Much is being written saying that perhaps the attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, a schoolgirl from Swat district in Northern Pakistan shot in the head by the Taliban for simply wanting to continue her education, is like a 'moment', a turning point if you will, for Pakistan and its fight with the Taliban. To some commentators this ‘moment’ has passed, no action has been taken, and hence the future is bleak. It is too early for that. Given that Malala is recovering, albeit slowly, at a hospital in the UK, and given the media coverage of that, it is likely that the groundswell of public support for taking on Pakistan's militants, and the Taliban in particular, will remain for some time.
What is needed is for Pakistan’s civilian-led political parties to come forward, unite, at least on this one issue, and order action against outfits like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda and various sectarian organizations. The public outcry against the shooting of Malala Yousufzai could create the necessary political will to make this happen.
What kind of moment?
Much of the debate around what needs to be done seems to be centred on two options. The first is to carry out a military operation in North Waziristan Agency. Part of Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, North Waziristan hosts various terrorist organizations, most notably the Haqqani network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons, and several sectarian terror groups, in particular the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi which is behind the killings of hundreds of Shia Muslims in Pakistan.
Those speaking against any military operation in North Waziristan — and there are many powerful voices in Pakistan’s military establishment and influential media, along with a plethora of religious groups and even the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League — argue that the militants who have taken sanctuary there are not a threat to Pakistan, and that Pakistan’s military should not open yet another front in its war against terror groups inside the country.
This, however, ignores the reality that the area harbours not only the Haqqani network (known to have carried out several attacks inside Afghanistan), but is also home to several sectarian groups who have killed, and continue to kill, hundreds of innocent Pakistanis every year. Furthermore, by allowing this sanctuary to remain on its soil, Pakistan invites censure and criticism from all over the world, not least its neighbour Afghanistan and America since both countries suffer directly when such attacks take place.
Of course, at this point in the debate it is easy to say 'why should Pakistan do any different, since America has done far more?'. True, America has invaded nations with its soldiers, propped up puppet governments and killed thousands of innocent people in the process. The issue, however, is not what America has done or not done, but rather what Pakistan needs to do, for its very survival. As one commentator said following the attack on Malala, either it is Malala’s Pakistan or it is the Taliban’s Pakistan, it cannot be any other way.
The second option is for Pakistan to launch attacks across the border inside Afghanistan’s Kunar province where Mullah Fazlullah, the man who ordered the attack on Malala and head of the Taliban that ruled Swat during 2007-09, is hiding. Those who advocate this ignore the reality — something that many Pakistanis, even the more educated ones, are good at — that their country is not a superpower and cannot simply go about launching an attack in another country. A better bet is the request from the Pakistani government to the Afghan government and the Americans to arrest Fazlullah and hand him over. This request is unlikely to be met, not because Kabul or Washington cannot deliver on this, but because they may not want to, for reasons to do with the fact that non-state groups based in Pakistan routinely carry out attacks inside Afghanistan.
Both these military options relate to the short-term, and the fact of the matter is that both seem unlikely. A resolution that was to be passed in parliament expressing support for a military operation in North Waziristan was withdrawn by the government after the main opposition party withdrew support.
A media offensive
Despite the failure among Pakistan’s mainstream political parties to move ahead and mount a decisive offensive against the Taliban, the country’s media has done well to keep its focus on Malala. This has greatly angered the TTP who, according to several reports in the local media, have ordered attacks on leading TV channels and journalists.
Furthermore, the coverage of the attack and the outpouring of public disapproval has led to the TTP issuing a seven page document in Urdu where it has tried to “explain” why it attacked the schoolgirl, complete with the use of religious references.
A leading member of Al Qaeda, Ustad Ahmed Farooq, has released a five minute recorded message asking why those who are now coming to help Malala never did anything for Dr Aafia Siddiqi (who is currently serving a long prison sentence in a US jail on terrorism charges), or for the innocent civilians who lost their lives in US drone attacks. Beyond the TTP, people who are sympathetic to their cause have tried to launch a counter-offensive, especially through Facebook and Twitter, with some even going so far as to suggest that Malala worked for the Americans.
Either Malala's Pakistan or the Taliban's
While there is clear public disapproval and revulsion at what happened to Malala, a consensus on how to respond to it is missing, especially from the government and mainstream political parties. This lack of unity of thought and action also relates to the long-term goal of peace within Pakistan. To a great extent peacebuilding rests upon the ability of the state to, in the first place, exist, and not wither away and disintegrate as it seems to have done in North Waziristan, and then to assert its authority and tackle the militants head on. Once the Americans leave Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the militants will lay down their arms and return to what they did before the Americans were here. As well as the claim to religious fervour, armed groups' power now comes with economic gains born of controlling smuggling routes and imposing taxes. Why would they willingly give up all of that, especially in a society where people have grown adept at using religion to empower themselves? Pakistanis who are sympathetic to the Taliban, or at least are as much anti-US as it is, either don’t know or don’t want to know this.
Pakistanis need to understand where the threat comes from. Yes, America invaded Afghanistan and worsened the situation, but who is it that has killed thousands of soldiers, policemen and innocent Pakistanis in dozens of suicide attacks? Many of these attacks predate the invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11 and are unlikely to stop once the Americans depart. Who is that has attacked Malala, and then proudly owned the act saying that their religion allows them, nay sanctions them, to do this? Pakistanis need to first take back their faith from the clutches of the militants and their sympathizers in society, the media, and political parties.
Instead of attacking America, or indeed India or Israel – and this is not to say that these countries do not have a problematic relationship with Pakistan — Pakistanis need to realise that the Taliban and their allied militant organizations pose a threat to our very existence as a normally functioning society. That is the only way that we will be able to live at peace in our immediate surroundings.
From this moment on
The one very successful operation against the Taliban in Pakistan was carried out only after a build-up of major public support for it, following a widely-circulated amateur video of local Taliban in Swat flogging a girl for walking in public without a mehram (close male relative).
If a strong public voice can send the signal sent to the political and military establishment, action against the militants could be forced. The military may then be forced to jettison its clearly flawed policy of using some of these groups as ‘strategic assets’.
The signal from the Pakistan military indicates that this time the push may be serious; but only if there is a consensus in the civilian government and the public support is there. Of course this insistence on consensus in the civilian government may also be an instance of the military passing responsibility to a weak and discredited civil governance structure, rather than stepping forward itself.
A strong military response would increase trust between Pakistan and its neighbours. An alert and proactive public could enable civilian control of Pakistan's foreign and security policies, which for now are held firmly by the country’s military. If for once the military was acting against the Taliban and allied militants with popular support, this moment could be built upon by civilians to take back their rightful ownership of the country’s security and defence policies. At the very least, the space available to us for doing so will increase if public sentiment is onboard, and there is no better time to create that space than now.
What one can say for sure is that prior to October 10, there was no Malala Yousufzai as a rallying point, a galvanizing force around which action could materialize.