Terrorism and Political Turmoil

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A few hours after a suicide bomber killed more than seventy and wounded twice as many worshippers during Friday prayers at a mosque in Jumrud on 27 March, President Barack Obama unveiled his Afghanistan and anti-terrorism strategy during which he warned: “Make no mistake: Al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.” He was not exaggerating. Earlier that month, on the morning of 3 March, terrorists attacked the bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in which six policemen and the driver of an accompanying vehicle lost their lives. Televised footage of the incident showed the gunmen walking away at a leisurely pace from the scene of the crime. Terror struck again on 30 March when militants stormed the Police Training Centre at Manawan, Lahore and, after an eight-hour gun battle the siege was brought to an end but seven recruits died in the firing and scores were injured.

The day former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned from eight years of self-imposed exile on 19 October 2007 a suicide bomber attacked her motorcade in Karachi causing 139 fatalities. She was assassinated less than ten weeks later in Rawalpindi in a terrorist attack. According to a Reuters report, since October 2007 to 5 April 2009 there have been seventeen major terrorist incidents, mostly suicide attacks, in Pakistan.  Of these, six occurred at religious gatherings as part of a deliberate strategy aimed at fomenting sectarian violence in the country. Another discernible pattern is that the police and security personnel are being targeted. It is ironical that those whose duty it is to safeguard the lives of ordinary citizens are themselves in desperate need of protection. When minor terrorist attacks and incidents of violence are included, the number runs into the hundreds. According to one estimate, terrorism has claimed more than 8,000 lives in Pakistan in 2008 alone. In the first 100 days of 2009 (1 January – 10 April) 332 people died in 20 suicide attacks.

These statistics leave no doubt that the canker of terrorist violence and extremism is sapping the lifeblood of the country. Till now the government has prevaricated and a well-thought-through consensus-based counterterrorism strategy is not even on the anvil. The writ of the state is no longer existent in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas while feckless appeasement of the militants in Swat has resulted in capitulation by the NWFP government which signed a peace deal for the enforcement of the Sharai Nizam-e-Adl on 16 February with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi chief Maulana Sufi Muhammad whose firebrand son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, is the actual power in Swat. Appeasement never pays and is a self-defeating proposition. This was demonstrated yet again by the Swat militants who, after consolidating their grip on the valley, moved into the adjacent Buner District and the Taliban commander, Mullah Nazeer Ahmed declared on 8 April: “The day is not far when Islamabad will be in the hands of the Mujahideen.”

In his second address to the joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate on 28 March, President Asif Ali Zardari reiterated the hackneyed slogan that Pakistan would not countenance the violation of its sovereignty. The reference obviously was to US drone attacks in the tribal areas which have been taking place since early 2004 when the Taliban commander, Nek Muhammad, and several of his men were killed. Such posturing only undermines the credibility of the government even further. The chairperson of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, has stated publicly that some of the drones takeoff from airbases in Pakistan and this is obviously with the approval of the government.

The unpleasant truth is that Pakistan is no longer in control of the areas where drone attacks occur and, furthermore, it cannot be denied that the purpose of such strikes is to eliminate those very terrorists who have, in the words of the US president, “killed several thousand Pakistanis, including soldiers and policemen, assassinated Benazir Bhutto, blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment and threatened the stability of the state.” However, this is only one side of the picture because the fallout of drone strikes is negative. Besides collateral damage notably in civilian casualties, even though this is far less than the number of people who die as a result of terrorist violence, the backlash of drone attacks is that they provide the Taliban a recruitment windfall. Furthermore the attacks push the militants into the major cities where terrorist-related slaughter has become a nightmare which recurs with alarming frequency. The warlord, Baitullah Masud, has threatened two suicide bombings every week. Till such time that the government reclaims its writ in the areas under the control of the militants, drone attacks will not be terminated and the resolve, proclaimed at the highest level, to safeguard the country’s sovereignty will continue to be unconvincing.

President Zardari also declared in parliament that he welcomed the tripling of US assistance to Pakistan to $ 7.5 billion spread over five years. However President Barack Obama, while outlining the contours of his revised Afghanistan and anti-terrorism policy, also made it clear that his request to US Congress to approve the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar bill was not an unconditional offer of assistance and nor was it a “blank cheque” because Pakistan had to “demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al Qaeda and violent extremists within its borders.”

