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September 15, 2018

Not our war?


September 15, 2018

By repute, Imran Khan is a flip-flopper. On almost every issue of public importance, he first takes a seemingly uncompromising stance. But on sober reflection, he backpedals. His decision to give the push to Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) shortly after vociferously defending his appointment is a case in point.

That said, Khan has been remarkably consistent on one matter over the years: the war on terror. He has always held that the counterterrorism campaign is not Pakistan’s war and the country was sucked into it by a short-sighted, fatuous and selfish leadership, which was completely devoid of a sense of national honour. He reiterated his position while speaking as the chief guest at the flagship Defence Day ceremony on September 6.

While everyone is entitled to hold their views on matters of national importance, the remarks were clearly execrable in view of the occasion and the audience. As the elected prime minister, Imran Khan represents the entire nation, which has rendered tremendous sacrifices in the war on terror in terms of both men and materials (over 70,000 people have been killed or injured and more than $127 billion have been lost). His audience mainly comprised the men in uniform who have been in the line of fire in the efforts to root out the militancy. Nevertheless, our great leader continues to prate about the genesis of the war on terror.

Our new prime minister is among the many movers and shakers who are crazed with ill-conceived notions about one of the most crucial events in Pakistan’s history. The refusal to take ownership of the war on terror is part of a specific narrative that swept through the nation in the not-too-distant past and which a section of society still subscribes to. The narrative sees a perennial conflict between Islam and the opposing forces or ideologies. Since these forces are perceived to be dead set on annihilating our religion, the two can’t coexist. One must put the other to rout.

The narrative enthrones the militants as the true ‘soldiers of Islam’, who took up arms to defeat the forces of kufr, and rid society of evil. They are regarded as the only honourable breed that this nation has produced and militancy is essentially seen as a protest against foreign domination of the country’s external and internal policies. So pervasive was the impact of the narrative that until the onset of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014, the state had been in a spin over whether to go after militants or try to live in harmony with them.

This narrative was favoured by the PTI and other mainstream right-wing political parties until the December 2014 Army Public School (APS) carnage, and threw the society into a tailspin regarding the war on terror. Was the war our own? Was militancy simply a reaction to Pakistan’s foreign policies or was there more to it? Should we put down militancy with full force or embrace militants? Were there any good terrorists? If yes, how could they be set apart from the bad ones? The militants had been dead clear about their motives: kill as many people as possible to draw the teeth of the state and leave its leadership punch-drunk.

The APS tragedy put the exponents of the narrative in a dilemma. Ideologically, they were too close to the militants to denounce them. At the same time, it was difficult to hold that the merciless murderers of children were men of honour. To resolve the dilemma, those gentlemen began to home in on the genesis of the war on terror: the war on terror was essentially America’s war and that the hell that had been let loose on the people of Pakistan was the outcome of the country’s role of a frontline ally of the US in the campaign against extremism following 9/11.

Meanwhile, the state’s unequivocal commitment to weed out militancy is important for various reasons. It sends a message both within and outside the country that the state won’t tolerate extremism in any shape or form. When government institutions are seen to wade into militant outfits, society’s inclination towards extremism and radicalisation is held in check. The decimation of terrorist networks, together with choking their funding, denudes militant organisations of their capability to recruit people to their cause and subsequently provide them weapons and training.

Although the military operations have broken terrorist networks and our tribal areas are no longer an epicentre of terrorism, the war is far from over. For one thing, militants continue to strike, albeit with less frequency. For another, the war is being fought, not only in mountains, markets and streets but also in the hearts and minds of the people as well. Strategies and plans are important. But taking ownership of the war is the first step towards taking it to its logical conclusion.

Where did the pro-militancy toxic narrative come from? To be sure, the narrative always existed in an attenuated, but essential, form in Pakistan. One of the factors that inordinately delayed constitution-making was the split on the place that religion would hold in the country’s political system. Constitution-makers responded by making Islam the state religion and incorporating certain Islamic principles into the fundamental law of the land.

These “Islamic features” of the constitution, however, have never satisfied the clergy and similar minds for being inconsistent with their basic narrative. There was a persistent demand for the increased ‘Islamisation’ of society, which sought ensuring the supremacy of a particular creed. The narrative manifested itself in both a sectarian and non-sectarian bloodbath well before 9/11 took place.

Hence, those who maintain that terrorism in Pakistan is the gift of the country’s post-9/11 alliance with the US ought to be asked: were the mosques and other religious places in Pakistan safe before 9/11? Or, were people not killed in the name of ridding the society of ‘evil’ and promoting ‘good’ before that fateful event occurred? What 9/11 did was to bring home to extremists the usefulness of suicide blasts as a method of large-scale manslaughter. It didn’t sow the seeds of terrorism because they had been sown years before.

If for no other reason, the war on terror is our own because it is our society that it has turned into an inferno. Although Americans have been safe in their home after 9/11 (and there is no reason why they should not be), our people have suffered physically, emotionally, and economically: women rendered widows, children turned orphans, and parents made childless. Businesses have been forced to shut down or relocate, growth and investment have fallen, and people find themselves jobless.

Very recently, the power of religious extremism and bigotry manifested itself in Atif Mian’s unceremonious exit from the EAC. All of us know how keen the prime minister was to benefit from the ace economist’s knowledge and expertise, and how assiduously he would have contributed to improve economic management.

The foremost condition to win the war on terror is for the state and society to ‘own’ it entirely. Logically, if it is not our war, we don’t need to fight it. The state of denial was dangerous when Imran Khan was in the opposition. But now that he is calling the shots, it can prove fatal. If there is one issue on which he needs to take an about-turn, it is the ‘ownership’ of the war on terror.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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