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Where do we stand?

Updated March 23, 2018


TODAY being March 23, it seems apt to offer some impressions about the so-called Bajwa doctrine, which, as others have written about in recent days, appears to outline the establishment’s thinking on a whole host of matters affecting the polity.

It is a measure of just how militarised our state and society are that it is simply taken for granted that the top brass openly lectures us on political affairs. To put this fact into stark relief, let us consider how the security establishment is doing in its actual field of expertise — defence.

Since 2001, we have been bred on the notion that ‘terrorism’ poses the biggest threat to our collective peace. On the surface, there can be little disagreement with this claim; it is indeed true that many parts of this country, particularly peripheries like Fata and Balochistan, but also big cities like Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, have been afflicted by significant levels of terrorist violence. This includes everything from deaths and maiming due to bomb attacks and targeted killings to the psychological terror of enforced disappearances.

Read: Is it the chief’s ‘doctrine’?

The disagreement starts when the state demands uncontested loyalty from ordinary citizens so as to prosecute what has become known the world over as the ‘war on terror’. It is an indicator of just how manipulative the state’s narrative has been that for many years after 2001, Pakistani society has engaged in a circular debate within about whether this is ‘our war’ or if in fact it has been imposed upon us from without. It is not as if this confusion has persisted by chance — it is clear that it can be at least partially attributed to the establishment’s ambivalence about ‘terrorism’.

To this day, the question of whether this is ‘our war’ or not continues to rage, but as has been the case since the very beginning of the ‘debate’, its very terms are set out to obfuscate matters rather than illuminate them.

On March 23, there is much to reflect on.

The eruption of the popular movement which has become known as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has made it untenable for the hitherto limited debate on ‘terrorism’ to remain so, nothwithstanding the typical refrain that the PTM and those who support it are all doing the bidding of the ‘enemies of the state’. Irrespective of whether one is supportive of the PTM or not, the fact is that the same ordinary people who in the mainstream narrative are being ‘saved’ from the ‘terrorists’ by military operations and the like are disputing this narrative.

They are saying many things, including (a) that the targets of counterterrorism operations are often innocents; (b) that the means used in such operations are indiscriminate and turn ‘hearts and minds’ against the state; and (c) that the state’s historical ‘national security’ line vis-à-vis both the ordinary people in border zones like Fata and neighbouring countries is itself part of the problem.

These are brave claims to make, but it is worth bearing in mind that this is not the first time that the establishment’s mandate has been challenged.

Until a few years ago, Baloch youth and intellectuals were calling attention to the state’s ‘national security’ policies in the country’s biggest province. They too were crying themselves hoarse over the fact that violence breeds violence, and the state’s ongoing resort to military operations to quell a long-standing political conflict was only going to exacerbate an already volatile situation.

Today we are told to accept at face value that Balochistan is peaceful, that the ‘troublemakers’ have been pacified, and that ‘development’ is on the way. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of this country’s history knows that every episode of pacification in Balochistan leads only to a temporary ‘peace’ because the funda­mentally oppressive nature of the state’s engagement with the Baloch people remains unaddressed.

To return to the Pakhtun theatre of the ‘war on terror’, the truth is that it has been 40 years since the war began in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back then, terror was an overt political weapon used by the state (Pakistani, American, Saudi, etc) to achieve strategic objectives. Today, we appear to be suffering the fallouts of sustained state patronage of militancy. The people of the regions most affected by war are asking for answers to simple questions, and rightfully so.

I wonder when the better-resourced Pakistanis living in big cities and abroad will also start asking questions — not to embarrass or undermine Pakistan but in fact to set into motion a process that can one day mean security for this country’s people.

A secure and peaceful country in which ordinary citizens celebrate their histories, live in harmony and hold their rulers to account. That is, after all, what the political leaders who penned the Lahore Resolution on March 23, 1940, had in mind.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2018