How does it feel caught in the eye of the storm? For nearly seven years, the people of the NWFP and the adjacent tribal regions and the security forces braved bombings and terrorist attacks, laying down their lives and offering unprecedented sacrifices. That was, when terrorists had turned the NWFP and the tribal regions into killing fields, while those living further a field to the east in the Punjab and Sindh were lived a relatively unscathed life.
The lull in terrorist attacks during the February, 2008 elections and the months afterwards because of the government’s peace-overtures towards the militants, were followed by a dramatic uptick in deadly bombings that exacerbated human toll with every passing day.
Those have been one of the most difficult times in the history of the NWFP, when every new day brought in more blood and gore. Still, nobody seemed moved in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Such was the frustration that people began to seriously ask if the NWFP had been abandoned to its fate.
The irony was that while Pakistani militants spilled the blood and slit the throats of their own countrymen, our drawing room intellectuals, right wingers and armchair anchors split their hair if the war being fought in the tribal regions was Pakistan’s own.
That was rubbing salt into the wounds of those in the NWFP suffering the pain of a thousand cuts not just at hand of the militants’ brigades but also the apathy and indifference of their brethren in the rest of Pakistan.
That changed in 2009, when the military establishment finally woke up from its deep slumber to the existential challenge to the state by the aggressive and more ambitious militants menacingly setting their eye on areas across the Indus.
Swat was the turnaround followed by South Waziristan. Newton’s third law of motion says that every action generates an opposite and equal reaction. Holed up in North Waziristan and relatively smaller pockets in Orakzai, Tirah and Mohmand, the militants are now fighting their own survival war. So, it would have been naïve, if not downright stupid, on our part not to expect retaliation; and they will hit where it hurts the more: Punjab.
This, because in the militants’ own calculation; and unfortunately, it was a perception many in the NWFP had come to hold too, due to the seeming indifference to their plight in Punjab and elsewhere, that to change the course of military action, take the battle to the heartland of the military power — the Punjab.
Nor that the militants would think twice before striking anywhere in the NWFP, if an opportunity presents itself. Attacks continue across the length and breadth of the NWFP, though the scale and recurrence of these attacks have, mercifully, shown a remarkable downward trend.
So, should the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, be surprised over the outrage caused by his appeal to the Taliban to spare his province because both opposed foreign dictation? Does he still wonder, no matter what spin his advisers try to weave around his rather timid statement, why the Taliban are now choosing to hit the citadel of his power; Lahore? And was he taken aback when the military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani summoned him to Rawalpindi to give him a piece of his mind?
It took the military nearly two years, of course with the much needed crucial and critical support of the political leadership, to turn the tide against the militants by shaping up public opinion, to own this war as Pakistan’s own.
So, was Mr Sharif implying that the war that was being fought in the volatile tribal regions of South Waziristan, Bajaur, Khyber, Orakzai and other places is not Pakistan’s own and was being carried out on foreign dictations?
Did he realise what toll would his statement take of the morale of the forces fighting in some of the world’s toughest regions? Did he know how much effort it took to motivate the forces to take on an enemy that claimed to be fighting a holy war in the name of Islam?
Did he know the possible implications his statement could have, for reaching out to the militants to seek reprieve for a province that is a major contributor of manpower to the armed forces?
These are pretty serious questions and that is precisely why the controversy his statement generated refuses to die down. Statesmanship is not just about rendering Faiz Ahmad Faiz, it requires foresight as well. It was therefore, all the more ironical that this could have come from a man, which the establishment once wanted to hoist on Pakistan.
Wonder why, those who have had no love lost for the present dispensation, have now come to like them more than they liked the Sharifs for being the new saviors of the country.
But what is probably more worrying in this whole sordid affair is the ethnic dimension that terrorist incidents have assumed.
That Punjab has been in perpetual self denial about the existence of Punjabi Taliban and what is cooking in its own backyard in southern Punjab will have its own implications for Pakistan’s most populous province and by extension on the whole of the country.
But what has begun to happen does not bode well for national unity — the witch-hunt bordering on ethnic profiling after terrorist attacks in the Punjab and Sindh, when Pashtuns invariably become a suspect and is picked-up for questioning. Sadly, the electronic media cannot exonerate itself from playing up this ethnic dimension.
It is unfortunate that the militants are probably more united than our own political leadership across the broad political spectrum. Instead of seeking a common cause with the militants, the chief minister of Punjab should at least have learnt one thing from the Taliban — their unity. The Taliban may be known by their origin but when it comes to fighting an enemy, they are one, be that in Afghanistan or in Pakistan.