The whole nation is reeling under the terrorist attack of unprecedented savagery on school students in Peshawar. There have been terrorist outrages that resulted in more casualties but no incident cut deeper into every Pakistani’s heart than this one. The reason is that those who perished in Peshawar were the flower of the country’s youth, our grown-up children, our future. Hence an unprecedented mixture of grief and anger. The response to a huge calamity must show maturity of mind and firmness of will of the same order.
It is good that the government and political parties have reacted swiftly and strongly. The government did well to gather all political groups and secure a consensus on a clear and united reply to the terrorists. Imran Khan acted commendably by calling off his agitation and endorsing the government stand on dealing with the situation.
However, one has several reservations about the precipitate decision to lift the moratorium on execution of death sentence in case of terrorists. First, hanging of some terrorists will amount only to tampering with a symptom and leave the disease untouched. Secondly, how will terrorists be segregated from other convicts on the death row? And, thirdly, if all those sentenced to death by Anti-Terrorism Courts are to be hanged they are likely to include convicts who are not terrorists and have been arbitrarily labelled as such. Lack of clarity could lead to miscarriage of justice and worse.
The death penalty issue has been mentioned in order to emphasise the need for cautiousness while offering knee-jerk responses. The situation demands reliance on wisdom instead of hot air.
The first step in evolving an effective anti-terrorism strategy must be an analysis of the factors that have made the enemy so strong that it is challenging the state with arrogance and contempt.
The story began when the state decided to exploit religion as an excuse for misgovernance and denial of the citizens’ political, economic and social rights. No heed was paid to the lesson of history that religion has never and nowhere been successful in binding a people together in a political structure. In no time the state found rivals who also wanted to exploit religion for capturing power. The people were left without any means of distinguishing good exploiters of their faith from counterfeit coins.
The more the state has indulged in religious rhetoric the stronger have the rival exploiters of people’s belief become.
As if the political challenge from the religio-political groups was not enough the state deliberately contributed to the rise of armed extremists. Pakistan plunged itself headlong into Afghan war and the voices that questioned whether it was Pakistan’s war was just ignored. Thus Pakistan reared a monster that was bound to go sooner or later for its creator.
Pakistan also made the mistake of providing the militants with safe havens. It ignored the need to guide the tribal people into the modern age of science and technology, they received these gifts as rewards for the Afghan war. All kinds of mercenaries — Arabs, Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, et al were granted freedom of the country. When the government woke up to the presence of these militants on its soil it allowed their friends in the country’s religious parties and seminaries to thwart all efforts to repatriate them to their home countries.
The efforts to get rid of militants were also undermined by attempts to distinguish good Taliban from the bad ones. The religio-political parties who greeted the killers of Pakistani citizens, policeman and defence personnel as heroes and martyrs were not alone in coming to the rescue of friendly militants; they had bedfellows amongst the defence services, civilian bureaucrats and even ministers in the present government.
It is necessary to look back on this large record of follies and deadly choices because otherwise it will be impossible to get a correct measure of the enemy and its allies within Pakistan. The key questions Pakistan must now squarely face are:·
— Can the state face a challenge mounted in the name of religion by simply refuting this claim and without giving up its own tradition of exploiting religion to secure political ends?
— Has Pakistan given up what is alleged to be its search for strategic depth in Afghanistan?
— Is it possible for anyone to predict the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan within a few years and guarantee that they will be amenable to the counsel of friends in Pakistan or elsewhere?
If the answers to these queries are in the negative, does the government have the good sense, the will and the capacity to make a quick about-turn?
The defence forces know they cannot have a walkover against a guerilla force that has the advantage of knowing the terrain better than them and that has proved its capacity to regroup and recoup its losses. The fight may be longer and bloodier than anybody thinks.
But military operation alone will not enable Pakistan to beat off the most serious assault on its integrity, its sovereign status and its place in the comity of nations. The militants have a narrative that, thanks to the state’s consistently declared inclinations and priorities, has a strong appeal for a large number of citizens. Does the government have an equally powerful narrative? Is a counter-narrative possible without challenging the conservative and self-appointed priests’ monopoly over interpretation of the scriptures?
Does the government not know that in addition to a clash of weapons, a battle of ideas has been forced upon it?
The writing on the wall is clear. The fight against the enemy within — the patrons, friends and collaborators of the armed challengers that are scattered all over the country — will be more gruelling than the battle with the external adversary. Likewise, the battle of narratives will be harder than the war with guns, especially because it will demand a nearly complete reorientation of the state’s political vision and adoption of modern, non-theocratic instruments of governance.