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University attack

Family members wait outside a hospital where injured people were taken after the Bacha Khan University attack. ─ AP

Family members wait outside a hospital where injured people were taken after the Bacha Khan University attack. ─ AP

ONCE again Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is reeling; in fact, Pakistan itself is under attack. The savagery at Bacha Khan University yesterday makes the heart sink and evokes deep despair. Monstrous as the Taliban are and have been, the determination with which they kill children and young adults comes as a shock each time.

The carnage in Charsadda may not be on the scale of the Army Public School attack, but the intentions were the same — to deliberately, monstrously and wretchedly strike at the most vulnerable and to spread anger and fear far and wide.

They must not be allowed to win. A greater resolve exists — that of the Pakistani people and the state that represents them — and it will prevail against the banned TTP. But there should be no illusions.

This is a long war. It will not be won in a month or a year. It will be many years before Pakistan can truly be rid of the militant curse. But that reality does not mean immediate steps cannot be taken.

Quite simply, the time has come for Pakistan to stop merely talking about better border management and demanding the eradication of militant safe havens in Afghanistan, and get serious work done on both fronts.

Fifteen years since a new war came to Afghanistan and Fata is a long enough period to force some change. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has always been porous. But must it remain so?

This frontier should not be turned into another India-Pakistan border — virtually sealed and the source of potentially deadly tensions. Yet, this country’s borders with Iran and especially China offer other possibilities for managing the flow of people while acting against criminal and violent elements.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an anachronism, a colonial inheritance that has been both a buffer against and a base for projecting power into Afghanistan. Now, with more than 150,000 troops spread out across Fata for years, the border has become perhaps the single-most immediate danger to this country’s stability. That must change.

Second, the militant safe havens in Afghanistan from where attacks against Pakistan are plotted and executed need to be eliminated. Be it via the quadrilateral coordination group, directly between Pakistan and Afghanistan or with US support, serious action inside Afghanistan must be taken against the safe havens.

Excuses will not suffice. The Afghan security forces are engaged in a war of survival with the militants in many parts of the country. It is also known that the mission of US forces in Afghanistan has changed after 2014 and military engagement has become more restrictive. But as the Kunduz example demonstrated, where there’s a will there is almost certainly a way.

Further, while Afghan demands for similar actions inside Pakistan against anti-Afghan militants are legitimate, there is the reality that Kabul is also seeking to restart peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. When it comes to the TTP and its various factions, there is no possibility of dialogue being sought by Pakistan.

Third, a difficult question needs to be asked. What really have military courts and the reinstatement of the death penalty achieved?

The APS attack triggered a violent reaction that ought to have been resisted. What separates the militants from the state, what makes the two so fundamentally different and the latter worth defending, is the rule of law and individual rights.

The 21st Amendment is a blot on this nation’s constitutional history, passed by a democratically elected parliament, but on a par with the other violations of the Constitution in the past. Moreover, what was clear even then is incontrovertible now.

The death penalty does not deter terrorism. In fact, it can act as a propaganda tool for the militants as a contested claim of the responsibility for the Charsadda attack attests. Finally, the Bacha Khan University and the day of the attack do not appear to have been selected randomly.

The tolerant, compassionate, inclusive politics of Abdul Ghaffar Khan is what Pakistan ought to embody, and what the militant extremists are seeking to destroy. They must not win. Essential as it is to physically eliminate militancy, the very idea of the Taliban needs to be defeated too by making Pakistan a peaceful, democratic and constitutional land.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2016