Collateral damage

By Babar Sattar

The loss of five-dozen police cadets in Quetta in a terror attack remained of interest to the news cycle for a sum total of one day. How can a nation with a soul be so nonchalant about indiscriminate murder of citizens? How can a state with qualms be so pigheaded about policies that continue to require placing soldiers and policemen in harm’s way? Balochistan weeps over the brutal killing of its aspiring policemen even before it is done mourning its lawyers. But the rest of us are back to obsessing over the continuing soap opera between the PML-N and the PTI.

The life of a loved one matters more than that of a stranger. That is how it is in private lives. But can the state establish through its conduct that some lives matter more than others? What does the state’s obligation to a citizen to guarantee his right to life mean in reality, or that to equality? Cynics dismayed by the hypocrisy of our state policies suggest that the celebrated national consensus against terror might never have been forced had militants not attacked an army school. Do condolences and fatuous rhetoric after attacks on lesser cities like Quetta not feed such cynicism?

Our military was no less disciplined, organised or effective in the decade before Zarb-e-Azb. Why then did so much territory fall out of the sovereign control of the state? The takeover of Fata by the TTP didn’t happen overnight. The emergence of Fazlullah’s emirate in Swat was years in the making. Residents who passed through check posts manned by the TTP and the military respectively, a stone’s throw away from one another, assumed that Fazlullah had the state’s blessing. How else could a private army and a state army coexist, they wondered.

The military had been fighting along the western border since 2004 at least. It made peace deals and it carried out operations to reclaim territory, starting with Swat in 2007. In the process it rendered innumerable sacrifices. It suffered the loss of men (including senior officers). Meanwhile, the country suffered the expansion of the terror network from Khyber to Karachi. It witnessed an attack on GHQ, attacks on air force and navy installations, attacks on law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. It saw the TTP desecrating severed heads of soldiers.

Despite all this, it wasn’t until June 2014 that Zarb-e-Azb was launched. Why did it take so long to reach the tipping point? Does our love for strategic depth explain the delay? Was it to prevent the military from spreading out too thin? Was it due to fear of collateral damage? In retrospect, it was probably a combination of inertia (that grants additional lease of life to failed policies), misplaced confidence (that militants-turned-terrorists can be effectively controlled if the state tries harder), and lack of moral clarity (that extremist factories required for production of militants are toxic to the social fabric).

If the execution of 23 FC soldiers by the TTP in February 2014 did it for the military, APS tipped the rest of society. Those committed to appeasing terrorists out of sympathy for their agenda, fear of reprisals or commitment to the idea that the war against terrorists isn’t Pakistan’s war might still have thrown in a spanner. But the anger post-APS was so palpable that public space for apologists disappeared overnight. Then we saw NAP unfold. And for once in decades it seemed that state and society had a shared understanding of the existential crisis we face.

We needed two things to ensure that the operation against terrorists continued without losing direction and rigour: for the eastern border to stay calm so the country could continue to see and treat the threat of terror as one to be dealt with independent of India; and action to be initiated against militants and extremists of all hues without cherry-picking, and in a time-bound fashion before expediency scuttled the resolve against a disease that has penetrated deep into our polity. 2015 was a good year in this fight for our survival, but 2016 not so much.

Prior to Zarb-e-Azb, apologists argued that those killing in the name of the TTP are not ‘our’ people but mercenaries supported by foreign enemies. In 2015 we didn’t hear this argument much. The state’s narrative had changed. Whoever might be bankrolling militants active on the western border, the focus remained on eliminating them and their sanctuaries. When asked why nothing was being done against extremist seminaries, jihadis not focused on Afghanistan and sectarian groups, there was no rebuke but the quiet suggestion that it would all happen in due course.

When the state started taking on the LeJ, optimism grew that operations had probably been sequenced in an order of priority and it was only a matter of time that the LeTs and JeMs would be tackled. But that didn’t happen. What also didn’t happen was a crackdown on seminaries nurturing extremist ideologies wherein the supply-chain of militants is located. And then in January 2016 Pathankot happened. It brought back into focus India and our eastern border. In the face of a bellicose India, the state narrative again began projecting terrorism as a problem exported by external enemies.

Uri sounded the death knell of whatever remained of NAP. When terror is seen as an indigenous problem, the state looks for roots of terror within. Loss of life provokes anger that is inward focused and leads to introspection, reform and action. Causes of a terror attack are investigated and questions about security failures readily asked. When the burden of terror is heaped on external enemies, the equation changes. Anger is directed outward, those mentioning the word ‘security failure’ become traitors and the roots of terror remain strong and hidden from critical scrutiny.

With India re-assuming its traditional position as the evil largely responsible for whatever goes wrong in Pakistan and with even the TTP issuing a statement that it would fight India were Pakistan attacked, we begin confusing the cancerous lump within the body with a useful organ: the enemy of the enemy being a friend etc. Not getting into the blame game for a minute and without focusing on who is responsible for shutting down jihadi factories, is there any consensus in Pakistan today that the outward-focused militant outfits not attacking the state of Pakistan are still bad for us and need to be eliminated?

In this state of confusion, the politics of expediency is back with a bang. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has awarded state funds to Samiul Haq’s seminary. The Difa-e-Pakistan council has suddenly come back to life and is making noises about Pakistan’s honour and sovereignty. Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid is also in the news (after preciously refusing to condemn the APS terrorists) and pontificating about the problems of Pakistan while deliberating if his brigade should join the agitation against the government.

And not to be left behind, the interior minister has met with members of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, including those from proscribed organisations, to keep them in good humour and has also made a little speech about protecting their rights etc. With the 2018 election in sight, the possibly of the two key contenders of power (especially in Punjab), the PML-N and the PTI, offending extreme rightwing constituency is next to nothing.

Zarb-e-Azb, and after that the APS tragedy, stirred us up and created a window of opportunity in which we could act decisively to shut down factories of terror. That window is now closing. We should brace for more funerals, as we seem to have taken two steps back. Our denial of our jihadi problem is not just about inertia or collateral damage or the belief that it is someone else’s war. We are back in the zone where we see what is left of the jihadists as assets and the lives their ‘errant’ cousins consume as collateral damage.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

Source: Daily The News

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