By Zehra Kazmi:
The cold-blooded murder of 148 people in a military school in Peshawar, out of which 132 were children aged between five and eighteen years, by the Tehreek-e-Taliban left the world enraged and deeply anguished. This barbaric act of brutality is the latest addition to a painfully long list of terrorist violence in Pakistan. Pakistan continues to be one of the worst sufferers of Islamist terrorism in the world-over, 30,000 Pakistani civilians and army men have died in the past 10 years due to it. The argument that the staunchest opponents of partition found hardest to disprove back in the 40s was that of security; the idea that Muslims would be safer in a religiously homogenous nation bounded by political Islam. The irony is not lost on any of us. One has to wonder how and when Pakistan’s own citizens became their greatest enemies.
Pakistan’s clandestine affair with terrorism is now out in the open. Former Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Pervez Musharraf have publicly accepted that Pakistan had used and created terrorist groups as part of a geopolitical strategy. India and other countries like the UK and the US have accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism. However, the US’s condemnation comes off as fairly superficial and definitely delayed, considering how it was the biggest ally of General Zia-Ul-Haq, the man whose legacy has left a questionable imprint on Pakistan’s history. It was under his tutelage that Islamic radicals became pillars of the regime, shaping policy and forming alliances with the military and intelligence services that endure till today. Under Zia’s rule, the military exercised tight control over the country’s economic and social spheres. His active propagation of Islamic radicalism was outlined in a plan called Islamization. The strategic success of this plan hinged on the nefarious transformation of the country’s autonomy minded frontier areas into developing an increasingly Salafist (an extremely conservative branch of Arab-Islamic thought) and Pan-Islamic thinking, focused on fighting in the Afghan Civil War. This radicalisation process was carried out through a variety of methods, such as supporting early Salafi jihadi factions, providing grants to Salafi madarsas, and encouraging their growth in Balochistan and North West Frontier Provinces (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). Part of the Cold War, the Afghan Civil War was a proxy war that saw the Soviet Union and the government of Afghanistan fighting against insurgent mujahedeen groups, who received training in Pakistan, along with ammunition and billions of dollars from the US. The war gave birth to Al Qaeda and Taliban; among the young jihadis whose activities were being supported by USA was Osama Bin Laden.
The rise of the mujahideens from a rag-tag bunch of mercenary fighters to an influential pressure group that is now inextricably linked to the Pakistani polity and society was made possible only due to Zia’s enduring political legacy. Zia’s generation now wreaks havoc in the name of religion not just in Pakistan, but throughout the world. Even Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif owes his political lineage to Zia and continued with the conservative Islamization strategy during his initial rule. Benazir Bhutto recognised the Taliban regime as legitimate government in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to open an embassy in Islamabad. Musharraf cooperated with the United States after 9/11 and helped in dislodging the Taliban from power in Kabul, only to give them sanctuary in Pakistan. This covert support by Pakistan was based on the belief that once the US would have left, the Taliban insurgents will still be there and Pakistan will be equipped to deal with them. The terrorists found safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA, a province bordering Afghanistan. More than 3mn people live in FATA, where the Pushtun-dominated west of Pakistan blurs into the Pushtun-dominated east of Afghanistan. FATA is the poorest and most conservative part of Pakistan. It follows a separate administrative structure – so long as they don’t upset the political agent; the tribes are left to rule themselves through jirgas or tribal councils. It is in these remote badlands of North-West Pakistan where a dangerous game involving geopolitical one-upmanship and religious fanaticism is being played. As Hussain Haqanni points out, “The jihadi militants do not accept the neat divisions between global, regional and local conflicts. Once they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they are willing to fight and blow themselves up anywhere.’’
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Leader of Opposition, has carefully restrained from naming the Taliban in his condemnation of the Peshawar attack. This should not come as a surprise, considering how Khan is believed to have drawn his base from the Pakistani right-wing. He is accused of being Pakistani mainstream’s softest voice on Taliban and has consistently advocated dialogue in favour of confrontation with them. However, it remains to be seen whether Khan’s policy will continue after the universal outrage that the attack has resulted in.
Maybe I am being naively optimistic, but I hope this horrific violence in Peshawar will force the Pakistani political class to re-think its priorities. Pakistan’s political miscalculations and its sustained policy of covert support for terror have led to the December 16th nightmare. As an editorial in The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, very aptly put it into words – “Not just terrorists, but everyone, from the wider population to the civil and military leadership is responsible for the barbarity our children were subjected to.’’
Pakistan’s past demons have come back to haunt it. Those 132 children could have grown up to become the future of Pakistan. Tonight, they lie asleep in their tiny coffins.