Can Pakistan’s F-16s fight terror?

Published April 16, 2016
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Pakistan says it desperately wants Lockheed-Martin Block-V F-16 fighter-bombers at $87 million apiece for fighting terrorists in tribal badlands such as North Waziristan. An order for eight jets has already been placed. The US Senate is sympathetic; a move to ban the sale was massively rejected by majority vote. Lockheed-Martin, which peddles its deadly wares to all who can pay, has already sold 4,500 F-16s to 25 countries. It must be pleased at this small, but tidy, deal of $700m.

But thoughtful Pakistanis should be worried. Wag­ing an aerial war against your own population is not a good idea. Even if you have to, shouldn’t much cheaper weaponised drones be preferred over advanced fighter aircraft whose real job is to shoot down other planes? A drone, technically known as UAV, is far more precise than any fighter because it can loiter undetected over a target, capture and collect information better, and reduce — though never eliminate — damage to innocents. India is currently negotiating with the US for buying 40 Predator drones.

Editorial: Crackdown on extremism

Drones merely crawl across the sky and so they won’t stand a chance if the Taliban air force somehow acquires heaven-gifted Mach-3.5 Buraqs armed with advanced JDAMs. Then, at the very least, the fifth generation F-35 Lightning Fighter will be needed. Until that time, a state-of-the art aircraft is a ridiculously expensive choice for fighting wild-eyed local tribesmen and assorted fanatics from Central Asia.

To destroy terrorism will require a massive change of public attitudes.

More importantly, F-16s or drones can’t even dent the enemy’s real armour — his ideology. The Taliban are fighting to forcibly transform Pakistan into a state run by Sharia law. In the last two to three decades millions of Pakistanis have come to share enthusiasm for Sharia. Even while fighting the Taliban, many of our soldiers have agreed with their goal while disagreeing with their method. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have died believing they are fighting agents of a foreign hand rather than religiously inspired fellow Muslims.

Military force, though sometimes indispensable, cannot eliminate those who live only to die. Pakistan has learned insufficiently from mighty America’s multiple failures in Afghanistan. No amount of aerial bombing, precision artillery, or even scorched-earth operations can daunt those who imagine they have been commanded by God to reform society. Faith, if strong enough, trumps fear.

So what will it take to get the upper hand in this existential conflict? The very first step is to realise that temporary victories achieved by use of force, while welcome, can fuel false hopes. After Operation Zarb-i-Azb, casualties from terrorist attacks have decreased by almost 40pc. A euphoric ISPR statement declared in December 2015 that, “Phenomenal success achieved. Terrorist backbone broken.”

But no backbone was broken. The enemy is just resting. The subsequent suicide attacks on Bacha Khan University, and Gulshan-i-Iqbal children’s park in Lahore, proved this. No one doubts that more atrocities will follow this year and next.

To destroy terrorism will require a massive change of public attitudes and a complete repudiation of Pakistan’s current policy. This uses two hoses to fight a terrible fire. One pours water to douse the flames. But the other hose spews petrol, subtracting from the gains made by the first.

The petrol is in the form of incendiary television evening talk shows that justify or implicitly condone terrorism. Some hidden hand — India, Afghanistan, Israel, or America — is held to be responsible for all acts of terror. Today’s television anchors and their guests are mostly those who had once claimed that Pakistan’s war on terror is “not our war”. Under army pressure they have stepped back recently, but only somewhat.

Drumming up jingoistic and religious sentiment, television has helped create an ambience where terrorism was explained away as resistance to Western invasions. Do readers remember TV’s denunciation of the Lal Masjid operation? Or the ‘discovery’ by multiple TV channels that suicide bombers were non-Muslims because they had not been circumcised?

To ban certain anchors and guests from freely peddling their lies using public media, and to jail them if necessary, would deflate popular support for extremists. Broadly, it is time to criminalise support for terrorism as much as terrorism itself. Those offering justification and rationalisation of such acts, financing through donations, or opening front organisations should be punished.

More than F-16s, Pakistan needs better intelligence. This could have prevented the Army Public School slaughter, and countless other atrocities. But, although budgets allocated to our multiple intelligence organisations are said to be generous, their professionalism mysteriously crashes when it comes to surveilling militant jihadist organisations.

Example: until earlier this week our spies were apparently unaware that Jamaatud Dawa, which was added on to the UN’s list of international terrorists groups in 2008, has been running a parallel — and wholly illegal — system of justice for many years. ‘Sharia courts’ in Lahore, Gujranwala, Bahawalpur, Multan, and Islamabad have so far ruled on 5,529 cases. In case of murder, compensatory blood money was fixed at the price of 100 camels. Those found guilty have been too afraid to challenge the court’s decision.

This brings to mind the Red Mosque. In 2007, its clerics had also illegally instituted their own system of justice that involved kidnapping Islamabad’s residents and trying them for moral crimes. Finally beaten down by the army, the price tag was 11 dead Special Services Group commandos and over 120 others. But it seems that subsequently the army lost the stomach to face urban challenges. No charge of murder of army officers was ever filed against the head cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who continues to enjoy a normal life.

Religiously motivated terrorism threatens Pakis­tan’s existence. We have entered a state of permanent conflict where victory may not be possible even in 100 years. Drones or F-16s are not a solution. They may help in tribal areas but not in city environments where the enemy is thickest. Still, casualties can be reduced with good strategic thinking. Cutting off support to terrorists from their allies in the media, measures to stop radicalisation of the youth, and effective intelligence is critical. These are critical needs.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2016



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