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Thoughts after the march

October 09, 2012


IMRAN Khan’s much-publicised Waziristan peace march is over, but it has left many questions unanswered in its wake about the politics behind the move. It would have been understandable if the march was meant to protest against the CIA drone strikes and the collateral damage caused by these illegal actions. But the very connotation of a peace march has confused its objective.

It also raises questions about the PTI’s understanding of the highly complex nature of the conflict and security issues in the tribal areas. US drone strikes and the Taliban’s war against the Pakistani people and the state are two separate issues which Mr Khan tends to confuse.

His statements calling the Taliban stakeholders in peace amount to a cruel joke for the thousands of victims of suicide bombings and terrorism. This policy of appeasement, however, has failed to work with the Taliban who declared Mr Khan “a Westernised secular man”.

But to his credit, Imran Khan has taken a consistent position against the CIA’s controversial drone war in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He indeed represents the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who see the relentless Predator strikes on their soil as immoral, unethical and inhuman.

There is growing evidence of a large number of civilian casualties despite the claims of precision attacks on high-value targets. The legality of the remote-controlled drones is being increasingly questioned by the United Nations and international human rights organisations.

Indubitably, the PTI’s rally has been successful in further highlighting the insane use of mechanical weapons of destruction to carry out extrajudicial killings. The participation of members of American and other human rights groups in the march also helped draw international attention to the illegal drone campaign. Predictably, the rally was stopped short of its destination of Kotkai village in South Waziristan, but that was just a symbolic point on the map.

The anti-drone campaign, however, cannot be effective without a clear and overarching anti-terrorism policy which Imran Khan has failed to offer. In fact, his sympathy for the Taliban and the so-called jihadists has blurred the focus of his anti-drone campaign and sent a confused message to his own supporters. It is not enough to condemn isolated incidents of terrorism. More important is to draw a clear political and ideological line.

The Taliban and other militant factions are engaged in armed insurgency against the Pakistani state that has nothing to do with the US drone campaign in the tribal areas. The militant violence has killed many more Pakistanis than those who have died in drone attacks and has incurred incalculable economic losses. The militancy presents a much greater threat to the country’s security than do the drones.

South Waziristan, which was supposed to be the destination of the PTI’s peace march, has not been devastated by drone strikes, but hundreds of thousands of tribesmen have been forced to leave their homes in the area as a result of the fighting between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban.

Indeed, the use of military force alone is not the solution to the rising militancy, but it cannot be avoided when the writ of the state is challenged. The military operation in South Waziristan had become unavoidable in 2009 after the Taliban had turned the region into a base for terrorist attacks targeting security installations and civilians. It was from here that the Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud is believed to have plotted the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

If he had been allowed to go to Kotkai, once a major training centre for suicide bombers, Imran Khan would have found a deserted place. Its entire population was forced to leave because of the fighting. It has been three years now since the military operation started, but the village is still not safe enough for the inhabitants to return. That may also have been the reason that the rally was not allowed to go beyond Tank, the last post before the tribal territory.

It was soon after a military operation in 2009 that I visited the devastated structure of a building in the centre of Kotkai village which was used to train suicide bombers. Run by Qari Hussain, one of the most ferocious Pakistani Taliban commanders, the centre had produced hundreds of suicide bombers, many of them as young as 10 or 12 years old, who had wreaked havoc in Pakistani cities and killed thousands of innocent women and children. Certainly those responsible for using innocent children as human bombs do not have any stake in peace. Imran Khan in his interviews often supports negotiations with the militants. But past experience has shown that peace deals have only been used by the militants to gain more space and reorganise themselves. The case of Swat, and South and North Waziristan are the biggest examples. Swat was virtually surrendered to the Taliban when the government signed a peace deal with Mullah Fazlullah. The militants were driven out from the region, but the hold of the government is still tentative.

A major question is how one can negotiate with those who seek to impose their retrogressive ways on the population through brute force. How can the state reconcile with the forces of fanaticism that are bombing schools and beheading those who do not subscribe to their obscurantist worldview? Their campaign against immunisation has put hundreds of thousands of children in Fata and areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at risk of polio and other diseases.

It is not the drones that are responsible for the rise of this regressive mindset and violent extremism in the country. It is a grave mistake to link the two. The drone strikes are now limited to North Waziristan which has also become the main hub of foreign fighters and Pakistani militants. While opposing the use of drones, one must not lose sight of the threat posed to regional security by militant sanctuaries in the area.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain