BENEATH the rare show of unity over the Peshawar school tragedy the divide is more than apparent. While seemingly united in grief over the ghastly massacre, there is still no clear national narrative about how to deal with those responsible for this heinous crime. It is not just the matter of six killers who slaughtered innocent children, but also the apologists for militant groups that continue to operate with impunity.
It is a pity that it took the death of over 130 schoolchildren for the government to wake up to the need for a coherent counterterrorism strategy and even for that the task has been assigned to a multiparty committee. Even a tragedy of such proportions has failed to shake the prime minister fully out of his inertia and get him to adopt a more proactive role.
A counterterrorism policy is believed to have long been under discussion, but it never took shape despite some major terrorist attacks claiming thousands of lives. And surely, there is not much hope that the committee comprising members of political parties with such diverse views on the very meaning of militancy and violent extremism, would come out with any comprehensive plan of action.
It is good to finally hear that the government does not make any distinction between the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’, although this rhetoric is all lost in the very interpretation and meaning of the ‘Taliban’. But what about those extremists and jihadi groups who may not fall in either of these two brackets?
This ambiguity has harmed our national security more than anything else and turned the country into a breeding ground for militancy. It was the same group with whom the government was engaged in peace talks just a few months ago that has claimed responsibility for the slaughtering of the schoolchildren, and other major terrorist strikes previously.
There is no shortage of anti-terrorism laws in the country; the real issue is of their enforcement.
The Peshawar massacre is being described as the 9/11 of Pakistan, but certainly the government’s response is not what the situation would demand. Consultation with other political parties on a critical national security issue is one thing, but abdication of its responsibility is something else. One wonders how a committee comprising disparate political groups can make a counterterrorism policy in seven days — something the government could not do in one and a half years.
While the government has ‘outsourced’ the task of framing a policy to a multiparty committee, the military seems to have already taken charge of deciding a plan of action. The picture of the meeting at the GHQ last week appears to show that it is not Sharif, the prime minister, but Sharif, the army chief, who is at the helm.
Indeed, the military has a critical role in the internal security policy, but it is primarily the responsibility of the elected civilian leadership to take the lead and decide the course of action. This is certainly not the case here. The government’s inaction has shifted the initiative to GHQ.
And what we have seen so far is typically military retaliation. Intensified air and intelligence-driven ground actions have killed dozens of suspected militants in the last week. Within hours of the Peshawar incident, apparently on the insistence of the military, the government lifted the moratorium on executions. Since then, several convicted militants have been hanged.
For many, all those actions may be justified under the prevailing circumstances. Yet they cannot be a substitute for a coherent counterterrorism policy. Such actions taken in revenge may distract attention from the need to take a more serious approach to root out the causes of militancy and violent extremism. The decapitation strategy has its own limitation. Terror must not be the response to terrorism.
Merely hanging dozens of convicted militants cannot stop terrorist violence that is so deeply rooted in the radical religious narrative. There is a need for an overarching strategy to counter that narrative as well as to eliminate the terrorist networks and their abettors in our midst.
There is no shortage of anti-terrorism laws in the country; the real issue is of their strict enforcement. No action is taken against radical clerics like Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, who incite violence and defend the slaughtering of innocent civilians and soldiers in the name of religion.
There are thousands of madressahs spread across the country inculcating radical jihadi ideology in the pupils. The threat to their lives prevents the judges from convicting militants involved in sectarian killings. Thousands of suspected militants have been in military detention for years, but no step has been taken by the government to put them on trial. Even those who are tried are freed by the courts for lack of evidence.
The National Counter-Terrorism Authority (Nacta) has remained dormant resulting in the complete breakdown of coordination among various intelligence and law-enforcement agencies which is critical to monitor the activities of the extremist groups operating in different regions. Many of the terrorist attacks could have been prevented by activating Nacta.
These are the issues that have to be addressed in order to deal with the menace of terrorism and militancy more effectively. Though both civilian and military leadership have pledged to fight militants of all hues, there is no indication of any action taken against those openly preaching jihad against other countries. Mere condemnation of the Peshawar incident does not make them acceptable.
The Peshawar school massacre could certainly become a turning point in the country’s struggle against militancy and terrorism — but only if our political and military leaders sincerely adhere to their pledges. The tragedy has united the nation as never before; even those who had refused to accept it as our own war now seem to have had a change of heart. One hopes that this unity does not dissipate with the passage of time as we have seen on so many occasions in the past.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn December 24th , 2014