Lost opportunity

Published : Nov 16, 2012 00:00 IST

The public outrage that the shooting of Malala Yousafzai generated seems to have made even the Taliban uncomfortable. But the lack of courage and the ideological confusion of mainstream political parties have led to a significant opportunity being lost.

in Islamabad

ACROSS THE WORLD, PEOPLE ARE SIGNING UP FOR nominating 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for the next Nobel Peace Prize, an idea that was first mooted by none other than Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie. But, in her own country, the teenaged peace activistcurrently undergoing treatment in a British hospital after taking a terrorists bullet in her headis caught between two narratives: one that toasts her courage and another that casts aspersions, billing her a Western agent and going to the extent of saying that she may not even have been shot.

The targeted attack on Malala on October 9 as she returned home from school in the picturesque Swat valleyPakistans Switzerlandbrought into sharp relief the nations very own version of a clash of civilisations. Some call it the existential battle, at stake being the soul of Pakistan. The initial shock and outrage over the attack soon broke down as apologists for the terrorists agenda began raising their head, opening up the usual counter-narrative that had been silenced in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

So widespread and so unanimous was the outrage that for a while people were lulled into believing that this could well be the turning point Pakistan had been waiting for, that watershed moment when the nation would with one voice opt for zero tolerance towards terrorism. No more categorising terrorists as good Taliban and bad Taliban, no more painting terrorism as an anti-imperialistic struggle, and no more seeing terrorism solely as a byproduct of drone attacks and Pakistans partnership in the United States war on terror. Alas, the moment was short-lived as the counter-narrative gathered steam and the so-called national consensus that the powerful security establishment wants in place before launching an offensive on terrorism once again became elusive.

The military was the first to seemingly waver on the resolve initially interpreted in Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayanis we refuse to bow before terror, we will prevail statement made after checking on Malala in hospital. The military spokesman was quoted by the media as stating that a decision on an operation in North Waziristan, regarded as terror central, would have to be taken by the political leadership. The writing on the wall was clear, given that it is no secret that the security establishment has the veto on all matters relating to national security and foreign policy. For the defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, there never was any intent to launch an operation in North Waziristan to begin with. It is very unlikely that the Army will launch a military operation in North Waziristan now, just two years ahead of the NATO withdrawal, after weathering so much pressure. Why would they want to give up the leverage they think they have over the Haqqani network at this juncture? Besides, there is no indication that the security establishment has given up its policy of using terrorists as its strategic assets.

And, sure enough, over the next few days many of the agitpropsagents of street power used by the powers that be to engineer opinion in a certain directiongot activated. All of them spoke out against an operation in North Waziristan and made it look as if the Malala shooting was being used by a pro-Washington government to succumb to the U.S. agenda.

This was enough reason for political parties to chicken out, particularly with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khans Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) queering the pitch in the game-changing province of Punjab. Steadfast against drones and a military operation, the PTI has fed into the rampant anti-Americanism, making that sentiment a measure for patriotism in a country where jingoism runs high. Fearing that anti-Americanism could well be a key issue in the elections, other parties are reluctant to swim against that tide.

Add to this the fear of a blowback in case of a military operation. This was the ruling Pakistan Peoples Partys (PPP) main fear. Other parties were loath to being party to a decision that could result in retaliatory terror attacks across the country ahead of elections. Another deterrent as far as opposition parties were concerned was the apprehension that the PPP would use a military operation and the situation that emerges to delay the elections.

As a result, a bid by the PPP-led federal government to get a resolution passed in Parliament calling for action against terrorists a week after Malala was shot was aborted by the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

In the process, the policymakers let Malala down. No doubt, the entire civil and military leadership are showering platitudes on her, but when push came to shove, they did not show the collective will that one chit of a girl displayed knowing full well the risk she ran in speaking out. The various players in the policymaking structure either buckled or allowed their narrow agendas to hold sway, letting down the girl who had come to represent the hope and future of Pakistan even before she had entered her teens.

Indeed, Malala shot to fame in 2008 at the age of 11 when she began blogging for the BBC under the pseudonym Gul Makai on the travails of living in an area controlled by the Taliban. Her biggest gripe with the Taliban was its ban on girls education. Once the Taliban was pushed out of Swat, her identity was disclosed and her courage celebrated by the government and the media alike.

Today, her detractors claim Malala is a Western agent. Their accusation is based on a photograph circulating on the Internet in which she and her father are sitting with former U.S. Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke. Others claim her blog was written by someone else, totally unmindful of the fact that what mattered more than the authorship of those meanderings was that here was a girl who was willing to stand up and be counted in an area where the fear of terrorists continued to loom large even after they were pushed out physically. And her father allowed her to do so, completely aware that the fame came with a huge price tag.

In fact, Syed Irfan Ashraf, who helped produce the New York Times documentary Class Dismissed on Malala, recalls her father Ziauddins discomfiture on their life being documented in such a manner ahead of the Swat Talibans deadline for the closure of girls schools in the valley. That very outfit is today held responsible by the government for the attack on Malala though the umbrella organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility.

Ironically, even as apologists for terrorists were seeking to give a spin to the TTP action, the outfit itself was evidently feeling the heat. If anything, the TTPs subsequent actions were indicative of the organisation having its ears closer to the ground than the political parties. Signs of panic are evident in Pakistani Taliban ranks following the attack on Malala. They are clearly trying to recover from their biggest defeat on the propaganda front after the attack on the 14-year-old in Swat, wrote Muhammad Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in Dawn.

In the fortnight after the shooting, the TTP issued a handful of statements justifying its act, quoting from the scriptures on more than one occasion, and then resorting to threats to the media for the coverage given to Malalas shooting, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Clearly, an opportunity had beckoned Pakistan, but it has been lost in an ideological confusion the nation can ill afford.

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