No signs of joint action

Published March 30, 2016

THE Lahore park bombing ought to have been a moment of clarity. All institutions of the state — federal, provincial, civilian and military — need to work together, immediately, purposefully and on a sustained basis, if terrorism and militancy are to be defeated.

Yet, in the very moment that the country needed its leaders to demonstrate resolve and unity, an utterly befuddling signal has been sent.

Instead of jointly trying to address the challenge that the Lahore bombing has created, the army and political leaderships appear to have withdrawn into their respective camps.

In one city, Rawalpindi, the army chief Gen Raheel Sharif assembled his military and intelligence heads and gave orders for a wider and more urgent crackdown against militants in Punjab.

In another city, Islamabad, the civilian leadership was called into a huddle by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and emerged with seemingly fresh purpose — but very few details about what new steps are to be taken.

The speech by Prime Minister Sharif on Monday evening epitomised the confusion that the PML-N seems to create or is beset by whenever security problems come to the forefront. In a dismal echo of his January 2014 speech to parliament — in which the prime minister infamously and perplexingly opted to give talks with the banned TTP another chance — Mr Sharif delivered a speech that was high on expectation and desperately low on substance.

When the prime minister wrapped up his speech, the disbelief was hard to contain. Surely, the bloody Easter Sunday attack called for something more than familiar rhetoric and reiteration of long-established talking points.

What the country needed to hear from its prime minister was a clear and authoritative direction to the security and intelligence apparatuses to dismantle and destroy the terror networks in Punjab.

What the Lahore attack demanded was a statesmanlike response, not the pusillanimity of a politician.

Yet, as ever in the realm of civil-military relations, the other side of the equation has also acted in a dubious manner.

Perhaps the military leadership was trying to signal its resolve and willingness to take decisive actions by holding military-only meetings in quick succession and, apparently, unilaterally ordering action to be taken in Punjab.

Certainly, the military, especially its intelligence organisation, and paramilitary outfits have a role to play in counter-terrorism actions. The intelligence-based operations that the military has touted under Zarb-i-Azb are a template for joint action with civilian law-enforcement agencies.

But in the war that is being waged, urban and small-town Pakistan will only be secured over the long term if the civilian side of the state develops the capacity to secure and police population centres. Sweeping aside the civilians, then, is not just against democratic principles, but a self-defeating approach by the military.

Gen Sharif needs to work with Prime Minister Sharif and vice versa.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016

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