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Pakistani Taliban Are on the Run and Leaving Destruction in Their Wake

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 30/03/2016 Mosharraf Zaidi

ISLAMABAD -- On Easter Sunday, terrorists from the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar wing of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan conducted a devastating suicide attack in a park in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and the hometown of its prime minister. At least 70 people have died so far, including at least 29 children. The park was unusually crowded because in addition to the Sunday rush, many Christian families were there celebrating Easter.
While the bodies were still being counted in Lahore, a protest march in the capital city, Islamabad, became violent, and arsonists ran amok in front of the Parliament building. The devastation in Lahore and the mayhem in Islamabad are stark reminders of the tortuous and long road this country must travel before it can declare victory against violent extremism.
Ever since the horrific terrorist slaughter of over 130 school children in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistanis like myself have been admiring the difficult decisions our country has made. Within days of the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan expanded the military's Zarb-e-Azb operation in the badlands on its border with Afghanistan -- something American officials had been pleading with Islamabad to do for years. A moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, and dozens of death row convicts were hung. Big-name terrorists, like the notorious Malik Ishaq of the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group ended up being killed in a "police encounter."

The slaughter of children in Peshawar was the straw that broke the back of Pakistani endurance for the bloodlust of terrorists.

A series of operations were also initiated against criminal gangs and political Mafiosi. Save the odd political complainant and the admirable efforts of human rights activists, the people of Pakistan have been essentially in lockstep with the government and especially the powerful military. The reason is simple. In the last decade, Pakistan has lost 50,000 lives to terrorist violence. The slaughter of children in Peshawar in December 2014 was the straw that broke the back of Pakistani endurance for the bloodlust of terrorists.
The government's actions to kill terrorists in military operations and to try the terrorists that it captures in military courts have been accompanied by a reasonably competent showing on other fronts too. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif survived a strong challenge from opposition parties in 2014 and since then has managed to sustain an effort to improve relations between Pakistan and India, despite domestic opposition from hawks, especially inside the military. He has also stabilized a perennially underperforming economy. Most surprisingly of all, he has articulated a clear and bold approach to governance in recent months that privileges issues like pluralism and universal health care in a way that many, even in his own party, have found surprising (and refreshing).
The twin impact of military operations on the one hand and better economic performance on the other has had a buoyant effect on the national mood. Yet if there is one takeaway from Sunday's park bombing in Lahore and violent protests in Islamabad, it is that Pakistan can ill afford even a hint of complacency.
child to the hospital in lahore © Provided by The Huffington Post child to the hospital in lahore
A Pakistani family brings an injured child to the hospital in Lahore on March 27. (ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the late 1970s, when Pakistan chose to align itself with the American effort to resist Soviet expansion in Afghanistan, the Pakistani elite has incubated an inorganic religious discourse that -- though originally meant to help fight the Communists -- has now produced a multi-denominational, multi-aspirational and multinational coalition of violent extremists. This Frankenstein has been misdiagnosed with alarming regularity and has now grown, almost three decades after the Soviet tanks rolled out of Afghanistan, into a complex beast that will require an intergenerational effort to contain and neutralize.
One of the principal challenges in this intergenerational effort will be to distinguish between the kinetic fight that the state, principally the Army and intelligence services, will have to fight, and the broader, longer, more arduous, non-kinetic struggle that will need to be fought by politicians, policemen, bureaucrats, scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers, paramedics, engineers, architects, writers, musicians and artists. In short, Pakistan will have to be able to discern which fights require guns and bullets - and which fights can only be fought through conversation, persuasion and the construction of a society in which all citizens feel like they are stakeholders.
There are constant potholes and speed bumps on this road. Before the full list of the victims of the Easter Sunday terror attack could be compiled, the Army launched yet another military operation, this time in South Punjab. Within hours, the Army spokesperson, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa announced that large caches of illicit arms had been recovered. No one is surprised. South Punjab has been seething for years. Many enclaves within the region represent an unmolested cauldron of violent extremist. Yet for years, the refrain of "fear of blowback" kept the prospect of kinetic actions in that region a distant possibility. Just like the Peshawar attack triggered nationwide kinetic actions, the Lahore carnage seems to have triggered the same in South Punjab.

Many of us in Pakistan believe that the terrorists' depravity is fueled by the desperation of knowing that their space is shrinking.

The question is what happens next. Since Peshawar, the terrorists have certainly been on the run and leaving behind a trail of destruction in their wake. Mosques, churches, schools, universities and now parks. Nothing seems off limits. Many of us in Pakistan believe that their depravity is fueled by the desperation of knowing that their space is shrinking.
Yet the stench of burning cars and the sight of shattered glass at the metro stations destroyed by rioting protestors in Islamabad is enough evidence for us to check our confidence. The protest in Islamabad was in honor of Mumtaz Qadri, the convicted and self-confessed security guard who assassinated the governor of Punjab, the country's largest province. For many in the country, Qadri is a hero because his victim was perceived to have challenged the country's blasphemy law. The protestors took over the square directly in front of the Parliament building and remained there for three days, leaving only when the government offered them some face-saving concessions. Cell phone services in the capital city have been suspended for almost two days.
A military or police operation against known terrorist groups may be easier than getting a crowd of over a thousand angry protestors to go home without shooting a single bullet. A well-funded and highly professional army in Pakistan will not struggle with kinetic actions. But an underfunded and unprofessional police and bureaucracy will struggle mightily with the kind of protestors that lit up Islamabad while we were still counting bodies from the carnage in Lahore.
Pakistan's long war has only just begun. And it will not be won with guns or bullets alone.


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