The trap of violence

With 535 civilians dead in 2015, the term 'relief' does not make sense

Madiha Afzal August 03, 2015
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

We hear a little less bad news from Pakistan these days. The year 2015 has seen fewer terror attacks than recent years, and the numbers confirm this: 535 civilians were victims of attacks in the first six months of 2015, relative to 949 in the same time period in 2014; 168 security personnel killed in the first half of 2015, relative to 319 in the same time in 2014.

I’m tempted to feel a sense of relief at these statistics — at not seeing Pakistan in the headlines as much in foreign newspapers; at not hearing concerned exclamations of ‘what is going on in Pakistan!’ by everyone I meet in the US. It is also tempting to say Operation Zarb-e-Azb is working, that Pakistan is rolling back from the precipice.

But — 535 dead! Relief does not make sense. If we feel any, it shows just how far down the cliff we’ve gone. In any other context, 535 civilians dead at the hands of terrorists is a horror story — the worst thing that could possibly be imagined. And, that other context would be consumed by effort to deal with it, to counter such terror.

In Tunisia this March, a gun attack at Tunis’s Bardo museum killed 22 tourists. And in June, 38 tourists were killed in the resort town of Sousse. Tunisia responded immediately to these two attacks by imposing an emergency, an anti-terror law, strict security measures, and a crackdown on mosques and preachers.

In Morocco, where I lead a course of University of Maryland students every January, people refer to the May 2003 Casablanca bombings that killed 33 victims as the country’s 9/11. The country adopted an anti-terror law within one week of the attacks, and used it to carry out mass arrests and detain more than 2,000 extremists. Morocco has seen only one major terror attack since, in Marrakech in 2011, which killed 17 people.

I’m not arguing that such stringent security and anti-terror measures necessarily lead to less terrorism. That is debatable. In Tunisia, some argue the opposite — that the history of forced secularisation and heavy-handedness on clerics under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali partially led to the current tide of extremism. And there were documented human rights abuses in the Moroccan context and fresh warnings in the Tunisian context.

The point here is not whether these strategies are effective or whether they are compatible with a democracy — though both are valid concerns. The point is that the Moroccan and Tunisian governments jumped to action when their people were attacked, because it was unacceptable to them that the security of their citizens and tourists is threatened. On the other hand, it took Pakistan eight years of sustained and mounting terror to launch a full military operation, pass an anti-terror law, and formulate its National Action Plan. And while there appear to be violations of human rights associated with these measures in the Pakistani context as well — given secret detentions and the extensive use of the death penalty — the fact remains that 20,507 civilians died in terrorist violence since 2003, and the Pakistani leadership only began taking decisive action in the second half of 2014, after the turning tide of public opinion left little choice in the matter.

Before that, we saw successive Pakistani governments respond to terror by mumbling, shuffling their feet, going this way and that, and formulating weak plans with weaker still implementation. They confused and obfuscated the internal threat, bound by the idea that a religiously homogenous Pakistan can only face external insecurities.

“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity,” wrote the Economist in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, referring to gun deaths in America. “The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become — for those not directly affected by tragedy — ritualised and then blend into the background noise.”

This is what Pakistan has become in the last ten years. Because the powers that be — civilians and the establishment — did not respond fast enough, violence has become part of the Pakistani landscape. That is on them.

It could be that one tends to be more critical of one’s own context. Perhaps. More cynically, you could argue that Morocco and Tunisia responded exceedingly fast because of economic imperatives — the victims in the attacks there were primarily tourists, and the hugely important tourism industries of both countries had been endangered. Maybe. The wider Moroccan and Tunisian contexts plus the North African region are certainly different from Pakistan and its neighbourhood. But given that the tide is turning in Pakistan with the government and military’s latest actions, one can’t help but feel that thousands of Pakistanis became the collateral damage of our leaders’ lack of urgency, because they did not care enough to try harder, sooner. And there’s no excuse for that.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th,  2015.

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Adil Khan | 6 years ago | Reply Totally agree with the learned writer. How in the world have we allowed almost 50000 people to perish at the murderous hands of terrorists, who were mostly "our own" and indigenous. The many wars with our so called arch enemy have been nowhere as costly in human lives in comparison. And yet we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and have trained and positioned tens of millions of soldiers on our western border over the last 68 odd years, and now we even have almost 200 nuclear bombs to annihilate the enemy. As the writer well points out, actually the biggest threat was right within us, and we've done so little, so late, in tackling that particular menace in comparison. AbsolutIely horrifying and such waste of previous lives. No other nation tolerates such mindless killing from extremists and sectarians. We stand alone in so many fields, mostly the unpalatable ones.
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