29 January 2014

Pakistan reaches the tipping point

There are indications the government may have finally made up its mind to hit back at terror. The latest wave of attacks, which has prompted people to ask what is the State doing to protect them, seems to have caused that.

Nasim Zehra 

Everyone seems to be asking the obvious question now: Will this ever end? Who will protect us? Who will stop this? The terrorists’ dark and deadly scorecard in Pakistan has suddenly shot up.

The year 2014 has had a gruesome start. The rapidly widening net of suicide attacks and bombs set off by terrorist groups ranging from the TTP to the LeJ is devouring citizens at a frightening speed. By now far more than the often quoted figures of 40,000 civilians and 5,000 security personnel have been killed. 

PPP supporters protest the killing of three polio workers in Karachi on January 21. Reuters

The government has failed to address Pakistan’s most critical problem. Its repeated failure, even after announcing dates, in formulating a National Security Policy, speaks to the government’s inability to even understand the problem. At best, the government has focused on lecturing people on the virtues of dialogue with the TTP, made contradictory statements on what steps have been taken to initiate the dialogue, sought help from opposition leader Imran Khan in that, issued condemnations of terrorist attacks, or announced compensation for those killed in the attacks.

In contrast, the terrorist groups have not lacked in confidence, capacity or clarity of objective. They have remained on the offensive and conducted suicide bombings, jailbreaks, targeted killings, intimidation.

With the latest wave of attacks that has claimed the lives of 22 pilgrims die in Mastung (including two schoolchildren), three TV people, members of a Tableeghi Jamat in Peshawer, a woman administering polio drops to babies in Karachi, and soldiers near the GHQ among others, Pakistanis have had enough.

Even as the fear of mounting terrorist attacks spreads, so does anger and frustration. People remember with awe and respect how the 15-year-old student Aitezaz Hasan died in Hangu performing the service he assigned himself. Hasan was blown up by a suicide bomber who he tackled to stop from entering his school that had a thousand-plus students inside. Many are outraged at why a 15-year-old had to die like this. In Quetta the Hazara community, which is regularly targeted by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, repeated their unique, if heart-wrenching, form of protest after their pilgrims were killed in Mastung. In the freezing cold, they sat in the streets with the bodies and refused to bury them until the killers were found.

For the people, the tipping point has been reached. Where is the State, why can’t it protect its citizens, they ask. They recall with fear and admiration Chaudhry Aslam, one of Pakistan’s bravest, if controversial, police officers who was killed by a car bomb in Karachi. A determined demolisher of the TTP networks, Aslam inspired peoples’ confidence in an environment where terrorist groups have ransacked their lives at will. Terrorists have now begun openly threatening and killing members of the Pakistani media.

Potentially in such an environment, sections within society can begin to surrender before terrorists. In Pakistan, however, people have demonstrated the ability to resist and fight back, especially when the threat becomes clear and present.

Of the mainstream political parties, the MQM and ANP have been the most vocal critics of terrorist groups yet over the past few years. On four different occasions almost all parties have passed consensus resolutions, calling for dialogue with these groups. Equally they have attacked the illegal unilateral drone attacks by the US. On tackling terrorism, most parties have spoken with a forked tongue, with multiple meanings to multiple audiences.

In recent weeks, however, the PPP’s young chairman Bilawal Bhutto, who has launched a twitter offensive against terrorists, has promised to support the government’s decision to go against all terrorist groups. Bhutto strongly opposed dialogue with those who neither accept Pakistan’s Constitution nor live by the law.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a realisation within sections of the government that this collective vacillation on how to tackle the unending curse is now proving too costly. Some action against terrorists is already underway in North Waziristan, Panjgur, Karachi and Islamabad.

Political parties, including the MQM, ANP and PPP, are willing to support military force against the terrorists. The army, which has long been the prime target of TTP attacks, has also conducted raids in North Waziristan. The demand that terrorist hubs in North Waziristan be attacked is gaining broader support. Even Imran Khan, the lead proponent of dialogue, has asked that the Prime Minister call political leaders so that he and the army chief may brief them on the security situation. The PTI leader has said in a recent interview that if the army conducts an operation his party will support the army.

Early indicators are that the government too has finally reached the tipping point. The latest wave of terrorism seems to have caused that. We may soon witness the end of the government’s ad hoc and confused response to tackling terrorism.

But with that clarity will come the real test of Pakistan’s entire political leadership. The battle against terrorism will be long, hard and gruesome. Will the leadership be able to ready the people of Pakistan for that?

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