Terror amid Calamity
Weekly Pulse
September 10-16, 2010
Since early last year, Pakistan army, with the government and majority population on its side, had brought quite a relief to the terror-stricken nation—defeating Taliban first in Swat and then in South Waziristan. It was fast building upon these two major counter-insurgency successes, until the devastating Monsoon flood struck the country in late July. Since then, the Army’s focus and resources, just as that of the government and the civil society, has shifted significantly from tackling the continuing challenge of extremism and terrorism towards rescuing and relieving the victims of a sudden calamity. The helicopters which were engaged in bombarding insurgent hide-outs had to be employed in rescue and relief efforts.

This is exactly the sort of a situation the extremists and terrorists look for and thrive upon to carry out their heinous agenda of destabilizing a country by making its people more fearful, running its fragile economy and tarnishing its international image. No surprise that all of a sudden Tehrik-e-Taliban has re-initiated its terrorist campaign with the same vengeance as was the case prior to Pakistani Army’s resolute counter-insurgency effort since the spring of 2009 and until the current calamity hit the country in late July.

Terrorism Returns

In the past couple of weeks, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehrik-e-Taliban have carried out one suicide bombing after another in major cities and towns across the country. They have certainly come back with a bang. On September 1, the terrorists attacked Youm-e-Ali procession in Lahore. Two days later, the Al-Quds Day rally in Quetta was their target. An Ahmadi house of worship in Mardan and a police check-post in Laki Marwat were the next target. On September 7, dozens of innocent people, mostly women and children, at the Police Lines in Kohat became their victims. Taliban have declared to continue targeting the innocent population in future, which means we must brace for more acts of barbarism by Taliban in coming days.

The fast emerging deadly terrorism pattern is clear in its goal: to target the country’s minority communities—which happened to be Shias in Lahore and Quetta—and ignite a full-scale sectarian war in the country. The terrorist bombings in the two provincial capitals have claimed the lives of close to 100 innocent people, mostly Shias. In each case, the tragedy was followed by mob rioting—with Shia leaders engaging in blame-game.

The clarity in terrorists’ goal also establishes them as rational actors, who plan their terrorist campaign with care and exploit every opportunity that comes their way to realize their deadly ambition. The terrorist organizations, be it the globally oriented al-Qaeda or locally-driven Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, know very well that a host of sectarian and ethnic fissures do exist in Pakistani society, and that they predate the recent societal divide between the religiously moderate majority and extremist minority. Through acts of militancy, the terrorists aim to re-enforce such divisions.

The terrorist organizations as non-state actors also understand very well the limitations of a state or government combating terrorism, especially during the time of an uninvited natural disaster. So, when President Asif Ali Zardari says, in his Defense Day message on September 6, that Pakistan is currently facing an “existential threat” from “fanatics, zealots and extremists on the one hand and from the material devastation caused by history's worst floods on the other,” he is absolutely right. So is Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has made the same point on the occasion by stating: “Internally, we are faced with the menace of terrorism and extremism, which poses grave danger to our national security as well as the existence of Pakistan.

The rampant terrorism campaign launched by Taliban and other terrorist groups, especially since the summer of 2007, has devastated Pakistani economy. Whatever left of it is now washed away by the flood waters. Whether it is al-Qaeda, Taliban or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the terrorist organizations guided by violent jihad base their propagandist discourse on the sufferings of the Palestinians. Yet, when they carry out their suicide bombings, they have no qualms in targeting a public rally taken out exclusively to express Muslim solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Sectarian War

Their ambition is not just to pit the Shia minority against the Sunni majority, but to turn the Sunnis against Sunnis as well. The earlier suicide bombing of Data Darbar in Lahore were, for instance, meant to achieve this goal: inciting the religious passion of the country’s majority Sunni population who happen to be Brelvis and turning them against the rest, including those influenced for years by the violent Wahhabi and Deobandi creed. That all the non-state actors engaged in terrorism in Pakistan are nothing but blood-thirsty entities, with no sense of morality and humanity, is a crystal clear fact. And now that we have unanimity of understanding among the country’s civilian and military leaders about the “existential” nature of the threat they pose to Pakistanis while they are yet to recover from the horrors of a natural calamity, what is needed is a full-throttled campaign to get rid of the extremists and terrorists among us.

As long as these terrorist organizations exist among us, our very existence will be in jeopardy. As long as they continue to run amok in tribal areas or anywhere else in the country, our very existence as a nation will be in jeopardy. We not only risk our lives as a people while they exist around us, their very presence continues to tarnish the country’s image in the comity of nations. The only that remains is to continue building upon the successes which the Army has made in recent years. Taliban must not re-gain the initiative after their defeat in Swat and South Waziristan.

Immediate Task

The most immediate task is to prevent the extremist terrorist organizations from filling the void created by the inability of the government and the international community to help the victims of the flood disaster. The Army has, indeed, done a miraculous job in rescuing and providing relief to millions of displaced people. There are areas where the civil society and international organizations have made a huge difference in this regard. The government has certainly come under a lot of criticism during the initial stage, but, overtime, its disaster management performance has also significantly improved. The external support for rescue and relief efforts, especially the availability of dozens of US and UAE helicopters, has relieved the Army.

However, as stated before, the flood disaster in Pakistan has re-empowered the very extremist-terrorist organizations who were smashed in the army’s counter-insurgency campaign. They must not be allowed to use this calamity as a blessing in disguise. If we really wish to prevent them from exploiting the legitimate grievances of the disaster-hit population and gaining their sympathies for a terrorist cause, then both the government and its international partners would have to re-double their efforts to provide the due humanitarian support at the grass-root level. Such support will strike a decisive blow against Taliban recruitment efforts without firing a single bullet.

Unfortunately, the world community has not responded to the flood disaster in Pakistan, despite consistent appeals by the United Nations, the US government and international humanitarian organizations. As of September 7, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), the total number of people affected by floods had risen to 21 million, over 1.8 million houses were either damaged or destroyed, and death toll stood at 1,752. The UN had appealed the international community to provide $459.7 million or Pakistan Floods Emergency Response Plan, while it had received only 60 per cent of the requested amount. This led Hollywood star and UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie to urge the world community to donate urgently. The Pakistani government has to undertake proactive diplomacy to secure more international help to manage the disastrous effects of the floods, which will take years to overcome.

Resolute Campaign

However, since terror has started to accompany calamity with a bang in recent days, the country is left with no option but to simultaneously undertake a resolute campaign to combat terrorism through undertaking meaningful counter-insurgency operations, expanding the security agencies intelligence gathering activities as well as adopting the same heightened security measures that prevented acts of terrorism in major cities and towns for several months prior to the flood disaster. Whatever help we can secure from our international partners for the twin purposes of managing the consequences of calamity and combating the horrors of terrorism, we must.

For it is basically a race against time now, between one rational actor—the state of Pakistan and the international community—and another rational actor, the terrorist organizations. Both are competing to win the loyalties of the same population. Who comes first in addressing legitimate public grievances in a time of calamity will win the race. The victory of terrorists in this race means continuing war. Therefore, the only choice available that can guarantee peace is the defeat of terrorists in Pakistan and the region. This will not be possible until Pakistan and the world community get united in this critical time to overcome the twin quagmire of terror and calamity in the country.