Glimmer of hope?

Published May 3, 2014

“SIR, we support democracy but aren’t we allowed to ask why in the six years of representative rule none of our elected presidents or the prime ministers have ever bothered to visit us on the frontline?” asked a junior officer posted in North Waziristan Agency.

“No civilian leader seems to want to own us. On top of this only in our country we have media debates such as the one on who is/isn’t a shaheed, when every day we risk our lives. We’ll continue to do what is right but sometimes do feel confused why we are doing this as we feel lonely.”

What could one say? The question must have arisen dozens of times in my own mind in recent years, given that Western leaders regularly visit their troops in dangerous places such as Helmand in Afghanistan. Perhaps our leaders are not given security clearance by the military-run security, protection set-up.

Social media allows one to establish contact and communicate with people in the remotest nooks and crannies of the country. Of course, due diligence is required as first one has to ascertain the true identity of the party at the other end before exchanging and sharing thoughts.

It would be foolhardy for me to generalise but I get a strong sense from my e-conversations with young officers deployed on the frontline facing Taliban-Al Qaeda militants that despite having taken heavy casualties, their resolve to eliminate terrorism remain unshaken.

In fact, when the government announced its decision to give negotiations a try, instead of the widely anticipated military operations, the disappointment of many soldiers was palpable in our discussions. They seemed oblivious to the ‘good’ Taliban concept and keen to get on with their job.

Many of them complained that for years they have been in holding positions and having to take the brunt of the terror attacks. “We just can’t sit and be pounded day in and day out. We are trained to take the fight to the enemy,” I recall one saying to me.

This may form a very tiny part of the civil-military ties conundrum in our present situation but it is important. What also needs to be acknowledged is that many of these young officers, some with barely a few years under the belt, may not be aware of how we got to where we are today.

But what is no less significant is that there seems to be a conscious effort now to redefine tomorrow. Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif’s speech on Martyrs Day underlining his commitment to Jinnah’s ‘unity, faith, discipline’ motto and the fact that the ideological frontier’s red herring was conspicuous by its absence in his address inspired hope.

His pledge to follow the law and Constitution and respect democracy was reassuring but then in Pakistan there is many a slip between cup and lip. While the official complaint against Geo TV by the army-ISI is being considered by Pemra and should be decided on merit, a mysterious hand was at work blocking the delivery of the channel to thousands of homes in the country.

Side by side evidence exists that militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (whatever the current name of the ‘charity’) and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which for long years have been identified as state proxies, are being inserted and given an expanded role in nationalist strongholds of Sindh and Balochistan.

This is not all. In Balochistan many a militant religious Johnny-come-lately has been given free rein to deal with the militant separatist threat perhaps because it appears keener judicial scrutiny has forced the state to delegate some unsavoury tasks to surrogates.

The separatists have targeted and killed many innocent civilians, most notably non-Baloch settlers, but is it conscionable for the state to enforce its will through extra-judicial means such as disappearances and, on evidence of guilt having been extracted in some torture chamber, summary executions?

Balochistan has had legitimate unaddressed grievances for some 66 years now and even if a dialogue with the hardline separatist leaders isn’t considered viable, at least the separatist threat should be dealt with as per the law and all proxies should be disbanded and done away with.

As the country’s civilian leadership grapples, with varying degrees of success, with a multitude of challenges including governance issues, who knows if the military leadership is also trying to turn around an oil tanker-like legacy of policies such as strategic depth and use of faith-based fanatical groups to further foreign policy goals.

The way Gen Sharif slow-marched in step with soldiers decades younger than himself on Martyrs’ Day, the way his arm takes the perfect ‘longest way up and shortest down’ as he salutes with his fingers and thumb joined together and his middle finger the regulation inch above his brow, he no doubt appears a soldier’s soldier.

His ultimate service to this nation and his institution would be to consider and implement recommendations such as those penned in the Zulfikar Ali Khan Commission and Saleem Shahzad Inquiry Commission reports about the role and remit of the intelligence agencies.

Pakistan needs to move, and move decisively, to crush the existential threats it faces in the shape of terrorism and the all-pervasive bigotry and the intolerance it engenders. The sooner we close ranks and are on the same page the better. For to many a despair-filled soul, such as me admittedly, it may seem a bit too late already.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.



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