Friday, 2 August 2013

Prison Break: Pakistan Edition

The attack on Dera Ismail Khan Prison shows those assigned to protect Pakistan are actually following the Taliban's narrative.

Victims of the Taliban's latest attack in Pakistan at Dera Ismail Khan Prison

Disclaimer: No, what you are about to read is not a movie script. It is not the work of the imagination of a bestselling author nor is it a thought exercise of any kind. In fact, the events, places, and persons being described in the following article bear a 100 percent resemblance to reality.

On the night between July 29 and 30, an event took place which should cause great worry for political leaders worldwide and yet few are paying it the attention that it deserves. Going through the details of the event, I am not sure whether to feel shocked, angry, disappointed or just wonder abysmally: how did this actually happen? But then, this incident took place in Pakistan - a country where anything can in fact happen.

The story starts in the relatively unknown town of Dera Ismail Khan, which is located in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the province bordering Afghanistan). Deep in the night, close to 100 Taliban militants arrived in 
approximately 40 vehicles to attack a prison with the goal of freeing its inmates. The militants came disguised as policemen and began firing mortars and rocket grenades as well as using suicide bombings. As a result, a total of 35 explosions occurred in the vicinity of the jail. 

The audacity and scale of the attack are shocking enough, but it is also very disturbing to note the attackers were able to totally overpower the policemen who were performing duties inside the prison. The militants cut the prison's electricity, making it even harder for those on duty to fight back. They closed all roads leading to the area, preventing additional help from arriving, and apparently drank Rooh Afza (a drink famous in Pakistan) once they got inside the prison, showing confidence that they wouldn't face any further resistance. They also chanted slogans of Allahu Akbar (God is Great) and TTP Zindabad (Long Live Terhik-e-Taliban Pakistan) while blowing up gates to the inmates' cells. Some of the Taliban were shouting the names of prisoners on loudspeakers (yes they are very technologically savvy like that) so those listening were prepared to be released. As a result, they were able to take close to 248 militants with them and, while leaving, they also cut the throats of between four and six Shia inmates present in the jail. As a result of this skirmish, six policemen also lost their lives.

In Pakistan, after every such attack, there is always plenty of blame to go around. Reports have given credible evidence that there was prior intelligence, warning of an imminent attack on DI Khan Jail and officials in various law enforcement agencies did think of strategies to prepare for such an assault. However, when the time came and the attack actually occurred, the officials on duty were severely outnumbered and were poorly equipped. Moreover, the elite force that was specifically tasked for carrying out the defence of the jail was nowhere to be found. In the words of an official: "The gun was there, but there was no one to pull the trigger."

Was it complicity, negligence or cowardice? It is never easy to discuss such issues in Pakistan, as the Abbottabad debacle of 2011 showed. However, this brazen attack should force everyone to ask some serious questions. Why are militants challenging the writ of the state at every level and getting away with it? Is there ideological penetration inside our law enforcement agencies and do sympathisers provide militants with intelligence or other forms of active or passive support? Are our law enforcement agencies really unable to fight the Taliban and have they given up completely?

Let's start with the ideological penetration argument. Last year, in a similar incident at Bannu Prison, Adnan Rasheed was one of the prisoners freed by the Taliban. He recently achieved fame by writing a letter to Malala Yusufzai and is said to be the mastermind behind the current attack. What's most disturbing is that Rasheed was once an employee of Pakistan Air Force and was also involved in an attack on former president Pervez Musharraf in 2003. The sophistication of the attacks shows the militants are not a bunch of rag tag militias. They are a group of well organised, well trained and well armed people who want to force an ideology over the rest of Pakistan and are not allowing anything to come between them and their goal. 
The only language the Taliban have used is that of extreme violence - not only against law enforcement officials, but also against ordinary citizens. Moreover, they are able to package their message in such a way that those assigned to protect Pakistan are actually following the Taliban's narrative, which spells nothing but destruction for Pakistan. 

Then there is the state policy of differentiating between the 'good' and the 'bad' Taliban. Only those militants are punished who attack the Pakistani state and others are given a much freer hand to perform their 'jihad' elsewhere. These 'good' and 'bad' Taliban have much closer relations than officials like to admit. As noted by human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir, due to this duplicitous state policy, even if a militant is captured by provincial or local law enforcement agencies, there is often a phone call from higher authorities and the militant is freed.

While there are many protectors of Pakistan deserving of our respect - ordinary soldiers, bomb disposal squads, policemen such as those who lost their lives in this attack etc - there are two things which desperately need to change. First is the mindset of a society which still seems to either deny the problem of internal extremism exists or act in a sympathising manner towards those who are causing these atrocities. Secondly, state policy needs to focus on the biggest problem of all - the internal threat of religious extremism - as opposed to differentiating between 'good' and 'bad' terrorists. Moreover, officials should be confident that after they do capture a terrorist, he will not be released due to orders from higher officials, or by intimidated judges.

There are no quick solutions to this problem. It took over two decades for Pakistan to get into this mess, and hence will probably need at least as much time to get out of it. But as a Chinese proverb says: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now." The sooner the Pakistani leaders grasp the opportunity to plant a tree at the second best time, the better it is going to be for Pakistan and its people. @aden1990
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