When America’s pioneer talk show host, Phil Donahue, confronted the ultra right wing Fox News anchor, Bill O’Reilly, for maligning an American anti-war activist, Cindy Sheehan, he said, “You can’t hurt her. She’s already taken the biggest punch there is … she’s lost a child … you can’t slow her down.” On December 16, 2014, Pakistan lost at least 132 precious children in one go, not as collateral damage in a destructive war, but targeted specifically, hunted down, on our own soil, their school blown apart, their teachers set on fire. Pakistan has taken the biggest punch there is. The question is: where do we go from here? Is this what it takes to get our priorities right and take what the entire world has been referring to as the ‘existential threat’ to our very survival seriously?
This may not be the time to finger-point, as national unity in the face of this deadly and barbaric enemy is crucial. However, it is also not possible to move forward without admitting past mistakes. Unless we realise what has brought us to this abyss, it will not be possible to make amends and correct course. The truth must be told.
Until recently, both the PML-N and the PTI thought the Taliban could be negotiated with, that they weren’t all that bad. It wasn’t that long ago that Shahbaz Sharif promised to look the other way as long as the Taliban spared Punjab. It wasn’t that long ago, too, that Imran Khan proclaimed that those who wanted to fight off the Taliban were corrupt dollar-khor. These were not statements made by the leaders of fringe religious parties but mainstream politicians that large sections of the educated elite voted for. What could be more enabling for the Taliban?
Until recently, both these parties and our military establishment readily distinguished between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. In other words, a good Taliban could bomb hotels in Afghanistan but not in Pakistan. I am not keen to quote Hillary Clinton but she does have a point when she says, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbour.” Granted the US played its part in creating this mess back in the eighties, but it’s our backyard that was being experimented in and by allowing it to happen, we have no one to fault but ourselves. Preventing foreign powers from meddling in our affairs isn’t a challenge unique to Pakistan. Most of the Third World grapples with it but who accounts for the strategic depth that has eaten us hollow?
For the longest time this menace was allowed to fester. By maligning those brave few from parties like the PPP and the ANP who dared to stand up to the extremists as “dollar-khor”, the possibility of consensus against the Taliban was greatly impeded. Instead of glorifying those voices, they were painted as Western stooges and an ostrich-like approach was adopted under inane slogans like ‘give peace a chance’. As a result, those courageous few voices were silenced fatally and/or marginalised within their own parties. Instead of focusing on real heroes like Malala Yousufzai or Fareeda Afridi, who were shot for going to school and work, respectively, or the numerous nameless polio workers who were shot for doing good in society, the media focused on distractions like dharnas.
The dharnas have thankfully ended so can we please finally work towards the real issues? The political leadership and civil society must work tirelessly to build consensus behind the military as it takes on the terrorist safe havens and make paramount efforts to rehabilitate those displaced. But simultaneously, the military must come clean and take the political leadership into confidence on how it plans to reverse destructive policies like strategic depth. Instead of casting aspersions on Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to India, such moves must be backed and supported by the military as the need of the hour. Pakistan cannot fight on two fronts. For our own sake, to save our own country we must work to eliminate mistrust that exists with both India and Afghanistan. Promoting movies like Waar that confuse the public on who the real enemy is counter-productive.
Similarly, the media, too, must realise that there will be no ratings if there is no Pakistan. It is not necessary to invite guests with opposing opinions just for the sake of a duel and cheap laughs when serious national security matters are at stake. There needs to be special care taken, particularly when guests are interpreting religion. Despicable men like the Laal Masjid maulvi, Abdul Aziz, who refused to even condemn the Peshawar attack, do not deserve airtime and channels who give them time deserve to be blacklisted.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2014.