The South Asia Channel
A Little Less Talk, a Lot More Action
While Pakistan has decided to deal with terrorism and extremism after the school massacre, the key question is: Can the extremist mindset be eliminated?
Ever since the unprecedented Dec. 16 attack on a school in Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar that killed 140 students, the country’s civilian and military leadership is busy formulating strategies to effectively fight the 13-year-long war on terror and curb the spread of extremism in Pakistan.
After staying for almost 24 hours in Peshawar, the city rarely visited by Pakistani premiers and other top officials — mainly for security reasons — and holding several meetings with civilian and military leaders in the next few days, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, delivered a televised address in the early hours of Dec. 25.
“The Peshawar atrocity has changed Pakistan, we need to eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism,” Sharif said to his grief-stricken countrymen.
Since then, his government has announced a National Action Plan to deal with “militias” and proscribed organizations, to curb hate speech, religious persecution, and militants’ propaganda on the Internet, and to deal with unregistered religious seminaries and counter terrorism.
While the action plan and the flurry of related activity in Islamabad is the single visible proof of Pakistan’s seriousness to “decisively” deal with terrorism and extremism, the key question is: Can the extremist mindset be eliminated?
As the Pakistani premier was delivering the keynote address to set the new direction for his country’s fight against terrorism, a highly influential religious scholar in Islamabad was not ready to condemn the killing of 140 schoolchildren in Peshawar, arguing that the attack was not without a reason.
Maulana Abdul Aziz, administrator of the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, runs a chain of religious seminaries in Islamabad and other cities and has been known for supporting violent means of implementing sharia.
In 2007, female students affiliated with Lal Masjid, in an act of vigilantism, forcefully shut music shops and kidnapped a few Chinese women they thought to be involved in prostitution, which is illegal in Pakistan. An ensuing action by the Pakistani state resulted in the killing of nearly 100 people, while Aziz was arrested while trying to escape dressed as a woman.
He was freed by the Pakistani courts after two years and returned to Lal Masjid in the heart of the Pakistani capital, where he named a library after Osama bin Laden.
There are many others, including prominent leaders of political and religious parties, who either support the extremist ideology, or shy away from openly condemning their acts of terror. In November 2014, a former chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, Syed Munawar Hassan, called for “Jihad” and “Qital fi Sabilillah” (armed fight and killing in the way of God) for the elimination of oppression from Pakistani society.
Additionally, jihadis and sectarian leaders such as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, now named as Jamaat-ud-Dawa; Malik Ishaq, head of the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; and Maulana Samiul Haq, who proudly declares himself the father of the Afghan Taliban, are enjoying freedom to hold rallies, participate in television talk shows, and speak in support of jihadi ideologies.
While Pakistani governments since 2001 have resorted to halfhearted measures for combating militancy, some mainstream political and religious parties shied away from open condemnation of the Taliban’s acts of terror, fearing retribution.
For example, military ruler Pervez Musharraf used to boast of sending nearly 100,000 troops in the tribal areas to fight the Taliban, but his government failed to rein in the dozens of jihadi networks and their sympathizers and supporters in the cities maligning the mind of common Pakistanis, particularly jobless youth, through social media, printed literature, wall-chalking, and daily sermons from minarets of thousands of mosques and madrasas (religious seminaries) everywhere in the country.
His government also backtracked on its earlier claim of tracking all the unregistered religious seminaries, besides bringing them under the state audit system to ensure transparency in their accounts.
Aside from governments, mainstream political parties have failed to see the Taliban violence as the key threat to their country and offer a united front to avert it. For years, political leaders such as Imran Khan of Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Justice Movement) and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam did not condemn the Taliban attacks for fear of retribution.
In one such case, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab, even asked for mercy from the Taliban following a spate of terrorist attacks in the country’s northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in early 2010.
Shahbaz, who is the younger brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and who is still the chief minister of Punjab province, issued the “mercy call” following a series of deadly Taliban attacks against the workers and leadership of the secular Awami National Party (ANP) in northwestern Pakistan.
The ANP government had ordered the launching of an anti-Taliban operation in the country’s tourist resort of Swat in May 2009. Since then, the party leaders say, 850 of its leaders and workers, including a minister and son of another minster, have been targeted and killed by the Taliban in different parts of Pakistan.
The fragile and halfhearted approaches by the mainstream political leadership, combined with the duplicitous policy of the country’s security establishment, not only spread the extremist ideology all over the country, but also weakened the trust of common Pakistanis in the strength and capability of the country’s political leadership and security forces to curb terrorism and extremism.
For example, the man who killed Punjab province’s Governor Salman Taseer, in one of Pakistan’s most high-profile political assassinations, was not a member of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or any terrorist network. Rather, he was member of Taseer’s own security detail who killed the governor for his remarks against the controversial blasphemy laws.
The continuing duplicity on the part of the country’s security establishment in fighting the Taliban, on the other hand, has weakened the common man’s trust in the government and security forces.
Being a reporter for several years in Pakistan’s northwestern parts, I met hundreds of influential people from FATA who privately told me that they believe the military is not serious in their attempts to fully eliminate different groups of the Taliban in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
This perception originated from rampant attacks on tribal elders who raised Lashkars (militia of volunteers) and expelled the Taliban from their areas, or cooperated with the Pakistani security forces against the Taliban.
It was in 2009 that an elder from the Swat region told Pakistan’s then-army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, during a face-to-face meeting that his people believe that the Pakistan army and the Taliban are one and the same.
Since the Peshawar school attack, the Pakistani political leadership is taking steps to curb extremism and terrorism, while the military has sped up operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Claims of Taliban casualties, including “senior commander,” “a mastermind,” and “deputies,” are pouring in from the military’s publicity wing on a daily basis.
However, given the military’s past 13 years of fighting the Taliban, Pakistanis, as well as the international community, are still in a state of disbelief. The military’s claim of doing away with the “good” and “bad” Taliban policy and the civilians’ resolve to fight the “mindset of terrorism” are encouraging signs.
But the common Pakistani citizen is more interested in curbing militarization — whether that exists in FATA in the northwest, Islamabad in the center, or Lahore in the east to prove that anyone holding the gun is a “bad guy.”
Similarly, the formation of 15 committees to implement Prime Minister Sharif’s 20-point National Action Plan dealing with (armed) militias, proscribed organizations, hate speeches, religious persecutions, militants’ use of social media, and counterterrorism is an impressive strategy that needs to be implemented. Without it, the anti-Taliban hatred generated by the Peshawar school attack will dissipate and so will the sacrifice of 140 innocent lives.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images