KARACHI — As militant attacks in Pakistan continue unabated, there are increasing calls for the government to rethink its strategy — and look deep within.
What is happening in Pakistan today is an "unprecedented" situation and the government’s "lack of planning and imagination left it with no alternative," said I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Noted peace activist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy called the government authorities "irresponsible" for creating paranoia among the people. "They constantly accuse external powers for the present spate of terrorism."
October has seen the worst violence in Pakistan this year as a result of a string of attacks that preceded the army offensive against the militants in South Waziristan on Oct. 17 (see sidebar).
The Pakistani government’s military operation in the South Waziristan tribal region is the fourth major offensive on the Afghan border — the main stronghold of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan — since 2004, and the biggest so far.
South Waziristan is one of the seven federally administered tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan. It is considered the most impoverished and underdeveloped region of Pakistan.
According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s latest policy report released on Oct. 21, the military operation in South Waziristan alone is unlikely to curb "the spread of religious militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), unless the Pakistan government implements political reforms in that part of the country."
The report, ‘Countering Militancy in FATA’, added that "poorly planned military operations have aggravated both the conflict’s impacts on daily life and the public alienation that fuels militancy."
"FATA belies the military’s claims of successfully countering Islamist militant networks," said Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia project director, in a press statement issued by the independent think tank on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.
"The state should rather counter religious extremism by extending constitutional rights and expanding economic opportunity."
Such a view seems to resonate with the public. Ifrah Kazmi, a student at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, said most problems existing in Pakistan today have "all incubated from the same womb," the root cause being the growing inequality. She fears a sharp divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots" have emerged in the conflict-attended South Asian state.
"The state’s failure to provide basic services and support economic opportunity is contributing to the growth of the insurgency," said Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia program director, in the same statement released to the media by the independent group. "Only long-term political and legal reforms that extend the law of the land to FATA will reverse this tendency."
"Pakistan must dispense with its present alliances with all religious extremists," said Dr Hoodbhoy, who is also the chairperson of the department of physics at Islamabad’s prestigious Quaid-e-Azam University.
Apart from bringing the madrassas (religious seminaries) under state supervision, Dr Hoodbhoy said "hate material must be removed from schools and the ‘media mujahideen’ [such as television anchors and newspaper columnists known for their pro-Taliban leanings] made responsible for making wild allegations on television."
On Oct. 20 the government ordered all educational institutions in Pakistan closed following the twin blasts that rocked the International Islamic University in the capital, Islamabad.
The closure of educational institutions was a "knee-jerk" action devoid of "any prudent thinking," said Masood Sharif Khattak, former director-general of the Intelligence Bureau.
While educational institutions in the North-West Frontier Province remain closed indefinitely, those in Punjab and Islamabad were opened on Nov. 2. In Sindh, many schools resumed classes on Oct. 25.
"The foreign and indigenous enemy is all deep within us; deeply entrenched in our towns, cities and villages," said Khattak. He added it was more an "intelligence battle" than one that can be won through conventional warfare. "When schools open, will they become impregnable?" he asked.
"Depressed and paranoid xenophobes cannot be expected to study well or be productive," said Dr Hoodbhoy.
"Most of the schools are located in densely populated areas and security cover is impossible. But closure is having a dangerous effect on people’s psyche, and this is what the terrorists are aiming at," said HRCP’s Rehman.
He said one solution the state should have explored is to organize joint security forces between the government and the public to "guard educational centers and keep them functioning," he said.
Some people would have been willing to be a part of such efforts, if only for their firm resolve not to be paralyzed by fear.
"As a mother, of course, there is a degree of disquiet about the attacks on educational institutions, but I feel we cannot and must not be paralyzed," said 47-year-old Yasmeen Tajammul, who has two children, ages 14 and 10.
"The only way to keep us going is to believe nothing is going to happen to us," said Tajammul Hussain, a chartered accountant from Lahore.
"More attacks are likely; there is no telling when the next one will come," said Dr Hoodbhoy. The motive behind these targeted attacks is "to destroy the Pakistani state’s ability to function."
"They hope to bring ‘true’ Islam," he said, entailing "Islamic punishments, elimination of females from public view, and perpetual war against the West."
All this unrest and fear, said Dr Moosa Murad Khan, head of the psychiatry department at Karachi’s Aga Khan Hospital, is bound to affect the people’s psyche "very negatively."
"People will remain under constant threat and that will instill a sense of insecurity in them. This can affect every aspect of their living — work, sleep, relationship, performance," warned Khan. Even in ordinary circumstances, people in Pakistan "live on the edge" and have a very "fragile existence," he added.
"But when a threat like this happens, it tips many people over the edge, and we see more and more people seeking help and the consumption of tranquillizers goes up," said Khan.
"It’s like a shadow following us everywhere," said 21-year-old Kazmi.
(Inter Press Service)