Coming soon after the terrorist attack on the police in Lahore, the carnage at Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine has caused an unprecedented outrage. The high casualty figures could be one reason and anger at violation of the sanctity of a widely venerated place could be another. Perhaps a greater reason was the fact that the sequence of violence amounted to a rebuttal of the claim that the Zarb-e-Azb had broken the back of terrorists and that they were on the run for their lives. Perhaps the state has been hurt in its pride, and it looks visibly rattled.
The question why the terrorists have chosen the present time for a surge in their attacks can also be answered perhaps in terms of their desire to challenge the security forces’ claims of victory over them. They probably want to demonstrate their capacity to regroup and to strike wherever they wish.
In such a situation what is needed most is cool-headed stock-taking and adoption of a course of action that promises maximum benefit at minimum cost. Any rash, emotional or rage-driven response could aggravate the situation and add to Pakistan’s security risks, instead of reducing them. It is from this perspective that the new state narrative on the war against terrorism needs to be assessed.
A significant addition to the earlier narrative is the decision to strike at terrorist camps well within the Afghanistan territory. That the move was fraught with grave consequences was noted on both sides of the border.
The situation should have eased somewhat after the statements of the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Bajwa, and the Afghan Prime Minister, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, as both of them stressed the need for cooperation between the two countries in their fight against a common enemy.
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In response to Pakistan’s request for action against terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Kabul has given a list of camps on Pakistan territory that are allegedly used for raids across the border.
The challenge to Pakistan’s diplomats and decision-makers can hardly be exaggerated. First of all, it is necessary to ensure that relations with Afghanistan, already tense, do not deteriorate any further because a proper understanding with Kabul is essential for victory over terrorists.
Secondly, in order to secure Afghanistan’s cooperation for destroying terrorist hideouts on its soil, it may be necessary to take some action against anyone found responsible for cross-border attacks from Pakistan territory. Reliance on ‘do more’ calls on one another will become meaningless and dangerous.
Thirdly, Pakistan must ensure that its explanation for crossing the Afghan border in hot pursuit of terrorists can be distinguished from Modi sarkar’s rhetoric about ‘surgical strikes’.
Another notable feature of the new narrative is a somewhat greater emphasis on the complaint that India and Afghanistan are supporting the terrorist organisations’ attacks on Pakistan. These allegations may well be true, to some extent at least, but undue reliance on this argument could cost Pakistan dear.
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It will be naïve and dangerous to assume that if New Delhi and Kabul had not instigated them, the terrorists had no quarrel with Pakistan. While protest against any foreign involvement with the terrorists’ challenge to Pakistan will be in order, a greater effort ought to be focused on indigenous causes of the conflict.
Revival of interest in expediting the reform process in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata) also is an important part of the new narrative. It was also one of the 20 points of the National Action Plan. Unfortunately, Islamabad has made the task of mainstreaming Fata harder by dragging its feet for a dangerously long period.
As a result, opposition to the reform package proposed by the government task force has become organised and more strident and the shadows cast by lack of understanding with Kabul have grown longer. The Fata reform must be carried out in a manner that the wounds already caused to the tribal population are healed and not made deeper and more painful.
As regards the frantic efforts being made by the government to extend the mandate of military courts and start a wave of mass hangings, little can be added to the arguments against reverting to devices that have already been found lacking in legitimacy and inadequate in practice. An obsession with treating terrorism with an antidote having identical properties can never yield positive results.
Perhaps the most important element in the new counter-terrorism strategy is a country-wide crackdown on terrorists’ accomplices (described as facilitators). There can be no two opinions about the urgency of firmly dealing with all those, Pakistani nationals as well as foreigners, who are guilty of abetment.
The terrorists derive great strength from their friends in the country’s population who not only provide safe havens for them but also help them to mount their attacks on Pakistani security forces, public institutions, and peaceful congregations.
These facilitators are not necessarily working for money alone; most of them share the terrorists’ ideological premises. About this, the state narrative is as silent or as confused as ever.
This brings us back to square one — the state’s excessive dependence on use of force to deal with a problem that is not wholly manageable by force, and the need for a counter narrative to blunt the logic the terrorists use, that has been debated for years and is as yet inconclusive.
The need for a counter narrative is felt at two levels. One, it should persuade the terrorists, at least a sizeable number among them, that their assault on the Pakistan state does not enjoy the sanction of any law, divine or man-made. At the other level, the people of Pakistan need to be convinced of the soundness of the state’s rejoinder to the terrorists.
The state’s counter-terrorism campaign has suffered from its lack of comprehension of the challengers’ demands and its tendency to treat them, somewhat indiscriminately, as rebellion. As far as one can see, terrorism springs from two points. One, the tribal population has a serious grievance about encroachments upon its social and cultural autonomy that for decades was held inviolable. That is a political issue that need not have been made subject to a military solution.
Secondly, the militants claim to be trying to force the Pakistan state to honour its pledge to establish Shariah rule. The state is afraid to dismiss this demand because it runs close to its own official narrative. It finds itself on the horns of a dilemma and cannot find an escape route.
What has been done lately is that the state has persuaded some friendly ulema to condemn terrorism for the loss of innocent lives it entails. That, however, does not amount to dissociating with the theory of a holy war the terrorists flaunt. Can the state find ulema who will reject the terrorists,’ or anybody else’s, right to wage war against Pakistan with the objective of enforcing Shariah rule?
In any case, is it necessary for the state to join a debate on theology with the terrorists or anybody else? It is possible to argue that it should not because it has no right or authority to interpret any religion. All that is expected from the state of Pakistan is that it should reject not only forcible imposition of any particular interpretation of religion but such imposition in any form altogether.
Thus, the state must decide, and the sooner the better, as to how much of its traditional premise as a theocracy needs to be given up to guarantee its own survival. The theories of ideological moorings Pakistan’s opportunistic rulers have employed for years have landed us in a blind alley and the country will not be safe without getting rid of perhaps a large part of the historical narrative.