By Jahanzeb Hussain
The leaders of all the Pakistani political parties represented in parliament met on Sept 9, 2013 at the invitation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to thrash out the strategy for dealing with the terrorist threat. At the end of the deliberations, in which the army chief and the director general of the ISI also took part, it was unanimously decided to begin negotiations with the various extremist groups based in the tribal areas of the country. The rhetorical force of most of the speeches, including that of the Prime Minister, was directed against the drone attacks, attributing to them the main, if not the only, cause for the rise of terrorism in Pakistan. According to the final statement issued at the end of the conference:
“Thousands of precious lives of men, women and innocent children, members of the armed forces and security forces, have been lost in this war, in the immoral drone attacks and because of the impact of the actions of the NATO / ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Enormous damage was caused to the physical and social infrastructure, resulting in huge financial losses and serious consequences for the economy …
We have noted with concern the use of drone attacks by the United States despite clear and unequivocal protests by the democratically elected government of Pakistan. We are unanimous in our view that the use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity but is also harming our efforts and our determination to put an end to terrorism in our country. The federal government should consider the possibility of bringing the issue of drone attacks before the United Nations because they violate international law. We declare that we will ourselves decide the means and methods of conducting the war with regard to our national interests and will not allow the United States or any other country to dictate us in this regard. “
After reading this statement, it would seem that there is no terrorist threat in the country, but only a drone problem. Thousands of deaths and damage to the infrastructure in Pakistan would not have been caused by indiscriminate terrorist attacks over the past ten years, but would just be the collateral damage from drone attacks and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The United States serves as both the scapegoat and an excuse for Pakistani leaders for not assuming their responsibilities.
By circumscribing the terrorist phenomenon to the tribal areas only, the statement made complete abstraction of the killings of Shia and other religious minorities, as well as attacks in markets, mosques and other places of worship across the country. The destruction of thousands of schools in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province also did not deserve the attention of the conference.
The offer of dialogue was welcomed by the Pakistani Taliban since the government has imposed no prior condition on the Taliban to renounce violence.In fact, it is the Taliban that are imposing conditions on the state - they thus asked the government to demonstrate its good faith by renouncing to any act of hostility against them. The previous government, for its part, had at least posed the condition before any dialogue with the Taliban that they should lay down their weapons and pledge to respect the constitution.
On the sidelines of the conference, the Punjabi Taliban, distinct from the Taliban in the tribal areas but allied to them, for the first time identified themselves as such and issued public statements. The picture of their beaming leader, Asmatullah Muawiya, surrounded by mask-wearing armed guards, adorned the main pages of all Pakistani newspapers. After having earlier threatened retaliation if the death sentence against two of their activists by the courts was implemented, he praised the government’s efforts to build a political consensus for dialogue.
Until now, the ruling Pakistan Muslim league-Nawaz (PML-N), as well as the Punjab provincial government headed by Shahbaz Sharif, had ridiculed the idea that the most of the extremists outside the tribal area actually came from the Punjab. The eagerness of the Punjabi Taliban to applaud the offer of dialogue without even waiting for the reaction of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (The Pakistani Taliban Movement) earned them a reprimand from the later. According to some observers, the deal between the Punjabi Taliban and the ruling party was struck before the last elections. It would have been concluded on this basis that the Taliban spare the Punjab province of attacks in exchange for a tolerance on the part of provincial authorities, but leaving the militants free to use Punjab as a rear-base to exercise their lethal science in other parts of the country. Portraying Punjab as a haven amid the turbulence all around was the centerpiece of the campaign strategy of the PML-N.
It is, however, not the first time that the olive branch is extended to the Taliban. No less than nine peace agreements have been concluded with them in the past decade. Each time, the Taliban have used them to recoup, regroup, and re-arm for going back into action. After their occupation of the Swat Valley in 2009, a peace agreement allowed them to expand their occupation zone up to Buner, only 150 km from Islamabad. Panicked, the government sent troops, but not before the valley was transformed into a laboratory for the implementation of the Taliban ideology: hundreds of schools blown, deviants summarily executed and women put under lock and key.
The terrorist attacks over the last ten years have caused approximately 40,000 deaths, including 5,000 members of the army, paramilitary and police forces. The strategy of the extremist groups (there are no fewer than three dozen of them), which lend support to each other, distribute tasks, and split the regions, is simple: bend the society to their designs through fear, carnage, scenes of destruction and shredded victims. A macabre aesthetic is at work behind the suicide and other attacks. The trivialization of death and the scattered pieces of flesh (bombs and suicide vests are packed with nails in order to cause as many deaths as possible) constitute a gallery of images for conveying the message that resistance before the demons of destruction is futile. The scenes of killings and the devaluation of the human life serve to afflict the society, which in all its helplessness and despair, starts finding virtues in the evil.
By targeting the police, the extremists aim to demoralize the most poorly equipped and trained part of the law enforcement apparatus. When the high command of the army finally began to realize the need to deal firmly with the extremists and looked towards the political leadership to assume the political responsibility of a major military action in the tribal areas, the later is practically giving a walk-over to the terrorists.
Among the major hotbeds of disorder listed in the joint statement - besides Islamist terrorism which is euphemistically described as ‘The war’ - mention is made of ”the pre-occupying situation in the province of Balochistan,” and “the constant threat to life, property and business in the city of Karachi.” While the honorable peace agreement with some of the Baloch nationalists hangs by a thin wire and intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces continuing their game of ’kill and dump,’ it is the city of Karachi which is portrayed as the only source of lawlessness and instability in the country. A few days before the conference, it was thunderously declared that at last law and order will be restored in Karachi, that an end will be put to crime, targeted killings and extortion of traders and industrialists by political and criminal groups - by giving full power to the Rangers, a paramilitary force.
However, it is hidden from no one that the Rangers themselves are stakeholders in the extortion business and even share the responsibility for the degradation of the situation in the city. Obviously, the government is trying to divert the attention from its shameless surrender to the extremists by making the public believe that if Karachi is normalized, every thing will be all right in the country. The result of the indiscriminate action started by the Rangers is already there: their tough methods against common people in the sensitive areas have revived the wounds of the last clean-up operation carried out in the 1990s and have aggravated the situation in the city.
The Pakistani state and the Nawaz Sharif government by compromising with extremists are only hastening the process of the dislocation of the Pakistani state.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage