Another tragedy: will we learn from Charsadda?

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Originally published in The Daily Times

Barely over a year ago, the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar and took 144 innocent lives, mostly children. And now, they have struck again. Once again, the target of their terror was harmless students. As peace activist and Pashtun hero Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s death anniversary was being commemorated at Bacha Khan University earlier this week, terrorists stormed in and killed at least 20 innocent students and one brave teacher — Syed Hamid Husain — who reportedly tried to protect his students from gunfire.
As we watched the horror unfold on television, the thought of those trapped inside and the agonising ordeal of thousands of anxious families brought grief and hurt to the whole nation. How cowardly of the terrorists to target the innocent youth whose only crime was their desire to pursue knowledge. It seems the terrorists knew how much the Army Public School (APS) tragedy had shaken us as a nation, and they were here to give us maximum pain again.
And pained we are. As messages of support and solidarity flew in on social media, the usual condemnations and resolutions made the rounds in political circles again. It was post-APS on repeat. After that tragedy — described by some as our 9/11 moment — the state showed a strong resolve to curb rising terrorism in Pakistan. Admittedly, the number of terrorist attacks in the country declined after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. While the state’s role in this military operation in the north must be lauded, the state also has a lot more to answer for.
Important as it is, it has often been said that an isolated military solution to Pakistan’s terrorism problem is akin to excising the tumour in a body ridden with metastatic disease. Without a serious look at the extremist ideology that nourishes it, terrorism can never be defeated in the long-term.
It is not as if the state does not know this. It was to check this very extremist ideology that the National Action Plan (NAP) was formulated after the Peshawar tragedy. This was the first time the state conceded to this being an ideological war, that perverted teachings and hate speech by extremist clergy were at the root of the terrorist menace. NAP vowed to end sectarian hate speech and takfir (edicts of heresy) that emanates from our mosques and madrassas (seminaries). Since they have often been easy targets of violence, it vowed to afford better protection to our minority faith communities. Religious seminaries were to be regulated, militant jihadi literature seized and extremists apprehended. But such literature can still be found in abundance in Pakistan. Jihadi symbols and slogans still go unchecked. Let us not go too far. In Charsadda itself, the main bazaar is decorated with flags of jihadist parties. Why does NAP not spring into action? And what is Khyber Pakthunkhwa’s own government doing?
Hate speech against minority faith communities also continues to run amuck plenty. Rogue clerics like Mullah Abdul Aziz, who has non-bailable arrest warrants issued against him for over a year, are still sacred to the state. Just recently, our interior minister was caught repeatedly misleading the National Assembly (NA) in attempts to protect the cleric from being arrested. But do not get me wrong. It is not that the state is not arresting people under its anti-terrorism policies. An 81-year old Ahmedi was recently arrested from Rabwah, subjected to the speediest trial one can hope for in Pakistan, and sentenced to eight years in jail under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act. Ironically, his crime was selling an Ahmedi book that countered jihadi ideology.
What does this say about our seriousness and sincerity in our stated fight against extremism? What message does this give to the international community about our anti-terrorist resolve? And what does this say about our respect for the fallen angels we made these plans in name of? For the sake of these children, we must hold the state accountable for making a joke out of the NAP.
And with regards to the Charsadda attack in particular, other questions must be raised. Why, for instance, was security not provided to academic institutions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province when we had intelligence reports of such an impending attack? Is this not the same state that readily protects and provides security to leaders of banned militant outfits? Are these ‘strategic assets’ more valuable than our future assets, our children?
We must not shy away from admitting that the state is squarely responsible for the mess we are in today. And nothing hurts more than realising that it continues to be unwilling — or unable — to address its misplaced priorities. Could we have prevented the Charsadda attack by implementing the NAP in its true sense? I do not know. But we certainly could have laid the foundation for long-term weeding out of the terrorist menace. As I have alluded to before, we cannot merely excise the tumour while nourishing the cancer within and pretend to be on the path to remission. After decades of suffering, the NAP sounded like the chemotherapy we always needed. But, alas, we are using it on our healthy cells while allowing the cancer to sustain. What a pity!
There comes a point when even chemotherapy becomes futile. Time is running out. Will we learn from #Charsadda?

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