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February 21, 2017

After terror, a parade of foolishness


February 21, 2017

A parade of foolishness has followed the atrocity at Sehwan Sharif. It is a colourful melee of all kinds of unfounded, emotive and irresponsible attitudes and approaches to the serious and lethal challenges Pakistanis must contend with. Let’s examine some of the egregiousness.

Top billing in this parade belongs to the ‘seal the border’ and ‘punish the Afghans’ narrative. This is being propagated by the same people whose predecessors once trained the Afghan Taliban in the art of governance. Those dark arts produced stadium lashings of women, the blowing up of Buddha statues in Bamiyan and choosing an embrace of Bin Laden over evading an American invasion after September 11, 2001.

Somehow, we are supposed to simply trust the same system of intellectual and operational efficiency that helped manufacture three dictatorships, multiple wars, the fiasco of Kargil, a dysfunctional relationship with all our neighbours, and a systemic dependency on one or the other superpower. Just trust the army and the intelligence community! What an unmitigated disaster this line of thinking has been already.

Afghanistan is a hot mess with a dysfunctional government, and large swathes of its territory either under the authority of insurgents (the Afghan Taliban) or of terrorists (Daesh) or under foreign occupation (the US). They lay the blame for this dysfunction on Pakistan’s consistent refusal to hand over a bunch of people they believe are behind the instability in Afghanistan and who happen to live in Pakistan. Let’s leave aside whether Pakistan is right or wrong about anything (it is often right, actually). And let’s leave aside whether India is behind the sourness of Pak-Afghan relations (it absolutely is). Let’s just focus on the current notion that the root of terror in Pakistan today is Afghanistan and that the solution to this problem are sealed borders, and sealed hearts: a distrust of and contempt for Afghanistan.

Whether we complain about the kalashnikov and heroin culture, or about Latifullah Mehsud, Fazlullah and other anti-Pakistan terrorists being cultivated in Afghanistan by the nexus of Indian and Afghan handlers, we must remember what this approach actually represents. Essentially, we are saying that Pakistan has had to kneel before the spectre of goons and thugs from Afghanistan with heroin in one hand, AK-47s in the other, and suicide jackets tied to their chests.

The big bulking, future regional superpower with a killer stock exchange, a robust democracy, the world’s bravest soldiers, and the only country to beat back the terror threat as well as it has. Ladies and gentlemen: Mighty Pakistan! Vanquished by teenage suicide bombers from Kunar and Nuristan?

Now, let’s get real. On the one hand, Afghanistan barely has the agency to manage Kabul, while on the other it must identify and take out anti-Pakistan elements on the farthest reaches of its soil? Since we know it can’t, should we do it for them? We could – but why make a big show of it? What are we trying to communicate, and to whom? It doesn’t seem like this has been thought through. It feels like we are lashing out because we want to use the Afghanistan card to avoid a more urgent and serious conversation about what’s going on inside the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Here we have a country that has already demonstrated a unique and unprecedented capacity to deal with adversity. No Muslim majority country has the diversity or tolerance or freedoms that inform Pakistani society. No modern country has had to deal with the aggressive machinations employed by regional and global powers to undo it the way Pakistan has. No country with a Muslim majority has a nuclear weapon, what to say of nearly one hundred. No country, anywhere, is defined by the spiritual and religious traditions that are being attacked at Sehwan, and previously at Rehman Baba, at Bari Imam, at Data Sahib’s in Lahore, at Abdullah Shah Ghazi (twice), and at Shah Noorani last November. The haters are coming for us because we are an extraordinary blend. They will keep coming.

The Muslim tradition, derived from the Seerat-un-Nabi, shows us wisdom is a better path than despair, and being smart is better than being whiny. At the Battle of the Trench, and beyond, Muslim survival was ensured by doing one’s homework and building alliances with obvious candidates. If there is one country Pakistan is destined to be allied with and supportive of, it is Afghanistan. This is true for geostrategic and economics reasons, as much as it is for ethnic and religious ones.

The good news? Our home has been their home for three decades. Afghan refugees are a source of Pakistan’s single greatest soft-power asset. Better still, Afghans have little choice in the matter: Pakistan is an inevitability for Afghanistan. But they do have pride. Our natural embrace is delayed only by our clumsy incompetence, and our lack of imagination in dealing with India’s successful sabotage of Pak-Afghan coherence and unity. Instead of pushing away Afghanistan, now is the time to embrace it and to do a better job than the competition. It can start by us challenging attempts to outsource responsibility for what happens on our soil.

The post-Sehwan attitude, however, is not limited to blaming Afghanistan. Within 24 hours of the attack, we also learnt that over 100 terrorists had been killed. Many of us exhaled with satisfaction – “That’ll show ‘em!”. This mass killing of alleged terrorists was a follow up to the ISPR’s announcement that vengeance would be exacted for Sehwan Sharif. Inquiring Pakistani minds must wonder where this appetite for vengeance was after Shah Noorani last November (52 dead), or Model Town in May 2010 (94 dead), or May 2005 at Bari Imam (20 dead). What was less special about those attacks that they were not deemed deserving of vengeance?

More importantly, how does our state determine who is okay to be killed? Is there a list that the state has drawn up? Or is the plan here simply to arm our brave young men in police and the army, lock, stock and barrel, jacked up by thoughts of vengeance, and unleash them upon various suspected terrorists? Will every terror attack now be followed with mass killings of terrorists? And if we already knew whom to hunt, and where to hunt them, then where can we send an application to have the terrorists killed before they bomb the next shrine, the next school, or the next place of worship? Shouldn’t someone be asking some questions about how these 100 suspected Daesh members escaped death before Sehwan Sharif? And why the next 1,000 are being spared now that the dust seems to have settled?

Of course, neither elected civilian leaders, nor our army top brass want to deal with these questions. It is a lot easier to nod in the direction of seemingly liberal causes for one, and to go out and kill a bunch of people for the other. And for the rest of us, we get the tidbits. A debate on the civil-military divide for some, a debate on the state of Islam in the 21st century for others. Some of us ooze contempt for corrupt and inefficient politicians, others among us pour scorn upon a military that is immune to any kind of accountability whatsoever.

Fixing Pakistan’s terrorism problem is hard. So we have chosen the easy way out: pretend to seal the border, lash out at Afghanistan, kill a bunch of suspected terrorists, and wipe the slate clean so that we can repeat this cycle all over again when the next attack takes place. The memories of our fallen soldiers and policemen deserve better. The potential of this great country’s inevitable bright future deserves better. Our pride as Pakistanis demands better.

But this can’t be coming from newspaper columns. It has to come from the heart and soul of our political and military leaders. How will it, if they never have to answer hard questions, and we are lining up their escape routes from this conversation, by pitting one against the other?


The writer is an analyst and commentator.


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