It is tempting to think of this moment as a defining one in our history. Will our future generations look back decades later that this was the time when Pakistan finally decided to root out terrorism? Will the fight to rid North Waziristan of terrorists prove to be the stroke of the pen that writes a different destiny?
Of course this is an important moment in our history. The state is finally acknowledging that it faces an existential threat. The realisation that, regrettable as it may be, a violent assault is essential for survival is of immense significance. But what else should this entail?
The new phase of the war should not make us forget that the military solution is only part of a broader solution. The battle of ideas was and remains just as important. Of course armed opposition deserves an armed response but this should not blind us to the fact that military actions have an aftermath too. That aftermath is less glamorous from a public relations perspective. It does not involve rhetoric of nationalism with marching armies holding aloft a flag. It involves complex problems of rebuilding, governance, policing and the politics of each. These problems will not make headlines but that does not make them any less important. The displaced families and individuals will need to be rehabilitated in a way that gives them a stake in the survival of Pakistan.
At this juncture where we are all calling on each other to rally behind the troops, we must call on our representatives to ensure that they plan responsibly for the consequences of the war.
The other important issue is dealing with the rhetoric of nationalism at this moment and all that it can obfuscate. Of course we should stand behind our troops and do all we can to ensure their success. But we must not forget that a declaration of war is not a license to abdicate all responsibility for actions. Yes, due process as it is generally understood may not apply in a war zone but the laws of war will apply.
Pakistan must attain clarity on how it treats this conflict. The military action should not subsume action under the general criminal law regime. In other words, a declaration of war should not mean that suspected militants when arrested will be treated in ways that are hidden from the public eye. We must ensure transparency about how we will deal with the suspected militants who are captured or those who surrender.
The politicians must not back down from getting involved in this debate.
When wars happen, there is a tendency to give rude shut-up calls to those who ask for transparency. Yes, wars need to be won but this does not mean that we exhibit a reckless disregard for human life when it can be saved. Throughout the world, enormous injustices have taken place in the name of national security. Entire communities have been branded suspicious and subjected to discriminatory treatment. Pakistan has always raised this issue when Muslims have been at the receiving end in Western democracies.
At this time in history, Pakistan must ensure that it does not engage in actions that it has criticised in Guantanamo or regarding illegal renditions. The danger is that we ourselves will try to gag the voices within Pakistan that demand transparency. But we must remember that this transparency and supremacy of law is what we are, at least in theory, fighting to uphold. Forgetting this will not build a sustainable future.
If reporters call for greater transparency and access to figures relating to death toll after a bombing, they are not being unpatriotic. If innocent civilians’ safety is being disregarded during the military offensive then asking for such information is not threatening to a national cause. The army is fighting a war and we cannot commend their bravery enough. However, the war is to save the constitution and the institutions it commands — within the bounds it lays down.
Invoking the constitution during war-time might be inconvenient to anyone believing in ‘scorched earth’ but it needs to be done to remind us all of what we are fighting for.
The other problem with war hysteria in a military dominated state is that all other arms of the state suddenly seem irrelevant to the public mood. The civilian government must avoid this. Take the recent tragedy in Model Town Lahore where members of a political party were killed in clashes with police. Out came the nationalist brigade ridiculing the Punjab police as cowards who cannot fight TTP but can shoot at innocent civilians. Even some noted journalists took pot-shots at the police force. This is the same police force that has and continues to sacrifice life and limb to make us safer. These men and women stand at all security check-posts with the promise that they will be the first to take on a terrorist — and also be the first casualties in a terror strike.
How often have we as a society inquired into what becomes of the thousands of families who lose earning members when a policeman dies? How often have we thought about the lives of those who may be alive but do not have an arm or a leg to lead a proper life — a life that allows them to earn a living?
What happened in Model Town is tragic. But it should be seen as the irresponsible actions of members of the Punjab Police who were there and those who ordered such excessive use of force. Just because the police is not marching into North Waziristan, it is not any less heroic or any less important to our survival. So the next time we encourage discourse that ridicules an entire force, I hope we can think about the thousands who belong to the same force and have died protecting you and me.
Wars are glamorous in the sense that they get everyone involved and pumped up. But the waging of a war — by and of itself — for all its heroism cannot ensure the continued existence of a state. It is the unglamorous functioning of institutions and solving deep rooted problems that ensures that. So while we are all pumping fists, we must not ignore what we are fighting to uphold.
Just as important, we must not forget that one arm of the state — be it the army or any other institution — can never be our saviour on its own.