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VIEW: Red Alert for the Colour Blind (2009)

Published in Muslim World Today Nov 09

Not too long ago a bomb went off in Peshawar. The next day fool proof security sprung into action in Lahore. It was around the time Hillary Clinton’s entourage was spotted in town; life had come to a crippling halt and death stalked the student community. Pakistan remains vulnerable but for a brief while the city of Lahore was reminiscent of the green zone, the kind in Baghdad, supposedly an oasis of calm in the midst of chaos, enabling our guests to visit historic monuments and lecture at universities. Pakistanis know better than to take days with zero body count as an indication of success or the exceptional security arrangements in place for visitors as the norm. They also consider guided tours to be peace time luxuries. Ms. Clinton’s rare experience (flawless security) has not been replicated since. Deadly bombings followed by some excellent rhetoric about manning up, on the other hand have continued.

Terrorism has a very steep learning curve and while 2007 caught Pakistan off guard, 3 years is a long time to adapt, develop an effective counter-terrorism policy, revise strategies exclusively geared towards conventional warfare, mobilize civil defence forces, and seek greater public engagement. The usual bureaucratic delays or political instability should never have been permitted to distract focus away from the single most important aspect of national security. Frequent security lapses are a pressing concern that need to be redressed before the oft used term ‘red-alert’ becomes invalid.

The terrorist network may be in disarray and forced to undergo unexpected hierarchy changes after taking a well directed hit in Waziristan, but is still capable of delivering a death blow. Daily breaking news is a testament to its resilience and a sign of our failure. The perfect storm in the form of terrorism, recession, refugees, and war is slowly eroding a nation’s confidence in the future, but little has been done to allay these fears. Even less has been done to prepare for the inevitable.

Not surprisingly, a colour blind enemy remains unaffected by the changing hue of alerts and undeterred by that lone security man who now holds scores of precious lives in his poor inept hands. Because the level of vigilance expected and provided by our armed forces now falls on agencies with a less than stellar record in the crime fighting department. Their combat readiness, brutally tested over 3 years, has been found wanting. Their sacrifices have gone unnoticed. And yet here they are, our frontline soldiers; rank amateurs in counter-terrorism, pitted against the unknown. Keeping up with an army of shape shifting extremists requires something more tangible than a visibly increased police presence or disruption of daily routine by affecting a nation-wide shutdown.

It requires an intervention.

A week long hiatus will hardly deter those forever on the lookout for other opportunities in a system filled with loopholes. They simply move elsewhere, closing down all Peshawar based markets or restaurants after one blast, emptying major hospitals in Sialkot with a single threat, placing Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi under a permanent state of siege.

After an Islamabad based university was attacked in October, the Interior minister asked for public cooperation and vigilance. This kind of appeal carelessly thrown in some random press conference should have been made in a proper media briefing, preferably by the Head of State at the very onset of this terror campaign and not, as has been the case, in the midst of war. It should also have been followed by a mandatory crash course in terrorism 101 via air waves and print media. Taking citizens into confidence is not to spread mass hysteria in a climate of mounting fear. A US report released earlier this year recommends treating the public as partners and force multipliers. The enemy’s biggest advantage is the ease with which they can assimilate in society. And so public cooperation with law enforcement to detect, monitor and report suspicious activity will be an invaluable asset.

Although this can be tricky in an environment where every second man looks suspicious so knowing what to look out for is the key. Getting citizens to trust the law is a stumbling block, one that must be quickly overcome. Convincing them to form a neighbourhood watch would be a bigger challenge. The concept of community service in lawless parts of the Frontier is raising armed Lashkars (private militias) to fight back and patrol. Seeping militancy in urban areas requires equally radical, if more refined tactics.

Not every part of Pakistan can be patrolled. Terrorist who ambushed and murdered a brigadier in broad daylight exploited this weakness not once or twice but three times. The advantages of a watchful public will not be lost upon the army man who escaped an attempt on his life by sheer luck. Had this policy been adopted, witnesses who had seen loitering gunmen could have alerted 15 or CPLC in time to apprehend the assailants. The third shooting incident that left another brigadier wounded may have been prevented altogether. Who knows?

Media blackouts work for conventional wars. Media blitz of (critical) information, on the other hand, could be an effective weapon. It would be useful to know the profile of a suicide bomber, for instance. Or that respecting a cordon is not just to preserve the integrity of a crime scene but to also reduce the chances of becoming casualty of a second attack. Finally, in the event of a credible threat, proper risk communication should originate from trusted sources and not, as has been the case via anonymous text messages. Things are bad enough without suicide bomber urban legends being part of the mix.

The university incident proved that the fear of reprisal against educational institutes was not unfounded. There is nothing new here; schools have been at the top of the hit list - right next to music and barber shops since early 2007. A children’s school bus also made the list once. Urban schools/universities may have been fortunate. But never exempt. The red lines were crossed some time ago, while many were preoccupied with the lawyers’ crusade, plotting a dictator’s downfall or prepping for a sham democracy. Other lines are crossed when sightseeing expeditions are given precedence over regaining lost confidence and comforting the bereaved.

Lack of foresight has led to this mess and poor judgement continues to add to the problem. It took a series of attacks in Peshawar before an order was given to install explosive detectors. Meanwhile, a car bomb ripped apart a marketplace. 300 civil defence guards have now been deputed around educational centres in the Federal Capital; the remaining schools can only reopen if security is up to par. While news of law enforcement being given commando training on an urgent basis is promising, most educational institutes will still have to rely on ordinary security. A thinly spread force of 50,000 policemen guards the City of Peshawar. Yet, advertisements to hire a 1000 more come only after Peshawar suffers its deadliest attack to date. As do decisions to forge stronger public liaison with law enforcement. What took them so long?

The casual way many analysts seem to accept an increase in terrorist activity is chilling given that the infinite number of vulnerable areas exposes, well just about everybody within a 803,940 square kilometre radius. The silver lining in this terrible scenario? Victory would mean that the 6th largest army in the world will be battle-tested in 4th generation warfare techniques, and a scorned civil infrastructure shaken out of its apathy may raise itself from the pits of bureaucratic hell and actually start working.

The American system of attacking civil liberties under the cover of patriot act are all extreme manifestations of a paranoiac society, and a general nuisance but has kept terrorism at bay since 9/11. The Pakistani system of releasing terrorists (students who threatened suicide attacks in Red Mosque), making truce and conceding territory, obviously has not. Instead of planning the revival of tourism in Swat, compromising security for the sake of VIP movements, or hoping that military offensives alone will put the genie back in the bottle; it would be more sensible to stop selling Waziristan as the final battle ground and start preparing Pakistan for the ultimate fight.

Pakistanis are tolerant as a rule, gullible by design and forgiving to a fault. Democracy or dictatorship – it is all the same to these people. They have little say in matters of the State in either case. They discover that their city encroached upon an active ammunition dump after it goes off in 1988. They are no more privy to shady deals that allow misfits to contest elections 20 years later than they are to decisions that make them switch from CNG to petrol for 2 days of the week.

Governance disappoints, but then it always has.

The nukes are in excellent hands though and an operational armed force keeps a 24 hour vigil by the Western border. Something does work. What citizens expect is for the State that does such an exemplary job in two out of three departments to choose an approach which mirrors that professionalism – in their lifetime if that is okay.

The End

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