People have mourned their dead, society has become more scared, the business of government has been derailed, and the economy has suffered a devastating blow. Those who struck the Islamabad Marriott Hotel have achieved their goal. For terrorism may be a politically motivated act of violence, but its ripple effect as compared to other such acts like even war is much deeper.
The perpetrators of the latest act of terrorism in the federal capital wanted to send a clear-cut political message to the new democratic rulers and democracy-loving people of Pakistan: that what they do makes no distinction between a private security guard posted at the Marriott gate and the ambassador of Czech Republic inside the hotel, and that their terrorism will not distinguish between a military regime and a civilian government.
The terrorists have succeeded in passing this message. A democratic process that has just resumed in Pakistan is surely scuttled with this suicide attack, preceded by at least nine other in the Federal capital since January 2007—with all of them claiming over 200 innocent lives—and several others in major cities and the war zones of FATA and Swat plus their adjoining areas during the same period.
Islamabad, the Deadly
Gone are the days when Islamabad was proudly called The Beautiful or sarcastically termed the Little West in an otherwise anarchic and heavily populated country. Foreigners visiting Pakistan, or diplomats posted in the capital, would often remark that Pakistan effectively began from the Faizabad junction. The residents of the city would though always complained that places for public entertainment were really lacking here, still they were so used to its serene, secure and peaceful environment.
No More. If Pakistan has become the centre of conflict fault-lines—domestic, regional, and international—its capital city has surely become a ground zero in this campaign of terrorism being waged by Taliban and their local and foreign collaborators, including al-Qaeda. Living in Islamabad these days is a deadly experience. You always fear a terrorist act, and, therefore, staying away from traditionally popular public spots like Jinnah Supper Market is considered the most rational thing to do. You can smell fear and terror, especially in the aftermath of the Marriott Attack, anywhere in the city.
People may coin any conspiracy theory to explain why evil has taken over a country whose people by and large constitute the most hospitable nation on earth—as no other nation has opened its homes and hearths for millions of refugees in recent decades as Pakistanis. It’s a people who reacted with one voice when the devastating earthquake of 2005 occurred in Kashmir and Hazara. They came there from all across the country to help the quake victims even before the government came.
People may see all sorts of external conspiracies to destroy a country that is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It has all the four seasons. It has majority of the highest peaks in the world, and also a custodian of the world’s most ancient Indus civilization. There are rivers and rains, valleys and deserts. People may be generally reactionary and emotional, but they are simultaneously open-minded and culturally diverse and exciting.
Answering Who and Why?
A nation constituted by such people should be the last one to be facing such an evil, whose zest for terrorizing innocents and killing them without making any distinction of race, colour, religion or region and nationality knows no bounds. Exactly, what is this evil? Is it foreign? Is it local? Is it inspired by India, or Indian-backed Afghanistan? Or, are the Americans behind this deadly game?
One way, the easier way because it does not need some soul-searching and introspection on our part, is to simply say that this evil cannot have Pakistani roots. Even in the aftermath of Islamabad tragedy, we have increasingly preferred such simplistic explanation of the terrorist event, in an attempt to find easy answers to complex questions, such as who is behind it, and why it has happened?
Another way, a more rational way, is to look for the actual reasons behind a wave of terrorist attacks, including the Marriott one, and these actual reasons are not that difficult to find. For instance, the wave of suicide attacks that we are seeing now effectively began, first primarily against security forces and then essentially against common people, in reaction to the July 2007 Red Mosque operation in Islamabad.
A broader reason why Taliban and their local and foreign allies have engaged in militarism, insurgency or terrorism—whatever we may call it—is the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the corresponding security operation that Pakistan army and paramilitary forces have waged with increasing intensity in FATA since the start of 2004. US strikes in FATA have compounded the situation, and, therefore, the militant backlash against the Pakistani regime and people in the form of suicide bombings has gained momentum.
A historical explanation of recent terrorist acts in Pakistan would be that for almost a decade Pakistan played an important role in the jihad against the Soviets. However, after that jihad, the country’s state establishment thought it appropriate to use the remnants of the Afghan jihad in a militant uprising the Indian-administered Kashmir, and to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, as part of its greater strategic game-plan for the region. In the process, a Frankenstein monster was created, which has come back to haunt us after we changed sides following the events of 9/11.
Caught in the Middle
At this tumultuous moment, the country is effectively caught between regressive internal forces, who want to terrorize its government and people and have ambition to capture political power of a nuclear-weapon state; and external actors, regional and international, who continue to blame its government and leadership for “not doing enough” in combating the former, the home-grown terrorists and their external allies, and, therefore, increasingly resorting to act unilaterally against these forces.
The reason Pakistan is facing such a difficult time is because we as a nation are still confused and undecided as to what the threat is, how grave its nature is, who the actual perpetrators are, and what their motives are. Everybody agrees that terrorism is bad. But everybody also agrees that counter-terrorism is bad too.
