There are moments in a nation’s history where the line between right and wrong, good and evil, asset and liability becomes very stark. It is seldom that these moments are able to have a lasting impression on a nation’s psyche and change behavioral patterns permanently and irreversibly. These chances don’t come by every day. And if we don’t grab them when they do, we are relegated to the same failed destiny that we try and convince ourselves every day is not our real, natural trajectory.
Nations can be built on lofty goals, as indeed Pakistan was. Nations can achieve great heights, as indeed Pakistan briefly did. But in today’s world, nations are defined by what they are in the now. And today, as a Pakistani, as a woman, as a citizen, I feel shame, anger, frustration, unbelief, and a deep sense of being wronged and having failed our children.
Although nothing can compare to the utter shock and despair that we experienced as a nation on Dec. 16, I can recall two events from the recent past that seemed at first to shake us out of our indifference, but fell short of changing our course. The first was the Siachen avalanche that martyred 129 Pakistani troops and 11 civilians in April 2012, the second was Malala Yousafzai’s shooting that October.
In Malala’s case, after the Taliban shot her and two of her classmates in Swat, Pakistan paused for a mere moment to reflect but then quickly fell for conspiracy theories and lapsed into ambivalence. As the news of the Siachen avalanche swept through the country, television screens quickly filled with endless accounts of mothers, fathers, sisters, and widows saying they were willing to sacrifice even more for the sake of this nation. I remember having sleepless nights as foreign minister thinking to myself: Is it fair to ask for such sacrifices? Is it fair to expose our soldiers to the vagaries of nature at 22,000 feet above sea level? Could we have intensified diplomatic efforts to solve the Siachen dispute a few months, years or even decades back? It was not enemy fire that martyred our soldiers, it was extreme weather conditions that we had exposed them to, and it seemed that this calamity was, at least in part, self-inflicted. It was unjustifiable not to change course from thereon.
What happened at the Army Public School in Peshawar was senseless and barbaric. Can we draw life-changing lessons from the bloodbath? Can we keep the 134 young children slaughtered by the Taliban that morning from becoming mere statistics in the “war on terror”? Through our resolve and determination, can we prove to their inconsolable mothers that their sacrifice had meaning, that their blood has given life to a Pakistan where children can be children and peacefully grow into old age? The question is: Will the memory, this haunting, numbing memory, change our course of action permanently and irreversibly?
By refusing to seize opportunity for consensus and resolve from our endless stream of terror tragedies, we dishonor those who have been killed and we dishonor their devastated families. We fail ourselves, and what’s worse, we fail our children.
There are many different definitions of a state. The one that is most encompassing declares a state to be “a hierarchical, centralized organization that holds a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory.” If Pakistan is to become a functional state, its monopoly over the use of force has to be reestablished without negotiation. There must be zero tolerance for anyone outside or inside the country—in the streets of Karachi, in the tribal hinterlands, in the deserts of Balochistan—to use violence against any policeman, soldier, polio vaccinator, man, woman, child. The state has to become the sole legitimate wielder of force. Our police, paramilitary and military forces have to be properly and adequately equipped, trained, resourced, paid well, and protected. This has to be done faster than anything we have done, before tragedies of Peshawar’s magnitude become commonplace.
The legal framework required to implicate, arrest, try, convict and execute people who resort to terrorism is one of the most important, glaring missing links in Pakistan’s fight against the scourge. Existing laws need to be toughened. If they still fall short, new laws must be enacted. It is the duty of all political forces represented in Parliament today to deliver this in days—not in weeks, months or years—and it is the duty of the state to provide protection to witnesses, judges, executioners and others in the law-enforcement system so that these personnel can do their jobs without fear.
The intelligence architecture of this country is archaic. It took 11 days after 9/11 for the head of the Department of Homeland Security to be appointed in the United States. This new office coordinated and oversaw a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the U.S. against terrorism and prevent and respond to any future attacks. By November 2002, the U.S. Congress legislated to combine 22 different federal departments and agencies into a unified, integrated cabinet agency. In Pakistan, after almost 50,000 people dead, we still feel no great urgency to really reform and reequip the bedrock of our security apparatus. After Peshawar, we cannot afford to suffer any more excuses or sacred cows; Pakistan’s intelligence architecture has to work as a whole. And Pakistan’s national-security policy has to be clearly chalked out, owned by all political forces, and delivered by all institutions of the state.
