3 March 2014

Time ripe for action against militants in Pakistan

Nasim Zehra

Militant violence has increasingly alienated their supporters and even the fence-sitters. When militants kill polio workers and declare polio drops un-Islamic, sympathy for them starts waning.

"YOU hit us once and we will hit you twice. That’s what people like in my area. They say Nawaz Sharif is doing the right thing now," explains Adil, the man who lives in Bhara Khau on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Adil had been in awe of Lal Masjid’s prayer leader Abdul Aziz Sahib, who is now in the Taliban team nominated for negotiations with the government. Adil had rejoiced the return of Lal Masjid to Aziz and helped them repaint the mosque. He would also bring the weekly Taliban supported newspaper from Rawalpindi. Adil vocally supported its editorial thrust on how Pakistani society must be "cleansed of all evil". Often he would recall its stories about Taliban providing prompt justice to the corrupt and the immoral in society. When all else did not work the way Adil — from the less advantaged segment of Pakistani society — wanted, the Taliban panacea was attractive.

Supporters are turning away from militants.

And so a narrative was born. The killing machines of the militants found greater resonance in the hearts of the poor than the state machinery’s constitutionally approved killing machines. It began some decades ago with the Afghan jihad in the ’80s bankrolled by global powers.

But in recent weeks much appears to have changed. Millions of Pakistan’s Adils are now watching with shock the videos of beheaded soldiers, paramilitary and the police. Deadly bomb blasts are routine and so are the militants’ messages taking responsibility. Their justification for turning Pakistan into an expanding killing field ranges from wanting to impose "real Sharia", extricating Pakistan from a US war, to asking for an end to drones.

What may have appealed to many, including some of the political leaders, is now cutting almost no ice. Now the loudest voices are of those who are opposing militants and demanding use of force against militants who don’t surrender unconditionally. The young PPP chairman, Bilalwal Bhutto, wants no talks with the ones of a beastly character. "They want Islam promoted from the seas of blood that their terrorism is creating in Pakistan," Bilawal thunders. When he seeks a peaceful Islam that has been Pakistan’s pre-Eighties legacy, even non-PPP supporters sit up, listen and nod in agreement.

Militant violence has increasingly alienated their supporters and even the fence-sitters. When militants kill polio workers and declare polio drops un-Islamic, sympathy for them starts waning. Many of the militants have publicly trashed the Constitution and talked of forcing their own version of Sharia. This combined with the gross beheading clips has given it the unlikely but powerful title of ‘pornography of death".

The stronger the militants’ actions against the people and the State, the greater the space for government action. Some has already begun. Air attacks in different regions of FATA, including in Mir Ali and Tirah Valley, are on. Often intelligence sharing between Pakistan and the US helps pinpoint militant hideouts.

The government is in no hurry to launch a quick operation but clearly that is what the signs are. Regular meetings are now held between the President, Prime Minister, Interior Minister, army chief and the ISI chief to devise plans for a ground offensive. The Prime Minister has called a meeting of the four chief ministers to discuss timings, impact and blowback.

Humanitarian problems are emerging in the form of displacement of local population. A similar ground and air operation against the militants in Swat — Operation Rah-i-Raast — was conducted in July 2009, which prompted 2.5 million local people to leave their homes. Similar dislocations will likely accompany news of military operations in North Waziristan, the preparations for which have been underway for the past two months.

The political leadership, which is also the army’s constitutional authority, is now almost all decided on the operation. They know that the Adils of Pakistan may now be far more receptive to such action, which needs the support of the people of Pakistan. How much support is generated will depend on how the government communicates its motives, plan and compulsions for the operation.

The message from the government still lacks clarity on the reasons for the operation. While the confusion over timing and the kind of action the Interior Minister is adept at creating may have a reason, the articulation of why an operation is required will brook no clumsy takes. The message has to be convincing. The narrative has to touch people’s hearts. As in other societies, with the many divides across class, religions, regions and parties, a less than convincing narrative can create resentment once the fallout of an operation hits the civilians.

In the coming days, better articulation is expected while the army prepares to put its best foot forward to clear the militant bases from where terrorist attacks have haunted million of Pakistan’s Adils and others.

The writer is a Pakistan-based columnist and TV anchor