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September 28, 2015

New tragedy, old lessons


September 28, 2015


Nearly nine months after the attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar in December 2014, the TTP struck again at the Pakistan Air Force Camp Badaber located a few kilometres outside Peshawar.
Explanations by ISPR to the contrary notwithstanding, there are quite a few similarities between the Badaber and APS attacks. In both cases communication intercepts suggest that the attacks were planned and tactically controlled from Afghanistan. In both cases attackers (some now identified as Pakistanis) routed through Afghanistan into Pakistan. In both cases attackers had local logistic support available to them. And in both cases they were dressed in a manner to confuse those on duty at various check posts and able to drive unchecked to their target in a vehicle without a number plate.
The only encouraging news coming out of Badaber on that fateful morning was the tremendous courage shown by the army’s Quick Response Force which eventually eliminated the attackers. The Pakistan Air Force, and for that matter Pakistan Navy, are intensely technical services with hugely expensive wherewithal. While their prowess in air and at sea cannot be doubted, the same unfortunately cannot be said about their abilities to defend their assets on ground.
This is obvious because if their local responses were effective, and quick, there would have been nil or negligible damage at Kamra, PNS Mehran and Badaber. These two services should expect attacks on their assets in the future also as terrorists probably perceive them as relatively less responsive as compared to the army. They should as such consider investing heavily in training and equipment with an aim to hold the attackers either on the periphery or as close to it as possible in their initial local response through a combination of static and mobile defences at par with the army’s quick response force in firepower and tactics.
Perhaps there can be collective tri-services training to bring them all to a common

level where they can also efficiently complement each other in crisis situations. This is now an unavoidable benchmark to save precious time consumed in arrival of help from the nearest brigade headquarters. Unless this benchmark is achieved, the attackers will almost always succeed in causing unacceptable damage since war assets and training of highly skilled manpower in both air force and navy is very expensive.
The courage of the army’s quick response force was unfortunately overshadowed by the stark message from the TTP that nearly nine months after APS, during which they have been pounded heavily from air and chased away on ground to the outer fringes of the country, they still retain a capability to attack the same city – in nearly the same manner, and in larger numbers. If there was one person who got this message straight, it was the COAS who looked unusually sad and sombre with the proceedings of the day.
ISPR alluded to the possibility of inside help. Inevitably, that brings us to the issue of fuller implementation of the National Action Plan about which there has been so much debate in the country. The deafening silence of religious parties and organisations over the incident was matched only by their stubbornness to condemn the killing of worshippers in the mosque.
It is a sad thought in passing that if worshippers in a mosque at Badaber had been attacked by a group of young Christians, or worse yet by Hindus, all hell would have broken loose on these communities but not a word was spoken against these murderers by the defenders of the faith. This is equivalent to saying that one is a kosher activity while the other called for jihad.
This is a recurring phenomenon and a reflection of the absence of a strong counter narrative to the one being successfully peddled by present-day successors of the ‘Khwaraji” who existed in the 7th century and even before the historic Shia-Sunni split. It is a great tragedy that the radical ‘Takfir’ approach of these people in the garb of Talibans or their sympathisers and facilitators still attracts illiterate and ignorant youth in huge swaths of populations.
But make no mistake; this ‘attraction’ is not because of any purity of the ‘Takfiris’ message but because of failure of the government to push through a more powerful counter narrative of moderation. The ‘Takfiris’ have a penchant for spilling innocent blood and we are doing well to fight them. We have the support of Quranic text and Shariah traditions for moderate Islam which we must articulate forcefully to roll back the ‘Takfiris’ influence in the country.
When one prominent religious leader was quizzed on this matter on a private TV channel, he responded by saying that it was a ‘stale’ question. Well it may be stale for him but it is not so for the nation which wants to know whether they are with them or with Pakistan. We are unlikely to get an answer but it is important that we start chalking out a road map for a ‘moderate national narrative’ – the sooner the better. The intentions of the interior ministry to have that national narrative written by clerics is a non-starter. How can any outsourced narrative be moderate if its writers are insensitive to the safety of worshippers in the house of God from those who have taken it upon themselves to interpret God’s word according to their own whims?
During discussions on a private TV channel, it was mentioned that in the process of choosing a successor to late Mullah Omar, some consultation sessions of the Afghan Taliban were held at the Darul Ulum Haqqaniya Akora Khattak. If that is true then immediate action is warranted against the seminary because if this is not ‘facilitation’ then what is. Some might say this is easier said than done since only recently when the information minister called madressahs ‘universities of illiteracy and ignorance’, he was forced to apologise on television when banners condemning him appeared overnight all over Islamabad.
There is no tradition in Pakistan for bright young men to immerse themselves in a deeper quest for theological knowledge. The interpretation of Islamic law and injunctions will as such continue to rest with graduates of madressahs, such as they are, for the foreseeable future. Should we want to change that and gain control for moderating the national narrative, we have to catch the bull by the horns and if the heavens begin to fall, we the people of Pakistan, will hold the roof.
Admittedly, closing down of one or a few seminaries will hardly serve the purpose we have in our minds, but it could be a first step in what Mao called ‘a thousand mile journey’. The destination of that long journey ahead was recently deliberated by scholars from across the Muslim world during a two-day conclave at Al-Azhar University in Cairo where they called for moderation in issuing fatwas with an explicit intention to counter what they considered extremist views. There was emphasis on the need to train Muslim scholars and co-coordinate issues related to Islamic laws. These trained Muslim scholars could then spread the message of moderation in their respective countries.
This development at a respected forum of Islamic thought and teaching is of great significance for Pakistan also whose population is not only seen as divided into opposite warring groups but these groups also frequently employ Islamic texts in contentious manners for opposite ends. This deepens rifts between different sects and quite often within the same sect.
The clear lesson emerging from this latest tragedy at Badaber is that as long as attacks are planned in Afghanistan, the attackers infiltrate and find local logistical support in local populations or within Afghan refugees pockets and are able to breach the periphery of their chosen targets, Badaber will not be the last of such attacks. One or more of these links in this ‘terror chain’ will have to be smashed militarily or through greater will in domestic policy options on NAP or made ineffective diplomatically to improve the security situation in the country on a more sustainable basis.
The writer is a retired vice admiral.
Email: [email protected]




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