We must also brook no compromise on controlling, managing and securing our borders. Pakistan and Afghanistan are two distinct, sovereign countries. Kabul remains the most important capital for Pakistan—this was emphasized through words and policy during the Pakistan Peoples Party’s tenure in government when we did whatever we could on the economic, political and security fronts to assist Afghanistan and to build trust. It is undeniably in Pakistan’s national interest that traders, visitors, peaceful citizens pass through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with proper documentation, but seamlessly. It is also in Pakistan’s interest that terrorists, criminals, smugglers find it impossible to pass this border unchecked. Thus, it is vitally important for Pakistan and Afghanistan that their shared 2,500-kilometer border is managed like a real border.
While some immediate steps that came out of the post-Peshawar all-parties conference called by the prime minister are encouraging, such as the end to the moratorium on capital punishment for terror convicts, we cannot afford to look at these immediate steps as the answer to our long-term woes. While these are necessary steps, they are certainly not enough to ensure that Pakistani citizens are protected from the toxic mindset that is eating away at the future of our children. Madrassahs of all types have been allowed to flourish and proliferate in this country for far too long. Forget going into the deep rural belts of South Punjab, the madrassah population has increased exponentially even in the federal capital, Islamabad, right under the nose of the state and security apparatus. We need to make sure that there is an end to this. Madrassahs require regulation, it is critical they impart the real, peaceful teachings of Islam alongside empirical education. If they are unable or unwilling to do this, they must be closed down.
We have been unable to disabuse and dissuade several countries from using Pakistan for their proxy wars. We must show zero tolerance toward this. While in office, I broached this subject with many of my relevant counterparts. Their stock response was that they could do little to control private parties in their country from funneling funds to private institutions in Pakistan. The Pakistani state must now equip itself to stop all funding from all foreign sources, private or public, that is going to support organizations and institutions polluting young minds with hatred for different sects of Islam. Pakistani soil, space, children and “fighters” have no role in these proxy wars. We have to ensure that we do not allow countries to outsource their dirty business to our land.
We will also have to not only contract but completely close the space that terrorism apologists get in our media. We must shun and shame media persons, analysts, politicians and scholars who attempt to justify savagery in the name of Islam. Pakistan’s media likes to claim its space as the fourth organ of the state; the media must now take its responsibility as the fourth organ seriously and give no airtime to spokesmen of banned organizations and militant groups. After Peshawar, the media regulator’s role has never been more critical.
It is also true that the real face of terror was unleashed on Pakistan after the international coalition’s advent in Afghanistan post-9/11 and the use of many highly controversial tools of war, including drone strikes. All of this gave ideological space to terrorists to function with impunity, and as foreign minister, I took up this issue with the U.S. Today, Pakistan needs to concentrate on disabusing all elements who challenge the state’s monopoly on the use of force rather than to delve into justifications for terrorist actions.
Pakistan must also disassociate itself from any proxy wars or military adventures within the region or in faraway lands. We have too much to take care of within our own territory to get embroiled in distant or nearby wars. Our singular priority must be to cleanse our society from the elements who have unleashed terror on us.
If we allow this moment to pass us by, without shaking our complacency, without changing the course we have imposed on this country, we will be left with nothing except excuses for why Pakistan digressed so far from its real potential. We will argue, give different analogies, and squabble over who caused more damage and who was more at fault—the politicians, the military, the bureaucracy, the clergy, the people of Pakistan, and now, somehow maybe even the children.
Pakistan needs ownership today. We all need to do our bit, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly, if we are to leave our children a Pakistan that comes close to resembling the country Jinnah fought for and Iqbal craved in his poetry. We must reclaim and take back, once and for all, our Pakistan from the merchants of hate and mass murder. This is the only way forward, not sitting on one’s hands and finding perverted solace in blame games. This is the least that we owe our children.