Mar 7, 2009

Thoughts from the brink

But the attempted massacre of the Sri Lankan cricket team penetrated even the thickest skin, and brought home to us yet again what a murderous place Pakistan has become.
However, despite the familiar nature of the attack, many Pakistanis are still in denial, and are muttering darkly about the famous ‘hidden hand’. Within hours of the atrocity, Imran Khan was on television, saying categorically that neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban were behind the incident. He went on to allege that the whole thing had originated from ‘some other country.’ I wonder how he could be so sure, especially when Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, stated that the attack had all the hallmarks of the Mumbai massacre of 26/11.
The ease with which the killers calmly made their escape speaks of long familiarity with the city. It also speaks volumes for the sheer incompetence of the police deployed to protect the Sri Lankan cricket team. Considering that the gunfight took place for nearly half an hour in broad daylight in the middle of Lahore, one would have expected reinforcements to rush in from the nearby police station to surround the terrorists.
It seems churlish to be critical of the cops when six of them died in the line of duty. But clearly, the security arrangements provided for the visiting team were shockingly inadequate. The Australian and English officials who barely escaped with their lives were very critical of the police escort, saying they had been abandoned to their fate as they lay flat on the floor of their van during the crossfire.
The traumatised Sri Lankans have been extremely gracious and diplomatic, but even they have said that while they had been promised presidential-level security, there had obviously been serious lapses. Equally obvious is the fact that neither Musharraf nor Asif Zardari have depended on the poorly trained cops who accompanied the visitors. Heavily armed army commandos are on the presidential security detail, and dummy convoys head off along different routes to confuse potential attackers.
Apart from the incompetence of our police and administration, this attack once more underlines the complete breakdown of law and order in Pakistan today. We had thought that Lahore, despite suicide attacks there last year, was safer than the rest of the country. But it seems that no part of the country is beyond the reach of the terrorists who have multiplied in the giant safe haven that is Pakistan.
Christopher Dell, the American envoy to Afghanistan, recently said accurately albeit undiplomatically: ‘Pakistan is a bigger place [than Afghanistan], has a larger population, it is nuclear-armed. It has certainly made radical Islam a part of its political life, and it now seems to be a deeply ingrained part of its political culture. It makes things there very hard.’
It certainly does. By placing faith at the heart of our political and social discourse, we relinquish responsibility for our actions. When a man-made disaster strikes, those in charge wash their hands of their responsibility by saying that whatever happened was the will of God. This reduced culpability ensures that no remedial steps are taken to prevent a recurrence of the lapse.
When Benazir Bhutto was almost killed on her arrival in October 2007, one had hoped that her security would be tightened. In the event, no lessons were learned and she was assassinated two months later. Similarly, I have no great expectations that security procedures will be revised in the wake of the Lahore attack.
Another factor that is feeding into extremist violence today is the support these jihadis get from large sections of the media. Each time there is a terrorist atrocity, many pundits either go into denial, or ascribe the violence to western policies. How the Sri Lankan cricketers can be held responsible for these policies is something even rabid nationalists will have a hard time pronouncing on.
As Sri Lanka’s Daily News said in an editorial on March 4: ‘Sri Lanka’s cricketers never deserved the horrendous treatment they were subjected to when masked gunmen opened fire on the team bus…. How harming a group of cricketers whose only role is to bring joy and pleasure to the sports-loving public of Pakistan, can achieve whatever object the terrorists had in mind defies understanding.’
Many in Pakistan are searching for clues to prove the presence of the ‘hidden hand’ in this latest act of terrorism. The links between Sri Lanka’s LTTE and jihadi groups are being explored, while others are insisting that somehow, the Indian agency RAW is behind the attack. But the situation in Pakistan is so dire today that local groups must be the first suspects. After the Mumbai attack, weeks passed before Pakistani officials reluctantly agreed that our nationals and our territory had been involved. Meanwhile, hordes of TV pundits and newspaper columnists were jumping up and down, saying, ‘Where’s the proof?’
By denying that there is a real problem in Pakistan with Islamic terrorism disables us from tackling it. Things have been getting from bad to worse for years while our collective head remains firmly buried in the sand. We either blame Washington for our woes, or we say defensively ‘Where’s the proof?’ And our final defence lies in shrugging, and saying ‘It’s God’s will’.
All three modes of thought and behaviour absolve us of blame, and make corrective action unnecessary. No amount of pain and slaughter seems to convince us that ultimately, we are responsible for what happens within our borders. When we claim sovereignty over our soil, we must also be able to exercise control over it.
We must face the fact that for over three decades, Pakistan has become a breeding ground for religious extremism, and a safe haven for terrorist groups. For years, these gangs have been used by our establishment to further its agenda in the region. Until 9/11, they were provided with money, arms and legitimacy by the Pakistani state. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Pakistan can purge itself of these killers only if there is a broad consensus that we will not put up with them any longer. But as long as elements in our security apparatus, our judiciary and our media think that their behaviour can be condoned by ‘western policies’, they will continue to bleed us and ensure our isolation.

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