Last summer, in a small gathering, a senior civil servant was complaining of massive traffic congestion on access roads to Murree and Swat. And then he paused, reflected and amused with himself said: “but it also shows veil of fear is lifting; public is not afraid of coming out; families with friends and loved ones are venturing out to areas considered ‘dangerous’ not too long ago. Almost everyone in the gathering agreed.
That calm was shattered yesterday, ‘Pakistan’s Bloody Sunday’ when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Iqbal Park, Lahore killing more than 70, mostly children and their mothers, and injuring more than 300 – many of whom may die or become incapacitated for the rest of their lives. Lahore scarred once again! But that was not the end of it; a furious crowd of several thousands, armed with slogans, sticks and batons invaded Islamabad. Marching through Rawalpindi, they collided with Police and Rangers, faced baton charge and massive tear gas shelling at several points but succeeded in removing all road blocks pushing their way into Pakistan’s serene capital. Till late evening they were busy creating scenes of uncontrolled mayhem – that included ransacking and burning metro stations. Dozens of police, rangers and hundreds of protestors injured. Since the arrest of RAW officer, Commander Kulbhashan Yadav, from Balochistan, Pakistan’s security institutions were trying to hold a joint Interior/Foreign Office media briefing to turn that into a global news. But with the sudden twist of events, Pakistan became the “story”.
Over the last 18 months, an incredulous world had willy nilly started to admit that Pakistan is changing. Country started to emit signals of increasing stability: sanctuaries of Waziristan mostly cleared, many sectarian gangs eliminated, tourists returning to Swat, Baloch insurgents surrendering and guns in Karachi falling silent. It started to look good, with plans of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gawadar looking like a reality and ideas like ‘Pakistan Super League’ (PSL) started to add color to this new belief. Terms like ‘epicenter of terror’ became rare. Narrative had started to transform.
Much of that has suddenly changed. ‘Bloody Sunday’ repeatedly flashed on international media with its graphic details and painful images suddenly reminded the world that Pakistan is still a dangerous, chaotic place. A society riven with internal conflict, multiple fault-lines, murderous gangs and militant groups prepared to tear apart the political order – at the drop of a hat. And all that just four days before the ‘Nuclear Security Summit’ in Washington set to begin on 31st March.
President Obama had set that summit in motion through a visionary speech in Prague in 2009; so far three summits have taken place, Washington (2010), Seoul (2012) and Hague (2014); ostensible purpose is to reduce the the availability of all vulnerable nuclear material to any irresponsible group. This is supposed to be the fourth and final summit and Obama has promised to end strong with some consensus. For him this is a matter of legacy. While all key global institutions that monitor the safety of nuclear material have repeatedly affirmed that Pakistan’s security protocols and procedures are amongst the world’s best often rated above India and even Israel, it is also said that ‘radical groups’ with aspirations to acquire nuclear material swarm in Pakistan. And that Pakistan’s switch to the use of ‘small tactical devices’ to counter India’s ‘Cold Start Doctrine’ adds to the risks.
If PM Nawaz will be in Washington, on 31st March, meeting global leadership, most will be thinking of the implications of ‘Pakistan’s Bloody Sunday’. Images of hate filled suicide bomber hitting a public park on Easter – the iconic day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – and uncontrolled crowds of zealots battling their way to Parliament protesting on the hanging of a zealot – Mumtaz Qadri – who had killed the Governor of Punjab, will be on their mind. Can we blame them? Do we have valid explanations to address their fears? Are we convinced ourselves?
Let me raise a few questions for you? Do you honestly think that hundreds of acts of targeted terrorism, extremely high profile and daring acts that send jitters across the world, that shape the global narrative about Pakistan just happen? are these just random acts of violence, of madness, reflecting the hatred that exists between different classes and categories of citizenry? Or these ‘apparent acts of hatred and madness’ have a ‘grand strategic design’ behind these? Whose ‘grand strategic design’ it could be? who has the cultural ability, financial liquidity, regional experience, to penetrate the various ‘militant gangs’ to finance them, to influence them? gangs spread from Khyber to Karachi?
