Back from The Precipice


Beyond Headlines

NOT long ago, Pakistan was looking down the precipice. The country, marred by sectarian strife and religious extremism, was declared a basket case, which could implode anytime. It seemed to follow the way of many Arab countries like Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, into more misery and oblivion. The violence, death and destruction were a culmination of the decades old State policy of encouraging religious and sectarian outfits. The monster had grown uncontrollable and was about to devour the hand that had fed it so long. In fact there was a time, after Pakistan came into existence in 1947, when it showed promise, both as a vibrant society and a thriving economy. During the 1960s, in the second decade of Pakistan’s birth, its GDP was higher than that of South Korea. Its national carrier, PIA was considered one of the finest airlines in the world and the country was at the cusp of becoming a great economy in the years to come. But then things started to go wrong. The country split into two, with East Pakistan forming a separate country. For a few years after the break-up, the country was slowly returning to normalcy. But then in 1977, there was an army coup, in which Gen Zia toppled the elected Govt of Zulfikar Bhutto, who was subsequently sent to the gallows in 1979. What followed was an extremely tumultuous turn of events for the country with the war in Afghanistan. The reactionary dictator Zia, sensing an opportunity to strengthen his grip on power, became a part of the American and Saudi supported anti Soviet war in Afghanistan. In the following decade, thousands of fighters, from across the Arab and other Muslim countries, landed in Pakistan and crossed over into Afghanistan to fight the Russian Army. The decade old war in Afghanistan resulted in a few million refugees trickling into the country. Pakistan was fully involved in the decade long war in its neighbourhood providing logistical support and acting as a conduit for the foreign money and weapons to the fighters in Afghanistan. Over the years, Pakistan’s biggest problems have resulted from the country’s Army ruling the country for considerable length of time, than letting democracy take root. Unfortunately the country’s political leadership has done nothing remarkable or spectacular to bring any glory to the country.

The country’s descent into darkness and an abyss had accentuated during the last one decade during which religious extremism unleashed by the likes of  like TTP and sectarian violence by the likes of LeJ have resulted in more than 50,000 deaths in the country. Even till the beginning of the last year, the dreaded TTP was carrying out attacks against the Pakistani State at will, targeting military installations, naval and air force bases and even civilian installations. The country’s political leadership was in complete paralysis and limbo, in dealing with the threat posed by TTP. After the sham peace talks were derailed when the TTP didn’t stop its deadly attacks against the Pakistani State, the Pakistan Army took charge and launched a full fledged military offensive against TTP and its allied outfits. Though acts of violence are still reported from the country, their intensity and frequency has substantially reduced, especially after the Peshawar School Attack in Dec 2014, in which 140 school students were gunned down by the TTP. By Pakistan’s standards, this year has been relatively peaceful.

In the month of July this year, another dreaded militant, the kingpin of sectarian militancy in Pakistan, Malik Ishaq was also killed, along with his two sons, by the Punjab Police. This marked a clear shift in Pakistan’s policy of shielding these sectarian militants, who would often be used as strategic assets. It must be mentioned here that Malik Ishaq had openly claimed responsibility for killing more than 100 Shias and was acquitted, time and again, over charges of terrorism and homicide. His killing is perhaps a sign that the State is well on its way to mend its earlier mistake of giving a long rope to the sectarian outfits in the country.

For sceptics, it will be difficult to accept that Pakistani State, especially its Army is serious in tackling the monster of terrorism, which was effectively set in motion and nurtured not only by the successive Governments, but mainly by the Army. Pakistan’s Army has a long history of using them as strategic assets to secure its geo strategic goals. The TTP has been an existential threat to Pakistan for over a decade now, but it has been only in the last one year that the Army has acknowledged this threat and gone about eliminating it in a professional way. Not that the militants have remained silent after the killing of Ishaq. On August 16, 2015, the Home Minster of Punjab province, Shuja Khanzada was assassinated at his house in Attock district. Khanzada, a retired Colonel in the Pakistan Army, was at the forefront of taking on the militancy in Punjab and had also publicly said that he would clean up the seminaries of all militant activities. The LeJ claimed responsibility for the attack in which 20 people were also injured.

Having dented the threat from TTP and also having cleared Karachi of much of its ethnic violence, Pakistan Army cannot rest on its laurels, at least not yet. The infrastructure that has nurtured religious and sectarian militancy for so long in Pakistan still remains intact. The seminaries across the country continue to mass produce students who can become easy recruits for the militants. The seminaries have neither been cleaned up of their militant links nor has any major reform of their syllabus and working been undertaken. This is one area where Pakistani political leadership needs to take the initiative and clear these seminaries of the ideological poison that they have been spreading all these years. While the optimism about the recent developments is justified, one should not remain oblivious to the fact that Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of the former Punjab Governor, remains inside the jail, the charges of terrorism having been dropped against him by the Islamabad High Court. Let us not forget that it is the same man, who was showered with rose petals by lawyers in Punjab after he was arrested for killing the Governor.

Once the State has decided to act tough with the extremists, it is incumbent upon it to also address the ideological foundations of this problem. For many years now, political opportunism has dictated Pakistan’s policy about the extremism that it has faced. Despite the death of more than 50,000 people, Pakistani politicians have tried to shift focus and instead blame the American intervention in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan for the spread of extremism in the country. Though the American drone programme has created resentment in the tribal belt, blaming it entirely for the extremist threat to Pakistan would be dishonest. After all, the history of religious and sectarian extremism in Pakistan predates the American Drone attacks and its ‘’War on Terror’’.

While it is heartening to know that Pakistan seems to have found the will to take on the threat of extremism in the country, it would be too early to write off the monster completely. After all, it has taken decades to nurture this monster and it goes without saying that its roots run deep. The propaganda and the discourse in Pakistan all these years has created a sympathetic public opinion regarding the extremists. It is time that Pakistan also needs to undo this war of perception. The sectarian schism runs quite deep in the Pakistani society. In an altered geo political scenario, in which Iran is coming out of decades old economic sanctions and Pakistan is finding its feet again in Afghanistan, it becomes imperative on the Pakistani State not to fritter away these opportunities. The State needs to do its basics right and start weeding out the ideological fountainheads of extremism in the country. As a first and the most important step, the State needs to control the Madrassah network, reform them and also reclaim the pulpit from the angry and the venomous preacher. 

Tariq Jameel writes weekly column, Beyond Headlines, for the Kashmir Observer

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