I.A. Rehman


After a long lapse, Pakistan has waged a decisive war against Jihadi zealots. The author argues that it is life and death struggle for Pakistan. Notwithstanding the successes of Pakistani army in Swat valley and parts of Waziristan, a decisive victory has yet to be won.


The reports that the military operation in South Waziristan may be completed sooner than many expected will no doubt assuage the people’s anxieties to some extent. But the question that will continue to worry them is: will the conclusion of this phase of the anti-terrorism drive bring an end to the threat to Pakistani state and society?


As regards the preliminary purpose of the military operation, namely, gaining control over the terrorists’ strongholds, the security forces have succeeded beyond expectations. The speed with which they flushed the extremists out of Swat and other parts of the Malakand division won them praise at home and abroad. The experience gained in that theatre of conflict and a somewhat less difficult terrain seem to have helped them improve their performance in the South Waziristan Agency. However, there is little room for complacency about what remains to be done before final victory over terrorism can be claimed.


It is easy to appreciate the fact that the objective of the operation in South Waziristan is materially different from that in Swat. There the main challenge came from alien militants that had gathered local adventurers around them and the primary task was to force the outsiders to retreat to their previous positions. Success in this maneuver and the infliction of heavy losses on local militias created conditions in which the large number of displaced people could return home. Still, the Swat operation was not without warning that the terrorists were capable of widening the area of conflict by launching attacks on military and police posts and personnel across Pakistan, especially in the Frontier and Punjab.


In South Waziristan the extremists, at least most of them, have been attacked in their homes. Unlike the outsiders in command in Swat, who could retreat to their own habitats, the Waziristan militants cannot abandon their homes, not for a considerable period at any rate. The question of what is perceived as an attack on traditional autonomy also is far more serious here than it was in Swat. This explains the element of despair in the militants’ response to the Waziristan operation — their decision to harass the Pakistan establishment by raiding GHQ and tell the population that their schools and colleges, their highways and marketplaces, civilians as well as security personnel were more unsafe than ever.


The information available to ordinary citizens, mostly through privileged media persons who claim to be picking words directly from the horse’s mouth, suggests that the security forces are primarily interested in destroying the terrorists’ command structure thus rendering them incapable of making forays beyond their settlements. The leadership of the South Waziristan militants is said to have split already. At the same time considerable reliance is being placed on the mobilization of moderate Mehsuds and Wazirs as the first line of resistance to militants.


The effectiveness of this strategy cannot be assumed beyond a certain point, that is, beyond the period the militants will take for regrouping and raising new cadres of young men determined to die for what they are told is a holy cause. This period may not be very long since Al Qaeda and the Taliban pursuing the war in Afghanistan are unlikely to give up their safe havens in South Waziristan or in any other part of the Federally Administered (in name only) Tribal Areas. Thus, nobody should dismiss the possibility that terrorist attacks in Islamabad and elsewhere, like the ones witnessed over the past fortnight or so, will continue to test the people’s will to win the battle against the militants.


In the short run, the new phase of terrorism in the Frontier and Punjab — and who can say that the ill-wind will not reach Sindh? — will expose the militants’ collaborators and sympathizers across the country. These allies of terrorists include those who help them with boarding and transport facilities, and provide them with information about the targets of attack. Even more crucial is the role of political factions and their leaders that do not condemn terrorism and, instead, go out of their way to drape the killers of innocent children and old men and women in robes designed for the holiest of heroes. That there is room for difference of opinion on what can be achieved by military action alone cannot be denied. But it is impossible to agree with those who rule out the use of force against terrorists altogether. These elements become hysterical when action against militant organizations in Punjab and Sindh is suggested. But such action need not be visualized in terms of a military operation, about which the reluctance of the security forces is well-known. The battle of ideas with the elements that are claiming a monopoly on the Jihadi culture is far more important than the clash of arms or a competition in the use of explosives.


Two things about the terrorist threat must be borne in mind. First, the fight against terrorism is going to be long, bitter and costly. The conflict in Afghanistan is a major contributing factor but Pakistan will not be rid of the terrorist threat even after peace has returned to Afghanistan.


This because of the second reality that the roots of terrorism in Pakistan are indigenous; they lie in the enormous work the state has done, by its acts of omission and commission, to eradicate the ideas of liberal Islam and facilitate the rise of obscurantists leaving the entire area of intra-religious discourse open and clear to utterly conservative and dogmatic twisters of texts and exploiters of the faithful’s vaguely understood belief. Pakistan will not be safe from terrorists’ depredations unless a crash programmed to build a tolerant, pluralist society is seriously executed.


Unfortunately, that seems unlikely at a time when the country is being treated to a dirty political intrigue and a mad jockeying for power. Nobody should take offence on being told that the roots of terrorism lie in Pakistan’s political culture. (I.A. Rehman is the Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan)


(Dawn, 29 Oct, 2009)

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