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The dangers ahead

February 13, 2016


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

FRANKLY, the more one examines the positions of key state functionaries on terrorism the more one feels that any improvements in the security environment may be temporary, making the loss of hundreds, even thousands, of lives of army, paramilitary and police personnel more tragic than it needed to be.

First, the army chief addressing his formation commanders on Thursday declared that militants are being funded externally by hostile intelligence agencies and have their sympathisers at home who provide them shelter and refuge.

Gen Raheel Sharif also called for steadfastly staying the course to defeat the “nefarious designs of the enemies” while lauding the successes of Zarb-i-Azb and other operations launched by the officers and troops under his command.

Then there was the supposedly ‘in-camera’ briefing the same day by the Intelligence Bureau chief Aftab Sultan to the Senate widely reported in the media in which he is quoted to have said that security forces have smashed an IS (the militant Islamic State group) network in Pakistan after the Karachi Safoora Goth bus massacre last year.

The DG IB echoed the army chief’s view of a decline in terrorism incidents owing to the operations and extra vigilance of the security set-up. His assertion about IS was at odds with the man he directly reports to. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has repeatedly denied the existence of the murderous militant group’s footprint on Pakistani soil.

But more significant than this contrast, or contradiction if you like, was Aftab Sultan’s reported assessment that the mindset of two generations was affected by (the toxic religiosity of) Zia’s rule and it was imperative to change this thinking. It cannot be reformed overnight and would take eight to 10 years for this to happen.

The DG IB’s assertion about IS was at odds with the man he directly reports to: Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

For someone I have never even spoken to on phone or met and don’t know at all, I found myself more or less in agreement with Aftab Sultan’s diagnosis. Beyond that though there is disagreement. He says it would take up to 10 years to change the mindset. So many despair-filled Pakistanis like me would happily accept this statement.

What’s a decade in the life of a nation? What pains me is that while this mindset, which I consider no less than an existential threat to the country, can be reversed over a period of time one sees no sign of the sort of concerted, cohesive effort that would demonstrably need to go in.

This isn’t just about the slow evolution of the National Counter Terrorism Authority or tardy implementation of the National Action Plan, which was agreed to serve as a bulwark against the tide of extremist assaults.

This is about the ongoing confusion, for what else can one call it, in the minds of the architects and executors of the national security policy and their ambivalence towards the terrorists of various descriptions that led to the cliché good and bad Taliban.

When Zarb-i-Azb was announced following the daredevil terror attack on the Karachi Airport, one has a clear recollection of the army spokesman Gen Asim Bajwa categorically saying that ‘all forms’ of terrorism-extremism will be weeded out.

If there was any doubt in at least my mind of such a thing happening, it disappeared after the Army Public School, Peshawar, massacre where the brutality of the terrorists in targeting schoolchildren meant only one thing: that all terrorists would face the might of the state.

Initially, one thought that militants who posed the most immediate and potentially the most lethal threat were being targeted first and the operation would target all hues at one point in time or another in a phased exercise. It would have made sense.

Opening too many fronts simultaneously would leave the security forces overextended. With the passage of time, the sad realisation is settling in that the state still doesn’t appear prepared to see the pitfalls of remaining friends with one denomination of extremists while it targets others.

How else would you see that Punjab-based Jaish-e-Mohammad led by Maulana Masood Azhar had been left at liberty to operate out of offices in provincial urban centres, despite being on a list of ‘proscribed’ militant entities?

Only perfunctory action against the group was initiated when the Indians blamed it for the Pathankot air force base attack. Jaish’s attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, after its hijacking of an Indian airliner, nearly triggered war between the two countries.

Jaish has had an overlap of membership with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, the two organisations which, according to the IB chief, now have close ties with IS. All share similar sectarian ideologies.

Ask around and you’ll find we are still in denial, perhaps conveniently, about the perpetrators of the Mumbai mayhem in 2008. Many in authority don’t even acknowledge Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani from a village near Okara despite categorical reports in our own media.

We have now given up whatever pretence we had about hosting Afghan Taliban here. After news of Mullah Omar’s death in a Pakistani hospital emerged earlier, it has now been reported that Mullah Hassan Rahmani died from a protracted illness in Pakistan. Imran Khan also confirmed a senior Taliban leader was treated at his Lahore cancer hospital.

We let the Haqqani network operate from safe havens on our soil for years. But neither the Taliban leadership nor the Haqqani network have ever lent us a helping hand in eradicating TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan where the former’s martial prowess is said to be the major reason of our support to them.

Our national security gurus can believe whatever they want about various groups’ aims and loyalties, categorise them as good or bad. But all the militant groups are one, united by common ideology; any alignment with outside forces is only made for tactical reasons and is transitory.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2016