All credits eventually run out, and the one the state of Pakistan won for beating back local Taliban from the Malakand and the tribal belt is no exception to this rule. As it is the situation in the tribal agencies is precarious and there is no end in sight of the ongoing military operations, but the real challenge is now in the urban areas where the blow-back is being felt with devastating consequences.
The Data Darbar attack is the cutting edge of this new dimension of the war against terror that we joined willingly and are now finding it exceedingly hard to wind up. This is not the first time a revered place, housing the remains of a holy man, has been hit. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, almost 50 such incidents have occurred. The militants brandishing the swords of an exclusivist, puritanical Islam destroyed graves with impunity and bombed tombs. From the small neighbourhoods in Orakzai agency to the attack on the tomb of Rahman Baba, in Hazarkhwani, in Peshawar, the Taliban have desecrated every symbol displaying faith they are in dead disagreement with.
But Data Darbar is a different case. Its centrality to the life of faithful spreads across the sub-continent and even beyond. For this to be under the fire of hateful suicide attackers is an affront far more serious than any other the nation has witnessed so far. By that token the inability of the government, and state institutions, to prevent such an attack from happening has to be categorised as a failure far egregious than anything we have witnessed before. The symbolism of the attack is not that a particular brand of Islam is unacceptable to the terrorists. The message is that nothing is safe from their reach and that the law enforcement agencies are completely in the dark about those who are visiting death upon the innocent citizens.
Seen in the broader context of the terrorists’ reach, now it seems to encompass the entire north and northwest of Pakistan, clouding two capital cities, Peshawar and Lahore, and penetrating the entire landscape of two provinces. Of course, this is mere symbolism. It is not as if Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are about to fall to the terrorists. In fact, a visit to the Data Darbar the day after the attacks was a soul-lifting experience. People were thronging the place like never before. They had lived through a terrible experience in a little under 18 hours.
Yet spectacular attacks like these drum up the international (and now increasingly domestic) hype about a country falling, failing or flailing in a sea of problems, the grimmest of which happens to be a crippled state machinery and an audacious network of terrorism sponsors and their foot-soldiers. It is this hype that has become the bane of Pakistan. It is nibbling away achievements that the country has to its credit in fighting down organised militancy in the northwest.
Regrettably, internal incompetence and lack of coherent planning to deal with urban terrorism has only reinforced this image of Pakistan adrift, of a country slipping badly. Feuding politicians in the Punjab and an endless turf war between the governor and the chief minister has only accentuated the problem of not focusing attention on counter-terror efforts. The federal government’s lead political man, the prime minister, is hopelessly out of sync with needs of the times, and like his president, seems so far away from meeting the challenge of strategising against spreading terrorism.
This gives Pakistan’s detractors like India, cagey powers like the US, keen observers like the EU and even interested states like China a lot of reason to think that Pakistan, in spite of its many merits, is living dangerously. And we are living dangerously — from one terror attack to another, spending the days falling in between on political trivia. The Data Darbar incident is a tactical success for the terrorists, whether from outside or home-grown. The manner in which the nation has responded to this attack is a victory for the people and a tribute to their spirit. Those in government need to seriously think, is there anything that they have done with regard to this attack that can be called praiseworthy?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2010.
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