They want you to believe this is a reaction to Peshawar. But they’ve wanted this for a long time: military courts. It wasn’t possible before. Too ugly, too difficult. Then Peshawar happened.
Peshawar was not sui generis, an atrocity that changed all the rules. Peshawar was the logical culmination of a long, persistent struggle.
It began somewhere in the darkness of the late 2000s. The game of cat and mouse between the military and the anti-Pak militants had begun to morph.
Peshawar didn’t invent this: Peshawar gave them the excuse.
No longer confined to Fata, it had spread to the cities and Pakistan proper. Even in Fata, the nature of the fight had begun to change, from small, localised operations to full-scale war.
What to do about the men captured alive? Sometimes, you wanted to capture them alive: they provided valuable intelligence. Other times, you had no choice but to capture them alive, to take prisoners in the dozens and hundreds.
For years, the problem had been small enough to not cause much consternation. An irritant, as it were. Some were disposed of, no questions asked. Others were handed over to the courts, eventually released and then picked up again. An ugly cycle that created resentment on all sides, but still manageable enough.
Swat, South Waziristan and Iftikhar Chaudhry changed all of that. In Swat, they were picked up in the thousands. There were packed into rooms, buildings, anywhere with a lock and a key and a guard to stand watch. Too many to stay at the margins.
Also read: Military courts: a wrong move
The army wasn’t willing to let them go — the victory in Swat too important, the fight too bitter to forget. But feed them into the system and most would likely walk. It wasn’t the courts’ fault.
The system and the rules hadn’t caught up to the fact a war was being fought. From South Waziristan, they spilled out into the cities, travelling to faraway Karachi, turbocharging the militant threat there and everywhere, forcing the system to capture more and more, leaving in its wake darker and darker tales.
It all eventually got too much. For Iftikhar Chaudhry, anyway. What the hell is going on, the crusading CJ asked. Bring us all these people, Chaudhry demanded. What are you doing to them, the Supreme Court all but yelled.
Think missing persons. They became a thing because of Chaudhry and his court. People started to ask questions. The excesses began to be talked about. The spillover into Balochistan began to be debated. It started to become uncomfortable.
Think the Adiala 11. That wretched lot, accused by the army of some of the most audacious attacks, set free by the courts and then scooped up from outside the gates of Adiala.
No one remembered the Adiala 11. Except the court. The army refused to budge. The court pushed harder. Eventually, the broken, distended bodies began to turn up. Then, the horrifying spectacle in the court itself, barely recognisable humans brought in front of collapsing relatives. The public was repulsed. Surely, not in our names. It was hard to tell who the monster was, who the victim.
It all became too much. Swat and South Waziristan had already set the wheels in motion. Ideas were canvassed. Opinions were sought. We need a system to make these guys pay, the boys insisted.
Slowly, they began to get their system. You’ve heard of it in recent years. Strange names. Actions in Aid of Civil Power, Fata, Pata. Anti-Terrorism Amendment Ordinance, VII, VIII. Fair Trial Act. POPO. Amended POPO. POPO that became POPA, some say PPA. Article 245 invoked.
It was all legislative and administrative. All done by the civilians. All engineered by the boys.
Sometimes, it was presented as a favour: if you want us to do this, then these are the tools we need. Other times, it was postulated as a necessity: the problem is growing, we can’t go on like this, do this and this so that we can do what’s needed.
Always, it edged us closer to a hermetically closed system. Plucked from the battlefield or a safe house in a ghetto somewhere, kept in secrecy and done to whatever is necessary. Then, marched to either a cell or an execution chamber, depending on how relevant you are, how much repentance you’ve expressed and how lenient the system wants to be.
Think of it as a stone-crushing factory. Truck pulls up, dumps a bunch of boulders onto a conveyor belt. Sorry, you can’t ask if they’re boulders or if they need to be crushed. We know what we’re doing. Let us do our job.
The boulders bump along the conveyor belt, a few pulled off on occasion by someone or the other. Sorry, we needed that one. No, you can’t ask us why. We know what we’re doing. Let us do our job. Occasionally, a boulder is returned to the belt.
Eventually, the surviving boulders arrive at the crushing site. They stay in there a while. All that emerges are neatly packed bags with powdered stone.Nope, you can’t ask us what went on in there. No, you may not ask how they were selected. We know what we’re doing. Let us do our job. Trust us. OK, goodbye.
And then, the neatly packed bags of powdered stone are loaded onto trucks and driven away. That’s what a hermetically sealed system looks like, militarily, administratively, legally. That’s what they’ve wanted and, now, with military courts, that’s what they’ve got.
Peshawar didn’t invent this; Peshawar gave them the excuse.
We know what we’re doing. Let us do our job. Trust us. OK, goodbye.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2015