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Can Pakistan seize the Malala moment?

Sushant SinghWhat more can be said about Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Taliban militants last week? Courage personified, she was shot for bravely advocating education for girls. Pakistanis rose in outrage against the shooting and strong words of support have poured in from all over the world.

Many Pakistanis see parallels with their outrage over a March 2009 video of a woman in Swat being flogged by the Taliban. It supposedly generated the popular backing Pakistan army needed to launch a military offensive in Swat. Can Pakistan seize this moment to launch an all-out offensive against the jehadis? No, highly unlikely.

Pak soldiers carry injured Malala Yousafzai to an army hospital
Mindless: Pak soldiers carry injured Malala Yousafzai to an army hospital following an attack on her by gunmen in Peshawar last week. Pic/AFP

While most Pakistanis (ignoring the ‘CIA conspiracy’ theorists) have rushed to condemn her shooting, they have also linked it to the US-led drone strikes in tribal areas of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the charged emotions over CIA-operated drones in Pakistani airspace, the attack on Malala has nothing to do with drone strikes. In fact, while claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan declared that Malala’s support for schooling of girls was “a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter”.

When Mullah Radio’s Taliban took control of Swat in 2007 — later entering into a ‘Shariah agreement’ with the government — they banned girls from attending school. They declared women’s education to be anti-Islamic and destroyed more than 200 schools in the region. Malala’s class, which had 34 girl students, was left with only 10.

It then makes little sense to blame the US. But in Pakistan’s parliament, leaders of religious parties said that though the shooting of Malala Yousafzai should be condemned, it is US meddling in the region that turns law-abiding Pakistanis into radicals. It is not just the religious parties, no mainstream political party has openly named the Taliban in its condemnation of the attack. Contrary to what Pakistani elite would like us to believe, there is no mainstream constituency for ‘secularism and enlightened moderation’ in Pakistan.

Then there are the Islamic clerics. During Friday prayers at Islamabad’s Red Mosque — its seize in 2007 led to Musharraf’s downfall — the Imam belittled Malala for admiring President Obama. “All the media is showing is the bleeding head of this child. Why don’t they show the dead bodies torn apart in drone attacks?”, the Imam said in his sermon. This stance is reminiscent of the clerics’ reaction last year following the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had questioned the blasphemy law. These clerics had then led thousands of demonstrators eulogising the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, with chants of “Qadri, teri jurrat ko salaam!”

Pakistan has allowed jehadi groups to become a surrogate for an absent government. From Jamaat-ud-Dawa to Lashkar-e-Janghvi, ‘banned’ organisations have replaced the government in providing education and healthcare to the masses. Patronised by Pakistani army and intelligence agencies, they have now grown so powerful that no security agency can take them on. It is no secret that all political parties now actively seek their support during elections.

Many Pakistanis dismiss religious extremism as a problem confined only to the tribal areas. That’s not true. From jehadi groups in Southern Punjab to a full-blown insurgency in Baluchistan to sectarian violence in Karachi, violent extremism now grips the whole country.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is trying to milk the incident to show that it is a victim of terror from Afghan soil. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, Pakistan’s foreign minister highlighted that NATO forces have failed to control Maulana Fazlullah, who operates from safe havens in Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan. He established these safe havens after fleeing from Swat in 2009. His followers have been blamed for attacks on Pakistani soldiers in Dir and Chitral districts.

Finally, the most powerful man in Pakistan, General Kayani has come out with a strong condemnation of the attack, vowing to fight terror “regardless of the cost”. But this vow won’t extend to Waziristan. Swat is not Waziristan. Former has the ‘bad’ Taliban while latter has the ‘good’ Taliban. Moreover, Pakistan army is proud of its successful counterinsurgency operations in Swat. It has showcased its success in Swat to the foreign media. Because the attack on Malala Yousafzai distorts Rawalpindi’s carefully crafted narrative, the generals have taken it as an affront.

Whether due to decrepitude, fear, complicity or sympathy, Pakistan army, society and the state can no longer do what is right and necessary. And that includes seizing this moment to take on the jehadis.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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