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Leveraging Tragedy

by Ejaz Haider

Ejaz Haider

A. Majeed—AFP

A. Majeed—AFP

The government should use the fear and anger generated by the Taliban attack in Peshawar to take actions it found difficult in the absence of tragedy.

Tuesday’s tragedy that unfolded at a school in Peshawar is one of the worst terrorist attacks this country has witnessed. The carnage left 148 children and staff dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, and nearly the same number injured. It was a deliberate act, carefully planned by one of the terrorist groups. They wanted to target children. They made it clear when they claimed responsibility for it.

All this is known but restating it is important for two reasons. One, this is not the first tragedy that has befallen us. While in this case the murderous bunch specifically targeted children, this is not the first time children have died in a terrorist attack. Women, children and old men have been targeted before. Two, we have seen tragedies pile up, one after another, over the past several years. There’s condemnation, there’s outrage, the usual statements from officials, and platitudes from politicians. In the end, like social banter at a party, all of it trails off into nothingness. No one is indicted, no report is made public, no lessons learnt.

This is not to take credit away from security forces and intelligence agencies for the many attacks they have pre-empted but simply to state the point that they could have done better if we had taken this war more seriously. The blame for not doing that must be apportioned as much to the governments as to bureaucratic wrangling and inertia.

The apologists and what-abouters are crouching right now. But they won’t remain hunkered down for long. They are waiting for us to move on. And once that happens, they will be back in business. They will be back in business once this tragedy is forgotten, erased from our consciousness until a new tragedy strikes and the cycle is repeated. If we really love our children, that’s exactly what we must prevent from happening.

There are reasons for this. Human values is, of course, one. But while it is crucial as a people to retain our humanism, that is not enough to fight this war. Not forgetting, therefore, has strategic and operational significance.

The terrorists attacked the school because murdering children creates a spectacle. With television cameras and social media plugged into the worldwide web, news travels around the world and multiplies in seconds. The spectacle is meant to show the government up as weak and impotent. Its psychological significance far outweighs the number of dead. It frightens the people. Granted, the people are angry. But they are also afraid. Every morning when parents will send their children to schools across Pakistan, they will be weighed down by fear. It has happened once; it can happen again—to any child, at any school.

One of the most important aspects of fighting a war and succeeding is to break the enemy’s will to fight. That’s what the Germans did to the French when they bypassed the Maginot Line. The French army was largely intact but the national will to fight collapsed. France fell.

This is a different kind of war but the fundamental point remains. The terrorists cannot capture territory but they can, nonetheless, subjugate us by breaking our will to fight. There are many among us who do their work, some consciously, others unwittingly, by creating confusion, by raising doubts, by diluting our focus. Is this our war; are these not our people; would this have happened if we hadn’t allied ourselves with the U.S. and so on. These what-abouters, their dissembling and their plain lies are too well known for me to list them again. And yet, many of us continue to fall for these charlatans and their grotesqueries.

This is bad news. But there’s good news too. The psychological impact the terrorists want can be turned around. The fear and anger can be made use of to a different effect—to instilling in the people the resolve that this is indeed our war and we must win it. The only way to do that is to keep the memory alive and to take those concrete steps that we need to take but which we have shied away from taking. This is why it is important to flag the point that this is not business as usual.

Just like the governments that fight them, terrorists also make mistakes. Every action has consequences. This attack was intended to result in fear. It has resulted in fear and anger. The government has to leverage this by ensuring that the anger overpowers the fear. Robert Thompson, an iconic counterinsurgency expert, talked about a three-part counterinsurgency strategy: “emplacing programs to address the root causes of an insurgency, ensuring the programs are sustainable, and ‘playing for the breaks’.” (Lincoln B. Krause: Playing for the Breaks: Insurgent Mistakes)

Of these, ‘playing for the breaks’ is a crucial factor. The “breaks” refer to “changes in the situation at the international, national and local levels … generated by critical errors made by an insurgency’s leaders.” These errors fall in two categories: original sins and situational errors. But errors made by the insurgents are not enough in and of themselves to put down an insurgency; they must be leveraged by counterinsurgency forces in their favor.

Call it COIN or, as in our case, counterterrorism, the situational errors must be leveraged. The tragedy that unfolded at the school in Peshawar is a classic case of a situational error that can be leveraged by turning fear into anger and using anger to create the social space to take actions that a government might have found difficult to take in the absence of such a tragedy. In fact, this is exactly what happened in the case of Malakand. The speech by Sufi Mohammad and flogging video was used by the then-government to make space for the much-required military operation that ultimately resulted in clearing the area of the presence of Fazlullah and his murderous bunch of terrorists.

Much the same needs to be done now. The point is simple. The people should be angry; the government should calculate coldly and address those structural flaws that have hampered its CT efforts so far.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.

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1 comment

D S SARAO December 26, 2014 - 6:47 pm

1 The recent reprehensible terrorist strike in Peshawar brings in mind that quote of Golda Meir–” We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” It is time that the political and military hierarchy in Pakistan re-defines it thought process and now moves away from it ruinous ‘ Kashmir Centric ‘ policy and the politics of mistrust and hatred directed towards India. The unspoken claim that if the bubbling cauldron of Kashmir is allowed to simmer down, it will be detrimental to Pakistan’s interests is incorrect.
2 Three issues need to be highlighted here –Firstly, it in itself is a tacit admission that Pakistan indeed has a hand in abetting and harboring Jihadists and Terrorists (freedom fighters in parlance of the Pakistani establishment). Secondly, it needs to be appreciated and accepted that the world is no longer interested in the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan has to realize that Kashmir is now accepted by the international community as an integral part of India, and international borders can no longer be re-drawn by use of arms. Finally, the mistaken assessment that the involvement of the Indian Army in Kashmir for internal security duties is keeping a major part of the Indian Army tied down, which if freed, would be available for use / deployment against Pakistan is puerile. The Indian Army has only a small percentage of its almost 1.3 million manpower deployed in the valley on security duties .
3 Pakistan today is no match for India in terms of military or economic power and more importantly, India has no desire to ‘ integrate’ Pakistan territorially !! Similarly it is in the interest of Pakistan to nurture and have a healthy relationship with Afghanistan rather then a policy which is solely aimed at countering an imagined fear of India trying to gain influence in that region in order to neutralize Pakistan’s so called ‘ strategic depth’. What Pakistan needs now is a strong civilian Government which can rein in the ‘ non state actors’ amongst its Army. This is not going to be an easy task as the Pakistan Army has, over the years, managed to get a foothold in all matters normally dealt with by the democratically elected Government of a nation –Finance, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Internal and External Intelligence as well as policing of the Nation.
4 Any steps taken by the Pakistani Government which trespass into the perceived domain of what the Army has, over the years, started considering as its own area of responsibility will be severely opposed. There is a clique of serving and retired Army officers who are in a position to nullify all attempts by any civilian leader to change the Nations policy related to Afghanistan or India. The need of the hour is the re-defining of Governmental policies viz -a viz the Pakistan Army, ISI and the Country’s relationship with extremists including the Taliban and those who work in- line with Pakistani ‘ interests ‘ against India. It is for the Pakistani military and civilian leadership to now realize that there is no such thing as a ‘good Taliban’ or a ‘ friendly terrorist ‘ — a terrorist has no loyalties, he can strike the very hand that nurtured it, if it suits him.


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