Peshawar, Zarb-e-Azb and FATA
Spare a thought for Afshan Ahmed, a 24 year old teacher who stood up to the killers at Army Public School (APS) to defend her students. They responded by dousing her in petrol and setting her alight. But even as this brave woman was being burnt alive she still urged her students to run for their lives.
Also spare a thought for the six killers who carried out this massacre; Umar, Zubair, Yousaf, Ahmadullah, Saifullah and Abu Zar. Of these, three seem to be of the same age as many of their victims and the other three were not much older. Spare a thought for the horrors that these kids must have gone through, to be able to have so much hate in them that they could set someone on fire and watch her get burnt alive. Spare a thought for their mothers as well, whose ordeal must have begun long before the 16th of December.
It would be unfair not to count the six killers among the 145 dead victims at APS, as they all represent a recurring strategic cost that we have been paying to safeguard our “strategic interests”. Whatever this strategic interest may be, but so far it has consumed the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistanis to remain intact. Whether it was the strategic depth of the 80s or the more recent good-Taliban-bad-Taliban binary, these policy positions have provided the enabling environment which has brought us to this juncture, where even going to school has become an act of bravery.
However, there is hope, especially in the way our nation has come together in the wake of the APS massacre. But just hanging terrorists is not enough. It should be obvious that suicide bombers can’t be deterred by death. These bombers are “manufactured” with the fear of death taken out of them, the only way to stop them is to stop manufacturing them in the first place. As long as their “good” manufacturing factories factor into our strategic priorities we will have more and more of these strategic-assets-gone-wild. Lest one forgets, Naik Muhammad, Baitullah, and Hakeemullah have all been taken out in the most brutal of fashions, yet it did not stop Fazlullah from ordering this recent massacre.
The solution to it all has to be operation Zarb-i-Azb. This operation is different from its predecessors as it explicitly aims to eliminate the “bad” as well as “good” terrorists. It also has the advantage of being owned by the “Not our War” group of political parties; PML-N, PTI and JI might have won the elections by tying Taliban terrorism to U.S. drone strikes, but ever since coming into power these parties have completely capitulated on their earlier stance. This fact obviates the need for rooting out “Taliban apologists”, as Zarb-i-Azb has the necessary political consensus behind it. The need now is to ensure that it delivers on its goals. So far, it has been lacking in a few crucial areas.
To begin with, Zarb-i-Azb needs to be seen as not only an effort to stop terror attacks in “Pakistan-proper”, but also one to liberate the people of FATA from the Taliban. The last thing that we want is to alienate the people of FATA in the process, but by using F-16s to bomb civilian areas we might be doing exactly that. The US could afford to be hated in both Iraq and Afghanistan as they had to leave those countries, we on the other hand don’t have that luxury as this is our country and these are our people.
FATA IDPs need to feel that they are taking refuge within their own country. Security hysteria about Taliban infiltration needs to be qualified with a realization that we had left these people at the mercy of the Taliban for more than a decade. They are not coming out in droves because they want to live in camps in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, it is because our “strategic” policies have blown in our faces and here too this poor lot is bearing the brunt of the fallout. Implicit as well as explicit official bans on the movement of FATA IDPs need to be removed as they violate the basic rights of these Pakistanis. Denying them these rights might have far reaching consequences for the unity of this federation. The last thing that we want is to legitimize another resistance while we are eliminating the Taliban.
Given our history we have to prove that we have given up on the good Taliban. It is heartening to hear the Prime Minister as well as the Chief of Army staff reassure that no distinction will be made between good and bad Taliban, but their claims needs to be validated through independent media reports. Right now FATA is an information black-hole from which no independent confirmations can be made on targets, effectiveness and also collateral damage. The conspiracy theories and controversies surrounding Zarb-i-Azb can be put to rest if ISPR ceases to be the sole source of information about the operation.
Finally, we need to realize that by the time a suicide attacker reaches his targets it is already too late. Therefore, intelligence failures as well as a lack of coordination between security agencies need to be addressed more effectively. With more than 50,000 lost due to terrorism, one should have seen at least one resignation (forced or otherwise) from some of the officials of our numerous intelligence agencies, but that has not happened. Rather than holding landlords and naan-bais accountable for intelligence failures, Chaudhry Nisar should focus on those who have the official mandate for providing intelligence.
Initiating Zarb-i-Azb shouldn’t be an end in itself, the onus is now upon the supporters of Zarb-i-Azb to see that it succeeds. While the sacrifice of our security personnel must be honored and celebrated, there is a need for accountability and transparency around this initiative as well. We owe it to the memory of Afshan and thousands of other martyrs to finally put an end to this madness, political expediency shouldn’t get in the way of that.