When the custodians of Red Mosque were terrorizing the citizens of Islamabad, everyone condemned their actions and talked about the writ of the state and the right of a citizen to live freely. When the irresponsible and inhuman conduct of these very people left the government with no choice but to respond militarily, everybody mourned the death of “innocent people” in this operation. Everybody condemned the brutal killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or the terrorist bombing outside Wah Ordinance Factory, which was claimed by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, but nobody simultaneously likes the security operation under way in Bajaur or Swat.
So, first of all, we have to be clear as a nation as to what we really want. If we think that Mehmud Ghaznavi was right in invading the subcontinent from Ghazni in Afghanistan to steel Hindu wealth and that the Taliban today essentially constitute the same Lashkar that Ghaznavi had—a point that former ISI chief Hamid Gul made so proudly in a recent TV talk—then it is a serious issue.
We are living in an age when the world at large has no patience or tolerance for any kind of militaristic activity in the name of religion, be it Islam or any other faith. Therefore, we as a nation have to choose whether we want to become a part of the world, and join its race for greater liberty and prosperity, or prefer to be dictated by a zealous ideology guided solely by our quest to make a difference in the hereafter than this world.
We will remain caught in the middle of what the rest of the world wants us to be or the given global reality expects us to be, and what the regressive forces wish us to be for the sake of our salvation, in the perception of such forces, in the hereafter. These regressive forces and their ideologues have infested our country, our society—call them with any description, Taliban, al-Qaeda—and we have to fight with them, prevent and preempt their terrorist acts, whatever it may takes.
What we need to do is to understand the true nature of terrorism, and essentially its political dimension. The recent world history is full of examples of terrorism conducted in the name of ethno-nationalist aspirations, socialist-revolutionary ideals, regressive religious goals or simple racist ideology of a group of people. States have also committed terrorism for these very reasons, or even taking the shelter of rational or ideal notions such as democracy, nationalism, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
But the same history also tells us that terrorism by non-state actors can never be a successful political strategy. Political freedom can only be won by political means. The Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland is sharing government today with its protestant counterparts not because it conducted terrorism for so many years but because it finally decided to sit and talk with both the protestant leadership, along with British or Irish mediators, on the negotiating table. The African National Congress through a long struggle helped defeat apartheid in South Africa, but it did so through a host of freedom-winning tactics aimed at generating public opinion supportive for its anti-apartheid struggle, rather than through a few terrorist acts that some militant youths in the ANC ranks employed.
Likewise, state terrorism always backfires in the end, as any state that develops the habit of employing terrorist tactics to achieve its national goals cannot withstand the global reaction that a terrorism-prone state policy eventually generates. Libya adopted terrorism as a state policy for years, but it found global acceptance only after renouncing it. Similarly, the Bush administration’s reckless use of force in Iraq or Afghanistan and the resulting civilian loss has only hurt global goodwill that America needs so direly as a premier world power.
Finally, we need to understand that the world we live in has a state system created in the 17th century, and international law as it has evolved over the centuries, especially in the last one, determines what is wrong and what is right, how states should behave, and which state behaviour is illegal. The international system as it prevails now gives only the states the right to use force, however with some limitations, and it does not give any right to an individual or a group to achieve any political goal by using militancy.
In most cases, any security problem has essentially an indigenous dimension. Outsides may exploit it for a variety of reasons, but this does not mean that we should preclude the local origins of a problem. The United States, India, pro-Indian regime in Afghanistan or the Jewish elements (as the conspiracy goes) may be exploiting the security quagmire in Pakistan, but this does mean that we altogether rule out the possibility of a domestic factor in the affair, especially given the fact that we have an endless list of events that essentially constitute a rational historical explanation of the current wave of terrorism in Pakistan.
These events include the jihad against the Soviets, the role of jihadis in Kashmir uprising, the use of FATA as a sanctuary for both jihads, our alliance with the Taliban, then our U-turn against Taliban first and Kashmiri Mujahideen later, the US/NATO-led war in Afghanistan, US operations in FATA, and our own military operation there and Swat.
If we put all of these events in a historical perspective and analyze them rationally, while keeping in mind the requirements of the state system and the global rage against terrorism being waged in the guise of a distorted form of religion, then our national confusion and lack of decision in tackling terrorism can be removed.
No More Abstractions
Otherwise, our leadership and government will continue to make hollow declarations, undertake only lack-luster or half-hearted measures, to counter terrorism. The security situation has become so grave that we cannot afford the luxury of merely offering abstract explanations of what is happening around us, and making declarations which are not carried through on the ground. This is a tendency that our new leadership is also unfortunately reflecting in its entire discourse on combating terrorism. It has failed to come up with a point-by-point plan of action for the purpose.
You simply cannot combat terrorism by always harping upon long-term solutions of political dialogue and economic development, especially when the terrorist threat is immediate and it needs an immediate solution. Such solution can only be possible through heightened security arrangements, apart from undertaking the security operation more vigorously and creatively.
Throughout this four-year long security operation in FATA, we have seen a number of times that whenever we have exerted greater pressure on the Taliban and other extremist forces, they have shown willingness to negotiate. And whenever we have relaxed this operation in response, the Taliban and their militaristic allies have regained strength and become more problematic for the security forces than before.
