Outside of a miniscule minority, no one is going to defend the attempted murder of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai. Dehumanising people, no matter how wicked their actions, is usually inadvisable but no one should have any compunction in saying that those who want a girl dead for the ‘crime’ of wanting to go to school, of desiring a normal life, to living without fear, are anything but animals. The only question which remains is not what judgment should be passed on the morality of the perpetrators, but rather what would be the wisest way of bringing them to justice and preventing a repeat occurrence.
The most cathartic way of expressing outrage over Malala’s plight is by vowing to take the fight to the Taliban through military means and by tamping down any criticism of measures taken in the name of defeating militancy. The urge is understandable but should be avoided. The hard fact to face is that there is no one, simple solution. We have tried peace deals with the Taliban and they have not made us any safer. Military options have been exercised but they have not decimated the terrorists. The US has used drones with impunity and yet, more militant leaders seem to crop up every day.
The options we have available to us are limited and so it is sadly necessary to make painful sacrifices. Our military simply does not have the manpower or ability to clear and hold every area where militants seek refuge. So, while the 2009 operation in Swat seemed like a resounding success, it has had limited real-world impact since the Swati Taliban simply melted into the Kunar province of Afghanistan. The Afghans, facing innumerable problems of their own, have not shown the slightest inclination to lend us a helping hand and so Maulana Fazlullah’s group has had ample opportunity to regroup. We withdrew our troops from Dir by April 2010, even though the territory gives militants access to Afghanistan, Swat and most of the tribal agencies. This had to be done because the troops were needed in other areas of conflict. Given these constraints, eliminating the Taliban is not a realistic option; the best we can hope for right now is containment.
The situation is made worse by the inability and unwillingness of political parties to take on the Taliban in word or deed. Imran Khan has received some flak, as he should, for saying in a television interview that his party cannot be as critical of the Taliban as they should out of fear. But Imran has only articulated what other parties practise. The PPP’s muted reaction to Salmaan Taseer’s murder was spurred by the same cowardice. I am one of those who believes US drone attacks are illegal and immoral and support every protest against them — however, I still cannot help but lament the fact that none of our political parties can be equally stringent in their criticism of terrorist groups that prey on minor girls.
The temptation in this scenario is to be absolutist in our position and wish death and misery on every group that has adopted the Taliban moniker. That is simply not possible right now. I would much rather we go after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and leave alone, for the moment, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network because it is in our short-term interest to do so. If the ideal is destroying every militant group that has found succour on our territory, the reality requires making hard choices between the various entities.
Malala deserves better than this. We should not have to distinguish between murderous thugs. But we are in a struggle that will last generations and are forced to act accordingly.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2012.