With all my understanding of international relations, with all information at my disposal, with all my honesty I can at least tell you: this ‘grand strategic design’ is not of United States or Israel. Our weapons – strategic or tactical – our regional posture, our geographical location, our friendship with China, the opportunities we offer and threats we create and all our various theories of resurgence of Islam are no threat to the west or Israel. Anyone who tells you such ‘nonsense’ is either an idiot or has an agenda.
When I was a medical student, my father, a doctor, a good diagnostician, always used to say: When you look out of the window; expect to see a goat, a dog, a cat, a cow but don’t expect a lion, a tiger or an elephant. Same applies to international relations. Who benefits by weaving a ‘narrative of instability and chaos’ around Pakistan? Who benefits by a weaker, confused, isolated and non-assertive Pakistan? I leave this to your imagination.
But once you answer this question, rest becomes easy. All groups, religious fanatics or secular fascists, irrespective of their ideologies and agendas, can be penetrated. Once a financial link and dependence is established then they become pawns. Most of the time, the foot-soldiers, the mini pawns, the epsilons of these groups – like Mohd. Yousaf son of Ghulam Fareed, the poor vegetable vendor- don’t even know who is directing them and to what end.
Did soldiers who marched with Alexander or Julius Caesar, the Indian sepoys who who died on the shores of France and Italy in the two world wars defending an Empire that had brutally colonized them, the devout Muslim soldiers of Pakistan who sacrifice their lives, their families and the future of their toddlers battling Taliban in the labrynthine valleys of Waziristan fully understand what they are fighting for? Soldiers and officers die making safe the the lives and properties of the ‘liberals’, the same liberals who pour endless contempt upon them. And soldiers who die before even getting the opportunity to hold in their arms, their 6 month old daughters, born back in a village. Do they really know what they are dying for? Hundreds and thousands of American GI’s that died in remote lands of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan never knew what they really died for? Yes! a Professor at Harvard, a Kissinger – still living at 85 plus- writing his memoirs can spin around theories of ‘defense of western liberalism’ but the soldiers died because they are in a discipline, in a hierarchy, that directs them. But if the soldiers of world’s best and the finest armies are not fully cognizant of what they are dying for then what do you make of the ‘foot soldiers’ of the ‘militant gangs’?
Given that hundreds of zealots in Pakistan have – since 2002 -blown themselves to kill their own countrymen, and thousands with similar suicidal cum homicidal mindset have languished in our jails, we should have produced the best psychological research, the finest forensic works to make sense of what is happening. It could have helped the whole world – and certainly empowered us to roll back the phenomenon. But we are more or less still standing where we were in 2002. The sum total of our expertise is reflected in our tv programs, and now on social media -and that is either hilarious or tragic.
Since everything ‘cerebral’ has to be done by the west, so we owe a debt to those countless researchers, scholars and government agencies that have invested into understanding this phenomenon. One such work is: “Dying to Win” by University of Chicago Professor, Robert Pape. His work focused on the ‘strategic logic of suicide terrorism’ helps understand the pressures created by the asymmetrical nature of modern conflict. And how the weaker, dispossessed side resorts to self-destruction to create an impact. One lesson we can take home is to avoid creating ‘unnecessary polarization’. PM Nawaz Sharif and his kitchen cabinet should read that. May be Maryam Nawaz should read and explain to her father. This may help prevent some of the looming disasters their ‘policy of overnight liberalism’ may end up creating.
Robert Pape’s work is however now dated; his initial impressions also come from the study of Isreali-Palestine conflict, Tamil vs Sinhalese and broadly speaking Muslim vs the west. However things have moved ahead. When before 9/11, Palestinians – Hammas, Islamic Jihad etc – resorted to massive use of suicide bombing most Muslims world wide were very sympathetic. Not only we, but many in UK and Europe, could see a logic, a rationale behind such desperate acts; we thought that given Israeli control and tyranny upon Palestinian lives these ‘suicide bombers’ have no real option. We heard and we read stories of children and siblings of parents and brothers killed by Israeli security forces becoming ‘suicide bombers’ and in many instances it was true.
