Holding the government and army accountable
On December 18th, when news first broke that Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a top leader of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and accused mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks, was going to be released on bail, frenzy ensued. The Indian media exploded, and was quick to compare this development with the Indian show of unity with Pakistan following the Peshawar massacre; pundits denounced it as a case of the same old.
However, something else happened on December 18th. The news quickly went viral on Facebook and Twitter and Pakistanis across the country, as well as overseas, were quick to respond and express rage and disbelief. Many tweeted directly at the Pakistan Army’s PR account to demand an answer. Soon enough, the government announced that the bail decision was a “technical error” and vowed to appeal. Within 24 hours, before he could be let out, Lakhvi was rebooked.
The Pakistan government and army’s response to the Peshawar massacre has been palpable and swift thus far. However, it should not give us rest and cause for unbridled optimism. Pakistan is not new to unspeakable tragedy, even though the sheer scale and monstrosity of this one is unprecedented, and we are definitely not new to promises of change.
That said, Peshawar has given the Pakistani civil society an extraordinary platform to unite on. While we are united in grief, millions of Pakistanis have also crossed political and ethnic barriers to unite in calling for action against the fundamentalist hate machine that has operated freely for so long, often under military tutelage. This time, the anger is also unforgiving of the different shades of fundamentalism – known hate-mongers like Hafiz Saeed who have collaborated with the army in the past and focused their efforts against foreign countries or marginalised minorities within Pakistan have also come under fire.
The media has followed this trend and kept up with powerful reporting, carefully recounting the violent history of each extremist organisation now denouncing the Peshawar attack. A recent Reuters story analysed organisation by organisation that had denounced the attacks listing their own atrocities against innocent civilians, clearly demonstrating the hypocrisy in play.
In order for something lasting and positive to come out of the unspeakable horrors in Peshawar, it is absolutely imperative for the people of Pakistan to keep up this momentum and their own involvement. They cannot, like they have in the past, leave it all up to the government and the army, and go on with their lives. They need to keep reading the news; they need to continue to closely monitor every development; they need to raise questions as they did in the Lakhvi bail drama; wherever there is ambiguity or straight out inexplicable behaviour demonstrated by the authorities. In short, we need to keep holding both the government and the army accountable in the long run and not be swayed by a few positive actions.
It is also important to question, despite the government’s rebooking of Lakhvi, what happened that made bail possible in the first place for a dangerous, known criminal accused of plotting mass murder. It points to many systemic problems with the anti-terrorism courts in Pakistan, not the least of which is the constant harassment faced by the judges. ATC judges have resigned or refused to hear cases of the likes of Lakhvi in the past and it is impossible that this judge’s action was just a random error of judgment. These judges are under tremendous pressure, and it is the government’s first and foremost duty to give them the protection and independence that they sorely need.
The second issue is the fact that while Lakhvi is in jail for now, his associates like Saeed continue to roam freely, and are even seen appearing on TV, despite substantial evidence of complicity. While the prime minister has denounced the “good Taliban”, Pakistanis need to beware that it will be against the norm for the army to suddenly switch its habit of indeed making that good versus bad distinction. For decades, it has ignored the different factions of terrorist organisations that don’t specifically target its own interests in the region. That norm needs to change, but it won’t without constant hell-raising by the public whose opinion the army clearly cares about. The fact that the Pakistan Army has an extremely social media savvy public relations team is an opportunity Pakistanis must take advantage of.
Another key area where the Pakistan Army must be called out for is the usual strategy to carpet bomb Waziristan and destroying a few minions rather than tackling the masterminds (and in process killing even more innocent, nameless children). This is a costly strategy, especially in terms of soldiers’ lives, and has only caused more rage and anguish among the hapless citizens that remain in Waziristan. Wars have been won with powerful intelligence and infiltration before. Most importantly, any murderous victories claimed in Waziristan ring hollow when extremist preachers who have openly sympathised with and promoted the Taliban roam free.
The Pakistani military, as well as civilian leadership both, have a long way to go to make up for the mistakes that resulted in the Peshawar massacre. This is just the beginning. We have all failed by remaining silent or failing to empathise with the thousands others who have paid the price of our silence with their lives. Beyond thousands of innocent civilians, this long list includes journalists as well as soldiers fighting the military’s battles in the field.
We cannot let this moment of reckoning dissolve into cynicism, defeatism, or worse, false hope that our leaders will act without our constant reminders of what their negligence has cost us.
So let us keep holding the vigils, memorialising, shouting and protesting, and railing as much as we can and as long as we can. The Lal Masjid protest is a breath of fresh air and must be joined by as many as possible. This should continue until the politicians, extremist leaders, their collaborators and ambassadors, and defenders and negotiators hear us loud and clear. Let us not underestimate the power of civil society – it is the only thing that’s ever brought lasting change in civilisations.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.