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March 19, 2016

Antidote to extremism


March 19, 2016

There is a famous quote by US General Aubrey Newman that “it is not the sharpness of the bayonet but the cold glint in the eye of the attacker that matters”. Likewise, it is not the platitudes of the counterterror narrative but the steely resolve of the people that will counter violent terrorism.

On March 2, I had the opportunity to witness such resolve in the eyes and demeanour of Lt-Col (r) Zahid Abbassi – the proud father of Captain Umair Shaheed, who embraced martyrdom on February 27. The young infantry company officer was gallantly leading his men in the forested Shawal Valley against a militant stronghold, atop the famous KG ridge straddling the Pak-Afghan border. The officer was leading from the front, when his men came under small-arm fire from all sides.

The intensity of the fusillade and the war cries of the militants presaged an ambush in a wooded copse along a steep gradient, which was a harrowing experience. The intrepid captain, however, did not lose his nerve and responded to the enemy fire with cool composure. Umair had the choice to hunker down and make a pitch for company support from behind. But he decided to keep advancing to take the high ground, which was occupied by the terrorists, in order to facilitate the second phase of his company’s operation. The crisscrossing bullets whizzed and clanged, but his doughty soldiers ploughed on in the self-immolating tradition of Muslim warriors.

Captain Umair directed his men to regroup and follow the field craft drills in a diamond formation to draw optimal advantages from dispersion and flank protection. By now, he was fully aware of the precarious state of his men. He was confronted with a Hobson’s choice – to retreat and save himself or to advance and risk imminent death for the greater cause of silencing the enemy guns. He signalled to his men to assume a covering fire posture, while continuing on with his signaller and another rifleman to the crest of the ridge, bristling with enemy snipers.

His gumption unnerved the militants and they started unloading their lethal cargo in a frightened frenzy. A bullet hit his left shoulder and temporarily incapacitated him. He was advised by his company commander to get evacuated under covering fire, but he refused to exercise that option, preferring to keep leading his men till they attained their final objective some 30 metres above on the ridge line.

A few brave steps later, he was again hit by a bullet, this time in his chest. The bullet left him mortally wounded. With all the strength he could muster, he picked up the wireless set and spoke his final words: “Heavy fire all around, send the helis.” There was a tense pause on the wireless set, after which his voice was again heard reciting the Kalma.

Captain Umair and four soldiers embraced martyrdom in the epic Shawal infantry battle, which shook up the hornets’ nest of the militants, who fled in panic as the follow-up company elements mopped up the remnants. The Shaheed’s father stood tall and proud when recounting the valour of his son. There was a surreal calm and stoicism in his words and demeanour, as he refused to accept condolences; he only accepted congratulations for his son’s ultimate sacrifice. A hint of human sorrow was betrayed in the frank admission that though their son took two bullets, his parents had suffered four bullets.

As I stood with the Shaheed’s father and brother, a copious montage of the state’s response to terrorism and violent extremism flashed before my eyes. I envisioned, in that fleeting moment, the 21 points of National Action Plan, the reorientation of our Afghan policy, the educational initiatives, madressah reforms and co-opting religious scholars to counter violent extremism.

In that brief epiphany, I understood the essence of countering violent extremism. It was not the guns and drones and F-16s, nor was it the desultory measures undertaken to bring our madressahs into the mainstream: it was the cold glint of hatred in the eyes of determined parents against extremism. I understood there and then that we will win this war.

The courage and steely determination of a devoutly religious family that celebrated the martyrdom of their son was a clear message that the militants had lost their narrative. The policy planners and strategists at national and international level should internalise the lesson that in order to counter violent extremism, the best bet is to tap into the reservoir of the courage, patriotism and altruism of the people of Pakistan.

Extremism would be effectively countered if the people start celebrating their sacrifices. There is no greater antidote to violent extremism than a father who celebrates his son’s martyrdom and a mother who accepts condolences with a proud smile.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.

Email: [email protected]

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