Some of the survivors of the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar may never make a full recovery, even though they are physically uninjured. Others, dreadfully hurt, will suffer the after-effects, of the deadliest terrorist attack that Pakistan has ever seen, for whatever is left of their lives. As a nation, the event is burned on the collective memory and nobody alive that day will ever forget how the news came to them. Individual acts of heroism on the day are remembered, teachers and students who tried to protect and save one another as nine men rampaged through the school, killing as they went. Mostly it was children who died, and such was the enormity of the event that it was said that it was the point at which Pakistan changed, the point at which the nation came together as one, the point at which the fight against terrorism and extremism became an all-out battle. But was it so?
The APS attack was the trigger for the formulation of the National Action Plan (NAP), a hastily conceived reworking of an existing document that had never been actioned, dusted off and given a shot of adrenaline. It was in large part poorly thought through — and still is — and almost a year since its genesis is progressing piecemeal rather than in a unified and determined manner.
There have been clear and unequivocal benefits to the implementation of parts of the NAP. Levels of terrorist incidents have dropped sharply, fewer bombings, fewer target killings and a perceptible rise in the sense of security felt by many, but not all, of the population. There have been many arrests — but few prosecutions — of those making hate speeches and a limited interdiction of funds to madrassas regarded as extremist. There has been strong resistance from the clerical establishment to the registration of madrassas and any reform of madrassa curriculum to bring it more in line with national standards is years off, if ever. The tribal areas have seen prolonged and effective military action, but the reforms promised for people who live in the tribal areas are not in evidence. The machinery to counter terror has moved painfully slowly, with the decision to activate the National Counter Terrorism Authority only coming in the last month.
The elephant in the dining room of the NAP is a failure to formulate and roll out a national counter-narrative to that offered by extremism, and with a nascent Islamic State (IS) waiting to take the stage, that is a dangerous oversight. Terrorist cells have been broken up, key players killed — some in circumstances that do not bear close scrutiny and may be regarded as ‘extra-judicial’ — but the ideology that underpins terrorism is largely intact, completely untouched and seemingly untouchable as evidenced by the continued stream of bile emanating from Lal Masjid in Islamabad.
As for the people of Pakistan, whatever real unity there was a year ago seems to have dissipated and there has been a return to default positions, little having changed. Sectarian divisions remain intact, and the bomb blast in Parachinar is a powerful reminder of that. Provincial parochialism has in some instances found itself at the beck and call of those who sit not far from extremism themselves politically. The opportunity to capitalise on national unity was frittered away, the window closing faster than civilian governance could get a coherent response together.
A year on, the glass is at best half-full. Much has been achieved but crucial elements of the fight to wrest Pakistan from the clutches of extremism have yet to be tackled effectively. In terms of a national paradigm, the country has continued to drift right-wards in the direction of the natural home of the extremist mindset. Today we remember the dead and injured; tomorrow we must ensure that the tragedy that struck a year ago never happens again.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2015.