With Peshawar under attack, Pakistan looks the other way
Pakistan has been facing gun and bomb attacks for so long, it is tempting to think it will continue to muddle along, the situation never becoming so bad as to galvanise it into action. And maybe it will.
But a series of attacks in and around Peshawar this month should give serious pause for thought.
First came a raid on Peshawar airport in mid-December, for which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. Then political leader Bashir Ahmed Bilour – an outspoken critic of the Taliban and a senior minister in the provincial government of the Awami National Party (ANP) – was killed in a suicide bombing.
While the city was still in shock over Bilour’s death, its defences were attacked. Taliban militants assaulted three security posts meant to separate the so-called settled areas from the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing two men from the security forces and taking 22 others prisoner. At least 20 of them were later killed by the Taliban,Pakistani media reported.
It is difficult to escape the notion of a city under siege.
For outsiders, particularly the United States – distracted by domestic political wrangling, weary of the war in Afghanistan, and weary too of trying to work out how to deal with Pakistan – the prospect of Peshawar succumbing to Taliban influence should be ringing alarm bells.
And for Pakistanis, the potential loss of Peshawar should be even more alarming – even a small risk of that happening should be enough to stir memories of the unthinking drift to war that led to the loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971. Indian military intervention ensured Bangladesh won independence, but the origins of the conflict lay in the dissonance between Pakistan’s Punjab-dominated heartland and ethnic Bengalis; just as now there is a difference in understanding of the threat of militancy between mainly Pashtun Peshawar and the centres of power in the Punjabi cities of Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Yet for all those familiar tripwires, the alarm over the attacks on Peshawar has been muffled at best. While the ANP in Peshawar has appealed for consensus among political parties on a strategy to fight terrorism, many in the rest of Pakistan are looking the other way. True, some of the English-language media has run powerful commentary arguing that Pakistan must wake up to the threat of terrorism, but on the whole, initial shock over the attacks has dissipated into confusion.
Here is the problem – or rather an additional problem compounding Pakistan’s internal divisions over whether the war against the Taliban is its own fight or one being carried out at America’s behest.
All of this is happening at a time when the country is heading into an election, expected next May. Few want to rock the boat with, for example, a military offensive in North Waziristan that might unleash a wave of reprisal bombings on political rallies across Pakistan. For the first time in its history, a democratically elected government is set to complete its term and hand over power to another democratically elected government – a milestone worth fighting for.
But the boat is already rocking. A huge political rally held in Lahore by Islamist preacher Tahir ul-Qadri – on the same day as ANP leader Bilour’s funeral in Peshawar – has got everyone talking about whether he was sponsored by “the establishment” (the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency) to disrupt the democratic process. Qadri has promised a march on Islamabad in January if changes are not made to the electoral process in time for the polls. And since it is not possible to make those changes in time, his threat has raised fears he might be paving the way for a government of technocrats which would (with the blessing of the military) take over for a few years until Pakistan’s crises are resolved.
To an outsider, it sounds like another Pakistani conspiracy theory. To a Pakistani, used to the army’s dominance of politics and the so-called Deep State’s ability to pull the strings from behind the scenes, the threat to the democratic process is real. Among the unlikely cast of characters being conjured up by the media to support a government of technocrats are Qadri, the Defa-e-Pakistan alliance of militant and religious groups, and Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI). Qadri and PTI deny taking any support from the military.
In reality, nobody knows for sure what is going on, and because of the uncertainty, everyone is hedging their bets. And because everyone is hedging their bets, the country will not take on the Taliban. Meanwhile the Pakistan Army – which dominates security policy – says it will launch a new military operation only with political consensus.
And there is no political consensus.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has devoted much of its energy to simply staying in power to prove the democratic system can work – President Asif Ali Zardari confounded everyone by keeping his job and his government in place long enough to hand on the mantle of the PPP, which he inherited from his late wife Benazir Bhutto, to their son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who made his political debut in Pakistan this week.
If Zardari and the PPP survived, it was partly thanks to opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who having been ousted in a coup in 1999 knew better than to leave a gap where the army might take over. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the main challenger in the coming election and is likely to do well because of the PPP-led government’s reputation for poor governance and corruption. He has everything to lose if an escalation in militant attacks forces the election to be postponed.
Imran Khan’s PTI has promised to break the mould of dynastic politics and end corruption. But in a constituency-based electoral system where local patronage buys votes, Khan does not have the party machinery to win a significant number of seats. And having positioned himself as a campaigner against U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas, which he claimed were the main cause of militancy, he has left himself no space to take a strong stand against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The Peshawar-based ANP, and the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London, have been pretty much alone in speaking out clearly against the Taliban. “The time has come for decisive action,” ANP’s Bushra Gohar, a member of the National Assembly, told Newsweek Pakistan. “We have to expose these elements. The time for apologies is over. We need to adopt a clear-cut policy.”
But in an election year, the heartland of Pakistani politics is in Punjab where both the PML-N and PTI are based and where the biggest number of seats in parliament are to be won. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, in a statement released earlier this week, said it had no quarrel with those two parties. Even the PPP, whose roots are in Sindh province, knows its survival comes from winning popular votes in Punjab while maintaining an uneasy relationship – as it has done since it came to power – with the army. All have an interest in appeasing the religious right, whose street power in Punjab by far outstrips its ability to win votes in elections. All would be vulnerable to reprisal attacks by militants with deep roots in Punjab were they to take a strong stand against them.
That leaves Peshawar bearing the brunt of TTP violence, along with the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the tribal areas themselves. Karachi too is suffering from violence, but Peshawar is even more vulnerable, lying next to the tribal areas.
Many of us have declared Pakistan to be on the brink so often over the years that it becomes hard to take ourselves seriously. It survives, doesn’t it? That famed “resilience”. And the chances are, it will be fine, muddling through until the election.
And yet the steady infiltration of the Taliban into Peshawar, and their apparent ability to carry out attacks there with impunity, should worry everyone. All the more so since so many elsewhere in Pakistan are showing no signs of responding to the threat to a city barely two hours’ drive from the capital.
(Reuters file photo of an earlier bomb attack on Peshawar)