“Crush the Taliban to Save Pakistan”: Coverage of the Peshawar Massacre

Apologies, but I’ve been too distracted by the Peshawar attacks and by grading to write the posts I promised to write on the psychiatric medications symposium. I promise to get to that soon. (I have a lamentable tendency to promise multi-part posts and not deliver on them, but I’m making it a New Year’s resolution to do otherwise.) Meanwhile, Peshawar it is.

There’s been some good commentary on Peshawar, much—though not all–of it by Pakistanis. I linked to some of this commentary in a previous post. Here’s some more–a lot more.

Here’s a good symposium in The New York Times—C. Christine Fair, Ahsan Butt, Musharraf Zaidi, and Pir Zubair Shah. The discussion, however, is misdescribed by the Times as a “debate.” In fact, the four contributors mostly agree with one another; no one says anything particularly controversial or new. It’s still worth reading, however, since much of what they say is true. Irfan Husain makes similar points at Dawn (Karachi) in “The Poison Within.” But the best single piece of analysis I’ve seen is this short piece in The Friday Times (Lahore) by Najam Sethi, “Deja Vu?” If you read just one thing about Peshawar, read that.

There’s been a loud and predictable outcry in Pakistan against the Taliban for the attacks. Among the more eloquent condemnations or lamentations I read were Maria Amir’s “Time to Confront the Taliban in Our Midst,” in Dawn, Pervez Hoodbhoy’s “It Wasn’t the Final Atrocity”  (also in Dawn), and Asma Jehangir’s “Pakistan’s Rulers Must Show an Honest Resolve to Fight Terrorismin the London Guardian.

Nadeem Paracha’s brand of humor is probably an acquired taste, but I found his “Anatomy of an Apologist” (in Dawn) both grimly accurate and screamingly funny.

A few things I’ve read strike me as worth reading on diagnostic grounds for the muddled thinking they involve. This well-meaning piece by Imtiaz Gul (Friday Times) is a perfect example. Much of what Gul says is perfectly sensible, but I had to shake my head at this passage:

A Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) revenge strike was expected since the army launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan on June 15. As the army focused increasingly on Waziristan and the Khyber region and exuded triumphant confidence, the TTP carried out the lethal attack last month at the India-Pakistan border, killing at least 60 people watching a flag-lowering ceremony. The month of Muharram passed relatively peacefully, prompting many of us to empirically conclude that the graph of violent acts had come down considerably.

But as it turned out with the Peshawar mayhem, the TTP, though badly bruised by the combination of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the CIA-led drone campaign which saw about a dozen strikes between mid June and early this month, had something else up its sleeves.

What Gul describes as an “empirical conclusion” is actually a blatant non-sequitur. The army launches an anti-Taliban operation; the Taliban strike back in November. A month passes, and Gul thinks: “Well, that’s that! They won’t attack again!” Then they attack again, and he concludes: “If the events of the last weeks were an indication the Peshawar attack was in the making ever since.” So which is it—did he expect them to attack, or did their attack come as a surprise after what he thought was a downward trend in attacks by them? Gul’s simultaneous presence on both sides of that question strikes me as representative of a deeply-rooted confusion in the Pakistani intelligentsia—caught between commonsense and wishful thinking.

For an even deeper muddle, I’d suggesting reading “Pakistan’s New Warriors Against the Taliban” and “Peshawar School Attack Indicts Pakistan’s Misplaced Priorities,” by Rafia Zakaria in Al Jazeera AmericaI have a lot of respect for Zakaria’s intellect and for her activism on other issues, but here her claims really border on the preposterous. The “new warriors against the Taliban” turn out to be Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri–names that will be meaningless to non-Pakistani readers, but will strike many (most?) Pakistan-knowledgeable readers as an inadvertent joke rather than a serious suggestion. (See below for discussion of Imran Khan.)

The second article of Zakaria’s articles claims, offhandedly, that the Peshwar attack proves that military options won’t work against the Taliban; hence we should dispense with them. That claim is a textbook case of ignoratio elenchi: a single successful attack by the Taliban cannot prove that military options against the Taliban are a failure; after all, the failure to use military options against the Taliban might lead to even more successful attacks by the Taliban. As Zakaria herself concedes, no policy is foolproof, so it makes no sense to seize on a single event as conclusive evidence of the failure of a policy. In saying that drone attacks “have done little to diminish the Taliban’s capacity to carry out such operations,” she flouts both common sense and systematic empirical evidence to the contrary. There is no conclusive evidence either way, but the existing evidence suggests that drone strikes are the best of the available options. I can’t really do justice to Zakaria’s argument as a whole right now, but some of what I say in the combox of my last post (in response to Matt Faherty et al) is relevant to Zakaria’s arguments as well.

Some Pakistanis have refused to condemn the attacks altogether. Notable among them is Zakaria’s hero Imran Khan, who is misdescribed as “condemning” the attacks in this statement (You Tube video, in Urdu). What he says in the statement is little more than a well-crafted contribution to the art of prevarication. He offers his condolences to the bereaved, tells us that he has postponed his own political activities for later in deference to the collective need for mourning, tells us that he’s on his way to Peshawar to seek more “details” before saying anything substantive, and then offers a very vague criticism of “whoever” might have committed this dastardly deed (“jis nay yeh kiyah“). As everyone by now knows, the Pakistani Taliban have taken responsibility for the shooting: though Khan speaks of the nation standing together in unity, what “everyone” knows seems to exclude Khan himself. I am not sure how Rafia Zakaria’s proposed “warrior against the Taliban” can deserve the description she gives him if he can’t even manage to condemn the Taliban for having engaged in a massacre of 130-odd children (not the Taliban’s first massacre, by the way, and not their last: just another massacre that “Taliban Khan” has failed to ascribe to the Taliban and failed to condemn under that description, while insisting on negotiations with them and ignoring the past history of failed negotiations with them).

