By Dr Mohammad Taqi
August 08, 2013
The blame may end with the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this time but the terror won’t stop at its border with Punjab
After last week’s Dera Ismail Khan (DIK) jailbreak, the Pakistani media remained preoccupied with the election for the ceremonial office of the president, which might have gone almost unnoticed had the opposition not boycotted it. After the polls the media has found yet another distractive non-issue, thanks to the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC). The SC, which has claimed to be a ‘people’s court’, took umbrage on its erstwhile supporter Mr Imran Khan’s prickly comments about the judiciary’s role in the general elections earlier this year. Apparently the people’s court is readily offended by what people have to say.
Many in the media and the 2007-2009 judges’ restoration movement, including Mr Khan, had elevated the restored judges to the pedestal of infallibility based not on their judgments but what was a highly political — and justified — struggle. The restored judiciary became the new ‘messiah’ that was praised unquestioningly without examining its judgments — replete with ideology, religion and poetry — against the touchstone of the constitution and law. But populism cuts both ways: it can bestow as well as undermine legitimacy. Politicians can be darlings of the people one day and pariahs the next. Judges, however, cannot afford to expose themselves to public praise or pressure like that. Constitutional courts serve the nation better when they confine themselves to within the four corners of the law and steer clear of demagogy.
The nation on its part should look no further than the army to know that such self-appointed holy cows are not infallible and allowing them a monopoly over the national interest narrative can have disastrous consequences. The country’s armed forces have a long history of unchallenged control over the national security policy and practice even when civilians have ruled nominally. The list of misadventures in the name of a national security doctrine anchored in ideology is equally long.
The Dear Ismail Khan (DIK) jailbreak is yet another such debacle. The abject dysfunction of the state machinery, especially the security apparatus, stands exposed once again. The Pakistani state’s response to the spectacular attack of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) on the prison, in which they freed about 250 of their cohorts, including potential suicide bombers, was at best abysmal. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and the Pakistan army have blamed one another. But there is enough blame to go all around.
While the brazen attack was still underway, the PTI’s provincial information minister Mr Shaukat Yousufzai was claiming that all was well and no prisoners had escaped. The PTI chief Mr Imran Khan then blamed the previous Awami National Party government for the security lapses, while his chief minister Mr Pervez Khattak was initially not heard from. Just as the intelligence agencies’ ability to detect and intercept the TTP plan was being questioned, reports in the media started appearing about the intelligence agencies tipping off the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government a few days before the assault. While there was no official press release from the armed forces, the wording in some op-eds and that of some television anchors defending the armed forces’ position was remarkably similar. The humiliating jailbreak was being thrown in the PTI’s lap.
DIK, like many other cities, has a sprawling cantonment with a massive army presence. Also, the routes between DIK and the frontier regions and the tribal areas have several checkpoints, which the terrorists apparently had no difficulty in crossing. While the three-hour long encounter was being reported around the world, the DIK-based army units either did not get a whiff of it, were not equipped to respond, or just did not bother to move. The miserable response of the security forces to the specific jailbreak threat and after-the-fact hyperactivity with red alerts after picking up nonspecific chatter earlier this week does not inspire much confidence.
Mr Khattak has now revealed to the media that he indeed had contacted the military authorities ahead of the attack and the army and elite police both had been deployed at the prison. Mr Khattak has alleged that the military and law enforcement agencies did not resist but colluded with the TTP attackers. If true, Mr Khattak’s charges lend credence to the concerns that jihadists within the ranks of the armed forces — a consequence of decades of consorting — have facilitated jailbreaks and other attacks in the past.
The jailbreak will boost both the morale and ranks of the TTP and affiliated jihadist groups and essentially wipe out the gains made perhaps over several years. The 250 hardened criminals sprung from the prison are now on the loose and will replenish the terrorist leadership and cadres. As the DIK episode came on the heels of similar audacious jailbreaks by al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq and Africa, a link is being sought between AQ and TTP. We have argued here before that the TTP, assorted Punjabi Taliban and the Haqqani network are the AQ conglomerate in Pakistan. The AQ ‘business’ model has been to enable franchises as a force multiplier, not run them directly. The spectre of ‘core’ AQ in Pakistan is almost a red herring at this point. Similarity in timing and tactics of the attacks comes from the shared training history and ideological allegiance to the core AQ. The TTP might very well have responded to or was inspired by Ayman al-Zwahiri’s ‘destroying the walls’ jailbreak call, which was launched last year, but their gains and its fallout will be local first and foremost.
The PTI should realise that blaming past governments might be a good excuse but is bad leadership. Also, the PTI cannot expect a police force to fight the terrorists while its leaders keep insisting that the Taliban are not their enemy and it is not their war. If the PTI is still gung ho about talks it must come up with a concrete plan for that, whether it entails Mr Khan’s audience with the military brass or the Prime Minister Mr Nawaz Sharif.
The federal government on its part has been Missing In Action through the whole episode letting the PTI take all the flak. But going for optional pilgrimages when the going gets tough at home is a policy Mr Sharif may have to reconsider. The blame may end with the government of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa this time but the terror won’t stop at its border with Punjab. How soon the provincial and federal governments and the security agencies get their act together remains to be seen. In the interim Pakistan will remain prisoner of a flawed narrative while the TTP finds more jails to break.