Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Peshawar School Massacre


Maryam Sakeenah

The Peshawar school attack is an enormity that confounds the senses. It does not help however, to dismiss the people who committed this foul atrocity as ‘inhuman’, or to say they were not really Muslims. It is a convenient fiction that implies a most frustrating unwillingness and inability to understand how human beings are dehumanized and desensitized so they commit such dastardly acts under the moral cover of a perverted religiosity.

This unwillingness and inability to understand is deeply distressing because it shows how far away we are from even identifying what went wrong, and where- and hence, how far we are from any solution.

The international media has reflected- not surprisingly- a ludicrously shallow grasp of the issues in Pakistan. The CNN (and other channels) repeatedly portrayed the incident as ‘an attack on children for wanting to get an education. ’ In fact, the UK Prime Minister himself tweeted: “The news from Pakistan is deeply shocking. It's horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.” This reeks of how the media’s portrayal Malala’s story has shaped a rather inaccurate narrative on Pakistan. 

Years ago shortly after 9/11, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer had lamented Western politicians’ dim-witted understanding of terrorism and the motives behind it. Scheuer highlighted how dishonestly and dangerously Western leaders portrayed that the terrorists were ‘Against Our Way of Life’; that they were angry over the West’s progress as some deranged barbarians battling a superior civilization out of rank hatred. This rhetoric from Western politicians and the media ideologized terrorism and eclipsed the fact that terror tactics were actually a reaction to rapacious wars in Muslim (and other) lands often waged or sponsored by Western governments. It diverted focus from the heart of the problem and created a misleading and dangerous narrative of ‘Us versus Them’, setting global politics on a terrible ‘Clash of civilizations’ course.   

Today, I remembered Scheuer again, browsing through responses to the Peshawar tragedy both on local social media as well as from people in positions of power- most reflected a facile understanding of the motives of terrorism. Scheuer had said that this misunderstanding of the motives and objectives of terrorism was making us fail to deal with it effectively.

Explaining his motive behind the attack, the Taliban spokesman Umar Khorasani states: "We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel the pain." Certainly, this is twisted and unacceptable logic. What is most outrageous is his attempt to give religious justification to it by twisting religious texts. The leadership of the TTP is guilty of a criminal abuse of religious sources to legitimize its vile motives and sell it to their conservative Pashtun following who are on the receiving end of Pakistan’s military offensive in the tribal areas. The TTP leaders have hands drenched in innocent blood. Even the Afghan Taliban have rejected the use and justification of such means by the TTP as unacceptable by any standards in an official statement.

But I wonder at those human beings chanting Arabic religious expressions who blew themselves up for the ‘glorious cause’ of taking revenge from innocent unsuspecting school children. I wonder how they had gone so terribly wrong in their humanity, their faith.  Certainly, they were taken in with the TTP’s malevolent ideological justification for the rank brutality they committed. They perceived their miserable lives had no intrinsic worth except in being given up to exact vengeance.

I understood too when I heard a victim student in pain, vowing revenge. ‘I will grow up and make their coming generations learn a lesson’, he said. In that line, I understood so much about the psychology of victimhood and the innate need for avenging wrongdoing.

The problem with the public perception of the war in Pakistan is that we see only part of it: we see the heartrending images from Peshawar and elsewhere in the urban centres where terrorists have struck. But there is a war that we do not see in the tribal north. The familiar images we see from the war divide the Pakistani victims of this war into Edward Herman’s ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims- both, however, are innocent. But because some victims are unworthier than others, the unworthy victim claims worth to his condemned life in dying, misled into thinking that death by killing others can be a vindication.  

And sometimes the ones we are not allowed to see, make themselves visible in horrible, ugly ways; they become deafeningly loud to claim notice. And in the process, they make other victims- our own flesh and blood... And so it is our bloody burden to bear for fighting a war that was not ours, which has come to haunt us as our own.

The work of some independent journalists has highlighted the war we do not see in Waziristan- their work, however, has not made it to mainstream news. Such work has brought to light enormous ‘collateral damage’ figures. Some independent journalists have also focused on the plight of IDPs who feel alienated and forgotten by the Pakistani state and nation.  It must be noted, however, that there is no access to the media in the areas where the army’s operation is going on. The news we get from the war zone is solely through the Pakistan Army- there is, hence, absolutely no counternarrative from Waziristan. And hence our one-sided vision eludes a genuine understanding.

This unwillingness and inability to understand reflects in our uninsightful militarist approach to the problem in Waziristan which flies in the face of history, refusing to learn its lessons. We cannot do more of the same that created this monster, in order to eliminate it. The TTP emerged as a much more brutal and militant force than the original Taliban movement as a result of Pakistan’s disastrous decision to support the US in Afghanistan and send its forces in the tribal areas to stop support for the Afghan resistance from Pakistan. This made the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes turn their guns against the Pakistan army and state. Religious edicts were given by local imams and muftis to legitimize the tribesmen’s war against Pakistan. Foreign actors in the region capitalized on this to destabilize the country, setting up channels of support, training and funding to the TTP. In my understanding, continuing more of the same policies that created the problem will only bring us more misery. 

