The limits of the will and the capacity of the Pakistani state are fast being exposed, and it isn’t even a full year since the horror of December 16 was unleashed upon children at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
On the one hand, mob violence – of which we are so intolerant when it takes place in Uttar Pradesh – continues to take place in this country, with Christians in Kot Radha Krishan and Ahmadis in Jhelum bearing the brunt of the white-hot flame of pure faith in this faith-surplus faux Iqbalist republic.
On the other hand, the narrative of non-state violence as heroism continues to be tube-fed to young men, leading to mass funerals of ‘martyrs’ returning from ‘jihad’ in ‘Afghanistan’. The 41 bodies of young men, buried in Dir over the weekend, are a stunning reminder of the potency of violent extremism and its ideology – and concurrently of the impotence of whatever narrative state and society have attempted to construct to impede the progress of violent actors claiming Islam as the source of their legitimacy.
The National Action Plan, with almost two dozen specific points, was a hurriedly prepared document, with very little criticism coming its way (because it was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the December 16 APS attack). In a normal, functioning state, the process would have been followed by more thorough deliberations on each and every aspect of the plan. Because Pakistan is run by a combination of talk show ratings, whimsical strongmen (elected and uniformed), and a cabal of bureaucrats whose stakes in Pakistan’s future are restricted to avoiding audit paras and adverse ACRs, and pondering the quality of their next posting, no such thoroughness or deliberations have ensued.
So instead of having a broader and deeper conversation about fighting and winning against terrorists, the reaction to APS has been reduced to essentially three policy instruments: violence, rules of the game, and communications.
The first all-out violent assertion of the writ of the state has been made up of three kinds of kinetic actions. There is the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Fata. There is the Rangers deployment to Karachi to neuter violent mafiosos enjoying the canopy of protection afforded to them by political parties like the MQM. And there is the accidental killing of terrorists during police encounters, such as when Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorist leaders attacked police and were killed in the ensuring encounter. The effects of the state’s assertion of a monopoly over violence are manifest: Pakistan is a safer country today. But how long is this process of asserting the state’s power to dominate violent engagements with terrorists, or criminals, sustainable?
The second, the watering down of constitutional rule of law to enable the state’s newfound assertiveness, is mostly defined by the passage of the 21st Amendment to the constitution. Yet the establishment of military courts isn’t all there is to the new rules of the game. There is also the lifting of the freeze on capital punishment. Under the new rules of the game, Pakistani society will have a higher tolerance for the muzzling of people’s right to due process. This isn’t theory, it is the established truth of almost a year’s post-APS attack experience.
The thing about straying from rule of law is this: we are a very tolerant people, and we love our soldiers. But we are also impatient. There is no example of Pakistanis carte-blanching the erosion of rights ad infinitum. This too has a shelf-life, and the question is: when does it expire?
Finally, there is the communications angle, or more aptly, a self-congratulatory public relations blitzkrieg. Both across Pakistani society, and in global perception at large, the Pakistani state has been projected as a renewed entity, with new zeal and fervour to prevent mistakes in the future, and right the mistakes of the past. This is brilliant work, and credit for it is due largely to the ISPR. But it is a product with a high vulnerability, like all PR exercises, to the ugliness of ‘random’ acts of specific brutality – like rampaging mobs in Jhelum that victimise businesses owned by minorities (given their consistency, such attacks are anything but random). Given the extreme vulnerability of the PR blitz, what is the over/under on its effectiveness in the medium run, or the long run?
The questions we ask about these three post-APS policy instruments – violence, rules of the game and communications – are important not because Pakistan shouldn’t be using those three tools, but because Pakistan should back them up with a range of actions that signal a real change in how we perceive and deal with anti-society and anti-state violence.
This is where Humpty Dumpty falls down. A society that has gone through what we have endured in the last decade or so should not take the radicalisation of young men that leads to their deaths in Afghanistan lightly. Yet, a mass funeral of young Pakistani men from Dir, who died in Afghanistan, has been treated with almost the same nonchalance that such funerals used to be treated with three decades ago, two decades ago, one decade ago, and indeed, one APS attack ago.
In the 1980s, young men went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. In the 1990s, young men went to fight each other, depending on whose militia they joined. In the 2000s, young men went to fight the American ‘occupiers’. And now young men go to Afghanistan to fight the Afghan state. There have been a number of constants through the decades.
First, places like Dir tend to produce a high proportion of these young men. Second, parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami tend to be better represented than others, at both the sending-off events and funerals for these young men. Third, despite its deep pockets and high potency, the Pakistani intelligence community seems powerless to stop these young from wasting their valiant bravery on other countries, and help them channel it into their own. Fourth, and perhaps most worryingly, the Pakistani mainstream continues to, at best, equivocate about the nobility of picking up a weapon, going to Afghanistan and getting killed.
Less than five hundred kilometres away, in Jhelum, the lucky young men (lucky not to be born in Dir, but instead in the heart of Punjab), express their devotion and faithfulness in a different way. They rampage through the streets burning things that belong to Ahmadis because of the alleged blasphemy committed by a member of that community. Later that evening, those same young men, still hopped up on the high of fighting ‘infidels’ by burning private property, watch news reports about the subjugation of Muslims in lands faraway. The whole world is supposed to be in on a conspiracy against them.
Can Operation Zarb-e-Azb, or the Karachi operations, or extrajudicial killings prevent young men in Jhelum from setting fire to Pakistan’s future?
Can military courts and two hundred hangings a year convince young men in Dir that the best way to fight injustice is to be a lawyer?
Can the ISPR’s photos of General Raheel Sharif in various locales around the world help engender the concept of statehood and citizenship among jobless young men across the country easily seduced by anti-state conspiracy theorists on television every night?
The answers are obvious. Pakistan has 100 million citizens below the age of 25. Most of these young people are not stakeholders in the version of Pakistan that either of the Sharifs (PM or COAS) pitch to foreign audiences. ‘Constitution’, ‘democracy’, ‘CPEC’, and ‘liberal’ are all terms that may appeal to middle-aged, brown men on television – like me. But they are alien words, with insulting undertones for young men and women who are on the outside of the national tent of Kumbaya, looking in.
As we approach the first anniversary of the APS attack, it is imperative that Pakistani decision-makers invest in a long-term process targeting the enfranchisement of young people to the state and its various structures on the one hand, and the de-legitimisation of religiously-inspired anti-society and anti-state narratives (and violence) on the other.
This begins with growing the economy, equitably, and ends with a frontal assault on those who preach hatred as a religious obligation. For this to happen, a dramatic expansion in the will and capacity of the Pakistani state is urgently required. Pakistan needs to get serious about the National Action Plan.