The War Needs to be Won, at Any Cost

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Moeed Pirzada | Khaleej Times |

No single event in Pakistan’s recent history, despite all its scars, has inspired more comment, more heated discussion and more disagreement than the terrorist destruction of the Hotel Marriott in Islamabad last week. And yet it appears that despite the enormity of what happened, some of the key issues, even when raised, fail to get the attention they demand.

While the Marriott was still engulfed in flames — with the helpless trapped inside waving white shirts from their windows for help and rescue — the political pundits and spin doctors were on air on country’s more than two dozen news channels. And often ignoring the immediate needs of disaster management they were discussing political perspectives, conspiracy theories and bigger ideas. Since then in the last one week every brainwave, however weird it may sound in retrospect — has either been printed or has found expression in the electronic media.

Yet the key question: are we even competent to defend our cities from the terrorists has not been raised. No denying that the National Assembly has blasted the security apparatus for being negligent but that was a usual kind of mindless rhetoric because the question of negligence can only arise if the competence existed or was ever created in the first place.

I found it encouraging that academics like Prof Riffat Hussain of the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad; analysts like General Talat Masood and editorial writers of Daily Times have at least pointed towards the issues of competence and the need for capacity building. Unfortunately, most in the politics and the media remained occupied by the larger questions of whether this is our war or not? Or how effective will be our strategies until the US and Nato keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan.

Unlike some ultra-liberals in Pakistani media and civil society, I don’t deny that these are fair and intelligent questions, and unless there is a broader political settlement of the conflict that rages from inside Afghanistan to our tribal areas there cannot be any chances of achieving peace.Nevertheless, an over emphasis on these arguments, excluding other issues at hand, diverts us away from the immediate nature of the challenge we are confronted with.

Our principal objective at this stage should be to deny the suicide bombers the impact of high profile successes inside our cities. One may wonder why it is so important; and the answer is that high profile successes of suicide bombers is not only the biggest stimulus and encouragement for greater mass murder to those who seek a perverse glory in this fashion, and those who send them, but also undermines the Pakistani state’s ability to negotiate with its various internal enemies — like the tribal militants — and the regional and international stakeholders. And with it the sovereignty of the people of Pakistan is being eroded — with every next explosion.

The latest, hitherto unannounced, idea of creating high security Green Zones, inside the federal and provincial capitals, on the pattern of Baghdad and Kabul, is an important step in so far it reflects a desire to do something but it might still not succeed.

This question — why it will fail in Pakistan — needs a larger explanation but its biggest weakness is that it is a wholesale imported idea suddenly agreed upon, under influence of foreign advice, and unfortunately reflects the intellectual slavishness of Pakistani decision-makers.

In this hour of crisis what we need are purely indigenous solutions; we can certainly learn and adapt from international best practices — from US, UK, and perhaps most importantly: Israel & Sri Lanka, but our real need is for a core group of Pakistanis, from among the civil servants and army, under the leadership of a capable politician, to sit in Islamabad to examine the challenge, the options and then to synthesize indigenous solutions.

The common argument is that a suicide bomber is unstoppable. This is true only to the extent that when a would-be-suicide bomber is about to pull cord to blow himself and his payload there is little that can be done to stop him. However, there is a long process of preparation, communication, travel, acquisition of explosives, assembly and transport, local support and all other issues that are subject to intervention by the security apparatus — and this is where they have failed not only for lack of will but mostly because of the absence of capacity.

But then the natural question is why we have not been successful in creating a preventive capacity? From the first such attack against the Egyptian embassy in 1995 till now thirteen years have passed with increasing frequency, especially after 2002, then why we have not evolved any deterrent ability? And I suspect, the security establishment together with the media and the politicians has lived in a mind bubble that treats this as a political problem that will be solved once the right negotiations and compromises are made.

Lesson of the Marriott disaster should be to accept: that we were all wrong. The biggest success will come when the Pakistani state will demonstrate that it has the will and the ability to thwart such attempts, when it can deny the perverse satisfaction, the sense of potency to the bomber who thinks in his moment of explosion that he has achieved something eternal. If increasingly these “zombies” die with minimum impact, as Israel has made it possible, then the frequency of suicide attacks will also come down.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have to be an essential part of the core group that determines the policy against the suicide bombers. Fighting the scourge of suicide bombings is not an act of valour or heroism but of hard work and diligence. It will essentially be the organisational support to enable police and security apparatus to establish the identity of men, vehicles and materials as they move across and inside the cities.

Details are beyond this piece, but still let me add: to this day no one in Pakistan has ever thought that what a blow it will be to suicide bombers and their masters if police could ensure on roads that only registered owner or authorised persons are allowed to drive a vehicle; and police, with access to their electronic database, should be able to determine within seconds if they are looking at the right man or not?

It is of course expensive and difficult for we need to re-train the police force, who are only geared towards force projection, checking for bottles of Johny Walker or harassment of unmarried couples. But re-training the police and administrative backups will be a fraction of the costs we are paying in terms of the destruction of the state. If you think I am exaggerating then discuss with a financial expert or an international banker.

And yes, Islamabad is the right place to begin with; but not by creating a Green Zone to protect government institutions, and parliament, for it will create a stupid and cruel polarization, but by declaring the whole city a place of zero tolerance. You know why? Because a small, planned city like Islamabad, with manageable exits and entry points affords re-training an effective police force within weeks. Once a formula complete with standard operational procedures is in place, it will go a long way in enabling us to protect other metropolises.

We have to secure our cities. It will he hard work and will be expensive but confronted by sure death we need to come up with a solution; otherwise the state of Pakistan will unravel.

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