Another Taliban-apologetic-seeming figure is Maulana Abdul Aziz, the imam of the notorious Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad who, when asked to condemn the attacks on a television talk show, refused to do so. Here’s the video (in Urdu). (Note: I had some technical difficulties in watching it all the way through. It breaks up a lot.)

Like Imran Khan, Maulana Abdul Aziz mostly engages in uncontroversial offerings of condolences, then changes the subject to the sins of Pervez Musharraf, then finally admits that the massacre “shouldn’t have” happened. There’s no disputing that it shouldn’t have happened, but saying that neither answers the question he was asked nor amounts to an authentic condemnation of the act. I admire the acuity and persistence of the show’s hostess, Nadia Mirza, who three times asks Abdul Aziz exactly the right question to ask under the circumstances: Does Maulana Abdul Aziz sahib intend, morally speaking, to equate the military’s campaign against the Taliban with the Taliban’s campaign against Pakistan? There’s nothing more clarifying than an answer–or a non-answer–to the right question asked in the right way. What we get here is a non-answer which licenses the inference that Abdul Aziz’s implicit answer is at least a yes: he at least equates the two things and may well regard the Taliban’s campaign as more justified than the government’s. Incidentally, Maulana Abdul Aziz can be very adamant about giving and demanding straight answers when it suits him to do so. (The preceding link goes to a You Tube debate in Urdu.) So we shouldn’t assume that he’s habitually too wordy to get to the point on the massacre.

There has been a popular uprising of sorts against Maulana Abdul Aziz and against the Lal Masjid as an institution. As an imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz is on the government’s payroll, and ordinary Pakistanis justifiably want him off of it. I agree with that, but I have to say that I find some aspects of the anti-Lal Masjid backlash a problematic and ill-conceived misplacement of priorities. It’s true that the “clerisy” has apologized for the Taliban and for terrorism. That’s evil, but it can’t legitimately (or efficaciously) be fought by anti-hate speech regulation, which is what many activists are now calling for. Pakistan needs more free speech, not less. Unless they’re making specific threats, the immorality of the “clerisy” ought to be brought into the open, and exposed to the light of day–not suppressed, repressed, and driven underground. Mill’s argument in chapter 2 of “On Liberty” is pertinent here. I wonder if anyone has ever translated it into Urdu.

Actually, what needs exposure and discussion is the connection between mosque and state in Pakistan, not a campaign of retaliatory anti-blasphemy laws, whether religious or secular. (Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is pertinent here. Urdu translation, anyone?) A suggestion for inquiry: think about how Pakistan resembles Israel, and look at the trouble that Israelis have brought on themselves by insisting on the Jewish character of “the Jewish state.” Another suggestion for inquiry: think about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and how such an amendment might work for or fit into Pakistan’s constitution. It might not, but it’s more worth discussing than the viability of anti-hate-speech legislation targeting the mullahs.

For deeper analysis, I’d recommend reading the work of Ahmed Rashid. You probably couldn’t go wrong by hanging on every word Rashid writes about Pakistan, but I’ve found his recent work for the New York Review of Books and the Financial Times particularly enlightening. It’s all good stuff, but I’d particularly recommend “Pakistan Must Unleash the Military Against the Militants,” “Pakistan’s Offensive Against Militants Is Right,” “A Different Pakistan,” and “The Motives Behind the Taliban’s Brutal Attack” (all accessed via the preceding link). Much of this functions as a riposte to those, like Rafia Zakaria, who think that the Taliban can somehow be handled by non-military means.

I disagree with Rashid, however, that the military means in question should be American. Rashid’s long to-do lists for the American government-in-South-and-Central-Asia are an unwitting description of the mechanics of imperialism. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (in response to another enthusiastic partisan of imperialistic to-do lists), it’s time for the U.S. to ratchet back its imperial involvement abroad, and at a minimum, to get the hell out of South-Central Asia–as our good president promised us when we elected him back in 2008.

Though he’s not nearly as well known as Rashid, my friend Khalil Ahmad of the libertarian Alternative Solutions Institute in Lahore has a similar take in this piece, “Hopeless in Pakistan,” sans Rashid’s problematic neo-imperialist prescriptions for the United States.

Meanwhile, it’s time for Afghans and Pakistanis to take ownership of their own war against the Taliban (possibly with the help of Indians), and time for us Americans to patch together our own country–a country whose health care system is a disaster, whose criminal justice system now regularly leads to riots, whose higher education system is a bit of a shambles, which hasn’t managed to come to terms with illegal immigration, and which faces a cybersecurity threat not from the Taliban but from North Korea. In other words, it’s time to put the specter of 9/11 behind us and move on to resolving the actual problems we face. There’s no contradiction involved in saying that, and in wanting the government of Pakistan to prevail in battle over the Taliban.

To bring things back to the present, read these two pieces in this morning’s New York Times, “Pakistan’s Old Curse,” and “Pakistani Forces Kill Dozens of Militants.” As memories of the massacre inevitably fade, these two articles indicate where the action will be in the future.

Postscript, January 8, 2015: Here’s a nice tribute to the victims, via Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Zehra Nigah, by my cousin Fawad Zakariya. It’s from his blog, “Moments of Tranquility” (the blog is in English, but this post is largely for the Urdu-competent). I was stunned to discover from the exchange in Fawad’s combox that You Tube is banned in Pakistan.

2 thoughts on ““Crush the Taliban to Save Pakistan”: Coverage of the Peshawar Massacre

  1. Pingback: From Martin Anderson to Charlie Hebdo and back | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: Blasphemy and the Polity of Our Prayers | Policy of Truth

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