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The growth of terror

The growth of terror

Author: Irfan Husain
Publication: The Dawn
Date: May 18, 2002

Over a week has passed since the gruesome suicide bombing that left 14 people dead, including 11 French technicians, but no heads have rolled and, more importantly, no introspection seems to have taken place.

It is true that it is very difficult to stop an attack if a terrorist is willing to die, but it is not impossible to anticipate where an attack will take place. In this case, it was glaringly obvious that religious extremists would seek out foreign targets from nations supporting the ongoing 'war on terror' as attacks on them would also hurt the Pakistan government.

The movements of the French contingent working on the submarine project were predictable, and even our navy could have foreseen the strong possibility of the visiting Frenchmen coming under attack, specially after the grenade assault in a church in Islamabad that left five foreigners dead. So clearly, a massive intelligence failure has occurred, and so far at least, nobody has been held accountable.

Over the last week, newspapers and TV talk shows have been full of what the government intends to do to prevent the recurrence of such terrorist attacks. The list runs from the decision to set up an anti-terrorist force to getting 'the latest technology' from the West. This begs the question why old technology like finger-printing has still not been integrated into our 19th century police methods. Although senior police officers move around in expensive vehicles like Land cruisers, the department can't find the money to upgrade forensic labs.

But more importantly, nobody has focused on the underlying issues: why has there been a steady build-up of terrorist activities on our soil over the years? Why has the state tolerated the growing presence and activities of religious and ethnic terrorists? We don't need new anti-terrorist forces or courts; what we need is for the law of the land to be strictly and impartially enforced. But above all, we need the sustained political will to stamp out the culture of violence and lawlessness that has taken root here.

The current issue of Fortune magazine carries a long and devastating article on Pakistan (which the writer refers to as 'Problemistan') which discusses the multiple crises we are passing through. A few days ago, a story in the Washington Post based on interviews with American embassy staff concluded that most US diplomats wanted to leave Islamabad because their families could not stay with them because of security concerns. A recent New York Times article on the trial of those accused of the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl describes how the alleged criminals openly threatened and abused witnesses in the court, and how the judge was unable to control the proceedings. The report suggests that Pakistan has become a 'soft state'.

In the plethora of hype and justifications flowing from government spokesmen, nobody has asked how and why we have reached such a pass. The story in Fortune even claims that Pakistan has the largest number of terrorists in the world, and I have no reason to question this estimate. Certainly, no other country has suffered so much terrorist activity over such a long period of time on its soil. Against this background, it is relevant to ask why successive governments have permitted this state of affairs to continue.

Initially, the terrorist phenomenon in Pakistan began with our involvement in Afghanistan in the early eighties: retaliating to our military support for the mujahideen, the government in Kabul unleashed a series of bomb blasts against civilian targets across Pakistan. The easy availability of arms in that period swelled the arsenals of outfits like the MQM, leading to years of bloodletting in Karachi and Hyderabad.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, followed by the Americans, Pakistan attempted to shape events there by propping up proxies, and then began our ultimately disastrous support of the Taliban. In this period we also encouraged jihadi outfits to operate in Indian-held Kashmir. The recent slaughter of the families of Indian soldiers is an offshoot of this aggressive policy.

Sustaining extremists like oxygen is the aura of fake piety that permeates Pakistani society today. Endless religious talk shows; years of compulsory religious instruction at school at the expense of the sciences; and the constant invocation of dogma have become the hallmark of contemporary Pakistan. It is as if we have acquired a monopoly on Islam and are its sole custodians.

In such an environment, the call to jihad has greater resonance and appeal, specially for those who have no future in a rapidly changing and demanding world. Underpinning the network of jihadi groups is a system of madressahs which imparts nothing but the rote learning of the scriptures. Graduates are also taught to hate all those whose practice of the faith diverges in some minor detail. These fanatical foot-soldiers are the ones who are spreading terror and death across the land.

General Musharraf has repeatedly announced his intention to eradicate this menace. In January, two thousand extremists were locked up, only to be soon released. Several hundreds have been scooped up in the wake of last week's suicide attack on the French; let's see how soon they will be set free. So far, the general has yet to exhibit the political will to take on the zealots, and here he can study the methods used by General Babar, Benazir Bhutto's interior minister when he set out to crush the MQM's militant wing.

Despite the lamentable human rights violations that undoubtedly took place, Karachi was rid of the daily violence. Whatever we may say about her now, the fact is that she showed more gumption and staying power in dealing with this menace than any of her successors, including the ones in uniform. Now that the government is negotiating with the MQM, my businessmen friends report that they are getting calls demanding protection money or bhatta again.

And this is precisely why the problem cannot be solved: those in power persist in doing deals with all kinds of shady organizations to achieve questionable short-term goals, and in the process give them immunity from the law. This licence is then abused by these extremists to further their own agendas. Very often, the police are ordered to release militants because a deal has been struck over their heads. Even when they are brought to book, they are released as witnesses and/or the judges are frightened.

What General Musharraf and his security advisers must understand as they grope for answers is that no amount of 'modern technology' can substitute for resolve, effective intelligence gathering and an efficient judiciary. Above all, they must stop cutting deals simply to keep certain politicians and political parties out of power. If our intelligence agencies spent their resources on keeping tabs on terrorists instead of politicians and journalists, Pakistan would be a far safer place today.

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