Pakistan: just so much collateral damage?

Shireen M Mazari

The Marriott devastation has traumatised Islamabad as never before, despite having seen violence and terrorism with regularity over the last few years – especially since last year. Perhaps it was the widespread damage far beyond the Marriott, which in itself was as tragic as it was horrific, or perhaps it was the live television coverage that took the horror to everyone’s home. Anger, rage, condemnation, fear and helplessness are certainly some of the emotions that have been brought to the fore.

Anger and rage over the act itself and the timing – the month of Ramazan and just when Muslims were ending their fast; anger and rage also at those who have the gall to call themselves Muslims and then kill their fellow Muslims, indeed their fellow human beings, through such barbaric acts of violence; anger and rage at the total failure of the security apparatus of the state, despite the hotel being in the Red Zone of high security; anger and rage at the continuing disconnect within the government, with even the prime minister and interior adviser at cross purposes in their pronouncements – even now the disconnect continues with the interior minister declaring that the official Iftar party was initially to be held at the Marriot while the hotel staff has categorically stated that there was no such arrangement. And, there is anger over the inadequacy of emergency response equipment and procedures, despite the capital having gone through an earthquake and earlier acts of terror. Some of us had always critiqued the CDA’s elitist focus under Lashari and once again Islamabad has paid a heavy price for this.

There is condemnation for the state leaving its citizenry at the mercy of the terrorists – both from within and from outside. The total focus of the state on the ruling elite was evident in the immediate aftermath of the Marriott attack when representatives of the official party came on television and pronounced that the security arrangements had saved the lives of the ruling elite safely ensconced in the Prime Minister House – what insensitivity at the devastation of the rest of Pakistan and its citizenry. Moreover if we are to believe the national security adviser that the official iftar party venue was changed at the last minute, did this justify a security lapse in terms of protecting the Marriott since the government seemed to have known of an impending attack? Certainly no condemnation can be too strong for the state looking merely to its own and leaving the rest of the population as cannon fodder for the terrorists.

The fear and helplessness have been growing within ordinary Pakistanis since our state went into the US war in Afghanistan. Fear that this war, if fought on US terms would extol a heavy price from Pakistan and helplessness in the face of our state’s non-responsiveness to the voice of its own people. As the US war has drawn Pakistan into a deathly vortex of a new home-grown terror of suicide bombings and Iraq-imported Improvised Exploding Devices (IEDs), more space is being created for extremists and terrorists from within us – as the state has yet to project credibility over its own war against terrorism.

If we in Islamabad feel all these intense emotions in the aftermath of the Marriott attack, can we not for one second step back and reflect on how the people of the FATA region have been feeling when confronted with death and destruction at the hands of foreign military power with their own state a seemingly helpless bystander? Is it any wonder that impressionable young youth have offered their lives in the face of the death and destruction of their families and homes – especially when they see their state do nothing? Can we not see that it takes little for the evil preachers of hate and nihilism to convert such people to taking their own lives along with many innocent others? Is there to be no rage, anger, condemnation, fear and helplessness amongst these local people when they see innocent families wiped out by US drones, missiles and now ground troops, as their own state does nothing? And, is it any wonder, that in the settled areas like Swat violence and militancy have flourished because the hapless locals are convinced the state offers no security against the hate teachings of the extremists?

The misguided and fearful people of these extremist-infested areas are the human shields for the terrorists and this phenomenon has now spread as the internally displaced people (IDPs) have moved far beyond their homes. Leaving aside our emotions, a reality check will show how our state has to create the space between itself and the US if it is to mobilise support for its own war against terrorists and extremists within the country. Yes, we do have a war on our hands but it is different from the US war which has its own agenda, and it has to be fought differently – within an overarching political strategy and economic and military tactical prongs. Effectiveness of such a war will depend on establishing credibility for it and that cannot come unless we create space from the US.

Over a year ago, in these columns I had written about strange American personnel going in the direction of Warsak and now we have a disturbing story of US marines with questionable baggage, which was not screened and one has to wonder why, on the fourth floor of the Marriott – where the fire first started. Were their some weapons or incendiary devices which the Marines had brought in? The time has come for the government to come clean on this and stop such covert US activities for the future. As for US “advisers” or “trainers” coming in, our people and leaders should recall that that is how the US began its military invasion in South Vietnam – advisers followed by troops!

If we can officially create space between the US and ourselves, and there can be no covert assent to US access in Pakistan as was the case with the previous government – something that was consistently criticised in these columns – at least the nation will rally around the state and allow it to make an effective beginning to a long term strategy to deal with extremism and violence. Such a strategy has to first recognise that terrorism in Pakistan has a number of differing origins: there is the most violent one that is rooted in distorted religious extremism and is linked to Al Qaeda and seeks indiscriminate destruction for impact. This is not about winning hearts and minds so much as creating fear in hearts and minds. But there is also the political sub-national violence and terrorism, such as in Balochistan, which is also abetted by external forces but has indigenous political roots, and discriminates in its targeting. This attempts to win hearts and minds and so targets are selective – security forces and strategic installations – and is susceptible to a political solution. Clearly an overarching strategy would need to make these distinctions.

In the context of FATA, any strategy would have to include, alongside a delinkage with the US, a genuine and immediate political and economic outreach to the people of FATA and other violence affected areas of Pakhtunkhwa, under the umbrella of military protection. People who do not support extremist militancy must be given protection and positive incentives to remain steadfast while the fence sitters must be shown benefits of coming over to the state’s side and costs for not doing so. Protect the locals so that they can shun the extremists without fear of retribution.

Beyond FATA, there is a need to seriously implement the much-touted but not enforced policy of madressah reform. In this context, all foreign funding for any form of educational or charitable project needs to be transparent and public. Similarly, local donations to schools and charities should be made public.

And, while we are seeking to fight our own terrorists, let us not forget that we also confront an equally menacing threat from the US which has already infiltrated our country at multiple levels. That is why winning over our own people and exposing the many-headed enemy has to be the starting point. Otherwise Pakistan is in danger of being reduced to just so much collateral damage!

The writer is a defence analyst. Email:

Source: The News, 24/9/2008


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