Not on their watch

Published December 21, 2014
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SOMETIMES, anecdotes suffice. Late last year, after a wave of terror attacks in KP had forced the government to think about militancy, the prime minister held a round of consultations with the usual suspects from the media, the analyst community, civil society and the like.

At one of those meetings, the prime minister said he was simply there to listen, invited everyone he had gathered to speak their minds and patiently held a pencil in his hand, occasionally jotting something down.

For hours, folk you read and hear and watch if you’re interested in politics and security talked exhaustively about militancy and terrorism and what they individually thought needed to be done.

Many talked about the counter-insurgency in Fata. Afghanistan was debated. The US was discussed. India was mentioned. Civil-military was analysed. Lack of resources, how to find those resources, how to build on existing resources, it was all parsed.

Collating all the thoughts and opinions voiced that afternoon it amounted to a fairly comprehensive and impressive action plan — if the state were ever to get serious about fighting the militants who are fighting it.

The political and military leadership knows it can happen again. It knows it can’t stop it from happening again.

One thing stood out though: there was no discussion of Punjab. It was not even mentioned. It was all TTP, Fata, KP, Karachi, Islamabad, bad militants, Afghan Taliban, Haqqanis even. But no Punjab.

Perhaps propriety dictated that, given the host that afternoon is the king of Punjab. But the topic was terrorism and how to make Pakistan safe and the host had urged a frank discussion. So, at the end, after everyone had spoken and no one had mentioned Punjab, I asked the prime minister about his province.

What’s the point in talking about militancy if the debate is limited to the fires that are already raging; what about Punjab, where everyone knows there’s a militancy presence bigger than Fata and KP combined and where the PML-N is known to be in bed with at least some militants?

That was the only time in those several hours that Nawaz became animated. He quickly and flatly denied any links between his party and Punjab-based militants and denied that Punjab has an outsize militancy problem. He didn’t need to.

The few ministers in attendance leapt to their boss and their province’s defence. Not true. No terrorism in Punjab. No such thing. No understanding with any militant groups. It’s all a lie. Everyone else at that table knew they were lying, possibly to themselves, certainly to us.

Another anecdote. From the Kayani era, an anecdote relevant still because it extends to the decisive, dashing Raheel era. The anecdote was narrated second-hand.

Gen K had invited a small group of civilian security experts for a chat. They were there to talk about the counter-insurgency in Fata and the spillover into the cities. At some point, one of the participants asked the general about Punjab.

Nothing you do in Fata or KP will matter as long as Punjab remains untouched, as long as Hafiz Saeed and his ilk are allowed to run around. The two zones are connected, you can’t fix one problem without addressing the other; why aren’t you dealing with Punjab, Gen K was asked.

As he was inclined to do when asked a difficult question, Gen K puffed on his cigarette, said nothing for a while and then quietly turned to address someone else. After the meeting though, Gen K pulled aside his guest who had asked about Punjab.

I was not avoiding your question, he said, I didn’t want to answer it in front of everyone else. Then, in typical Kayani style, he responded with a question of his own: do you want me to break the army, to fracture it by opening another front? I won’t allow that on my watch.

Not on my watch. There it was, an honest answer, given in private, the same answer that Nawaz would probably give in a private, honest moment. Not on my watch.

But things, awful, terrible things, do happen on their watch. We lived through one this week. Why, people ask, is that never enough to spur the political and military leadership into saying, enough. Never again. Not on my or anyone else’s watch.

Because bad things happening does not mean worse cannot happen. What the people don’t know, the political and military leadership does: better — politically and militarily better — to deal with the bad than to have to deal with the worse.

Most here have forgotten why Musharraf delayed action against Lal Masjid for six months in 2007 and what happened after the raid. Which is also why most here cannot understand why that odious man, Abdul Aziz, is allowed to mock the nation’s pain and threaten peaceful citizens gathered outside his mosque.

“If I am arrested the administration will not be able to control the protest rallies all over Pakistan. And if they kill me then there would be so many suicide attacks that it would surpass the reaction that followed the death of my brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi,” that odious man, Abdul Aziz, threatened on Friday from inside his mosque.

Aziz was being honest. The political and military leadership knows that. That political and military leadership saw what happened after July 2007, when a wave of suicide bombings and fidayeen attacks that convulsed the country were traced back to anger over the Lal Masjid raid.

The political and military leadership knows it can happen again. The political and military leadership knows it can’t stop it from happening again. The political and military leadership does not want it to happen again, at least not on their watch.

Better then to keep Aziz onside, especially since he is willing to remain on the right side. Like so many in Punjab.

So it’s fear then? Weak leadership and a broken state? Not entirely.

Because you always have to wonder, of the men deployed to track Abdul Aziz’s ugly threats, how many are there to keep an eye on Aziz and how many to stand in prayer behind him?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2014

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