A militarist approach, instead of eliminating the Taliban, has created the even more brutal TTP. Just like Al Qaeda gave way to the much more brutal ISIS. Even the CIA concedes in a leaked report by Matt Frankel, that this approach is inherently flawed: “Too often, high value targeting campaigns are plagued by poor intelligence, cause unnecessary collateral damage, spur retaliatory attacks, and in many cases, yield little to no positive effects on the insurgent or terrorist group being targeted. Therefore, it’s vital to understand the conditions and lessons that are more conducive to successful strategies.”

The military operation in Waziristan continues with renewed vigour as we are told by official sources, of scores of 'terrorists' eliminated. There is no way to know for sure what the umbrella term 'terrorists' comprises. Even the U.S, after successfully consigning its dirty war to Pakistan, and preparing to wrap up and quit, has decided to draw a line between the 'good' and 'bad' Taliban, and sparing those who do not directly fight: "The Pentagon spokesman explained that from January 2nd, the US policy in Afghanistan would change. “What changes fundamentally, though, is (that) … just by being a member of the Taliban doesn’t make you an automatic target,” he explained.

The series of executions to be meted out to convicted 'terrorists' shows how we, like the enemy we wish to fight, have to believe in blind 'justice' that keeps the violence going in a frenzied vicious cycle. We too, as a nation, are baying for bloody vengeance, unaware of the consequences. The problem is that many of these convicts were juveniles when they committed the crime, brainwashed and swayed by passions. Many. as human rights organizations have pointed out (particularly in the case of Shafqat Hussain), had confessions extracted through torture. They were begging for mercy at the time of convictions... these were the small fry, while the big fish have escaped the noose. So many high profile murderers and criminals go scot free, whereas these brainwashed juvenile offenders from an ethnic minority, a disadvantaged background are picked out selctively for 'justice.' What about the organizations and individuals behind these? Those who fund and train and misguide and abuse? Selective justice is injustice. 

While the necessity of using military means to combat a real and present danger is understood, the need for it to be backed by sound intelligence, precisely targeted, limited in scope and time, and planned to eliminate or at least substantively minimize collateral damage is equally important. Any counter terrorism strategy must be acquainted with the fact that the TTP’s structure is highly decentralized, with an ability to replace lost leaders.  Besides, the need to efficiently manage the fallout of such an operation and rehabilitate affectees cannot be overemphasized. On all these counts, we need to have done more.

The most vital understanding is that military operations are never the enduring solution. Pakistan’s sophisticated intelligence machinery needs to trace the channels of support to terrorists and exterminate these well-entrenched, clandestine networks.  Moreover, the bigger, deeper problems have to be dealt with through a wider, more insightful non-military approach: combating extremist discourse that misuses religion to justify terrorism and creating an effective counter discourse; listening and understanding, dialogue, mutual compromise and reconciliation; rehabilitation and peacebuilding. There are numerous examples in the past- even the recent past- of how war-ravaged communities drenched in the memory of oppression and pain, seething with unrelenting hate, have undertaken peacebuilding with some success. There have been temporary respites in this war in Pakistan whenever the two sides agreed to a ceasefire. That spirit ought to have lasted.

 I understand that this sounds unreasonable on the backdrop of the recent atrocity, but there is no other way to stem this bloody tide. Retributive justice using force will prolong the violence and make more victims. In a brilliant article by Dilly Hussain in Huffington Post, the writer states: There has to be a conjoined effort towards a political solution uncontaminated of American interference, and an aim to return to the stability prior to the invasion of Afghanistan. A ceasefire which will protect Pakistan from further destabilisation and safeguard it from the preying eyes of external powers is imperative. An all-out war of extermination against TTP will only prolong the costly 'tit-for-tat' warfare that has weakened Pakistan since the US-led war on terror.”

Since religion is often appealed to in this conflict, its role in peacebuilding has to be explored and made the best of. To break this vicious, insane cycle, there has to be a revival of the spirit of ‘Ihsan’ for a collective healing- that is, not indiscriminate and unrelenting retributive justice but wilful, voluntary forgiveness (other than for the direct, unrepentant and most malafide perpetrators). This must be followed by long-term, systematic peacebuilding, rehabilitation and development in Pakistan’s war-ravaged tribal belt in particular and the entire nation in general. Such peacebuilding will involve religious scholars, educators, journalists, social workers and other professionals. Unreasonable as it may sound, it is perhaps the only enduring strategy to mend and heal and rebuild. The spirit of ‘Ihsan’ has tremendous potential to salvage us, and has to be demonstrated from both sides. But because the state is the grander agency, its initiative in this regard is instrumental as a positive overture to the aggrieved party.

But this understanding seems to have been lost in the frenzy, just when it was needed most pressingly.  I shudder to think what consequences a failure to understand this vital point can bring. The Pakistani nation has already paid an enormously heavy price.