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A deafening silence

April 23, 2013

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A TRAUMATISED young boy fiercely slapping his face repeatedly and crying incessantly in the midst of burnt corpses — the scene from the latest bombing in Peshawar was haunting.

The footage, repeated several times on TV channels, told the story of the horror wreaked by the Taliban on the night of April 17 in an attack on an Awami National Party (ANP) election rally.

It was shocking to see the scale of destruction.

But even more appalling was the callous attitude of most political parties to the gruesome carnage. There was no reaction beyond routine messages of condolence on the loss of lives, no condemnation of the Taliban who have claimed responsibility for the attack and who are threatening to derail the democratic process.

This criminal silence on the part of the political parties, particularly the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl is meant to buy security for themselves in exchange while the militants target their rivals. This policy of appeasement makes them inadvertently complicit in the Taliban’s terrorist campaign against particular political parties. But this opportunism may cost them heavily in the future when the militants turn on them too.

It is not surprising that the Taliban have declared war on the ANP. The party during its tenure of power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had valiantly stood up to terrorist outfits and consequently borne the brunt of the relentless militant violence that has gripped the troubled province. Undoubtedly, the latest surge in the violence is aimed at preventing the party returning to power by denying it a level playing field in the run up to the elections.

Not surprisingly, once again the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are also on the Taliban’s hit list. Both these parties have taken a relatively stronger stand against militancy and terrorism. The militants have claimed responsibility for killing a former MQM provincial legislator and a party candidate for the Sindh Assembly last month.

By sparing other political parties, the militants have shrewdly divided the political forces and created huge space for their activities. Spilling over from KP and the tribal areas, Taliban violence has reached Karachi and other parts of the country, creating an alarming scenario for the country’s political stability. Violence is likely to escalate as the election campaign picks up.

Over the past 10 years, militant violence has claimed thousands of innocent lives, crippled the economy and fuelled sectarian tensions. Yet, this grave threat to national security barely figures in the election campaign. Shockingly, the issue posing an existential threat to Pakistan is no more than a footnote in most of the political parties’ election manifestos which are devoid of any clear understanding of the menace, leave alone any concrete plan to deal with it.

Combating militancy and religious extremism certainly does not appear to be a priority for most political parties. For example, the PML-N, referring to Gen Musharraf’s regime, puts the blame squarely on the long authoritarian rule for the rise of militancy in Pakistan. “The distorted political activity and denied civil rights to the people, generated widespread anger and frustration, which may have encouraged some to opt for violence,” the PML-N manifesto declares.

Nothing could be more absurd and bizarre than this explanation of the rise of militancy and terrorism wrecking the country and threatening its unity and stability. So, according to the PML-N, the militants have been killing innocent people, forcibly using small children as suicide bombers, attacking defence installations and destroying schools because of the denial of fundamental rights.

But what is the PML-N’s explanation for the escalation in militant violence over the past five years when democracy was restored? Perhaps the PML- N will find some justification for that too.

Is it not ironic that perhaps the strongest defence of the Taliban and its terrorist activities comes not from any conservative Islamic group, but from a so-called moderate national party that may come into power in the coming elections. The manifesto has no mention of the thousands of members of security forces who lost their lives fighting the insurgents.

The PTI has taken the problems of terrorism and militancy even more lightly in its manifesto. The issue is literally covered in a few lines and that too as a sub-section of the security policy. There is obviously no mention of Taliban terrorism and its cost to the nation.

The party sees the menace linked with Pakistan’s support for the so-called US war on terror. This flawed argument distorts the whole genesis of militancy and extremism in Pakistan. The roots of militancy and radicalisation are much deeper and the problem will certainly not go away with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Imran Khan has for long taken an extremely soft approach towards the Taliban and his confused views on terrorism and militancy are reflected fully in his party’s manifesto.

There is no doubt the PPP has covered the issue much more comprehensively in its manifesto. But during its five-year term, the party failed to evolve a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy. In fact, no urgency was witnessed in dealing with the menace of terrorism during its government.

It took almost five years for the party to get the bill on National Counterterrorism Authority passed by the National Assembly. So while the PPP manifesto gives a lot of detail on the measures it proposes to take, it leaves open the big question of why these measures were not implemented previously.

This widening division across Pakistan’s major political forces on how to deal with the country’s most critical threat does not augur well for the future. Instead of offering solutions in their party manifestos for a problem so critical for the stability of the country and for the future of democracy, there appears to be a state of denial. The cracks appear to be growing visibly and frighteningly larger.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com Twitter: @hidhussain