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Attack on a place of peace

February 18, 2017

THE terrorist violence unleashed across the county culminated on Thursday with a devastating attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh. The country is at war. While high officials of the state have vowed to take the fight to the militants and terrorists with renewed vigour, it is apparent that an urgent overhaul is needed in the state’s approach. From the scale and geographical spread of the recent attacks across the length and breadth of the country, it appears that militant networks have either been rebuilt or that they were not depleted to the extent claimed by the state in the first place. The two metrics of anti-militancy success most touted by the state were the overall decline in terrorist incidents and the number of militants killed. While eye-catching, those numbers conceal a great deal about the extent of militant activity, particularly the network of facilitation that hides attackers, and arms and helps them to reach their targets. So, the first thing that should be determined is why the recent wave of bombings, whether deliberately coordinated or opportunistically coincidental, is taking place. A fierce response by the state must be rooted in an honest, accurate assessment of the militancy problem in its latest manifestation.

Unsurprisingly, the military leadership has turned instantly to Afghanistan and the problem of anti-Pakistan militancy sanctuaries there. There will almost certainly be some evidence linking at least some of the recent attacks to militant leaders and fighters in the Pak-Afghan border region; militants invariably congregate and are concentrated in areas where the state’s influence is relatively scarce. But the reactive nature of the Pakistani demand to capture or eliminate militants is familiar and worrying. The Afghan government and US forces in that country can surely do more to prevent anti-Pakistan militants from operating on Afghan soil, but it appears to be a policy problem tied to the overall issue of militancy in the region. Pakistan cannot and should not accept the current state of affairs and the indifference that Kabul has shown towards its core concerns. Afghanistan must be made to understand and accept that the fight against militancy is a common war that requires regional effort and coordination. Yet, does Pakistan truly make the diplomatic and security effort needed to persuade Afghanistan in what amount to peaceful interruptions between waves of violence? Six months from today, will Pakistani officials be as determined to seek and win Kabul’s cooperation?

Domestically, the challenges are even more daunting. The National Action Plan has become something of a running joke: the plan is more of a wish list and its implementation is more wishful than real. Indeed, a case can be made for a review of NAP itself, to make it more focused and to assess how its implementation can be improved. Coordination between the civilian and military leaderships, across the provinces and between the tiers of government, is an obvious impediment. All sides bear some responsibility for the situation. The military leadership’s militarised approach to security and partial politicisation of counterterrorism operations, especially in Sindh, has blocked effective coordination with the civilians. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to send mixed signals on the militancy issue and appears in denial of the true dimensions of the problem. When senior government ministers publicly contradict the known sectarian and religious dimensions of militancy, can the government really steer the anti-militancy problem effectively?

Finally, there is a need to reiterate what is at stake and the parameters within which the state must conduct itself. On this, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is right: the attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is an attack on the ideology of Pakistan and the vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. What the militants seek is not just the overthrow of the state, but the very rejection of a tolerant, peaceful and inclusive Pakistan. Theirs is an ideology of hate and it involves robbing this country and its people of their very essence. Jinnah’s Pakistan stands for the peaceful coexistence of all and a celebration of diversity. It must be the bedrock of all state action, even against militants. The violence unleashed by the state in response to the recent attacks is therefore disturbing — militancy must be fought decisively, but it must be fought while maintaining the moral vision of the country’s founding father.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2017