Stop blaming FATA and take responsibility for the IDPs, Pakistan
After months of dithering, the Pakistani government finally approved the long-awaited offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) last week. The decision came in the wake of the audacious terrorist attack on the country’s largest airport that reportedly killed at least 29 people.
While the decision is a welcome move, the way it was arrived at revealed the ‘reactive’ nature of and the laxity and arbitrariness associated with the country’s policy-making process. Given the existential threat it poses, terrorism should have been the foremost priority of the new government and therefore must have been dealt with in a more pro-active and robust way. Unfortunately, the imperatives of civil-military relations and the fear of backlash in the ruling party’s political constituency prevented it from adopting any concrete and decisive policy. The on again, off again peace talks with the Taliban stumbled in the face of resurgent violence and excessive media coverage. The government’s half-heartedness and indecisiveness became palpably evident when it authorised limited surgical strikes against militant hideouts while the so-called negotiations were going on.
Due to the absence of prior warning to civilians, these strikes resulted in the alleged killing of innocent people including women and children. The subsequent Taliban infighting that virtually brought the peace process to a halt created a misplaced euphoria in Islamabad. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) seized the opportunity to claim credit for creating divisions within the ranks of the Taliban. Ironically, they did not realise that the infighting over the leadership of the Taliban was triggered primarily by the drone that ‘martyred’ the Taliban Chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
Anyhow, the euphemism about Taliban’s weakness fizzled out with the deadly attack on Karachi airport.
The subsequent decision to launch military offensive in North Waziristan was impetuous. The local people were not given ample time to evacuate. No prior arrangements were made for accommodating the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Both the federal and the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) are acting as if they never expected the IDPs.
As if it was not enough, the governments of Sindh and Punjab have unabashedly refused to allow in any IDPs. No wonder the IDPs are migrating to Afghanistan where they are warmly welcomed and taken care of. This attitude is but a minor reflection of the broader national apathy towards the problems of the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The developments of the last few months have intensified feelings of marginalisation and alienation among the people of FATA and reinforced the popular impression that the ruling party only caters to the needs of its dominant Punjabi constituency.
Notwithstanding the above reservations, it is high time to support the military operation and boost the morale of the soldiers. Instead of opposing the military operation, the critics and civil society should press for more transparency in the way the operation is conducted and the relief work for the IDPs is carried out.
Sceptics are right in that the operation would not eliminate terrorism. Eradicating terrorism, instead, requires a holistic long-term counter-extremism strategy. This military operation should just be the beginning of that larger struggle. Other measures shall include, but not be limited to, facilitating an open and informed public debate on the issue of religious extremism, reviewing our regional policy and revisiting the ideological paradigm of the state.
To begin with, initiating an open and informed dialogue is very important to understand and appreciate the nuances of the phenomenon of religious extremism. Unfortunately, the public debate about terrorism in Pakistan has been hijacked by those who view it in the ‘dialogue versus military operation’ binary. This approach has not only deeply polarised the public opinion but also fostered a delusional, misleading and grossly over-simplified narrative.
For instance, a recent blog by a resident of FATA evoked interesting responses from readers. While a few readers did share his concern, there were others who, in a rather condescending tone, were criticising the ‘ignorant’ people of FATA for ‘hosting and supporting the killers of thousands of Pakistanis’. As much as they reeked of snobbishness and elitism, these comments also alluded to the ignorance of the educated urban Pakistanis about the peripheral areas of the country in general and the issue of terrorism in particular.
It is in this mainland Pakistan that the real battle against extremism has to be fought. These ‘educated’ and ‘patriotic’ citizens of the mainland Pakistan need to be provided with an honest and objective account of the rise and growth of terrorism in Pakistan. They should be taught that the people of FATA did not engender terrorism. Instead, it was the state’s exploitation of the Pashtun cultural code of hospitality, their affinity for religion and the establishment of massive jihadi infrastructure in the tribal belt that made Fata the place it is today.
Secondly, terrorism in Pakistan cannot be curbed without bringing a strategic shift in foreign policy. Owing to the complex regional security terrain, Pakistan cannot establish internal peace unless it contributes to peace in the neighbouring countries. Our efforts for internal peace, therefore, must coincide with initiatives for regional peace. This would entail, inter alia, abandoning the policy of using Islamic extremism as a tool of foreign policy once and for all.
In other words, Pakistan has to, and should, abolish the distinction between good and bad militants.
It should go all out against militants including the Haqqani network, the sectarian and anti-Indian jihadi groups. Durable peace can be achieved only if the current offensive is followed up by a crackdown against the Punjab-based Sunni militants and extremist groups. Such measures will help Islamabad mend its strained ties with Kabul, New Delhi and Washington and seek their support in rooting out terrorism. The current regional geo-political environment is conducive for such an initiative.
On the eastern border, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-government’s desire to revive economic growth converges with PML-N’s own focus on growth and its desire to promote trade and economic ties with India. However, this goal can only be achieved if Pakistan reins in its anti-Indian jihadi groups. Any repeat of the Mumbai style terror attacks would roll back the reconciliation process and plunge the region into a potentially disastrous crisis.
Similarly, despite misgivings, Washington and Kabul more than ever desire Islamabad to facilitate the Afghan peace process. By playing a constructive role in the impending end game, Pakistan can dissuade Kabul from giving support and sanctuary to the Pakistani Taliban. Finally, action against the sectarian outfits would help Islamabad improve ties with Iran.
Will Islamabad capitalise on this opportunity to repair its strained regional ties and improve its international image and credibility? Only time will tell. For now, let’s focus on the humanitarian fall out of the North Waziristan offensive. Heart-rending stories and photos of internally displaced children and women making rounds on social media do not augur well for national unity. The people of FATA have suffered the most in the war on terror. Now is the time to own the fall out of the operation and share the burden of internal displacement with the people of FATA.
An effective national response to the issue should entail the following principles:
- Give a time frame for the return of the IDPs
- Adopt a community-based approach both for coordinating relief efforts and for identifying militants while preventing them from infiltrating the IDP camps. It would entail engaging the representatives from the IDP community as reliable and trustworthy partners.
- Allocate adequate resources for IDP relief efforts. This might include diverting resources from projects such as the laptop schemes, festivals etcetera
- Create a legal framework upholding the rights of IDPs
- Establish a cell for collecting data on the number, needs and conditions of IDPs
- Designate an institutional focal point for coordinating relief efforts
- Seek support of and cooperate with international community and the non-governmental sector to compensate for the government’s capacity and resource constraints
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