Turning the tide of terror

Are we ready to fight this war?

Turning the tide of terror

...and the blood of children ran through the streets without fuss, like children’s blood.

– Pablo Neruda: From I’m explaining a few things

A friend from Lahore called me last week. When younger, this friend had lived in Peshawar for a time. As he told me, he had personally known at least seven of the families who had lost someone in the Army Public School massacre. He could not, he said, even begin to imagine their feelings. As it happens, both this friend and I have in our lives suffered that most grievous of bereavements, of having lost a child to the Dark Angel: his eldest son and my eldest daughter.

Our two bereavements had been due to natural causes, illnesses which we had fought to cure, but had failed. After the initial agony, and perhaps a measure of self-accusation, one had come to a state of acceptance. But those parents in Peshawar... who perhaps had been calling to their child that morning to hurry or he’d be late for school, or who had insisted that their pride and joy finish his breakfast before leaving, or who had dropped their loved one at school... as my friend said, one cannot begin to imagine the soul-shattering, mind-twisting shock and pain they must be experiencing. And which may never leave them. The psychological trauma to the surviving children, who fled the monstrous attackers, or who hid under desks, or were just plain luckier than their schoolmates, is immeasurable. It may never leave them either.

The question that both my friend and I were unable to answer was: why did this have to happen? Pakistan has undertaken a long overdue military action against rebel insurgents who had routinely used terrorist tactics against the citizens of this country. Were we naive (or culpable) enough to believe there would be no retaliation? And, since this particular insurgent rabble has repeatedly shown itself as prone to sinking to extraordinary depths of savagery, why did we not anticipate that their response could be especially horrific?

In short, why were we so unprepared? Where was the Intelligence that could have prevented, or at least blunted, this gross act of terrorism?

I ask my readers to note that the US had its 9/11, Britain its 7/7, Spain its Attocha bombing, Indonesia its Bali bombing: one time, each of them. The trademark murderous extravaganzas innovated by Al Qaeda caught the world by surprise. But only the first time, not again. That such foiled incidents as the ‘shoe bomber’, the ‘underwear bomber’, the Times Square ‘idiot-bomber’, the Boston ‘Marathon bombers’, etc, kept happening pointed to the fact that, around the world and particularly in the US, the terrorists continued to try. But, it seems, good intelligence, alongside general alertness and some good luck, have proven outstandingly successful.
We saw the interior minister practically weeping on TV over the death of a declared enemy of the state

Not here in Pakistan. Here, bombings and terror attacks became a feature as early as 1981. And they continue today, without a pause, even after the commencement of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. What, one must ask repeatedly, is the government doing to protect us against the backlash? Primitive revenge-executions and setting up of military courts won’t do that. These are at best ex post facto measures, of relevance only after a terror attack has occurred and if and when the perpetrators have been caught. Where is the intelligence that could have foiled such attacks in the first place?

Consider. The army, however belatedly, is fulfilling its responsibility by initiating and conducting a systematic counter-insurgency campaign. It cannot, nor is it meant to, also conduct counter-terrorism operations in the cities. These are a police matter – an issue of effective law enforcement. Counter-terrorist operations, and the intelligence to support them, are a matter for the law enforcement agencies that come under the ministries of interior at the federal and provincial levels. They are the functions of governments responsible to civilian parliaments and assemblies.

But what we have witnessed has been a government that astonishingly actually sought to engage in entirely farcical “negotiations” with some of the most egregious mass-murdering criminals the world has ever known. We observed a federal interior minister practically weeping on the TV screen over the death of a deadly, declared enemy of the state. We saw a prime minister who disappeared from his country for ten days of Itikaf at a critical point in time, thereby neglecting his responsibilities to the citizens.

So much for the government! The attitudes of the opposition – or at least of its single most visible personality – are even worse.

None of these worthies seem to have realised that counter-terrorism matters are not a military concern, but a police matter. The sad fact is that, as Stephen Cohen remarked in his book ‘The Idea of Pakistan’, while Pakistan is not, in his view, a failed or failing state, the corruption and incompetence of its police apparatus could well drag the country in that direction.

Yes, prime minister, we need real police reforms, to make this all-important arm of the state more effective, before we need electoral reforms. We have seen that, again and again, massive quantities of high explosives have been procured, processed, mobilised and utilised in one terrorist act after another; but no intelligence or investigation has been able to penetrate the financial, logistical and human trails involved. We have seen that even a political figure of the eminence of Benazir Bhutto could not be protected from attack on two separate occasions. We have seen that, during the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore and the Ashura procession in Karachi, members of the law enforcement agencies simply melted away at the first sign of trouble. And, of course, we had no advance warnings of the attack on the naval airbase, or that on Karachi Airport, or that at Wagah.

And now this horrific massacre in Peshawar.

The point to be noted is that Zarb-e-Azb has clearly been undertaken by the Pakistan military on its own initiative, with civilian politicians only now jumping on to the bandwagon. Moreover, despite the appalling savagery and insensate cruelty demonstrated by the Taliban over the years in the areas under their control, neither the government, locked in its Islamabad ivory tower, nor the political parties, preoccupied with their power games, seek to educate public opinion about this menace or attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people away from the monstrous ‘ideology’ of the insurgents.

We are now told that Pakistan’s 9/11 moment has come, that there is no turning back now. But already we are hearing the weasel voices whispering that the attackers “were not Muslims”. Soon, it will be revealed that they were “working for a foreign power”. After all, we will be told, this is “not our war, after all”.

And, of course, there is little likelihood of improvement in any kind of intelligence – whether pertaining to foreknowledge of dire threats, or to the grey matter in the heads of our leaders.