A READER recently accused me of inconsistency. He pointed out that despite my advocacy of human rights, I had argued for tough action and laws against terrorists.
He went on to argue — quite rightly — that the state ought not to stoop to the level of the militants in its attempt to defeat them. I agree that there is no moral equivalence between the criminal actions of insurgents and terrorists, and the means adopted by the state to combat these criminals.
Moving from the general to the specific, we in Pakistan find ourselves at war with a cruel foe who is not bound by the Geneva Conventions. He has unleashed the most barbaric violence against the people and institutions of Pakistan. What should our response be?
Should we deal in his own coin and use similarly vicious means, suspending our own liberal laws and civil liberties in the process? To an extent, other countries have done just this: witness the robust laws and anti-terror forces put in place in the West after 9/11. Despite the many human rights violations that have resulted, these countries have managed to contain the threat of Islamist terrorism.
But it is easier to enact laws and take tough action against the ‘other’: the perceived danger in the West largely comes from immigrant Muslims and their descendants, making it easier to crack down with wide public support. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils are widely seen as outsiders by the majority Sinhalese, allowing the government to adopt draconian measures against the separatist LTTE.
Things are not as clear-cut in Pakistan. The Taliban and their various constituent factions are widely viewed as misled brethren, despite all the atrocities they have committed. This is why so many Pakistanis support Nawaz Sharif in his efforts to negotiate with them. Interestingly, the Baloch nationalist movement receives no such understanding, and security forces are allowed to conduct their brutal campaign against the Baloch without much criticism by the Pakistani public and the media.
The reality is that it is only when the extremist threat strikes close to us that we demand tough action. When it hits, say, the Shias, most Sunnis are largely unmoved. We make the right noises condemning the attacks, but then move on.
Another truth to confront is the fact that as a people, we are conditioned to take violence in our stride. Cruelty and inhumanity are part of the background in our daily lives. So what the Taliban are doing just adds another layer to the ongoing brutishness.
When Chaudhry Aslam was killed by the Taliban in a suicide attack a few months ago, his death was widely mourned because he was seen as a cop who fought the Taliban with their weapons, giving no quarter. Knowing the terrorists he arrested would soon be released by our lax legal system, he allegedly killed them in fake encounters. For this, he was admired, not reviled, by most of us.
An echo of this moral dilemma can be heard in the great drone debate. Here we have the world’s only superpower and our ally bogged down in a vicious war next door. Militants based on our soil slip over the border to launch attacks on Nato targets, and then return to their sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Al Qaeda operatives and other foreign fighters also hide in these badlands.
The rules of engagement do not permit our allies to pursue their enemies into Pakistan. Our own army will not, or cannot, stop these cross-border attacks. Under these circumstances, what should the Americans do?
As a Pakistani, I abhor the idea of foreign drones flying over our skies, targeting militants and occasionally causing civilian casualties. But as a realist, I ask what then should be done? Liberals here and abroad insist that due process should be followed, and suspects brought to justice before courts of law.
Really? How? As we have noted, our tribal areas are not under the Pakistani state’s control, so to talk of sovereignty fools nobody. And as our security forces have proved to be incapable of enforcing the writ of the state, outside forces will intervene if they are attacked.
So we end up with a contradiction between our respect for human rights and the very real threat we face today. If we do what we have been doing for years — nothing — then we risk losing the war against extremism. And yet if we resort to extra-legal means to combat terrorism, we erode the values that define civilised states.
Other states have faced this dilemma and made tough choices. We need to decide quickly where we stand. Time is running out.