But Israeli police and intelligence violently disagreed. They pointed to cells that recruit and brain wash, cells being financed by money openly flowing in from Iran and clandestinely from other Arab Sheikdoms. Israelis were at least partially right. When ‘suicide bombers’ appeared in Pakistan it should have puzzled us. I at least used to wonder that Palestinian vs Israeli, Muslim vs Jew, Arab vs the west makes some sense; we can sense the sharp polarization, historical hatred, generations of hardened attitudes but how are these suicide bombers who initially attacked Pakistani Army are convincing themselves of the righteousness of their cause?
But we still had an explanation. Pakistani Army, to begin with, was fighting a war created by the west, forced by the Americans on the region, the infidels, the outsiders. So the argument was, in military circles, that ‘these bastards, the militant leaders, the neo-taliban, have convinced their foot soldiers that Army is working for Americans, has become infidel and thus a fair target’. PMLN and PTI both had their rhetoric: Musharraf collapsed on one phone call – Ahsen Iqbal’s famous line; it used to be part of tv promos. We had never faced a situation like this before. The border areas from where this storm first erupted were our safest backyard – our historical depth. We always feared an attack from the east. Few years ago, a very senior officer told me that the initial fatwas – around 2003/4 – by the irresponsible zealots from Lal Masjid that army soldiers dying fighting Taliban do not deserve a ‘Namaz-e-Jinaza’ a religious burial created one of the most difficult of challenges for Pakistan Army.
If you realize that only 5-7% of Pakistan Army is the Officer corps, that starts its career as second Lieutenant; rest are soldiers. Soldiers that bring the world view from villages of Punjab, KPK, Sindh and now increasingly Balochistan as well. Soldiers who willingly lay down their lives in the name of Allah and his Prophet. Soldiers who were suddenly confused thinking: Who is on the side of God? we or they? Any one who grapples this arithmetic – 5% vs 95% – can see the potential for mischief and the challenge military was confronted with. How naive it will be to think that others – intelligent minds in the region beyond our borders – were not keenly watching this situation, gloating and thinking of exploiting it. The fact that Pakistan army was able to overcome this internal challenge, this battle of hearts and minds, for its very soul, testifies to the enormous strength of this national institution.
But when the ‘suicide bomber’ started appearing at mosques, schools, colleges, offices, bus stops literally everywhere, killing indiscriminately, without distinction of faith, sect, sex and age then it was the ‘Ah moment’ of asking: ‘where the justification is now coming from?’And that understanding is buried deep in the files, and minds of dozens of Pakistani Police Officers, Intelligence wallas and Army officers but that unfortunately has not been documented or turned into research accessible to wider sections of the government, police organizations, parliamentarians, academia and media. We did not have a single ‘Robert Pape’ in our midst.
That explanation lies unfortunately in the nature of human mind, its capacities and limitations. Most of us can be mesmerized, hypnotized, and are being controlled by the endless neurolinguistic programming that is flowing from text books, novels and media. Not only the boys hijacked and recruited from madrassas but a sizable percentage of skirt & jean crowds of twitter warriors from India and Pakistan if abducted by these ‘criminal zealots’ can be turned into ‘suicide bombers’ of one or the other side. Such is the fantastic nature of human mind.
Police accounts reveal that these ‘criminal zealots’ have found it easy to recruit boys from ‘madrassas’ than mosques, easy to recruit men than women, easy to recruit young than old, easy to recruit unmarried and those who had suffered an emotional shock; loss of a parent, a sibling or sense of failure in a platonic love affair; sense of rejection. Police accounts reveal that it is far more easier to lure madrassa boys that lived away from their core families and once recruited they indoctrinate them to break their contacts with family and old friends. New contacts are introduced that indoctrinate about the purpose of life and the story of injustice. Some boys can be indoctrinated to become ‘human bombs’ in few weeks, others may take months; some cannot be turned into that ‘zombie status’. Initial reports about ‘Mohd. Yousaf son of Ghulam Fareed, the poor vegetable vendor only confirm that pattern. He did not have much of a contact with his family for months. His severed head was being shown on some tv screens. But hating him or his potential successors in crime hardly serves any purpose. He was a ‘zombie’ in control of his handlers; as Mohd. Yousaf son of Ghulam Fareed, the vegetable vendor, he had died long time ago.
