career out of cheerleading for the jihadists at every turn is quite disingenuous. From the so-called drone march to anti-NATO sit-in to his malignant and foul-mouthed bashing of the anti-Taliban intelligentsia and politicians, Mr Khan is the personification of playing politics over corpses. Even that might be overlooked if the man had a plan to act on what he has been professing for years. But unfortunately, Mr Khan neither has a strategy nor the intention it seems to develop one on the go. As the one championing talks, Mr Khan could have done some spadework and opened channels to the TTP affiliates that might be amenable to talks. But he clearly wants to gain political mileage out of the situation by blaming everything on the present federal government and the past dispensation(s).
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already conceded way too much in the All Parties Conference to both the PTI and the TTP. Mr Sharif can rely on the only legitimate fighting force that any state has, i.e. the army and paramilitaries, to respond to the TTP as the latter, through continued violence, keeps bolstering its position vis-à-vis the state. The opinion within the army is broadly divided into three sections: a) a smaller old guard that considers TTP a menace and wishes to fight it but not the Afghan Taliban; b) an ascendant ISI mindset that wants the good Taliban preserved for the Afghan ‘endgame’ and at the most contain the bad ones to the tribal ‘badlands’; and c) a delusional section that seriously thinks that the TTP suicide bombers are somehow US-Indo-Zionist proxies. The last bunch’s weightage counts towards the ISI coterie. Any action by the Pakistani state against the TTP will ultimately depend on whether the ‘traditionalists’ or the ‘adventurists’ prevail within the army. In the end analysis Pakistan army always acts in unison and the opinion divided no matter how widely, will not translate into an open rift.
Mr Imran Khan’s rhetoric, which blames foreign elements for sabotaging dialogue while also calling ironically to make peace with them, creates a milieu highly favourable to the dominant sections of the army dragging their feet on acting against the TTP. Mr Khan and his ilk have virtually paralysed a state that has already kept second-guessing its own campaign against terrorism. Confusion is the name of Mr Khan’s game and in this chaos the TTP or Jundullah or Junud-al-Hafsah, continues to regroup, plan and kill with impunity. Mr Sharif appears to have missed the window of opportunity he had after the martyrdom of General Sanaullah Niazi and the All Saints Church massacre to wrestle back the narrative from Mr Khan and his rowdy hordes. Going by the fact that the National Assembly could only come up with condolences and condemnation of the Church attack, it seems that the Pakistani state has offered the other cheek to the TTP.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki