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Pakistan's War on Terror: At the expense of liberty Open in fullscreen

Farhad Mirza

Pakistan's War on Terror: At the expense of liberty

Pakistan has been fighting a bitter war against militant groups [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 May, 2016

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Pakistan may have been commended for its ongoing fight against terrorism, but to what extent have these so-called gains been made, asks Farhad Mirza.
For almost over a year, Pakistan has been fighting a bitter war against militant groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

We do not know much about this military operation because it is shrouded in secrecy but to the naked eye, it seems to be working. 

There has been a precipitous drop in terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil and for most citizens, this is a much needed relief from the relentless onslaught of a decade-long religious militancy that brought the country to its knees. 

As a result, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif has become a rather popular man, cutting a strong figure that easily dwarfs the popularity of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He is now touted to head the Saudi-led coalition of Islamic countries against terrorism. 

Credited with preserving Pakistan's fragile democracy, defeating the Taliban, securing economic stability and designing Pakistan's "Liberal Dawn", he seems like a promising choice for the job. However, his legacy casts a rather dark shadow when observed from the less privileged ranks of Pakistani society. 

Pakistan has been lauded in the West for its renewed stance against terrorism, its ostensible resolve to tackle extremism and its initiative to protect women, but in a flurry of excitement and optimism, little attention has been paid to the process through which these so-called gains have been made. As always, the devil is in the detail. 
Pakistan has been lauded in the West for its renewed stance against terrorism, its ostensible resolve to tackle extremism and its initiative to protect women, but in a flurry of excitement and optimism, little attention has been paid to the process through which these so-called gains have been made
Where before, Pakistan's attempts at using homegrown terrorism to leverage gains from the US culminated in a tremendous human cost, citizens now face the threat of the country's double-edged anti-terrorism laws, which are used regularly in order to silence rights activists. Civil liberties of ordinary citizens are threatened the same as before, though the instrument of repression has changed. 

As I write this, nearly 4,000 protesters have been booked under anti-terrorism laws in the district of Okara. The military owns huge swathes of land in Okara, employing local farmers to work on its commercial enterprises. It also has other interests that span the length and width of the country. It fills its pockets by monopolising highly speculative housing markets, development projects and lucrative commercial farms run by local peasants and farmers. 

As the joke goes, Pakistanis are mere tenants who lease the country from their military. Thus, these protesters, mostly farmers and peasants, are facing the wrath of a military that wants to make an example out of them. 

Protesters have been confronted with tanks (that is right, tanks). Journalists have been harassed, and protest leaders have been pre-emptively arrested and tortured.

To add insult to injury, the authorities have charged the protesters under the same laws that have brought known terrorists and murderers to the gallows, citing scuffle with police personnel as a legally binding definition of terrorism.

Clearly, these laws need to establish a well-defined criterion that can distinguish between activists and terrorists. 
Protesters have been confronted with tanks. Journalists have been harassed, and protest leaders have been pre-emptively arrested and tortured
The apparent political synthesis between the government and its institutions can be explained, in part, by the conditions set in a multi-billion dollar economic deal between Pakistan and China.

Pakistan is ready to impale any political pluralism that would threaten the stability of the country or get in the way of this deal. By blurring the distinctions between terrorist and activist, Pakistan is deploying its anti-terrorism laws as a disciplinary economic strategy rather than an ideological confrontation with the extremist mindset. 

In spite of the military operations, the death penalty, the secret military courts and in spite of National Action Plan (Pakistan’s version of the Patriot Act) that makes every civilian – without justification – a terror suspect in the eyes of the military, terrorism still seeps into the daily lives of some citizens. And these breaches and failures are particularly telling of who matters in Pakistan and who does not. 

Last month, a bomb blast ripped through Easter celebrations in a public park in Lahore, killing over 70 people, mostly children. A public park is one of the only recreational spaces available to underprivileged minorities, and despite the fact that Christians are routinely targeted by the Taliban, no adequate security was provided for this congregation. 

The government responded by dismissing its responsibility, calling the victims "soft targets" – their mass murder a sign of the state's strength, rather than its weakness.

This attack, we were told, was the last desperate, dying breath of a shattered insurgency. Just the same as the last one, when the Taliban unleashed a bloodbath at a university near Peshawar, killing scores of young students. And before that, when more than 140 children were massacred in a military school in December, 2014.

Pakistanis are cajoled into thinking that "the soft targets" have become softer. It is not the army schools anymore. It is not the airports. It is not the universities. It is public parks. 
Pakistanis are cajoled into thinking that 'the soft targets' have become softer. It is not the army schools anymore. It is not the airports. It is not the universities. It is public parks
The very next day, the government reasserted its strength in an odd and contradictory way.

It patiently tolerated a violent protest, organised by extremist groups who descended upon the capital, demanding the death of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

The army was called in, but no protest leaders were arrested. The government assured them that Pakistan's notorious Blasphemy Laws will remain untouched. The protesters went back home, patting themselves on the back. They did not have to confront tanks, they did not have to be humiliated. 

Sadly, those who seek more egalitarian land reforms are not treated with the same dignity and respect.

As a media blackout drowns out the voices of Okara farmers, Raheel Sharif has wooed the nation with yet another pageantry side-show.

Just as the prime minister was implicated in the Panama Papers, Raheel Sharif dismissed 12 military personnel for their involvement in a corruption scandal, presenting himself as a man of honour; the good man, the better man.

In Pakistan, access to political power is often limited to members of wealthy political clans or extremist religious groups.
In Pakistan, access to political power is often limited to members of wealthy political clans or extremist religious groups
The way things are unfolding shows that the war on terror cannot be left completely in the hands of a state that re-enacts it for its own purposes.

While it would be foolish to denounce all military efforts as counter-productive, it is worth pointing out that Pakistan's war on terror has made short term gains by redesigning the country's authoritarian institutions, rather than defanging them. 

For these short term gains to hold water, the military will have to stop functioning as a parallel state, dishing out death sentences behind closed doors and using anti-terror laws to silence activists. 

The fight against terrorism, be it in Pakistan or elsewhere, is a fight that needs to be fought along all echelons of society. It has to be fought in the parliament, the universities, schools, farms and parks.

By impaling political pluralism, Pakistan is promoting the exclusion of minorities, fostering anti-democratic aspirations amongst its population, and denying its dead children a future in the history of the country.

It is about time that policy-makers in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan face up this reality. 


Farhad Mirza is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. He writes for various publications about social justice, migration and urban culture. You can follow him on twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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