The horrific incident at the Peshawar school jolted the nation and the civilian and military leadership came together to reclaim its neglected priorities. We were assured that now there is a broad consensus among political parties, and between them and the military, to combat terrorism. Hopefully, the concept of consensus as envisaged by the civilian leadership does not remain confined merely to reacting to the army’s demands, but to take initiatives and demonstrate the ability that it is a part of the transformation process. So far, the army has taken most of the major decisions. Lately, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is trying to seize the initiative and the broad-based action plan to fight terrorism covering both the ideological and the security aspects is a manifestation of the government’s commitment. Of course, people will be closely watching the plan’s implementation because our history is full of grandiose plans that were seldom executed or at best partially implemented.
The greatest challenge today is of transforming mindsets. In this, the role of clerics, madrassas, media, political parties and the mainstream education system is critical. How is the government going to deal with those madrassas that are known for spreading hatred and resist any scrutiny? Research institutes dealing with madrassas have assessed that about 10 per cent fall in this category, which is a substantial figure close to about 30,000. These are operating as autonomous units and are like sanctuaries that have remained outside the ambit of law. The prime minister’s action plan is emphatic that these madrassas will be reformed. In the enforcement of its writ, the government’s resolve will be measured. In addition to reforming madrassas, the government should open additional schools on a countrywide basis and make them attractive enough for parents to prefer to send their children to them. After all, what does the future hold for those students who continue to be subjected to rote learning and are deprived of modern education except to be exploited by the jihadi market? How can they contribute to society when their education fails to relate to the demands of the employment market, where physical and social sciences are key subjects and form the foundation of a progressive nation? With such acute limitations, they will continue to be exploited by unscrupulous forces as is happening now. We find that the very forces that are attacking the Pakistani state are those elements that were once nurtured by the state. Similarly, the religio-political parties that are supportive of radical madrassas may find that their students turn against them for being not sufficiently jihadist in the years to come. Moreover, if madrassa managements have nothing to hide, then why are they avoiding government oversight? The reality is that some of these seminaries have become dens of militants in urban centres.
The decision to establish military courts to handle cases pertaining to terrorism and lifting the moratorium on the death penalty has invoked criticism both inside and outside the country. The government’s position is that extraordinary conditions demand special measures. There is no doubt that these are unusual times and the civilian courts have miserably failed to provide justice for reasons well known — the state unable to provide protection to judges, witnesses and prosecution lawyers. As a result, the entire judicial machinery, fearing for its life, has been practically paralysed while many acquitted terrorists are roaming around freely, committing multiple murders of innocent citizens. And those who are awaiting trial are languishing in jails for years. The army is justifiably very disturbed and insists on setting up military courts for expediting cases. But there is a flip side to this proposal that cannot be overlooked. The civilian leadership, by its inadequate response to terrorism and other related matters, is gradually yielding space to the military that already heavily dominates the political and security landscape. Civilian leadership has to rise to the national challenge if the current ‘consensus’ has any substance. If consensus translates into handing over most major responsibilities of law and order, dealing with terrorist cases, taking decisions on strategic matters to the army, then it should be noted that such a state of affairs will have its own dynamics — militarisation, further weakening of state institutions and a playback of our history. In this cycle, democracy would be the first casualty and militant and radical forces the likely beneficiaries.
The prime minister’s current resolve is encouraging. History will, however, judge him and the provincial chief ministers on how they contribute towards strengthening civilian institutions, developing a national policy, improving governance, and above all, tackling terrorism. The leadership and courage that has been demonstrated by General Raheel Sharif has been inspiring. But it would be a folly to overload the armed forces with tasks that plainly fall in the domain of civilians, whether these pertain to the development of areas cleared by the army in Fata, resettling of internally displaced persons and dealing with the appalling law and order situation of Karachi and other major urban centres. It is through bank robberies and hostage-taking that criminal activity and terrorism feed each other.
A significant improvement in relations with Afghanistan has also been steered by the army leadership. The major military operation in North Waziristan and a paradigm shift in our policy of denying space to the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hafiz Gul Bhadur have helped in improving relations with Afghanistan and the US. Recent plans for coordinated operations with the Afghan military to clear sanctuaries on both sides of the border, if conducted without any past prejudices coming in the way, should put pressure on the TTP and Afghan militants.
If we would also abandon support to the Jamaatud Dawa and focus on dealing with Kashmir and other issues with India politically, we will unlock tremendous potential and resources in fighting terrorism and militancy. It would be unwise to allow radical and extremist elements to flourish to keep the Kashmir cause alive. This strategy has not worked in the past and will not be beneficial in the future. We need to revisit our major policies to be at peace with ourselves and with the world.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2014.