Syed Talat Hussain
We responded to the heart-wrenching attack in Sehwan Sharif the way we always respond to carnage: high on emotion, expansive in national grief. And this is a good thing. At least we still feel each other’s pain and retain enough humanity to cry for our lost brothers, sisters and children.
But emotions make a weak base for policy and that is something we have not understood even after having been through the familiar cycle of loss, shock, emotion and reaction. This is where our response to the events of the recent wave of terrorist attacks has been devoid of substance and thought.
To begin with, the whole debate has again been hijacked by the tired argument about implementation of the National Action Plan. Admitted, the plan (more a roadmap) is an important pointer to and assessment criterion of the way governments have carried out basic reforms for countering the menace of terrorism. Admitted also that there are gaping holes in its implementation. Yet, increasingly this has become an excuse to hide the incompetence and non-performance of the existing institutions.
For each point of the National Action Plan – from madressah reform to intelligence-sharing to dealing with proscribed organisations – there are dedicated ministries and relevant departments. For pre-emption of terrorism and keeping a keen eye on their future plans there are intelligence agencies with large budgets and an incredible range of powers (many extrajudicial) to scuttle dangerous plots. NAP’s non-implementation does not hinder anyone from carrying out their responsibilities.
Even the requirement of special courts is a hoax and a distraction. Consider what has happened in the wake of the Sehwan Sharif tragedy. In less than 24 hours, officials have claimed with great pride that a hundred terrorists have been killed. There was no due process of law. No trial. No questions asked. No answers given.
Perhaps many of them deserved the fate they fell to. Perhaps no due process time was available. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that the state could kill at will when it came to that point of desperate action. No special arrangements were needed. No great debate in parliament was involved.
This emphasises the reality that is so often ignored in our reaction to mega tragedies. We cannot wait for a perfect plan to emerge before taking action. And if action is not being taken to prevent terrorism then the existing system must be held accountable regardless of whether or not we have NAP in place.
Also, the myth that special powers are needed to tide over the challenge of this new phase of terrorism is only that – a myth – and nothing more. By our own account, much of this terrorism continues to flow from the area bordering Afghanistan. From the northern areas to the Taftan border, the arc of trouble is under total control of state authorities. Fata and Balochistan are areas where all state institutions have maximum powers. Actions taken there are not even brought into judicial review (some because of constitutional reasons and some because of the practical-mindedness of our honourable judges). Should we then not ask why and how terrorists move from Afghanistan via this belt and make it to the heartland and cause such devastation?
There is supreme irony in the fact that, when faced with allegations from Afghanistan about groups moving from the border region to carry out terrorism in the country, we have always raised the point about the long distance involved between the alleged point of departure of the terrorist and the venue of his heinous action. We need to now ask ourselves the same question about hideouts in Afghanistan fanning out terrorists all across our country. What is it that we need to make their travel impossible? Rephrase the question: What more do institutions need in terms of power and resources to prevent these terrorists from travelling such a long way into our main cities? Probably very little. Probably nothing.
No less disconcerting is the desire for quick-fixes that has again become evident after last week’s events. The emotional content of our response to the killing and mayhem at Sehwan Sharif has been overloaded in measures like closing the border and summoning Afghan diplomats and handing them lists of terrorists that we want them to nab, neutralise and give up. Much of this was done in haste and now we are stuck with the problem of following up on our threats of direct action.
It is understandable why a slew of actions had to be taken: the public needed to be assured that something is being done. Yet the cost of this assurance is heavy. We have squarely focused on terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan (which do exist) but in a manner that had driven our policy up the narrow lane. What do we do now that Afghanistan has said “nothing-doing” on the list we handed over to them? The Americans will not be of any help. The Indian design being executed through Kabul cannot but be with the connivance and approval of Washington’s deep state. Why would they play an honest broker between us and Kabul when India’s influence and ingress has been allowed to expand on their watch? So we are stuck. That should not have happened. A good strategy opens up options instead of narrowing them down.
Another disconcerting aspect of the events after the week of carnage is the mindboggling campaign based on silly comparisons between Raheel Sharif and the present army chief – as if everything else about terrorism in this country has been figured out and only this side of the issue needs fixing. Crawling out of the woodworks are pen-pushers manufacturing stories about the imagined bliss of the Raheel years. We do not know what purpose such falsehoods serve other than re-inflating the personal folklore of Gen Raheel, which we know was more fiction than fact.
If history could be recorded honestly and truthfully, we could prove through data and statistics that the half-done work during his tenure is what is catching up with this nation now. If debate on the facts of his tenure had not been stifled in the name of national interest, we would have been better-positioned to take stock of the reality of our success against terrorism.
But that did not happen. What happened instead was total compliance of the worst order to whatever was dished out by official quarters. That was bad enough. Worse is the sad attempt to reignite that controversial era as if that is something to go by and follow. This is folly and must be avoided at all costs.
We have reached a point where we cannot afford to make mistakes – emotional, policy and that of debate. We need to get our act together. And we need to do it now. The hour of terror is upon us. The enemy will create waves of attacks and each could be more lethal than the last. Every institution needs to pull in the same direction. We have enough national resources and resolve to defeat the plot. If we can’t, it is only our own fault – and not of our stars or the brilliance of the plotters.