Countering insurgency by Arif Nizami

10 July, 2010
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Saturday, July 10, 2010
Arif Nizami

The nation seems badly divided in the wake of the dastardly terrorist attack on one of the holiest and most revered shrine of the subcontinent, the shrine of Hazrat Ali Hajveri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh. Instead of their putting up a unified front, the Centre and Punjab are engaged in a war of words and the blame game between them has intensified and reached ridiculous proportions.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Punjab government headed by Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif seems to be in a state of shock and is not willing to accept the stark reality that the province has become a fulcrum of terrorism in the country. Any suggestion that the militants perpetrating these heinous terrorist attacks belong to Punjab, and that they have safe havens and training camps in the province, evokes a strong reaction from the PML-N leadership.

Fresh revelations that the GHQ is unhappy with the Punjab government’s inaction against the “Punjabi Taliban” will cause further embarrassment for the chief minister. Another report, based on Punjab’s supplementary budget, that more than Rs85 million was distributed to religious organisations and persons in the previous financial year, will be used by critics in support of their charge that there is a nexus between the PML-N and jihadi organisations.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s convening of a meeting of all the chief ministers to review the situation and agreeing to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion to convene a national conference on terrorism has somewhat defused the situation. However, without thorough preparation and groundwork, such a conference would achieve little. Perhaps that is why the agenda and the date of convening the conference have not been announced.

It is stating the obvious that the nation needs a workable, consensual and comprehensive anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency policy to deal with a menace which is devouring the state at an alarming pace. Apart from administrative and governance measures, the problem has multifaceted foreign policy, strategic, economic and social dimensions.

All major political and religious parties, as well as the armed forces and the intelligence agencies, should be on the same page in such a strategy. That fact that religious forces and political parties of the country having there own and disparate interpretations about the genesis of the problem renders the task of evolving a consensus virtually impossible.

Some of the religious parties believe in an Islamic state as envisaged by the Taliban, while there are those which actually aid and abet them. Many are convinced that if the US leaves Afghanistan the problem will somehow go away. Others trace the problem to US drone attacks and the heavy collateral damage they are inflicting on the civilian population. Nevertheless, a concerted effort should be made to at least bring those elements on board which are reconcilable and are against terrorism. Various religious parties and ulema have condemned the Data Durbar massacre in unequivocal terms. There is urgent need to build on this consensus.

The most worrisome factor, however, is the state of denial on part of the politicians. Sadly enough, instead of grasping the gravity of the situation, the politicians have turned terrorism into an issue for politicking and one-upmanship. The PML-N, the PPP and its coalition partners represent a wide political spectrum of the country. The leadership of the two parties are seen indulging in a war of words, and this demeans the whole political process.

The PML-N perhaps feels that it is being deliberately targeted when it is stated that the terrorists operating in Punjab belong to Punjab. According to Mian Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, who is also the chief minister of the province, the terrorists should not be slotted to certain region. However, to claim that terrorists do not belong to any particular territory, nor have a religion, is a mere cliché.

How can one deny the incontrovertible reality that most of the recent terrorist incidents in Lahore were perpetrated by Punjab-based elements? Previously, acts of terrorism were restricted to Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa, but in recent months Lahore is their specific target. Attacks on Ahmedi worship places, on video shops on Hall Road and, more recently, the Data Durbar massacre, have all taken place on Mian Shahbaz Sharif’s watch.

Unlike his previous response when the attacks on Ahmedis took place, the chief minister, understandably beleaguered and harried, promptly visited the site and announced compensation for the victims. However, inexplicably reading from a written text he literally stuck to the message by refusing to accept any blame, responsibility or lapse on the part of his administration. Instead, he put the blame on the federal government by accusing it of not sharing intelligence information with Punjab, a charge promptly denied by Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

To his credit, after attending the meeting on law and order chaired by the prime minister, Mian Shahbaz Sharif promptly announced a ban on 23 militant organisations. Most of these organisations were previously banned as well, but they cropped up again under different names, but mostly under the same leaders. The much-maligned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, an outfit allegedly having links with Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah, was banned in 2002, soon re-emerged under the banner of Ahle Sunnat wal Jammat.

It is obvious that if intelligence agencies and political parties continue to use these outfits for their own respective agendas merely banning them would not work and this hydra-headed monster will resurface under different names. Hence, political will is needed not only to ban such outfits or freeze their funds but also to curtail their activities. The anti-terrorism legislation on the anvil should address these issues.

The federal government, with much fanfare, announced the creation of the National Counter-terrorism Authority (NTCA) a year ago. Initially the so-called authority neither had a proper office nor a budget. Now the NTCA has been provided with a budget, although it is not adequate enough for the raising of a force of its own, as was originally envisaged. As a result, another tier of bureaucracy has been created.

Predictably, Mian Nawaz Sharif wants the federal government to negotiate with the Taliban militants “to end the relentless security crisis in the country.” He is of the view that the government, instead of waiting for directives from Washington, should talk to the Taliban “who are ready to listen and ready to talk.” The federal government should take the PML-N supremo on his offer and seek his help in identifying such moderate elements.

The military is already trying to initiate such talks. Why not involve political stakeholders, especially those who have a soft spot for the Taliban way of life? If, as a result of the proposed conference on terrorism, a consensus is reached on administrative, political and socio economic measures to deal with the crisis, it will be a big achievement.

The problem is of such gigantic proportions that no one party alone can deal with it. In order to evolve a consensus, the two major political parties of the country, PML-N and the PPP also signatories to the much touted Charter of Democracy (CoD) should rise above their petty squabbles. Mian Nawaz has already left for London on a personal visit. His presence should be assured in the conference proposed by him. Otherwise it will be an exercise in futility.

The proposed National Counter-terrorism Strategy should examine issues such as US drone attacks taking place with increasing frequency, with the tacit approval of the government and the alleged human rights violations by our own forces in combat areas. Furthermore, measures to improve the failing economy and governance in order to reduce poverty need to be urgently addressed. For that to happen, the federal government will have to reinvent the wheel and change its own style of governance.

The writer is a former newspaper editor.


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