Suicide Terrorism at the Islamabad Marriott

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The carnage at the Islamabad Marriott on 20 September has been described as Pakistan’s 9/11. It was nothing of the sort. 9/11 ignited a nationwide resolve in the US to defeat terrorism no matter what the cost. In the seven years since that fateful day which transformed global politics, there has never been a repetition of the tragedy on American soil.

The Pakistan story has been entirely different. In the absence of a sustained popular outrage that translates itself into a national effort to combat terrorism, incidents such as that at the Marriott keep occurring with dreadful frequency. It is Pakistan that has been the foremost victim of terrorism. According to one estimate on average twelve Pakistanis die every day because of terrorist violence.

Despite this, the Prime Minister’s adviser on interior affairs, Rehman Malik, announced a suspension of military operations during Ramadan in the tribal areas from 31 August. The response to this ill-advised decision was violence. President Asif Ali Zardari’s 6 September electoral triumph was marred by tragedy. A suicide bomb attack in Peshawar that day resulted in more than thirty deaths.

This was the third such incident in the brief nineteen day interlude between former president Pervez Musharraf’s resignation on 18 August and the election of his successor. A day after Musharraf stepped down a suicide bomber killed thirty civilians at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan and on 21 August at least seventy people lost their lives in suicide bombings at the Ordnance Factories in Wah. An abortive attempt was made to assassinate Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in early September.

In 2003 terrorism claimed 189 lives in Pakistan, by 2007 the figure soared to 3500. The findings of the Worldwide Incident Tracking System of the US Government’s National Counterterrorism Centre, reveal that there have been more than 393 terrorist attacks in Pakistan since January.

This terrorism-related statistical nightmare becomes even more startling when the parallel erosion of the writ of the state, not only in the tribal areas but also in the settled regions of the country, especially in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), is factored in. In his article featuring in the “The News” of 28 September, Dr. Farrukh Saleem observed that “an area covering some 11,000 square kilemetres between the Tochi River in the north and the Gomal River to the south has been lost to the de facto ‘Islamic Emirate of Waziristan,” while in the NWFP “at least 20 of 24 districts have strong militant presence.”

The print and electronic media have reported extensively on recent public executions and floggings. The inescapable reality is that vigilante justice, under the pretence of enforcing the Sharia, has replaced the law of the land.

The terrorist threat to Pakistan is real and much more than the mere reiteration of slogans such as “democracy is the best revenge” is required. Democracy’s “revenge” can only be exacted if the government wakes up from its slumber and galvanizes public opinion in support of a nationwide effort to combat and defeat terrorism. There has been little effort to explain to the people that the war on terror is Pakistan’s war.

Conspiracy theories about hostile foreign elements whose sole purpose is to destroy Pakistan and defeat Islam are churned out incessantly by the main political parties. The common demand is that what has been agreed to with the Americans by the previous and present governments must be made public. There is a refusal to recognize the truth that the terrorist attacks in the country have been perpetrated by none other than Pakistanis all of whom profess to be Muslims. On 8 September interior adviser Rehman Malik, announced that all suicide bombers and their handlers were Pakistan nationals and were being financed from within the county.

Rehman Malik also declared that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al Qaida are hand-in-glove. The implication is that the difference between the two outfits is not thicker than a thin sheet of paper. The storyline, and that is precisely what it was, spewed forth ad nauseam during the Musharraf era was that the TTP and Al Qaida were different entities. Thus the military effort in the tribal areas was focused on the latter while little was done to rein in the Taliban. The consequence is that the writ of the state has been eroded not only in the tribal areas but also in the settled districts of the NWFP.

No less revealing is the statement of the NWFP Governor, Owais Ghani, that southern Punjab provides a fertile breeding ground for extremists and suicide bombers. Banned outfits with fanciful Islamic names continue to function with abandon. It has now become undeniable that the   Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a Pakistani extension of Al Qaida as is the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Swat. Through all this the government has been a passive bystander. Mullahs continue to preach extremist venom from mosques, the madrassah reforms announced by Prime Minister Gillani is still in the drawing board stage, and some television talks show hosts continue to extol the Taliban.

The result of government inaction, according to a recent report, is that 70 illegal mosques and seminaries have been established in the last few months in Islamabad alone. It is no less disconcerting that the seminaries associated with the Lal Masjid in Islamabad have been returned to the same Mullas whose links to Al Qaida are widely known.

Unless the state takes decisive measures to arrest the rapid erosion of its writ and re-establishes its sovereignty, demarches and protests about external intrusions into the tribal areas will become meaningless. The government has left the initiative to the army and the silver lining to this otherwise dismal situation is that military action in the last several weeks is yielding results. This has prompted tribesmen to move against the Taliban. Tribal leaders have been raised militias who are active in the Khyber Agency and Bajaur. This trend, which is also evident in Buner, Shabqadar and Dir, needs to be broadened and deepened. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of the Jamat-i-Islami, is distressed with this development and feels that it will lead to civil war in the tribal areas. He needs to be reminded that the number of deaths in the first ten months of this year alone is many times more than the fatalities in the Pakistan-India war of 1965.

