Over the last few decades, Pakistanis have become accustomed to terrorists, as well as terrorism. But the Taliban’s slaughter of schoolchildren in Peshawar on Tuesday was an unprecedented act of savagery. It has caused grief and generated outrage that earlier attacks on hotels, mosques, shrines and even the army headquarters did not.
But will Pakistanis respond to the Peshawar school attack by starting to change the national narrative that has brought us to this point? Or will the narrative take over, as it has done after previous tragedies, allowing tweaking of Pakistani policy without significantly changing it? The December 16 attack is the result of a sustained national policy gone wrong. It can only be changed by a new, sustained policy.
The origins of Pakistan’s ill-fated romance with jihadism lie in the notion that the country faces an existential threat from India. Driven by six decades of insecurity, the Pakistani deep state wants the country to have parity in status and power with India, a country more than six times the size of Pakistan and increasingly wealthier. Arguments about the 1947 Partition and the two-nation theory, hardly relevant in the current context, continue to fuel the ideology of Pakistan. The division of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, with support from India, in 1971, also still looms large in the Pakistani elite’s imagination.
Jihadi militancy and terrorism have just been ways of enabling Pakistan to stand up to a bigger and increasingly powerful India through asymmetrical warfare. During the war against the Soviets, Pakistan used American money, weapons and training not only to equip fighters to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but to also raise brigades of irregular fighters for Jammu and Kashmir and for permanent influence across the Durand Line.
The problem with ideologically motivated warriors is that their ideology can morph and mutate in directions unacceptable to a pragmatic state. The attacks within Pakistan by the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and other militant groups should have made the Pakistani deep state realise some time ago that asymmetric warfare through ideologues is not a reliable military capability.
Islamist extremism has always brought with it a domestic component that hampers Pakistan’s evolution as a modern state. There will always be extremists who say, “Why are women wearing Western dress? Why are girls going to school? Why are we accepting Shias or Ahmadis or non-Muslims as equal citizens?” Similarly, the Inter-Services Intelligence might feel reassured by commitments from the Haqqani network, Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba/ Jamaat-ud-Dawa to not conduct militant operations inside Pakistan. But there is no guarantee that these instruments of regional influence would not, in turn, support groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban, which can attack inside Pakistan.
Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, had told Pakistani officials in October 2011, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours.” She also predicted that “Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.” There was wisdom in those words that Pakistani leaders have yet to heed.
The policy of allowing militant groups to operate on Pakistani soil has proved disastrous. Jihadi militants do not accept the neat divisions between global, regional and local conflicts. Once they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they are willing to fight and blow themselves up anywhere.
Pakistan’s greatest enemy at the moment is denial. It is time to acknowledge that jihadi groups cannot be trusted or considered allies of the state. However useful the Pakistani deep state might consider them for external purposes, they will always be dangerous internally. And their usefulness in expanding Pakistan’s external influence is also severely overstated.
Armed with a nuclear deterrent, Pakistan can shed the paranoia and insecurity that have led to the current establishment mindset. Instead of being content with sporadic battles against groups like the TTP, as in Swat in 2008 and North Waziristan more recently, the Pakistani military could take the lead in trying to change the national narrative completely.
The new narrative would acknowledge the dangers of jihadist extremism without ifs and buts and would give up on the projection of national power disproportionate to Pakistan’s size and resources. Without that fundamental change, we will continue to have tragedies similar to the one on Tuesday, followed by transient anger and remorse.
Instead of cultivating only those elements in the Pakistani discourse that support the jihadi perspective, maybe it is time for the Pakistani establishment to stop treating the anti-jihadists within the country as its enemies. As out of control extremists widen their war to take Pakistan back to medieval times, those deemed traitors by Pakistan’s establishment might prove to be the only ones interested in saving Pakistan as a contemporary state. Alas, the establishment, set in its ways, does not change easily.