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The missing narrative
Publication Date : 04-09-2012
Last month’s attack on Pakistan's Kamra airbase brought forth yet again an unpleasant facet of our national character: the absence of a united stand against an enemy that kills innocent people and targets vital installations of the state’s defence system.
Like the attacks on General Headquarters (GHQ) and Mehran base, the militants managed to meticulously target a crucial defence installation. But the national leadership has still not opened its eyes fully to the existential threat Pakistan faces.
An ideal occasion to initiate a debate on national security strategy has been wasted on questions such as how the militants reached the airbase from the Waziristan area, covering a distance of hundreds of miles, and how they crossed the Attock and Khushal Garh bridges over the mighty Indus carrying a heavy load of suicide jackets, mortar bombs and rocket launchers. This is tantamount to missing the wood for the trees.
“Politics is the enemy of strategy,” wrote Gordon Goldstein in his book Lessons in Disaster on the Vietnam War. This applies to Pakistan where the political elite has a divided approach to militancy in the country, a state of affairs made worse by the absence of a unified counter-narrative in the national media.
The discussion is still stuck on the "ownership" of the war instead of focusing on what the militants’ threat means for the country and how it can be tackled. What we see is indecisiveness, the failure to condemn in one voice, and in many cases, an apologetic tone being adopted to explain away the horrific bomb attacks that occur on a regular basis.
Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities can no longer afford to dither on decision-making. That would mean holding back the redesigning of a strategy to keep pace with the ever-evolving methods of the militants. Currently, our success is limited to killing a bunch of militants here or there rather than attacking the base of militancy or the militant leadership.
Such firefighting on the part of Pakistan’s security forces will only strengthen the enemy’s hands and methods. The beheading of several army soldiers in the past weeks is just one aspect of a war we are not winning — as we continue to make up our minds about an operation in North Waziristan.
What is needed is a strategy targeting the leadership of militant networks instead of individual militants, one that does not confine the strategic focus to the rugged mountains of the tribal areas. The vast plains of south and central Punjab too must be part of the focus. This region is now the nursery of militancy and is churning out urbanised, sophisticated and mentally tough militants.
The tribal militants do not yet have the capacity to threaten the existence of the state, while militants from Punjab with advanced planning and execution capabilities have launched high-profile attacks on sites like GHQ, Mehran and Kamra.
Of all the four provinces, it is in Punjab where the militants have active networks mostly headquartered in the southern regions of the province. The essence and leadership of militancy come from this area while the tribal areas offer sanctuaries and training centres as the infrastructure established during the Afghan war in the 1980s is still intact. In fact, three of the militants in the Kamra attack hailed from Punjab. The identity of the rest is yet to be established.
At the same time, it is imperative that Pakistan take into account the shift in tactics of Al Qaeda which is under tremendous pressure worldwide and is even being squeezed in Afghanistan as mainstream Taliban have started to detach themselves from it. Al-Qaeda is desperately working on making new alliances with likeminded affiliates in Muslim countries.
And in the prevailing circumstances where the nation is divided and there is no anti-militant national narrative to guide the people, Pakistan offers a suitable place for al-Qaeda to resurrect itself. Over the last several years we are observing a growing nexus between al-Qaeda and Punjab-based militants’ networks including Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Jaish-i-Mohammad etc.
To avert extermination, al-Qaeda is struggling hard to keep its body intact and create a flow of new recruits by resorting to attacks on sites that receive high media coverage across the world. The possibility that al-Qaeda was behind attacks such as those on Kamra airbase, GHQ or Mehran naval base with the help of local affiliates cannot be ruled out.
These then are the areas which should form the focus of the fight against militancy. But silence and confusion at the national level coupled with rising societal intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities is hampering the process. Unless there is a clear national debate in which all parties, civilian, political and military, participate and decide that militancy is a threat to the entire nation and must be eliminated, no successful strategy can be devised.
The writer is a senior journalist.