‘Suicide bombers’ before Zarb-e-Azb were being produced like market products; these were standardized like McDonald burgers. Apparently an exchange market also existed; bizarre accounts of one group borrowing or selling ‘suicide bombers’ or potential boys do exist. But most discussion in Pakistan has remained focused on issues of ideologies, rhetoric of mainstream mullahs and religious parties. This ‘ideology centered’ approach has been misdirected, but so prevalent, that prominent citizens, politicians and western funded NGO’s have been demanding media – especially in the post Lal Masjid phase when a wave of violence was unleashed across Pakistan – to help reduce communal or religion based hatred. TV channels in many instances have been running campaigns of love and advising sanity.
This would have any relevance if communities as groups were attacking each other with sticks and stones as it used to happen in the old undivided India and kept on happening in India more frequently till sixties or happened in Pakistan against Ahmediya community in 1950s and again in 1970s; or the pattern of angry violent protests Barelvi sect is doing on the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. But Pakistani challenge of terrorism that gradually built up after 9/11 and ballooned after the Lal Masjid tragedy was never really a communal challenge.
The terrorism Pakistan faced was in the nature of planned, premeditated, ‘targeted killing’. It was always a ‘cold blooded calculated crime’. Killers and planners were often anonymous, claims made subsequently by ever new groups and factions often lacked authenticity; attackers deliberately created smokescreens to divert attention, multiply effect and boost narratives. Many groups discussed on media might have been ‘Single Member Entities’ like SME’s. What was really important to Pakistan were: issues of militant capacity, inter-group linkages, strategic direction and signalling from abroad and financial flows. Unfortunately these issues were often ignored. And whenever these issues were raised, powerful voices emerged calling these ‘conspiracy theories’ or ‘denials’ bringing the narrative back on ‘issues of hateful ideology, need for love and harmony’. If hate by itself would have lead to violence then Muslims would have had a bloodbath in United States after 9/11 – but reality of terrorism is far more complex than this.
Pakistani successes came only through the principles of ‘deny operational space’ and ‘reduce capacity’. We literally fought a major war – one of the largest airborne operations in South Asia – against Taliban in Swat; and we have been fighting mini-wars in FATA ever since. We have fought to destroy ‘militant capacities’ in Karachi and we have forced Baloch insurgents to seek peace. Reconstruction of civil society with district administrations, policing, education, judicature and health infra-structures all are important but the mumbo-jumbo of ‘fixing ideology’ and conquering through media or lecturing of any kind has not worked at all – not so far. Reason: media narratives can work on minds to which they have physical and psychological access.
As I write these lines, Pakistan army is again on the move; this time in Southern Punjab. This will once again be the elimination of militant groups basically ‘reduction of capacities’ for total eradication is not achievable in short term. Hopefully we succeed. But for long term sustainable success and if we don’t want to do this ‘grass cutting’ again and again, we must remember its not just about ‘ideology’. This whole endless social media debate, this continuous self-flagellation of twitter warriors: ‘we have become this kind of people and that kind of people and why these thousands of idiots are protesting on this Qadri’s hanging etc..and this mad mullah and that mad mullah ” is only a side show. PM Nawaz and his kitchen cabinet’s rebirth as ‘neo-liberal’ after being ‘ultra-orthodox conservative’ for greater part of their existence is further troubling. This liberal rebirth, this most dishonest attempt to impress upon Washington, London and Brussels will create new polarizations, multiply fault-lines- dangerous at this stage of our as yet fragile struggle against terrorism.
All these side shows have in the end no real bearing on our success against terrorism. Unless people of Pakistan, a substantial percentage of educated chattering classes, start to understand these ‘militant groups’ despite all their beards and religious denominations, as extensions of ‘external agenda’ pawns in a regional chess board and unless we take firm position to delink these linkages, stop their strategic direction and financial flows – from whichever direction these are emanating – till then there is no viable solution. The performance of Nawaz Govt after the arrest of Commander KulBhashan Yadav – with all his disclosure of 14 years of links with BSO, BLA and indirect linkages with sectarian groups – does not inspire much confidence.
May be PMLN becomes a ‘political party’ and has an internal debate; may be they can tell the PM that his personal lens, very private personal lens, his ‘mango and sari diplomacy’ and his attempts to use his ‘Indian connection’ as leverage, as strength, in Pakistan’s power chequerboard is dangerous and defective. There is no harm in dreaming!