Yet another positive development is the reported split within the TTP in North Waziristan. The breakaway faction, the Maqami Tehreek-e-Talban led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, is of the view that the TTP should stop attacking the Pakistan military and only focus its efforts in support of the Afghan Taliban and against the foreign forces in that country.

The government has yet to articulate a well-thought-through policy aimed at restoring normalcy in the tribal areas. It claims that its approach is based sequentially on dialogue, development and deterrence. This so-called “3-D” formula is a non-starter unless it is sequenced to start with deterrence. Dialogue presupposes a suspension of military operations and this, as demonstrated in the past, only provides the militants the space to regroup and resume the hostilities with ever greater vengeance.  A dialogue should not even be contemplated till the insurgents surrender their weapons. This has already been rejected by the TTP.

The second plank in the government’s formula namely, development, is easier said than done because it is not possible to initiate development projects without the restoration of normalcy. The last measure envisaged is deterrence should dialogue and economic inducements fail to pacify the region. This is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.  Dialogue can only be productive if undertaken from a position of strength.

If the purpose of the in-camera briefing to the joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate was to generate a nationwide resolve to combat and defeat terrorism, the proceedings initially indicated that it would be an abject failure. Though terrorism is like a dagger at the heart of the county and capable of draining away its lifeblood, a majority of parliamentarians did not even bother to attend some of the deliberations. According to one reckoning barely seventy out of more than four hundred members of parliament thought it worthwhile to participate in all the meetings. The absentees included members of the ruling coalition.

Furthermore, the response of the political parties to the grave threat faced by the country was demonstrably pathetic and this was not confined to the opposition. For instance, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose party the JUI (F) is a component of the governing coalition, declared during the in-camera session that only dialogue and development can bring peace to the tribal areas and, obviously overestimating his own importance, offered to mediate between the government and the Taliban.  He was not even willing to consider deterrence as a policy ingredient.

Against this backdrop, it was remarkable that the in-camera joint session of the parliament unanimously adopted a 14-point resolution on the war against terrorism. Since conflicting views were vehemently articulated on this national issue of overarching importance, the document is conspicuous by its masterly ambiguity and is, therefore, susceptible to varied interpretations,

In the context of Pakistan’s turbulent parliamentary experience, the consensus resolution is a rarity and, if deftly handled, provides the government the opportunity to replace its fumbling inaction by a vigorous policy synthesizing sequentially, deterrence, dialogue and development.  The following six formulations in the document are relevant and warrant brief comment:

(i)                 “Dialogue will be encouraged with all those elements willing to abide by the Constitution of Pakistan and the rule of law.”  The implication is that dialogue must be preceded by an end to militancy.

(ii)               “The challenge of militancy and extremism must be met through developing a consensus and dialogue with all genuine stakeholders.” This precludes the possibility of any dialogue or negotiations with militant groups who have not severed their links with Al Qaida or other terrorist outfits.

(iii)             “That the state shall establish its writ…and that the military will be replaced as early as possible by civilian law enforcing agencies…” The withdrawal of the Pakistan army from the area as a precondition for talks is therefore ruled out.

(iv)             “We need an urgent review of our national security strategy and revisiting the methodology of combating terrorism in order to restore peace and stability in Pakistan and the region through an independent foreign policy.”  The national security concepts of all countries are in constant need of review and are founded on ground realities. Foreign policy has to be based on national self-interest and does not preclude cooperation with any country for achieving shared objectives.

(v)               “That Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity shall be safeguarded. The nation stands united against any incursions and invasions of the homeland, and calls upon the government to deal with it effectively.” This is in line with universally accepted norms of interstate relations and applies equally to intrusions into the country by terrorist groups or organizations.

(vi)             “That Pakistan’s territory shall not be used for any kind of attacks on other countries and all foreign fighters, if found shall be expelled from our soil.” This empowers the government to take firm action on cross-border intrusion into Afghanistan by militants.

These elements of the unanimously adopted parliamentary resolution provide the government the opportunity to generate countrywide support for the fight against terrorism. This entails openness and not selective closed-door briefings to a privileged few. There has to be public involvement; only then will there be a realization that the gravest threat to Pakistan’s existence is from within the country. Last October there was public outrage when the Newsweek cover carried the   headline:”The Most Dangerous Nation in the World Isn’t Iraq. It’s Pakistan.” It is, however, the unpleasant truth that the epicenter of global terror, the foremost challenge of the contemporary era, is located in the country’s tribal areas.

Soon after assuming his responsibilities as Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, stated that the war on terror can be fought and won only with the support of the people. This will send a clear message to the militants that they may be able to capture a post, a town or even a region but they will never be able defeat a people. The inescapable reality is that the war on terror is Pakistan’s war.