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No more room for own goals

August 24, 2013

THE Pakistan football team may have lost to the Afghanistan national squad earlier this week in Kabul but none of the three goals conceded was an own goal.

That task was left to the players in other fields at home led by the country’s (fairly) heavily mandated prime minister who, on assuming office a little over two months ago, promised he would address the nation only when he had something to say.

Obviously, when his ‘address to the nation’ was announced, expectations were raised that some important policy statement would be forthcoming and not a day too late since the country is facing what can only be described as an existential threat.

Having listened with rapt attention to Nawaz Sharif’s poorly edited televised speech, my immediate reaction was expressed thus in a Tweet: He spoke, spoke and spoke but said nothing.

The mention of poorly edited isn’t to lay the blame for the content on a poor PTV employee. It is merely to point out the reason for the various jumps and bumps you may have witnessed over the course of the prime minister’s otherwise prolonged, polished performance.

Of course it wasn’t the NLE’s (non-linear editor as they’re called in TV) fault that the speech was bereft of content.

On reflection, one must add, this initial reaction was a bit harsh. There were hints in the prime minister’s speech which spoke volumes for, and there isn’t a better way to describe it, his confusion. Terminology may not be significant when we lesser mortals use it. The same isn’t true of leaders.

The prime minister mentioned the relentless murder and mayhem being visited on the country by religious zealots as terrorism and also stressed the need to stem the tide. But then in a reconciliatory tone he called terrorists responsible for mass murder in the country ‘extremists’.

He offered talks to these extremists and said force will be used against those with whom talks fail. That this carrot and stick wasn’t part of a clearly thought through security policy became apparent a few days on when the Defence Committee of the Cabinet met.

Journalists briefed immediately after the meeting reported that it was agreed that talks will be held only with the militants who lay down their weapons. Otherwise force will be used. The story was reported as such by the electronic media.

Hours later the information minister said the prime minister’s talks offer had not been made conditional to the laying down of weapons by the terrorists. The minister lambasted the media for carrying an incorrect story. He didn’t say why it took him nearly eight hours to correct it.

The Taliban reaction was quite clear. Within hours of the last meeting of the DCC (it has now been reconstituted and rechristened as the National Security Committee) they claimed responsibility for bombing a military convoy in Karachi and the very next morning a paramilitary convoy in Peshawar.

This is in no way to suggest that the information minister, speaking on behalf of the committee chairman, the prime minister, gave a green signal to the Taliban (they need none) to continue with their attacks but only to stress that dilly-dallying has not, and will not, work.

The interior minister has already announced that the counterterrorism policy is well under way and should be unveiled by the end of the month. So, wouldn’t it have been better had all government statements on the

issue followed, rather than preceded, it?

This is being said in all earnestness and not as any leg-pulling. Time and again the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have demonstrated that their actions may make them no better than cavemen but their fighting machine and its propaganda arm are sophisticated and quick on the ball.

They’ll seize on any sign that various elements of the country’s ruling elite have differing opinions on how to deal with them and make capital out of it. The institution which has paid the heaviest price for the own goal of ambivalence is the military.

After the army chief publicly identified the internal threat from the zealots as his biggest challenge, hopefully, the military’s ambiguity may soon be a thing of the past. But a fear-strapped PML-N still appears uneasy about marching in step, let alone lead.

The army has been criticised for acting brutally in Balochistan unilaterally without seeking a national ‘consensus’ for action there but calling for it where use of force against the TTP is concerned. This criticism is valid.

But it is equally true that in the largest and most influential province of Punjab, there isn’t even a hint of a fallout from the disappearance of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Baloch youth whose ‘tagged’, tortured, mutilated bodies are later found dumped. Yes, tagged.

Almost all dumped bodies carry identification. There is no ambiguity about the victim and none about who has meted out this ‘justice’ to him. If such own goals lead to an own goal by the separatists who kill innocent workers from southern Punjab, continuing the cycle, so be it.

The Taliban are different. Any use of force will potentially shatter peace in the Punjab heartland, which has more or less remained immune from terrorism that has gripped the rest of the country, as the TTP is bound to retaliate against the military’s soft underbelly.

This retaliation can be vicious and bloody and last several months, as its fairly clear now how well-entrenched and resourceful the Punjabi Taliban are. This then is the backdrop against which to see the military’s demand for a consensus before any action against TTP sanctuaries.

No matter what the government desires, this problem won’t be wished away. Neither does procrastination promise deliverance. So, the prime minister needs to focus, assess all repercussions and decide on his chosen course. Then stick with it. There is no room for own goals.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.