The Pakistani nation is even more confused today about who it is fighting than it was seven years ago, when the “war on terror” began in the Musharraf regime.
The night of September 20 when the Islamabad Marriott was going up in flames after being hit by the single biggest terrorist bomb in Pakistan’s history, one thought ran through the minds of many Pakistanis: “this is our 9/11”. But influential voices that urged the government to make use of the moment to rally the country in the fight against the Taliban, terrorism, militancy and extremism are in despair now that the opportunity was passed up.
The new government has spoken several times of the importance of building a national consensus on Pakistan’s need to battle terrorism for its own survival. The aftermath of the devastating bombing, some observers are saying, was the right time to build such a consensus.
Instead, as Mr. Zardari flew to New York the next day for the U.N. General Assembly after a botched-up address to the nation — the state-run Pakistan Television showed a rehearsal instead of the final recording — and the Prime Minister left for Lahore, the moment passed.
Except for a brief visit by Rehman Malik, an adviser to the Prime Minister who functions as the Interior Minister, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, no prominent government figure went to the site of the blast. Not a single opposition party, including Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N), condemned the attack.
Within a few hours of the attack, Pakistan’s “aha” moment had given way to a bagful of media-led theories leading up more to a justification of the action, rather than its condemnation. Television talk shows connected the hotel attack to the ongoing military operations against Taliban militants in Bajaur, or to the American missile strikes in the tribal areas, or the presence of American marines in the hotel, or to the “root cause” – former President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to participate in the “war on terror”.
It was Mr. Malik, the de facto Interior Minister, who, when asked by reporter at a press conference on the presence of American Marines in the hotel, came closest to framing the problem that Pakistan faces today with any clarity.
“What is the matter that our media never condemns the militants?” he asked. “It is the militants who have heaped up so many corpses today, martyred so many — I want to make a request, that our television anchors, our print journalists, why are they not saying that what these people are doing is against Islam?... For the sake of god, the glorification of terrorists must stop. This is a crime in the world… Marriott is an international chain. Investors stayed there, international journalists stayed there, it is possible that some U.S. Marines also stayed there. But just because two Marines were present among a thousand Pakistanis does not mean you can give permission to anyone to blow up the building. This cannot be a justification. Please consider this request, and consider it in the context of Pakistan.”
But if anything, the Pakistani nation is even more confused today about who it is fighting than it was seven years ago, when the “war on terror” began in the Musharraf regime. Such is the confusion that now when government spokesmen say “no Muslim could have committed such an act of terror,” the media takeaway from that is a non-Muslim “foreign” hand was involved.
Soldiers deployed in the north-west frontier regions do not want to fight the Taliban because they are fellow Muslims. And among the people, the view persists that the Taliban are “our misguided brothers” who can be talked back to the straight and narrow. All the country’s current problems will vanish, it is being said, if only Pakistan would assume a “neutral” position in U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, because it is “not our war.”
On television screens, anchors are foolhardily urging that the Pakistan government show the Americans their place at least by blocking their main supply route into Afghanistan through Pakistan. The argument forwarded is that Pakistan became a target for terrorists only after 2001, when it got drawn into the American-led war in Afghanistan; no suicide attacks took place on Pakistani soil before that..
It is true that Pakistan is unsafe now, more than it was before 9/11, notwithstanding Mr. Zardari’s praise of U.S. President George Bush for making the world a “safer” place. Each callous missile strike by the United States on Pakistani soil serves the cause of the Taliban militants as it feeds into the country-wide anti-Americanism.
But a small section of the country’s opinion-makers, barely audible over the babel, has also begun asking if anything will be resolved just by pulling out of the U.S.-led war. These voices are pointing out that the present situation is not just the result of the American war in Afghanistan, but a blowback of the policies of pre-9/11 Pakistan. Suicide bombings were unknown in Pakistan then, but plenty of militant groups were born and nurtured by a state apparatus that funded them and trained them to fight proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Writing in the The News, commentator Farrukh Saleem estimated that the Taliban and the jihadis, a once-vital leg of the country’s national security doctrine, had killed 10,267 Pakistanis in five years, 6,000 more than the total number of Pakistanis killed in the 1965 war with India.
“Our own proxies are hitting back at the very soul of Pakistan,” he wrote. “It’s neither about religion nor about tribal traditions. This is an active insurgency whereby our ex-proxies are struggling to suck the soul out of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and then hold physical terrain from where to effect their agenda… our national defence strategy has long been due for a major makeover. But, we have long been in a state of denial.”
In the same newspaper, Shafqat Mahmood, a one-time adviser to Benazir Bhutto, said: “Let us clear the cobwebs from our mind. There is the American angle and it complicates the situation mightily for us but we are fighting a home-grown terrorist minority… There is an enemy within. It must be fought with the combined will of the nation or little will remain of us.”
He made the important point that state support to militancy began under the Zia-ul Haq dictatorship without the people’s consent and was later quietly continued by an autonomously functioning Army. In private discussions, influential Pakistanis acknowledge that the first step in Pakistan’s road to recovery has to be a national discussion — in parliament or in an all-party conference — on the state’s three-decade-old jihad policy, a no-holds-barred appraisal of its costs, and its compatibility with what Pakistan wants to be and where it wants to go. It will be difficult — the elected government of the day must take the lead, the Pakistan Army must be on board, and opposition politicians, the media and other opinion-makers must be persuaded to join in. But then, this is what leaders are elected to do.
Some journalists — it first came up at a conference of women media professionals — have also begun to debate how language and the use of words affects the media’s message. The most widely used Urdu word askariyat pasand — literally those who like weapons — it is argued, does not convey any horror. Quite to the contrary, as I. A Rehman, a leading political commentator, wrote in the Dawn, ‘askar’ — arms — ‘askari’ and ‘askariat’ are sacred words and ordinary Pakistanis would not associate any wrong with them. Another columnist in the same paper pointed out that at least one television channel was even describing the Taliban as mazahmat kar, Urdu for resistance fighters.
As the debates rage about right and wrong, the government appears unsure — some would say divided — on whether it really wants to turn the page on the chapter of state-sponsored militancy. A Pakistani friend who recently returned from a trip to southern Punjab related how banned groups such as the Jaishe-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba are regrouping, and canvassing in small towns and villages. Hafiz Saeed, the LeT chief, who also heads its legal front Jamat-ud-Dawa, addresses rallies — most recently in Karachi — at which he openly espouses jihad in Kashmir. The banned Sipah-e-Sahaba held a massive rally in the same city recently. When asked why the government was not doing anything to stop them, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s reply, just two days before the Marriott blast, was that a democratic government’s credentials would be called into question if it began banning “peaceful” rallies. Days after the Marriott attack, a police raid on a safe house of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Karachi ended with three would-be suicide bombers blowing themselves up, and the arrest of their leader.
When Mr. Zardari says he wants to “suck out the oxygen” from the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, no one doubts his sincerity. But the question being asked from New York to New Delhi, and also in Pakistan, is whether he has what it takes to rally the nation, his party and the entire state apparatus for the task ahead