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A fight worth fighting

January 16, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

DID we need President Obama to tell us we are doomed to instability and militant violence for another decade or more? I think not. But then do we ever take notice of our own accord of where we are headed, without someone abroad having to shake and wake us up?

The US president’s ‘assessment’ came in his last State of the Union address of his second and final term in office and drew the usual response from Pakistan as foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz characterised Obama’s view as being not based on ground realities.

Remember it took 9/11 and a call from Uncle Sam to our dictator of that decade warning him that Pakistan will be bombed to the Stone Age before it was decided, or at least it was claimed it was decided, to cut the umbilical cord that ties the state to non-state actors, our favourite flavour of jihadis.

Now, suddenly, raids are being conducted at Jaish-run institutions in Bahawalpur and Sialkot.

But soon it was business as usual. Then, of course, Mumbai happened and, apart from all other investigations, the then DG FIA Tariq Khosa did sterling detective work — which he detailed in an article for this newspaper — and within a matter of weeks prepared a report which would normally have made prosecution an open and shut affair.

Till the eyes of the world were upon us, we pretended to act against entities long viewed as assets by the defence establishment for their ostensible separation (and, therefore, ‘plausible deniability’) from the state in extraterritorial operations. Yes, Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group falls squarely in this category.

Once the global gaze shifted to other pressing crises around the world, Pakistan reverted to a mix of denial and possible complicity. Some groups were let off the hook and allowed to operate freely in the name of ‘mainstreaming’ (reintegration into society) while for some others, even this perfunctory argument wasn’t used. They were simply ignored. In other words, allowed to carry on.

News reports in our own media, citing intelligence sources, have said that the Pathankot air force base assault was carried out by six militants who had crossed the border from Pakistan and that their links with Jaish-e-Mohammad are being investigated.

This wasn’t news to anyone claiming to be halfway well informed. JeM has long been involved in terrorism abroad and in sectarian violence on our own soil. It has also been running a jihadi production line at its main centres in Bahawalpur and Sialkot.

Till Thursday morning, the day before yesterday so there is no confusion or ambiguity, a slick jihadi website ‘AlQalamonline’ run by JeM was functioning as normal when some of us discussed it on Twitter. By the evening an ‘Under Construction’ notice had replaced the usual front page.

It isn’t clear whether the site was taken down by the group itself or PTA (encouraged by the security agencies) shifted its attention from blocking ‘blasphemous content’ or the Pakistani web users’ most-searched favourites topic ‘sex’ ie porn sites. The latter would indicate a journey from moral policing to what the PTA’s mandated task should have been.

Before the site and its content became invisible, one was able to read Maulana Masood Azhar’s latest column under his usual ‘Sa’adi’ byline where he decried the ‘foreign-instigated’ campaign against his group and warned the Pakistani authorities that his arrest or even killing won’t stop his group as he had prepared a ‘lashkar’, an army, of those happy to embrace death.

That there has been many a slip between the cup and the lip has been evidenced since the Karachi airport attack and the Army Public School, Peshawar carnage prompted the military leadership to identify religious militancy and terrorism as perilous for the country and thus unacceptable.

The launch of the operation against TTP militant bases in Fata — where progress against terrorism has come at a high price for hundreds of our valiant soldiers — led to many commentators asking for a combing exercise of institutions particularly in southern Punjab where students were being indoctrinated in jihadi ideology.

The official response was one of denial. We were told all such institutions have been ‘geo-tagged’ (whatever that means) and that the Punjab government was on top of things. Now, suddenly, raids are being conducted at Jaish-run institutions in Bahawalpur and Sialkot. Arrests of suspects are being announced, recovery of combat ‘commando’, jackets are being made public as also the sealing of some of these so-called centres of learning.

Western investigators tracking for example IS recruitment and militants have more than once talked of radicalisation via the internet, making the location and physical presence of the target recruits immaterial. What have we done to track the net for such material? Blocked YouTube? The effort seems as half-hearted as other elements of the crackdown on bigotry, intolerance and terrorism.

Some of us have argued for months and months on end that the existential threat posed to Pakistan by these merchants of mayhem is potent and real and needs to be tackled cohesively by all elements of state power, even the citizenry. We have to dissociate completely from past policies for our own survival.

The war will have to be fought on many fronts: from countering ideas, narratives on the net, the media and the mosque to firefights on the physical battlegrounds, to making sure that the future of our youth doesn’t appear so bleak that the allure of drawing blood and violent death, of heaven and houris doesn’t remain so irresistibly attractive to so many.

One doesn’t really need to list the scope of the challenge as who isn’t aware of it. Doubts abound but as an optimist let me believe that even in this apparent state of considerable decay, the state will find enough strength at its core to fight, survive and, who knows, even thrive.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2016