Monday, December 7, 2009

VIEW: Dealing with Emergent Threats

PUBLISHED IN THE POST JULY 11, 07

Is the primary threat to a sovereign state still its enemy’s military capability?

Given that the world learnt the fine art of countering, deterring and neutralizing such physical threats and also became adept at threatening each another with weapons neither one can ever use, many will concede the next big challenge for national security is the emergent threat of extremism.

The exact origin of extremism within a State is perhaps difficult to pinpoint and very hard to combat for it resides in the mind of the enemy and can take form anywhere, anytime with devastating consequences.

Which is the reason vigilance now needs to be exercised as much inside the border as at them - vigilance and prompt action. Extremism feeds on the ignorance and frustration of the common man and instills a cold contempt for human life and property. It is a worrying sign in any circumstance. It becomes especially disturbing when its followers threaten to destabilize not just one nation but the entire world order. To know if places of enlightenment serve as breeding grounds of terror is hard to do. But the States role must be crystal clear when it identifies the origin of violent ideals because if this proverbial ticking time bomb of ideas is left un-tackled, it has the capacity to override humanity and end in the usual bloodshed.

The beginnings of any extremist movement may be irrelevant but end is absolute. Therefore, only one course of action is available when extremist elements show their hand. Though religion is an effective cloaking devise for extremist motivation and activities, neither the wavering sympathies of people nor the fear of any religious backlash should deter the State. To devise fresh tactics for the new weapon wielded by unscrupulous elements of society who happen to be fellow citizens, is the ultimate challenge. A clear message needs to be sent to this new enemy and so weakness of resolve at such moments is not an option.

Fear for bloodshed made the State overlook some obvious and opportune courses available for action in the recent crisis of Islamabad- that and perhaps the sanctity of a mosque. The most obvious one should have been some form of visible reaction to the first slogan advocating violence. The State owed it to the citizen it has vowed to protect including those impressionable followers that were undergoing a dangerous and perhaps irreversible transformation in front of the world.

Failing that, women police could have stormed in to end the children library occupation by armed female militants. Having missed this opportunity, the first display of a weapon should have brought swift retaliation in the form of a siege demanding surrender of militants. The instant a citizen picks up a weapon; he/she becomes a militant and unless sophisticated weaponry has suddenly become an acceptable fashion accessory, such an action would have been justified. Converting a religious place into an arsenal was the next red flag. A showdown would have been understandable.

The State does not need to be told how to conduct an operation; it is the timing of action that poses the hard questions. If the reluctance to use force was the presence of innocent! women and children than it is a poor excuse for unless the women and children had been coerced to leave or taken away by their parents, they would have remained within - willingly or otherwise till the end.

Unfolding events show that, in fact, this has become an unusual hostage situation where some of the followers (women and men) that have already accepted the immoral stance of their leader are now posing further hindrance to the operation in their role as hostages. Nevertheless, to preserve the lives of these human shields, the withholding of force that we have witnessed for the past 6 days is of course the only advisable course of action; but calling people innocent who have shown themselves to be all too willing pawns in the deadly game played by the clerics is also misleading.

If the students, who chose to remain are of age, and, putting the orphans and homeless aside, old enough to decide and be involved in criminal activities then they are also old enough to be tried. Orphans and juvenile delinquents are a different matter but there must not be any gender discrimination against the students/militants. Charges of kidnapping and wrongful takeover should be brought against the women used and also the men who instigated them. Not to do so would be an injustice. It is ironic that tribal areas deal harsh punishments to innocent women and rural society overlooks their criminal activities, lures them out with promises of amnesty and monetary compensation. Then again, these concessions were the outcome of the ongoing hostage negotiation efforts and succeeded in getting several followers safely out.

Several occasions presented themselves where force would have been justified like the abduction of policemen, women residents, and Chinese nationals not to mention the threats to businesses and destruction of their property. Instead of action, negotiations were made and concessions offered which strengthened the criminals resolve and gave rise to intense speculations and stranger conspiracy theories.

Small wonder then that the culprits bought time and set about gathering rations and arms, and are ultimately well positioned for a long standoff. Prolonging the crisis to spare innocent lives is both inevitable and admirable but the residents of that area who have become captive to the situation are undergoing severe hardships dealing with curfew restrictions and food, water, electricity and gas shortages. At such a time, the State will facilitate these people, where possible as their problems are slowly identified (mostly through the efforts of our media) but good Samaritans and mosques can at least play their small part.

Now the people are left wondering if a strategy for minimizing collateral damage could just as easily have been devised at the beginning as it was at the end. Were these elements deliberately given enough rope to hang themselves with? Was the proclamation of patience used to garner universal support of the masses and have even the naysayers clamoring for action?

The only argument that can be made for a delayed action is that now even stronger cases can be made against the perpetrators, although charges of sedition could have been a compelling enough reason to act in the first place. Despite the ironclad evidence though, the clerical group wants a full pardon granted to the instigator, their solution to the hostage crisis.

If the reports of hostages being willing participants can be substantiated then they would automatically become an acceptable collateral damage and this operation can be wound up swiftly. As to the suggestion of granting a safe passage, that works only when some other country agrees to take in the dissidents as was the case in 1981 when the Syrian government took in the hijackers of a PIA plane to end the 2 week hostage crisis. A safe passage here does not denote absolute freedom to return to their villages or the FATA; that will come in the heading of ‘clemency’ which has an entirely different implication.

Acknowledging extremism as an active threat is just one facet of the crisis; it has also identified fresh challenges for the State that involve adequate training of media personnel for safely reporting in conflict-zones, the concept of the embedded journalist to prevent the leakage of premature news and preserve the crucial element of surprise and finally, the need for skilled hostage negotiators instead of well meaning media men or ordinary compatriots.

Dedicated to the brave media personnel who died in the line of duty.
“May Their Rest in Peace”


Images Courtesy of: http://www.historycommons.org/events-images/b209_red_mosque_2050081722-23474.jpg

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