The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News
After weeks of procrastination in the face of increasingly aggressive actions by militants to extend their influence beyond Swat, the government ordered the army to halt the Taliban advance. The military operation that was launched in Buner is still underway.
This action was taken after an unprecedented public outcry in the country prompted by mounting alarm that the Taliban’s bid to seize control of Buner district, on the back of a controversial peace deal in Swat, would not stop there. International anxiety over the rising tide of the Taliban militancy was reflected in a series of public statements by top US officials, as well as in heightened pressure on Islamabad by Washington to act.
Meanwhile the untenability of the situation generated its own dynamics. Once the leader of the outlawed TNSM, Sufi Mohammed, denounced the constitution as un-Islamic, refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the superior courts in the operation of Nizam-e-Adl, failed to persuade his militant allies to disarm, and the Taliban threw down the gauntlet in Buner, a do-nothing position became unsustainable for the government. Even so its ambivalence persisted on what for others was a forgone conclusion: far from containing the militants, the Swat deal emboldened them into a more ambitious power grab.
Which of the three factors proved to be a game changer is not clear. It may well have been a combination of internal and external factors that goaded an inert government into action. But the delay in making the decision to confront an increasingly dangerous situation speaks volumes about both the quality of leadership and its ability to accurately read the situation and act promptly. This has reinforced the characteristic that the government has displayed in the past year, of acting only when an issue or problem explodes in its face.
The government took weeks to act, failing to read the signposts indicating where events were headed in Buner. In the first week of April, heavily-armed Taliban militants streamed into Gokand valley of Buner from Swat and sought to consolidate their position. They met resistance from the local inhabitants who had formed lashkars to defend themselves. In one clash the Taliban killed five policemen and two members of the local militia. Did this prompt any response from the provincial and central government? No. Locals tried several times to push back the Taliban, but received no support from the security agencies and the army. Their calls for help went unheeded and consequently their resistance melted away. No official attempt was forthcoming to punish those responsible for unleashing a reign of terror.
Instead the federal government went ahead and endorsed the Swat accord between the provincial ANP government and Sufi Mohammed. The National Assembly duly ratified this deal quite oblivious to the disturbing developments in Buner as indeed of the fact that an exodus of local inhabitants was gathering pace. The Swat administration may have sought to conceal the full extent of what was going on, but that the country’s executive, legislature, security agencies and the army were all somehow in the dark is hardly reassuring. It took weeks for the political and army leadership to move, and that too once the Taliban had begun to entrench themselves, seize property and then overrun the area, ten days after the Swat deal was signed by the president.
There are lessons to be drawn from this about the costs of delayed action. Four are important. First, a decision or action taken in this tardy manner under domestic and external pressure signals indecision not resolve, wavering not firmness of purpose. Second, any action that is not timely limits the freedom to manoeuvre. Greater effort and more risk is entailed to regain control of a situation that has galloped ahead and in which dislodging the insurgents necessitates a tougher response and ultimately higher casualties and greater displacement of the civilian population. The curious military doctrine in operation seems to be one that aims not to prevent a crisis but wait for it to implode into a full blown one, before acting.
Third, a delayed response runs the risk of losing public confidence as well as creating an image of a government that acts only under pressure. This leaves the law-enforcing and security agencies with the burden of rebuilding confidence simultaneously with addressing the security challenge. All accounts of those who have visited the area speak of a loss of faith in the authorities among Buner’s inhabitants as a consequence of their experience. When they put up resistance against the invading Taliban they elicited no support from either Peshawar or Islamabad. This has made the task of mustering public support harder after the eventual launch of the operation. The problem has been compounded by the lack of official preparedness to deal with the thousands of people fleeing the fierce fighting. Together with those escaping the fighting in Bajaur this has swollen the number of displaced people to an estimated half a million, raising the spectre of a humanitarian crisis whose full import officials have yet to grasp. The gap between humanitarian needs and the official response continues to grow.
The fourth ‘cost’ of delayed action is that when undertaken belatedly in the context of immense external pressure, it serves to reinforce the impression both within and outside the country that the authorities’ response to militancy is hobbled less by lack of capacity than of will.
Having embarked on a military campaign the government should by now also have utilised this moment of opportunity to energetically and systematically garner public support and convert this into political capital to deal more decisively with the challenge. But it has shown neither the inclination nor the imagination to do this by mobilising all elements of national power behind a sustained anti-militancy campaign. The government has yet to mount a serious effort to forge a political consensus for such a policy. Also, it has paid virtually no attention to evolving a counter-narrative to the militants’ ideology and message. This after all has to be at the heart of any counter-insurgency strategy which cannot rely on military means alone.
The initiative by the MQM to convene a meeting of ulema in Karachi that roundly rejected the Taliban brand of Islam should have been undertaken on a national scale by the government especially as there are growing voices from among religious scholars and parties denouncing the violent actions of Taliban militants. In a rare public intervention, the Tableeghi Jamaat for example rejected the imposition of Sharia at gun point.
What is apparent from the developments of the past several weeks is that the response to the growing threat of militancy cannot just assume the shape of fire-fighting. A coherent and comprehensive strategy is needed to replace the patchwork and inconsistent approach followed thus far. This means going beyond the mantra of ‘Deterrence, Dialogue and Development’ that the PPP government marshals out as its counter-insurgency policy. This serves as a slogan rather than a serious plan of action.
Recent news reports allude to a counter-militancy plan that is expected to be shared with Washington during President Zardari’s upcoming visit to the US. Any such policy should have the seal of parliamentary approval and reflect a political consensus. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s call for an all parties’ conference to fashion an agreed approach is a sensible idea and should have been taken up by Islamabad. Such a meeting would have tested the seriousness of political leaders to address the country’s most pressing challenge especially as some still prefer to function in a gray area where they espouse platitudes in order to avoid taking a position.
The time for ambivalence is long past. The task of leadership is to demonstrate strategic clarity and to take charge of the country’s future. This means, above all, abandoning the habit of choosing short-term expediency over the country’s long-term interests.