This morning, Pakistan woke up to another day of mourning. Close to 50 people are dead and nearly 150 are injured, many seriously. A vehicle laden with 150kg of high explosives, laced with ball bearings was used to attack a shia community at prayer in the Abbas Town area of Karachi. Forty to fifty homes in nearby apartment blocks have been damaged, some severely. Ten shops have been destroyed. A four feet deep crater and piles of rubble are left behind, while thousands are in a state of shock, disbelief and despair, sifting through the debris, hoping to find the injured but dreading that they will find more dead.
All this in the backdrop of attacks on key military installations, drones over the tribal regions, militants with demon tattoos, target killings, attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta, a separatist movement in Balochistan, terrorist sanctuaries along the border with Afghanistan, unrest on the line of control in Kashmir, claims of foreign intelligence and Blackwater operatives, sectarian outfits with command centers in southern Punjab, bombings and suicide attacks almost every single day… the list is endless. In the meantime, key general elections are nearly upon us and political forces are well and truly in campaign mode.
The public, however, is crying out for an end to this madness. The average Pakistani is desperate for a solution, for peace.
Unfortunately, in our country the debate about a solution to terrorism is often too simplistic and is over shadowed by political point-scoring and finger-pointing. We can only see it as either a military operation or dialogue, because that is how it is being framed in the media. A thirty second sound-bite in a current affairs show on television does that.
The reality is that neither dialogue nor military action on its own can even begin to end terrorism, extremism and militancy. It is complex issue that has evolved over the last four decades or more. It is an open wound that has festered and requires a multi-faceted approach to address it and will take time and patience to completely resolve.
For me, the central requirement is, simply, will. A firm resolve to address the root causes of terrorism and militancy, to articulate transparent and independent foreign and security policies, to build and strengthen institutions and to provide economic opportunities to the deprived and disadvantaged in our midst. This is foundational. An empowered and committed leadership, willing and able to act honestly and without compromise is the starting point. Unfortunately, all we have had thus far are either military dictators acting to strengthen their own hold on power or thoroughly corrupt civilian regimes, headed by greedy, egotistical and self-serving ruling families, interested only in filling their own pockets.
This has to change, and it will. Not now, not in five years, maybe. But, provided that systems continue to evolve (including democratic institutions, the judiciary, the media, the military and the bureaucracy) and we, as a people, continue to learn and grow, we will make progress. The upcoming election is our first opportunity to register our choice. I am still hopeful.
The state and all its organs must accept responsibility for and actively work towards maintaining the rule of law, protecting civilian lives and property and operating within constitutional and legal limitations.
The first step, in my mind, is clarity of policy. It is no longer a secret that we have nurtured militant groups, in return for favors from the US, during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, there are not many who doubt that militancy has long been a central part of our national security strategy, with respect to India in general and Kashmir in particular. We have created a monster and now we are struggling to control it.
We have used the “security state” argument to give intelligence agencies and the military sweeping, often illegal and extra-constitutional, powers and we use the same argument to defend their actions. That has a price, and we are paying it today. At the same time, civilian leadership has lacked the courage, the moral authority and, most importantly, the will, to call this out. Instead, they are busy building political and electoral alliances with extremist organizations to consolidate their own hold on power. When militants are “assets” and extremist parties are “political allies”, organizations that perpetrate hatred and violence gain strength.
What is required is a resolve to extricate our foreign policy from the US agenda and the establishment of clear and transparent roles & responsibilities and clearly defined limits for military & intelligence services. We must articulate and demonstrate a clear, unambiguous commitment to not allowing our territory to be used by militants for attacks on any other nation. Militancy in any shape or form must be unacceptable and it should be very clear that we are acting on our own behalf, in our own national interest, in a transparent manner. Our goals must be our own, and must be seen to be our own.
A Multi-Pronged Approach
Once we have established the foundation, difficult as that is, there will still not be one simple answer. We will have to adopt a multi-pronged approach that simultaneously tackles various issues, use several tools and multiple tactics.
- Identification of stakeholders and engaging with them is central to conflict resolution and we will not get anywhere without doing that. This will require us to enter into dialogue with those who are willing to come to the table, understand their demands and negotiate with them, within the boundaries of the constitution and the law. This will help us to isolate those who are criminals or hard-core elements, who will then be exposed and cornered and we can act with decisive force against them, with moral courage and public backing.