So, an essential option in the counter-terrorism strategy is, never to appease those who are refusing to surrender arms and are willing to ignore Pakistani state’s legitimate concerns and interests regarding the inviolability of its national borders and the preservation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The government has, therefore, done the right thing in dispatching additional troops to the strife-torn FATA and Swat. The military option always leads to a militant backlash, but this is something we cannot avoid, especially when the forces we are up against have no respect for the above-mentioned constraints of our state and they are increasingly willing to kill more of us.
But apart from reacting against the terrorist threat through credible military means, an effective counter-terrorism strategy must be geared towards preempting terrorism. If the Americans or the Europeans, and even the Indians, have been able to penetrate terror cells and destroy them, why can’t we? In the case of the US, the UK, Spain, and Italy, we have so many examples of how these country’s security and intelligence agencies penetrated and destroyed the terror cells. Terrorists are caught, interrogated, brought before the court of law and given due punishment.
We can even learn from India’s case, as, within days of the recent terrorist acts in Delhi, the Indian security forces were exchanging fire with terrorists in the city and they were also able to capture a few. This has only become possible through stringent intelligence work. In our case, terrorist acts occur, and then there is complete silence. No one is caught.
Hardly any perpetrator is chased and then killed in an exchange of fire with the security forces. Insurgency we are fighting in the tribal regions, but what about terrorists moving so freely on the roads in Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Karachi, willing to blow them up at appropriate time of place of their choice? That we often fail to follow the terror trail, apprehend terrorists, bring them before the court of law then surely provides enough room for our critics in the region and beyond that Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror is suspect.
Terrorism also needs preventive measures ranging from target hardening to pitting extremists against extremists, the latter strategy we must learn from the Indonesians and the Saudis or even the Egyptians. Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have also seen the sort of terrorist acts we are seeing in Pakistan’s cities and the frontier. They caught the culprits, deployed religious scholars with them, offered them and their families various incentives, and all of this led to a process whereby terrorists repented and recanted radicalism and militarism. Interestingly, it is the former terrorists who are currently articulating a peaceful religious discourse through the media and, in the process, helping the governments of these Muslim countries to win the “hearts and minds” of the extremists and prevent them from exercising terrorism.
In our case, the situation is so pathetic that we continue to condemn the jihadi culture and make speeches after speeches on this, but when it comes to doing something concrete, something tangible, our government’s and leadership’s track-record is simply pathetic.
General Musharraf kept fooling the West on this issue, promising this or that reform in the madrassa curriculum, but Islamabad saw more madrassas being built or expanded than in any other regime in the past, including that of his regressive military predecessor, General Zia. All of these madrassas in the capital city are lived by Taliban from Swat or the Frontier. So, to start with, why can’t the civilian government take a simple step: that the students of a madrassa located in a city have to belong to that city alone. It is not a difficult step to take.
If we think Ghaznavi was wrong in invading the subcontinent and steeling the wealth from Hindu temples, then why not take the practical step by removing all references to Ghaznavi adventurism from the normal educational syllabi? Still another tangible step will be to bring all of these Mullahs and Mashaikh to a single platform, and let them issue a consensual religious verdict against suicide-bombing. After all, the Grand Mufti of Ka’aba is on record having issued a number of such fatwas, even branding suicide bombings by Palestinian Hamas as un-Islamic, so have the ulemas at Al-Azher University.
Generating Mass Reaction
Such proactive steps will surely help remove the national confusion on terrorism and counter-terrorism. They will help create a mass level public reaction against terrorism, which is the greatest and most viable possibility in a democratic political order.
This plus the policy of using former extremists and terrorists to turn the current extremists and terrorists away from extremism and terrorism will surely create an effective wedge in the ranks of the Taliban, pitting local jihadis and their foreign counterparts, and the former away from extremism and terrorism. Then we will have people to negotiate with in FATA and Swat, people willing to abide by the legitimate concerns and interests of Pakistani state and its people.
An additional step in this regard would be to generate a national debate through the country’s vibrant print and electronic media about the cause of creating Pakistan. In this debate, what the Quaid said on August 11, 1948 about a country where people of different religions will be able to freely express themselves can be analyzed and addressed in accordance with the requirements of the current times.
Finally, along side political dialogue, which is not possible with those willing to exercise terrorism, the government leadership is in the habit of taking about a long term solution of the problem through economic development of FATA. Its performance on the ground is negligible. If a gigantic economic development plan of a strife-torn region is not possible, at least small scale projects, aimed at youth-skill development, are feasible and exercisable. The government can come up with such specific plans, and one does not think the Saudis or the Americans will not be ready to finance them.
To conclude, the threat this country is facing from terrorists is real, essentially indigenous, and, therefore, it can only be countered effectively through measures that are rooted indigenously and have local public input. Instead of making abstract declarations and hollow commitments, which are not manifested on the ground, the government needs to adopt tangible measures, such as the ones mentioned above. There can be many other steps which can form a part of the government’s already proclaimed “comprehensive strategy” against terrorism. However, since the threat is immediate, a host of other security measures to pre-empt and prevent terrorism, some of which are also described above, will have to be adopted without wasting more time.
Access column at weeklypulse.org