Did Peshawar atrocity open Pakistan’s eyes?

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged September 11 mastermind, was captured in 2003 in Pakistan by a combined force comprising members of the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency of Pakistan. AP Photo
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged September 11 mastermind, was captured in 2003 in Pakistan by a combined force comprising members of the CIA and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency of Pakistan. AP Photo

Pakistan has been at war with Islamist militants since 2002, when the army first dispatched troops to the north-west tribal areas to intercept Al Qaeda operatives fleeing the CIA special forces teams tracking them in Afghanistan.

A nationwide manhunt followed, leading to the detention in 2002 and 2003 of a slew of so-called “high value targets”, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The Pakistani government narrative, however, did not characterise those events as actions in the global war of terror. It only withdrew support from the Taliban administration in Afghanistan under duress from the US.

The government justified its about face saying that “Pakistan comes first”. The underlying message was that the Taliban weren’t really the enemy, but had landed themselves in trouble by ill-advisedly refusing US demands to hand over Osama bin Laden. In other words, it was “not our war”.

It was the first in a litany of falsehoods that have been presented to Pakistanis about their government’s policy towards Islamist terrorism. This has left the vast majority misinformed, to the extent that they were actually shocked by the massacre this month of more than 130 children at an army-run school in Peshawar.

That act of barbarity has commonly been described as a wake-up call for a grieving nation, which has thrown its weight behind the government’s call for the elimination of all terrorists, irrespective of whether they are so-called “good” Taliban or “bad” Taliban.

The screams for justice have been partly sated with the lifting of a six-year moratorium on capital punishment. The first half-dozen of 400 terrorists on death row have been hanged.

Last week, the military was given two years to wage a nationwide war against terrorists, as it saw fit. Subject to a forthcoming amendment to Pakistan’s democratic constitution, the military has been empowered to detain, interrogate, prosecute and convict terrorists by court martial.

These measures are understandable and arguably necessary, but they are an insult to the tens of thousands of Pakistanis who have died in the last 13 years. The shock with which the school attack has been received is a symptom of public ignorance about the state of the war of terror. It also betrays many Pakistanis’ insensitivity towards the suffering of the mostly Pashtun population of the north-west.

Since 2004, when the militants seized control of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the Pashtun have been sandwiched between the militants and military.

However, they have had little say in the national narrative, which is dictated by the politically dominant hinterland on the other side of the Indus river. The rest of Pakistan didn’t really know there was problem until a 2007 standoff with armed militants holed up in a central Islamabad mosque. Then in spring 2009, the Taliban were chased out of the Swat valley, which they had controlled for two years.

Until 2011, when the military campaign put the militants on the defensive, many Pakistanis in major cities felt they were at risk of a terrorist attack. When the terrorist threat seemed to diminish, many of them became preoccupied with other matters, such as the incessant demonisation of the government by its many detractors, particularly in the newly-empowered judiciary and media. There was no rallying around the flag, or sustained sympathy for the victims of terrorism – just innuendo and conspiracies to overthrow the democratic coalition of mostly liberal political parties.

So horribly ill-informed were the people that right-wing political parties actually campaigned for the May 2013 general election on the premise of a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban. They achieved some success.

That set up a year-long false narrative of “giving peace a chance”. This was predictably exploited by the militants to reorganise ahead of the inevitable resumption of war, in this case the attack on Karachi airport in June. Since then, parallel military and counterintelligence campaigns in the tribal areas have been hugely successful, but haven’t received the publicity appropriate for a national war. Instead, Pakistan has remained preoccupied with domestic political bickering. But that was until the atrocity in Peshawar.

The grand empowerment of the military is as much a mass act of disowning moral responsibility for the nation’s neglect as it is a delegation of all executive and judicial authority.

There has been no official effort to shake off the dirty shroud of secrecy surrounding Pakistan’s decade-long war with the terrorists within.

The state’s history of collusion with Islamist militants has been disposed of as a pre-Peshawar phenomenon. The media has been placed under orders – from parliament, no less – not to report objectively on what happens from hereon in. It is symbolic, all this chatter about what ought to be done with Pakistan-based militant groups involved in attacks on India. Equally symbolic is the discussion about how to deal with militants who receive moral support from Pakistan entities and are attacking Afghanistan.

Instead of honest discussion and analysis, cable news channels must now start and end bulletins with upbeat news. That sums up the state of Pakistan’s war on terror.

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist and political analyst

Twitter: @tomthehack

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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