- At the same time, we need tough anti-terror legislation that will empower security forces, intelligence services, the prosecution and our judiciary. Laws of evidence also urgently need a thorough review and potentially a complete overhaul. Constitutional and legal cover for security actions is critical, otherwise we are left with no convictions in courts, “missing persons”, institutionalized torture, mutilated bodies and ultimately public mistrust. The PATRIOT Act in the US and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 of the UK were passed literally within months of 9/11. And here we are, five years after a democratic government assumed power, and still arguing about whether parliament is supreme or the constitution.
- The protection of investigators, prosecutors and judges must be a key priority. Fear is a weapon that terrorist groups have learned to use to great effect and the state must act to counter this strategy. A witness protection programme is often talked about, and is important, but this need can be addressed through legislation by changing laws of evidence. Those in the front line, however, need to have a sense of security to act with courage and determination.
- Arguments about jurisdiction and the blame game begin whenever a terrorist attack takes place. This is not a surprise because of lack of clarity and accountability built into our systems. This must change. A central counter-terrorism organisation, under the oversight of an independent board responsible to a parliamentary committee, needs to be formed. This unit should be the hub through which all intelligence flows and would be responsible for rapid response, special tactics, asset protection, search & rescue, emergency response and the coordination of all aspects of counter terrorism responsibilities.
- No doubt there is foreign involvement in the form of funding, weapons, technology and support. Whether it is India, Israel, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, paid mercenaries or all of the above, plus more, I don’t know. But what I do know is there is a network of operatives in Pakistan, many of whom are here with the knowledge and support of various intelligence agencies under the pretext of intelligence sharing, who are using Pakistan as the battlefield for their proxy wars. This needs to change and this is where our intelligence and military ought to be focusing their resources and attention. A short-range, nuclear capable missile might be great, but it does nothing to prevent a bomb going off in Quetta and killing a hundred people. Priorities need to be re-evaluated.
- An integral part of this effort is a genuine move towards regional peace. Our relationship with India needs to drastically change or both our countries will continue to pump resources into defense and military capabilities while our populations suffer in poverty and insecurity, without basic food security, housing, health and education. On our western border, our relationship with Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction because of our desire to influence their future. Our priorities need to be our people and our engagement with neighbors must be based on national interest and focused on trade, dispute resolution, resource sharing (particularly water), cultural exchange, sporting ties and economic development.
- There are communities within our borders who have lost confidence in the state. They are deprived, under-developed and on the peripheries. There is no sense of involvement, ownership or engagement with mainstream policy making and it is almost as if they live in a different world. Many of the victims of terror are from these communities but they receive no consolation or relief. Instead, they are often caught in the middle of actions by security and intelligence services, which leave them even more damaged and desperate. We need to regain their trust. Engagement with the community, through local elders and using traditional jirgas and customs of that nature, as well as compensation and rehabilitation are all a part of this effort. In addition, the strengthening of civilian law-enforcement capabilities will allow local oversight of law-enforcement and a reduced dependence on the military in these areas.
- Development activities in the most troubled areas, like FATA, Balochistan, parts of KP, southern Punjab, interior Sindh, etc. are essential. We need to show the people who live in these areas the economic benefits of peace, which is probably the best way of making them stakeholders in isolating militancy. Equitable resource sharing, infrastructure development, provision of health and education, and the availability of economic opportunities are rights that these populations have been deprived of. This has allowed extremists the space in which to operate, and we must take that space back.
- As with any other campaign these days, public relations will be key. Messages of pluralism, social justice, tolerance and a change in mindset need to be conveyed through the media, religious leaders and communities. We must proactively work to counter the messages of hatred and intolerance that are being spread far and wide in our towns and villages. Discrimination and victimization on the basis of religion, sect, caste, creed or ethnicity must be seen to be shameful, immoral and illegal.
- In the long run, the key is education. We must invest urgently and heavily in revamping the curriculum to remove lessons of hate and enmity, and ensure that we are teaching our next generations lessons of acceptance, tolerance and unity. Our children should focus on the 95% they have in common with their friends and neighbors, not on the 5% that is different.
But We Knew That Anyway
Let me confess. I didn’t think up all of this. Believe it or not, our parliamentarians did. This entire strategy, is contained in the resolution that was passed by the joint sitting of parliament in October 2008. Most of the points that I have made above are from that resolution. From the need for will and resolve, to an independent foreign policy. From a clear security strategy, to the need for dialogue with stakeholders. From preventing our territory to be used to launch attacks on other countries, to development of troubled areas. From equitable resource distribution, to a commitment to regional peace. The resolution has it all.
We have the answers. Now we need sincere leadership who we can trust to make a genuine effort at implementation.