Although the President and Prime Minister Gilani publicly welcomed the US offer of assistance, subsequent pronouncements demonstrated a startling lack of coordination within the government.  While addressing a joint press conference on 7 April along with the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Admiral Mike Mullen, foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi retorted that Pakistan would neither accept nor give any blank cheque and then added that “we can only work together if we respect each other.” Rhetoric cannot obscure the international perception that Pakistan is becoming a failed state which former British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, defined as a state that was unable to: (a) control its territory and guarantee security to its citizens, (b) maintain the rule of law, promote human rights and provide effective governance, and (c) foster economic growth and provide education, health care and other amenities to its citizens. It is this perception of Pakistan that prompted Vice President Biden to express the fear: “It is hard to imagine a greater nightmare for America than the world’s second largest Muslim nation becoming a failed state, in fundamentalist hands, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a population larger that Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea combined.”

To deal with the overarching problem of terrorism, national cohesion and stability are indispensible. However, since the February 2008 elections, Pakistan has undergone avoidable political turmoil because its leaders are incurably addicted to power. Poland’s former president and Nobel laureate, Lech Walesa, once said that “power is only important as an instrument of service to the powerless,” but in Pakistan it is wielded only to serve the interests of the powerful. Solemn promises have repeatedly been broken and decisions that could have been taken in a day have been delayed by the elected government for months on end. For instance, Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry and other superior court judges were only reinstated after the tidal wave of popular support for the lawyers’ long march convinced the government that it did not have any other alternative.

This was preceded by the 25 February decision of the Supreme Court bench confirming the 23 June 2008 verdict of the Lahore High Court disqualifying Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, from holding public office and contesting elections after which governor’s rule was imposed in the Punjab with indecent haste. A little more than a month later a five-member Supreme Court bench granted a stay order on its earlier judgement, governor’s rule was lifted and Shahbaz Sharif was restored as Chief Minister.

The pledge to rescind the 17th constitutional amendment, which was enacted with the support of the so-called religious parties then in parliament, has yet to be redeemed.  More than sixty years after Pakistan’s emergence, it is still not clear whether the country has a parliamentary or a presidential form of government. The political turmoil, which is entirely homegrown, has resulted in economic paralysis accompanied by soaring inflation and provides an ideal breeding ground for terrorist outfits. The first step towards political stabilization is the restoration of the 1973 Constitution which was unanimously adopted. The two major parties in parliament, who are signatories to the Charter of Democracy of 14 May 2006, can muster the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and the Senate to abrogate constitutional distortions such as article 58 (2)b and the 17th amendment. This has to be done quickly because the luxury of time is no longer available to deal with the daunting challenges that the country faces.

On 10 April the National Assembly unanimously authorized its speaker to constitute an all parties’ special committee which will propose constitutional and legal measures to rectify the mutations in the basic law enacted by previous rubber stamp parliaments at the behest of military dictators. After the adoption of the motion, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani declared that “the intention (of his government) is very clear – that is to implement the Charter of Democracy, repeal the 17th amendment and article 58(2)b and make the house sovereign.” He should have also reminded the members of parliament about the unequivocal formulation in the same charter: “Terrorism and militancy are the byproducts of military dictatorship, negation of democracy, are strongly condemned, and will be vigorously confronted.” A day earlier, the leader of the PML (N), Mian Nawaz Sharif, declared that national interest demanded cooperation between his party and the PPP as there was no other option.

Just as the state needs to reclaim the sovereignty that it has lost to the extremists, the 160 million people of Pakistan need to reclaim their religion from the same extremists. The tumultuous support given by civil society for the reinstatement of the pre-3 November 2007 judiciary has to be replicated on an even larger scale to expose the false creed that terrorists preach in the name of Islam to kill, maim and destroy. Each incident of terrorism has, till now, merely elicited the same perfunctory condemnation from the country’s leadership while ordinary citizens do no more than repeat from the security of their homes that these acts have nothing to do with Islam.  Ponderous reiterations of such platitudes are meaningless.  The government has to take the lead in galvanizing popular opinion towards a countrywide mass movement against extremist violence.

Corrigendum: Paul Samuelson was mention in the concluding line of the editorial in the Volume 4/ Number 1 (January/March 2009) issue of Criterion.  This may be substituted for Samuel Huntington.