The Islamic tradition of the barsi, or death anniversary, serves a dual purpose in Pakistan’s counterterrorism war. For one, it allows for the grief that has been suppressed to rise, and push for renewal of the commitments against terrorism. Secondly, it gives a country navigating multiple internal and external challenges the chance to mark progress in a war that seems to keep the state on its heels.
Mere weeks after the nation observed the barsi of the horrific attack at Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, the city was rocked by another Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) attack, at another school, Bacha Khan University. Four attackers killed 21 people with guns and bombs, at a school so far from the inner city that it took security forces over an hour to reach the location.
Hardline TTP commander and de-facto leader of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa operations, Umar Mansour – arguably the most hated man in Pakistan and the mastermind behind the APS incident – took responsibility for this attack. The TTP leadership, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, continues to function unabated and with a dangerous zeal. Protect your army schools, they seem to say, but we will find other targets. In order to deal with this globally-funded and boundary-less enemy, military planners will have to pursue inclusive and well-coordinated action against non-state actors that continue to cause internal hemorrhaging in Pakistan.
I went to Charsadda, just a two-hour drive from Islamabad, to see the devastation for myself. I visited the university, located on the outskirts of Peshawar. I even visited the nearest hospital, about a half hour drive away, imagining what this duration would have felt like for the dying. At the hospital lay young men, still offering boyish smiles, recounting how they had jumped out of three-story high windows to save themselves from harm. Families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues of the fallen oscillated between fury at a government that they say has unequivocally failed them, and an all-consuming grief. Their anger was raw.
We are told by political and military leadership to honor these martyrs, but how can we do so when the dead may have been unwilling to be honored this way? They were probably looking forward to going home that day, or to a future powered by the education they sought in life. I wonder what a government official would have said in my place, when a mother told me her only son would have been better off running a shop instead of pursuing an education, because that way he could at least have lived. The biggest disservice the current government’s leadership has done is to shelve the one real commitment made in the days after the APS attack.
The National Action Plan was created with buy-ins across the political and military spectrum. It promised that special trial courts, under the supervision of the army, would bring about swift and speedy justice in a manner the civilian Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) simply could not. Strict action against literature promoting hatred, sectarian violence, and intolerance would be taken. Religious seminaries would be regulated by the state, doing the vital task of bringing the most vulnerable children in society into the fold. The plan also proposed that the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) would be given the powers necessary to do its job effectively.
Yet the National Action Plan seems to have lost its teeth. Much of its mandate, still popularly supported by a war-weary public, has been neglected. That is a discouraging reality. Consider the huge price Pakistan has had to pay: some 60,000 people killed due to terrorists since 2003, not to mention the incalculable human potential lost, and an economic cost put at $107 billion. The failure of the consolidated list of steps that national institutions vowed to take to curb this terror needs to be remedied, and the original deliverables require an urgent revisit.
The past year has been a replay of a now-familiar tune: the hype of committee after sub-committee, the trumpeting of impressive, if unverifiable, numbers—numbers that all fall shamelessly flat in the face of attacks such as the suicide bombing at the Wagah border closing, attacks on minorities, on an air force base, and most recently, again in Peshawar.
The successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb are at risk of being unsustainable if the political leadership does not renew its commitment to fight this tough war. The current setup is far from promising. In an extremely shocking display of governance, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan did not visit the city or release any statement regarding the attack until January 29, when he finally reacted to criticism over the National Action Plan’s lagging implementation.
The current state of affairs leads one to wonder if Pakistan is fated to constant committee reports or political prayers for the fallen, while the relentless attacks and the increasing death toll continue to be flashed on the news.
Mohammad Hanif, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, said: “The Pakistani political and military elites are fond of reminding everyone at every opportunity that the country’s nuclear assets are safe. Could they one day make the same claim about our schoolchildren?”
This is an unsettling question in a country that is on the front lines of the war against terror. Until the leadership takes this task seriously, until it finds the will to aggressively pursue the National Action Plan and remain vigilant against an adept enemy, Pakistan will continue to observe needless barsis for the flag-draped coffins of unwilling martyrs.
Image: A Majeed-AFP, Getty