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Legal Eye

January 23, 2016

The reek of denial


January 23, 2016

Legal eye

The writer is a lawyer based in

The army chief claimed that in 2016 Pakistan would see end of terror in all its manifestations. Terrorists responded by launching a spate of vicious attacks in Quetta and Charsadda. The Bacha Khan University attack is a sequel to the APS attack one year on. We had been telling ourselves since the blood-curdling APS attack that we were now a different people and that images of our children being slaughtered in cold blood had changed us forever. The Bacha Khan University attack is a wakeup call. We don’t seem to have changed all that much.

What is quite incredible is how the establishment’s attack dogs, in a Pavlovian response, begin shaping the narrative – through a combination of denial and obfuscation – immediately after a terror attack. Even as the Bacha Khan University attack was underway, our terror apologists had already stunk out social media with the same conspiracy theories we suffered in early 2014 when the TTP were still our misguided brethren being controlled, brainwashed and funded by evil India and its cronies in Afghanistan. Didn’t we think we had buried all this after APS?

Then there is counsel by the good Samaritans that at a time like this we must stand united as a nation. This is well-meaning advice. But what does it mean? Does it mean that we must not ask who the architect of a national security policy that has surrendered over 50,000 lives to terror (with the counter running) is? Does it mean we mustn’t vocalise the thought that even if the state is doing its best to fight terror, it still isn’t good enough? Does it mean we must never question the state’s mantra that terrorists are losing and we are winning?

Does a show of unity mean that we mustn’t identify faults in the strategy being employed by the state to fight terror? Does patriotism mean shunning self-accountability and pointing fingers toward everyone else when attacked? If the prognosis is that we as a nation are at war with ourselves, that we have nurtured groups who believe that the state’s mission must be to become a caliphate and expand its frontiers, that its laws must enforce Isis or Taliban-style Shariah and anyone who disagrees must be killed, how then do you stand united as a nation?

After APS we were told that terrorists were winning because our criminal justice system had failed us. If we were to subdue terrorists we needed courts that hung terrorists without distinction and created an environment of vengeful deterrence wherein potential terrorists shook in their shoes. Within days our elected representatives rolled in military courts through the 21st Amendment, without regard for the meaning of due process and justice or the system of separation of powers and checks and balances that underlies the scheme of our constitution.

We were told that Pakistan is in a state of war, that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and that the lily-livered worrying about fundamental rights of terror suspects should take a hike. The state revived the death penalty. As a nation we began cheering executions as if to mark victories against terrorists. According to a report of the International Commission of Jurists, military courts in 2015 tried 64 suspects, found 40 guilty, awarded 36 the death penalty, and 8 of them have been executed.

So why are military court and their instant ‘justice’ not deterring ‘suicide attackers’? It really takes a flight of fancy to imagine that death threat by the state can deter brainwashed youth from executing suicide missions they believe would instantly transport them to ‘heaven’. And yet, led by pied pipers, our nation embarked on this flight. Some had pointed out that our justice system is broken and needs fixing. But military courts are neither the fix nor will they help cure the cancer of terror. They were chided for possessing no love for our kids.

So long as the supply chain keeps producing ideological weapons, you can’t deter the use of these weapons by threatening to hang them. It doesn’t take lessons in rocket science to understand that extremist religious thought and the worldview it shapes is the breeding ground for terror. We don’t want to treat large swaths of such fertile breeding ground that exist across Pakistan, but we want that through some miracle its produce should be prevented from employing terror as a means to give effect to radical intolerant ideas that characterise such produce.

And then our leaders seem stung by a rather unsophisticated understanding of 4th and 5th generational wars that will define conflict in this century, wherein non-state actors are the prime threat to nation states. “The terrorists are on the run…they’re picking up soft targets”, our prime minister said in response to the Bacha Khan University attack in Davos on Thursday. Were terrorists on a run when they attacked the Marriot in 2007, or Malala Yousafzai in 2012, or all the schools and all the polio workers all this time? Or were these hard targets?

In the conflict we are consumed by, where non-state actors are attacking fellow citizens and the state, the distinction between hard and soft targets exists no more. And it is not just the TTP, LeJ, JeM or their vile cousins in Pakistan who refuse to distinguish between civilian and military targets. This is just what war by ideologically driven terror groups looks like. The LeT attacked civilians in a hotel and streets in Mumbai in 2008 killing 168 people. Al-Shahaab attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013 killing 67 people. Boko Haram killed 59 boys in a college in Nigeria in 2014.

So Mr Prime Minister, are you really suggesting that Bacha Khan University might have seen some of the last civilian casualties we will endure in this conflict because attacking a university suggests that terrorists are losing and are desperate? If so, here’s news for you. We are smack in the middle of a long and painful conflict. We will have to endure many more casualties before we reach its fag end. But we won’t get there at all if we continue to obfuscate the problem of continuing duplicity within our security policy.

It is misconceived policies that are demanding sacrifices from our soldiers and civilians alike. And policymakers cannot hide behind martyrs or patriotism to evade responsibility for their disastrous thinking that has brought us to this pass. It would be easy to court patience in face of continuing demands for forced sacrifices if there existed a clear sense that our history of misconceived national security ideas is now history. How do you distinguish between approaches of masterminds on both sides of this conflict if it is citizens and foot soldiers in both cases paying with their lives for a warped worldview of masterminds?

Do we not know that ideologies of militant groups overlap, their worldviews converge and their foot soldiers are portable? Harkat-ul-Mujahideen faded away and Jaish-e-Muhammad emerged. Sipah-e-Sahaba might not have been anti-state but its successor the LeJ is. The Taliban of the 90s weren’t anti-Pakistan but the TTP is. The TTP might be breaking up but its sub-groups are breathing life into Af-Pak Isis. Do we not understand that so long as radical ideologies are allowed to be nurtured they will keep producing foot soldiers who will keep gravitating towards the new terror sheriff in town, be it Al-Qaeda, the TTP or Isis?

To defeat terror and protect its citizens Pakistan will need to give up the false distinction between non-state actors based on who they are attacking. And statements alone won’t manifest a change of course. Treatment meted out to master merchants of intolerance, hate and violence (such as Abdul Aziz, nestled in the heart of Islamabad, and Masood Azhar, being preserved in state ‘protective custody’) will.

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